THINNER YOU: What to eat before you work out

By Dean Anderson of SparkPeople

Everyone knows that athletes must plan and time their meals and snacks very carefully to reach their performance goals. But what about the rest of us? You try to squeeze in 30-60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Do you have to be careful about what you eat before and after your workouts, too?

Usually not. If you’re eating a healthy diet and getting enough calories to support your activity level, you can probably rely on your own appetite, energy levels, and experience to tell you whether you need to eat anything before or after exercise and what it should be. The basic rule here is: Find out what works best for you, and do that.

There are some advantages to knowing how your body works and what it needs to perform at its best. The bottom line for healthy weight loss and fitness sounds simple: You have to eat fewer calories than you use up—but not fewer than your body needs to function at its best.

The size, timing, and content of your pre- and post-exercise meals and snacks can play an important role in your energy levels during your workout, how well your body recovers and rebuilds after your workout, and whether the calories you eat will be used as fuel or stored as fat. Here’s what you need to eat and drink to get the results you want!

Your Pre-Exercise Fluid Needs
Being well-hydrated will make your exercise easier and more effective. Try to drink 16-20 ounces of water during the 1-2 hours before starting your workout.

Your Pre-Exercise Meal or Snack
News flash: Most of the fuel you use during exercise doesn’t come from the food you’ve recently eaten! It actually comes from the carbohydrates (called “glycogen”) and fat that’s stored in your muscles, liver, and fat cells. That’s enough to fuel 1-2 hours of very intense exercise or 3-4 hours of moderate intensity exercise.

This means that if your overall diet is adequate to keep your fuel tanks topped off, you may not need to eat anything before you work out. So, if eating before exercise upsets your stomach or you like to exercise first thing in the morning or at a time when eating first isn’t convenient, don’t feel like eating first is a must.

Some people do have a hard time exercising without eating first, especially if it’s been a long time since their last meal or snack. These individuals often are more sensitive to changes in their blood sugar levels, which fall during the first 15-20 minutes of workout. That drop in blood sugar can cause tiredness, mild dizziness, or even faintness—especially if your blood sugar was already low, but eating something beforehand can help prevent this. If you have health issues like diabetes or hypoglycemia that can cause low blood sugar, you’ll probably want to eat before your workout. If you get very hungry during a workout (and it interferes with your energy levels or focus), or become so ravenous after an exercise session that you end up overeating, try eating before you hit the gym to avoid these problems.

If you are a moderate exerciser who tends to perform better with a pre-exercise snack, there are two ways to handle your needs:

1. Eat a small (100- to 200-calorie) snack about 30 minutes before you work out. This snack should include fast-digesting (high glycemic index) carbohydrates and very little fat (which digests slowly), so that you digest the meal quickly and the fuel is available during your exercise session. Here are some ideas:

* Fruit juice
* Fruit smoothie
* High-glycemic fruits like pineapple, apricots, banana, mango, and watermelon
* Sports drinks
* Pretzels or bagels (but not whole grain varieties, which digest slowly)
* Energy bars (look for 3-5 grams of protein, at least 15 grams of carbs, and very little fat)

2. Eat a nutritionally balanced meal 1-2 hours before your exercise. This is the best option for many people. The larger the meal, and the more fat and protein it contains, the longer you may need to wait before exercising. Ideally, try to eat enough calories to equal about half the calories you expect to burn during your upcoming workout. So if you burn about 600 calories during your workout, aim for at least 300 calories during this meal — or a little more if your exercise is “high intensity” (over 75% of your maximum heart rate). At least 50-60% of these calories should come from carbohydrates, which should keep your blood sugar and energy levels fairly stable during your exercise session. Include some protein to help prevent the breakdown of muscle for fuel and give your muscles a headstart on recovery after exercise. Some good food choices and combinations for this kind of meal include:

* Fruit and yogurt
* Nuts
* Oatmeal
* Cereals (with more than 3 grams of fiber) and milk
* Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
* Hummus and raw veggies
* Hard boiled eggs (or egg whites)
* Cottage cheese and fruit
* Half a peanut butter or turkey/chicken sandwich on whole grain bread
* Whole grain crackers with nut butter or cheese
* Whole grain fig (or fruit) Newton cookies
* Milk (especially chocolate milk)
* Tomato or vegetable juice
* Yogurt smoothie (with added protein powder, if desired)
* Most protein/energy bars

As a moderate exerciser, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to timing your meals and choosing your foods. The most important things are getting to know your body and how it responds to exercise, so that you can give it what it needs to perform at its best. Eating the right foods at the right times before you work out is essential to keeping your energy up, your workout performance high, and your body in fat-burning mode.

  • Join other AJC readers at SparkPeople for a free customized diet and fitness plan.

18 comments Add your comment


May 14th, 2009
4:01 pm


Valerie Billings

May 15th, 2009
7:56 am

Drink plenty of water.

Sandy Billings

May 15th, 2009
9:17 am

I eat yogurt,1 banana and top it off with accelerade sport drink.
Post recovery I take Endurox R4 immediately after the workout. It has 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. I started working out in June 08. My weight at that time was 218, today I am 178.


May 15th, 2009
9:54 am

mayfield lowfat chocolate milk has very close to a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein and it tastes a lot better than endurox


May 16th, 2009
7:10 am

What about a fifth?


May 16th, 2009
5:33 pm

I drive thru the Chik-Fil-A and grab a chicken burito before I go to the gym. yum yum.

Mini Mite

May 17th, 2009
2:17 pm

I hop on the treadmill with a Big Mac. You won’t find them on store shelves but if you’re interested in getting hold of one call 1-800-IWatch2MuchRealityTV.

Will Jones is an idiot

May 17th, 2009
5:52 pm

I usually hit one of the all you can eat buffets. Then I feel like I really am getting my
monies worth as well as a good workout.


May 17th, 2009
7:38 pm

You guys are hilarious.. But, I make sure I drink plenty of water through out the day and eat a banana about an hour before I workout.

Check out my new website at Would love to hear from you.

Mike T.

May 17th, 2009
7:55 pm

Today is May 16, Don’t eat another thing before June 1 and you will lose all the weight you want
and you won’t have to worry about working out.


May 18th, 2009
2:52 pm

I go to Golden Corral and have me a Gwinnetian Big Gal’s meal before I work out. Includes two fried chicken breasts, taters, three yeast rolls, mac-n-cheese, veggies, and then I hit the dessert bar for one of those soft-serve sundaes and a slice of pie! All of this followed by a 2-hour nap. Makes me forget all about my workout.

Type 2


May 18th, 2009
5:49 pm


May 18th, 2009
10:47 pm

Chris and Angrymeatball… LOL

Great information posted here.


May 19th, 2009
4:25 pm

Have any of you tried p90x?


October 27th, 2009
4:56 pm

I eat a cup of Natural Apple Sauce, which is yummy, and drink sum water and 100% juice. U guys r 2 funny. A Big Mac on the treadmill sounds interesting, lol :)


January 12th, 2010
2:43 pm


April 28th, 2010
1:11 pm

This is not some snake oil product. It really works. I can work out longer and harder now that I take this. the website has a address: (just copy and paste it into your browser)

Should you eat before a workout?

June 13th, 2010
12:38 am

[...] your muscles, avoid hunger during your workout and prevents your blood sugar from getting too low. Low-calorie snacks prior to workouts are not a bad thing, and certain foods like fruit juice and bananas are more likely to digest in the body faster and do [...]