One of the interesting things about the fitness world is the prevalence of fitness myths. Some of these seem to make sense and may be based upon an incomplete understanding of the human body and metabolism while others outright ridiculous. This article will look at one such myth, whether one should eat prior to morning workouts.
The Myth: Working out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach will maximize fat burning, since muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate) is low.
We'll start by looking at the rationale behind this plan of attack. Eight to 12 hours may pass between dinner or an evening snack until waking. During this time, the body is still operating and using calories, but no food or energy is going in. When you awaken, your body is in a “fasting metabolic state”. In other words, it has entered an energy-conserving mode (slowed metabolism) and is using body fat stores as the primary energy source due to the decreased level of muscle and liver glycogen.
Eating begins to bump up your metabolism thus breaks this fasting state (hence the word used to describe the morning meal, “break- fast”). The myth states that since glycogen, a preferred fuel source for muscles, is low, the body will use its fat stores to a greater degree. So far the myth appears to make sense.
There are several related myths that tie into this idea, and it is worth looking at them first, as they are often used to build the flawed case for the topic of this article:
Insulin is bad and stores fat. Fat is not made out of nothing. Insulin, a hormone, is not responsible for creating fat out of thin air and depositing it in your trouble areas. Is it possible that people gain weight because they are simply eating too much? Of course. Insulin is just a guy doing an essential job inside the factory that is the human body. Like working an assembly line that keeps running until someone turns it off, insulin will store things, including amino acids, in muscle, and will keep storing even if it’s already got more than enough. But the point is someone is in charge of that assembly line and can choose to turn it off or slow it down by not overeating.
Low intensity exercise uses more fat than high intensity exercise. As a percentage of calories burned, yes…this is true. But the total calorie burn per minute is low. At rest you are burning the greatest percentage of calories from fat. As soon as you pick up the pace, CHO (carbohydrate) begins to make a greater contribution. Knowing this, does walking lead to more fat loss than running stairs for the same allotted time? No. At higher intensities, even though the percentage of fat used is lower, the total calorie burn and daily fat burn will be higher. Higher intensity exercise is associated with an increased calorie and fat burn for many hours after the session. This is called exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC).
Food eaten in the evening will end up as fat on your body. If that were the case, then if you ate nothing all day but one apple before bed, it would turn to fat and you would gain weight. There is no enzyme in the body that is time sensitive and forces calories eaten after 7 pm to be stored as fat. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you could set your alarm for 1 am, get up and eat a meal, go back to bed and still lose weight. As long as you maintain a calorie deficit, you will decrease fat stores and lose weight.
Let’s get back to the initial topic of maximizing calorie burning with exercise to increase weight loss. Performing high-intensity cardiovascular exercise has the most significant contribution to calorie burn. At higher but still aerobic intensities, one can burn twice as many calories (and fat) as cardio done at a lower intensity. Plus you have the benefit of EPOC (the increased calorie burning after intense exercise).
There is an old saying that "fat burns in a carbohydrate flame". In other words, the body needs glucose (from carbohydrates) to prime the fat burning processes. With less than adequate glucose available to keep the machinery running, exercise intensity (and therefore calories burned) can’t be maximized. A clear example of this is when an endurance athlete "hits the wall". Their performance suffers or ceases not because they ran out of fat stores, but due to a lack of glucose to keep fat burning efficiently.
So, here it is: if you do not eat before you train/exercise, you decrease your body’s ability to maximize fat burning. And NOT just because your workout wasn’t as good as it could have been if you had more energy, but because you end up burning fewer calories all day. Why do performance athletes eat their biggest meal before training and consume a pre-workout snack? So their energy systems are full, allowing them to train at maximum intensities. Ultimately they will end up burning more calories all day (during the session and the subsequent recovery process) when compared to a less energized workout. Imagine being fully energized when you train or exercise and many more calories you will burn!!!
Weight/fat loss is determined by your daily caloric deficit
Exercise itself does not burn a great amount of fat no matter how long the activity. It is the contribution of exercise to a person’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), including the intensity, that affects fat loss. In other words, exercise simply adds to your daily calorie needs, and as long as you don’t consume more to compensate (keeping your intake below your needs) the body must draw on its fat stores and you’ll lose fat.
If you break the fast before you go to the gym, the body has the potential to perform better, enhance recovery and burn more calories. The higher the intensity of your workout (which you can now perform thanks to having filled your energy stores with a pre-workout snack), the more calories from fat you will use throughout the day in order to fill your energy deficit. The energy or calorie deficit, not the workout or when you eat, determines how much weight/fat you lose.
Make sure you don’t add calories – just time them properly
We’re not suggesting you add calories to your daily intake. Simply adjust the way you distribute your calories throughout the day. Spacing meals properly has added benefits, such as using more calories to digest each meal (after a meal the body has work to do in digesting and absorbing food), and a steady stream of nutrition (enhancing recovery and energy) as well as controlling hunger. Your first meal of the day breaks the fast and “fires up” the metabolism, so the sooner you do this, the better.
Getting the most out of your training
Eating before exercise is mandatory for performance athletes in order to enhance each training bout, recovery, and the final outcome. Therefore, ingesting part of your daily calorie allotment before exercise is a practice everyone should do. Proper pre-activity feedings can
- Fill energy stores before a workout (not by adding daily calories, but by redistributing them)
- Break the fast to boost metabolism and continue a constant flow of nutrients
- Increase workout performance: high intensity training burns two to three times more fat immediately post-exercise, thus greater total fat throughout the day
- Enhance recovery to improve maintenance or growth of muscle which also adds to your metabolic rate
- Increase daily non-exercise movements by never staying in a less energetic/fasting state beyond rising in the morning (i.e. having more energy makes you WANT to move more)
It takes calories to burn more calories, but don’t add extra calories – simply take the total daily calories you are allowed and distribute them properly throughout the day based on your activities.
Early morning training
In light of recent research regarding the benefits of ingesting a pre- & post-training snack containing protein, carbohydrate and low fat in a quick digesting form (e.g. dotFIT™ bar or shake), it would be a mistake not to have something prior to your workout. It is now VERY clear that immediate pre- & post-activity nutrition intake dramatically improves exercise-induced results, even when all else is equal (total daily diet, training and supplements). Skipping these important feeding times cannot be made up for at other times of the day. This immediate timing is crucial to maximize recovery and results, and any advantage is lost if meals are missed or delayed.
When training first thing in the morning, nothing changes as it relates to your pre/post-training nutrition. Simply ingest a dotFIT snack or shake 10-40 minutes before you train and repeat the snack immediately post-training.
Although liquid delivery allows for the quickest absorption (e.g. dotFIT shakes/mixes), all dotFIT foods meet the quick digesting criteria for taking advantage of the pre/post “metabolic windows”. It’s during these windows that nutrient sensitivity/uptake is highest, maximizing recovery including muscle building. Remember, do not add calories, simply redistribute them.