If you’ve ever worked out on an empty stomach, you know how light-headed you can get as soon as your heart rate starts to spike. But, on the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve ever eaten mere moments before your sweat sesh, you’ve likely experienced the intense nausea that often occurs as a result. Knowing that there are two very opposite ends to the spectrum, and understanding that it’s common to drink (water and shakes, of course) before a workout, the question remains: Should you eat before a workout? And, if so, what’s the magic time slot to do so to avoid any stomach upset? To determine that, along with which foods will help energize you most before a workout, we chatted with dietitians. Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about nutritional exercise prep.
Meet the Expert
Should You Eat Before a Workout?
Short answer: Yes. If you have a few more minutes to spare to actually read into the nitty-gritty of pre-workout consumption, check it out: According to Brooklyn-based registered dietitian Shana Minei Spence (better known as the wildly-positive, anti-dietitian dietitian, @thenutritiontea, on Instagram), whether or not you should eat before a workout depends on the type of workouts, time of day, and how your body responds to the type of food you plan to eat.
“In most cases, yes, you should eat,” she says. “But if you are going for a light stroll in the morning, you definitely will not need the same energy as you would if you were doing a HIIT workout in the afternoon.”
That said, regardless of the time of day, NYC-based dietitian Jennifer Maeng of Chelsea Nutrition says that having a small, wholesome snack before exercises can give you a better chance of getting the most out of your workouts.
How Long Before a Workout Should You Eat?
Remember: It’s all about timing. You don’t want to eat too far in advance of a workout but you also don’t want to eat too close to its beginning. For that reason, Maeng recommends eating between 30 minutes and three hours before a workout, depending on what you’re eating. If it’s a lighter meal, you can consume it closer to the start of your workout, and if it’s a heavier meal, you should eat it further in advance.
No matter what you eat though, Spence says you should always give yourself at least 30 minutes between your last bite and the start of your sweat sesh in order for food to feel settled. “If you eat and then decide to do a workout seconds after, you might feel a little sick (nauseous or cramping),” she reminds us.
What to Look For in Pre-Workout Meals
Without getting super calculated, Maeng says that the key to making pre-workout meals is to look for foods that are easy to digest and contain an ample amount of carbohydrates and small amounts of protein and fat.
While carbs are often assumed to be the enemy, Maeng reminds us that they’re actually the nutrient that gives us the most energy—especially before a workout.
“Muscles use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as the energy currency to perform exercise,” she explains. “Carbohydrates, protein, and fat can all be converted to ATP; however, carbohydrates are the most readily available and easily converted. Carbohydrates are also the only fuel that can be used anaerobically, or without oxygen, making them the main fuel source in high-intensity workouts.”
As for protein, she says it’s worthwhile to consume it before a workout, as well, because it helps repair and build muscle while also helping to keep you full.
The Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout
It’s important to remember that not all foods are created equal. And, when it comes to selecting the best pre-workout meal, you want to opt for healthier, more wholesome snacks than anything riddled with processed fats and loads of ingredients. With that in mind, check out the list of dietitian-recommended pre-workout foods, below.
Banana With Peanut Butter
In addition to being an easy-to-digest food, Maeng says that bananas also contain potassium, which is important in delivering nutrients and preventing fatigue.
Toast With Nut Butter
If you have a bit more time to spare before your workout, Spence says to pop a piece of toast in the toaster and slather it with a tablespoon of nut butter (think: almond, cashew, or organic peanut butter). “You are getting a nice balance of the grains (fiber) but also some protein with the nut butter,” she says. For even more flavor and wholesome goodness, add a few berries or banana slices on top.
Oatmeal With Fruit
Oatmeal is high in carbohydrates and low in ingredients, making it a great source of energy for a workout. By adding fruit to the mix, you get a nice boost of sugar, along with another serving of easily-digestible carbs, making it a welcome addition to any pre-workout routine.
Maeng says that smoothies made with one cup of fruit and two cups of vegetables are great before a workout, as they’re loaded with easy-to-digest carbs, along with fiber and other healthy nutrients.
If you prefer a bit more guidance to your smoothie-making, check out Kelly LeVeque’s Fab Four smoothie recipes. She has a bunch—all of which are geared toward keeping you full and energized for hours on end.
Hard-Boiled Egg With a Piece of Toast
Where the hard-boiled egg is a good source of protein, Maeng says that the piece of toast will add the carbs necessary for energizing your workout. If you’re not a fan of eating a hard-boiled egg whole, you can smoosh it on your toast with a sprinkle of salt and pepper (or even a little avocado) for a tastier take on the pre-workout meal.
Dried Fruit With Mixed Nuts
Since fruit is a great source for easily-digestible carbs, dried fruit is another great pre-workout meal idea. Pair it with mixed nuts for an added touch of protein (and flavor).
Whole Grain Bar
For a quick grab and go, Spence points out that there are a number of whole-grain and fiber-rich bars (like KIND's Oats & Honey with Toasted Coconut Healthy Grain Bar, $10 for 15 bars) on the market. “These are usually light and will provide energy for your workout,” she says. “They can also be eaten on the go.
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