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Workout Nutrition

Making Your Workout Diet Work For You

TL;DR

Workout nutrition is way simpler and way cheaper than most companies would have you believe (no prizes for guessing why 🤔) — as simple as fuelling your body with quality macronutrients. Seriously.

Nutrition for Exercise and Fitness

We often find that striking a balance between working out and eating well can be tricky when someone's just getting started, especially since different goals require different strategies. For example, we've had clients only do strength training a couple times a week and then end up overeating to try and “maintain the gains.” Others underestimate just how physically active they are, and should actually be either eating more or working out less.

Except for a few marathon runners, most of the people we work with are just regular people looking to find an optimal minimum and do the least in the gym for the most metabolic benefits. If that sounds like you, then we've gotcha covered.

Fueling Your Body with an Optimal Gym Diet

Going from a fairly sedentary lifestyle to barbells and Smith machines is all about getting enough carbs and protein. Good carbs like potatoes, rice, quinoa, squash, and fruit give you the energy to consistently get in great workouts and not feel totally exhausted afterwards. Good proteins like chicken, ground turkey, salmon, and tuna help you recover, build, and maintain the muscle gains from these workouts.

Just keep in mind, this isn’t an excuse to go wild on chips, candy, sugary coffee, and deep fried meats just because they “fit in your macros.” Those will spike your blood sugar, cause inflammation, and result in more harm than good in the long run. There’s no shame in treating yourself, but those treats can't be staples of a gym diet.

Your protein needs are what they are. Most people are already undereating protein in general, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough when you’re starting to work out—but once that’s taken care of, it is what it is, whether you continue exercising or not.

Carbs, on the other hand, typically need to go up considerably — when you’re exercising. For example, we recommend that people working out less than three times a week only get 1 starchy carb (30-40g) per day. But if you’re working out 3+ times per week, we bump that up to 2 starchy carbs (60-80g) per day.

To recap: find your protein needs and stick to them no matter what, but raise your carb intake the more that you exercise.

Balancing Your Diet and Your Workout Nutrition

One of the biggest things that gets in the way of balancing exercise and nutrition is a focus on cardio. Cardio astronomically increases appetite, while failing to provide us with more muscle and therefore an increased metabolism. In other words, overemphasis on cardio increases our hunger but not our metabolic rate, making it much harder to avoid binge eating while recovering from intense exercise.

This is related to the number one misunderstanding about “dieting” versus workout nutrition. Many women today exercise in order to burn calories, while wearing a watch that tells them how many calories they’ve burned; then, they track their calorie intake and undereat. This is a literal dumpster fire of an approach, because actually decreases our metabolic rate over time, making every fitness goal more difficult. 🤦‍♀️

It is much better to shift your mindset away from limiting calories and towards increasing lean muscle tissue. Prioritizing muscle growth over restricting calories means we’re motivated to eat enough for our muscle growth, which helps the body to naturally burn fat and just increase our health overall!

Nutrition for Fitness

Marketing makes nutrition for fitness way more complicated than it needs to be. All of this stuff marketed for “athletes” or “workouts” can in reality just be eaten as whole foods.

Expensive supplements and shakes aren’t any better than the foods that their contents come from—in fact, it’s usually better to just eat the foods, since our bodies are actually used to digesting those. Supplements and shakes can sometimes serve as a “cherry on top,” but they can’t replace or make up for a lack of healthy foods or an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle.

Let's see if we can cut through the noise and give you some plain and simple fitness nutrition knowledge.

Dieting While Working Out

“Diets” are silly in general, and they get even sillier when you’re trying to work out while sticking to them. The more you exercise, the more you need to eat — period. And the more you properly fuel your body for strength-training workouts, the more muscle you gain, and the better your metabolism works.

This is why we will ALWAYS advocate for PHFF, or building your own healthy and satisfying meals to accompany physical activity, over the gradual self-starvation of “dieting.” The only dieting recipe we recognize is that it’s a recipe for disaster. 

When women take up “bootcamp” style classes that don’t adjust for food intake, they’re typically on a 1500 calories per day diet, while burning 500+ calories while working out. Here’s what this causes:

Nutrition Basics: The Quality and Quantity of Workout Food

Food quality depends on our meals being mostly made up of whole foods. In other words, they haven’t been processed and had most of their nutritional contents and value removed as a result. Using whole foods to build PHFF meals, or an assortment of Protein, Healthy Fats, and Fibrous carbs, is the quickest and easiest way to get the nutritional variety your body needs.

Food quantity is down to how much exercise you’re getting. If you’ve ever seen one of those pictures of a Michael Phelps lunch, you already know that athletes need way more food than us mere mortals. On the other hand, strength training two or three times a week can become a convenient excuse to overeat. This is arguably the one and only place where worrying about the weight on the scale comes in useful.

If you’ve been sticking to PHFF meals and a strength training routine for a while, you'll have both lost fat weight and put on muscle weight. If your weight continues to rise beyond this, it may be that you need to try eating a little less and see what happens. This isn’t dieting—it’s an educated adjustment. The exact same can be said if you're only losing weight. If your scale doesn’t go up from the muscle gain, you’re undereating and need to plate up more protein and carbs!

What About Carbs?

We often recommend eating carbs around your workouts, which leads many people to wonder "alright, well how many carbs?" Unfortunately, there isn't a one size fits all answer here.

Most people who do our program eat 1-2 starchy carbs per day. However, more active individuals might eat 3 starchy carbs per day. How much food you need overall, and how many carbs you need is individual to you and requires some trial and error to figure out what makes you feel your best - but (shameless plug time) in Metabolism Makeover, we help you do this!

Diets for Specific Fitness and Nutrition Programs

We aren’t big on diets or forbidding the enjoyment of any particular food. However, there is one thing that seems to sabotage or at least hinder any and every fitness goal—alcohol.

Studies indicate that alcohol inhibits the recovery of muscle tissue after workouts. In other words, it makes it more difficult to rebuild what exercise intentionally “destroys.” This is, to put it lightly, not great. If you drink responsibly, then we want you to continue enjoying the occasional beer or sake with your friends—but just know that your muscles aren’t going to thank you for it.

Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?

Whether you should eat before or after a workout isn't as important as making sure that you do actually pick one. A good rule of thumb is to eat within 60-90 minutes on one side of your workout. For example, if you eat within 60-90 minutes before a workout, you don't need to rush to eat after a workout. If you didn't eat before your workout, then you should probably make sure you eat within 60-90 minutes after your workout.

That said, if you asked us to pick one over the other, we'd recommend that you eat before your workout. There are considerable upsides to eating beforehand, with very few downsides—and all of the downsides can be overcome by just allowing the digestion to finish before hitting the gym. The upsides include being able to train harder and longer while feeling all-around better.

If training at the crack of dawn and not eating beforehand makes you feel good, fine. But at least try eating a quick snack beforehand and see what happens. Often people notice an improvement in performance from a beef stick, protein bar, or from having a little bit of carbohydrate like a piece of toast, half a banana, a rice cake or some dried fruit. Be careful pairing carbs with protein or fat though because you want to be able to digest pretty quickly!

Usually we don't recommend eating carbs alone because that can spike blood sugar. However, in this case, your body will use those carbs right up during your workout so we're not worried about a blood sugar spike.

Another option is to schedule your wokouts so that you always have a larger dinner the night before going for a morning workout—this is the Next Best option for people who can’t stand the thought of eating right before exercise.

Signs You Need to Eat Before Your Workout

If you workout fasted, but then feel any of the following, it might be a sign you need to fuel before your workout (or just eat more in general):

  • Afternoon energy slump

  • Fatigue/low energy a few hours after your workout or later in the afternoon

  • Poor workout recovery

  • Feeling great right after your workout, but crashing afterwards

These can be signs of fluctuations in cortisol (your stress hormone). High cortisol can impact adrenals and thyroid and make weight loss harder.

Pre-Workout Meals

Keep in mind, the whole idea of “pre” and “post-workout” meals and snacks is basically a BS marketing strategy by supplement companies. Unless you’re an athlete, you don’t need to slam a protein shake mixed with a glucose supplement every time you leave the gym in order to see results.

Your “pre” and “post” foods should mostly just be your next PHFF meal rather than a special snack, unless it’s going to be more than 2 hours after the workout before you can eat. That said, if you are going to eat a meal ahead of time, be sure it’s an hour or two ahead of time so that your digestion has had a chance to do its work before you start lifting.

Some great pre-workout meals include:

  • Chicken, rice, & avocado 

  • Eggs & oatmeal

  • Ground turkey & sweet potato with butter

  • Greek yogurt & berries

  • Smoothie with protein powder, banana & peanut butter

Post-Workout Meals

Some great post-workout meals include:

  • Cheesy scrambled eggs with tomatoes and a side of blueberries

  • Avocado Chicken Salad with sourdough crackers

Pre-Workout & Post-Workout Snacks

So-called pre- and post-workout snacks are one of the fitness industry’s favorite marketing gimmicks lately. Let’s take a closer look and see how much of it is backed up by science and how much of it is just a load of expensive BS.

What is the Difference Between Pre- and Post-Workout Snacks?

Pre-workout foods are about fueling up for a vigorous workout, whereas post-workout foods are about recovering from that workout. Although both of these should contain a blend of proteins and carbs in PHFF fashion, what this really means is that you likely need more carbs pre-workout for energy and more proteins for muscle building post-workout.

Pre-Workout Snacks

Pre-workout snacks, especially a blend of carbs and protein, prepare your body to put in work at the gym and reap the rewards. The carbs turn into glucose or blood sugar and give you energy to keep going for another rep or two. The proteins make the gains possible by repairing your lean muscles so that they're even bigger and stronger than they were before — and bigger and stronger muscles = more efficient fat burn.

If you’re going to workout for an hour+, you’re basically guaranteed to run out of fuel if you don’t eat a “pre-workout snack.” Just remember, it doesn’t have to be some fancy shake or supplement that says “pre-workout” on it — whole foods are all the pre-workout you need!

When to Eat a Pre-Workout Snack

The short answer is: pretty much always. Except for people who simply can’t bring themselves to eat early enough in the morning to kickstart a dawn workout, you’re willfully giving up health benefits if you don’t eat before you hit the gym. Ideally, you should eat a meal 1-2 hours before your workout, and keep it lower in fat so that it doesn’t sit in your stomach like a cannonball. If you can’t manage that, try a smaller carbs + proteins snack instead.

How Much to Eat

If you’re eating a full meal before a workout, so long as it’s your usual meal size and you’re giving it an hour or two to digest ahead of time, you’re good to go. The amount you should eat before a workout depends on your specific need, such as if you require more carbs to avoid running out of energy before or during your workout, or more protein to aid the recovery process afterwards.

Listen to your body. If you’re feeling exhausted during and after your workouts, try eating a granola bar. If you’re feeling really sore and shredded, it may be a protein bar that's in order.

What to Eat Before a Workout: Some of the Best Pre-Workout Snacks

There are no perfect pre (or post!) workout snacks. Everyone is different in how they prefer to fuel around their workouts, so finding what works best for you might take some trial and error.

If you've eaten within 60-90 minutes of starting a workout, keep snacks lower in fat and fiber. This ensures that your snack will digest in time for that fuel to be available for your workout. A combination of protein + carb is best for a pre-workout snack.

If the last meal you ate before a workout was more than 90 minutes before your workout, you don't need to worry about the fat and fiber content because you'll have longer to digest. You can just eat a normal PHFF meal. Including a starchy carb would be a good idea as well!

Here's some of our favorite protein + carb pre-workout snacks (which btw, can totally be eaten post-workout too):

  • Cottage cheese + fruit or dried fruit

  • Greek yogurt + fruit or dried fruit

  • Hard boiled eggs + fruit or crackers

  • Deli meal & cheese + crackers

  • Half a smoothie made with protein powder and fruit

  • Edamame

  • Beef stick + fruit or dried fruit

What Happens When You Don’t Eat a Pre-Workout Snack?

If you work out really vigorously or for over an hour, your body’s going to get tapped out on energizing carbs and repairing proteins. In other words, you’ll start to only destroy your body, instead of destroying-and-repairing like exercise is supposed to do. Some people can get away with this if they get the timing and intensity just right—but why take that chance when you can just eat something that’s good for you and gain great benefits from it?

Post-Workout Snacks

Post-workout snacks are where the marketing gimmick really begins to outweigh the scientific benefits. Do you need to eat after a workout? Of course you do, but only because you need to eat three PHFF meals a day in general.

That is not the same as burning through an expensive protein shake or supplement after every gym session. You honestly don’t need to eat anything special immediately after working out. Part of what makes post-workout snacks so attractive is it makes people feel like they're tapping into some secret to enhanced weight loss, that they're somehow maximizing their workout efforts.

But we promise you, for most people and for most post-workout products, the secret is that there's no secret at all. Good workout nutrition is way simpler than any pusher of post-workout would have you believe. The reality is that unless you’re an athlete, stressing over pre-and-post workout products, nutrient timing, and anabolic windows is total overkill.

Recovery Nutrition

Your recovery nutrition, and particularly the protein after a workout that you need, should come from your PHFF meals throughout the day. A special “post-workout” product isn’t going to cut it if you’re skimping on the sizable, satisfying meals that your body needs.

Let's hear it again — dieting is silly. Dieting while exercising is really silly. If you’re going to work out properly, you need to refuel properly. Make sure you're really meeting your protein needs, and that you're not skimping on the carbs. That's your recovery nutrition right there.

How Much to Eat After a Workout

If your PHFF meals are the right size, you shouldn’t have to worry about measuring post-workout snacks. That said, if you find yourself raiding the pantry in between meals, that’s a surefire sign that you’re not eating enough in general, or you're failing to take advantage of a pre-workout snack, or that you need to be more intentional about the When and What of your post-workout meals.

Needing to refuel is the sensation of being ready and willing to eat—the unpleasant sensation of ravenous hunger means your meal servings are too small. The body knows what it needs, and it isn’t shy about telling us what it needs with these different sensations. That's really the best way to tell how much to eat after a workout.

What to Eat After a Workout: Some of the Best Post-Workout Snacks

Your post workout food choice should include some protein and carb so that you can replenish the carbs and glycogen (stored carbs) that you used up during your workout.

For some, this might be a snack that has protein + carb but for others, this might just be a normal meal that's balanced with protein, fat and fiber/carb. Both are totally fine and which one you choose just depends on when you're working out during your day!

We included this list of our favorite snacks in the section on pre-workout snacks, but in case you jumped straight to this section, here they are again:

  • Cottage cheese + fruit or dried fruit

  • yogurt

  • Hard-boiled eggs + fruit or crackers

  • Deli meal & cheese + crackers

  • Half a smoothie made with protein powder and fruit

  • Edamame

  • Beef stick + fruit or dried fruit

What Happens When You Don’t Eat a Post-Workout Meal?

We’re going to talk about this way more in the next section, but failing to refuel after heavy exercise is quite simply a form of self-starvation — which is, if you didn’t already know, bad. Very, very bad.

If you want your workouts to be productive, you have to refuel, so that your body can recover and rebuild stronger than it was before. Trying to skip meals while lifting more and heavier is, and sorry to be blunt here, just plain dumb.

Promise you'll keep that in mind as we head into the next section, okay?

Working Out While Fasting

With the newfound popularity of “intermittent fasting,” many people ask us if they should pair an exercise routine with fasting. A quick Google search even provides a resounding Yes to the question of pairing exercise with fasting by featuring sources that claim doing so “takes the benefits of each to a whole new level.”

The idea seems to make sense on the surface — burn calories through exercise and avoid adding them back on by fasting — but as you’re about to read, the truth is not so simple (sorry).

Can You Workout while Fasting? Is it Safe?

Working out while fasting is a classic case of something you can do that you usually shouldn’t. It is likely “safe” in the sense that you aren’t immediately going to experience negative side effects—but our view is that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing for the rest of your life. Fasting while working out cannot be done long term, so in that case, it's probably not worth doing at all. 

We’ll talk more about the upsides and downsides of working out fasted in a sec, but for now, keep in mind that similar to expensive shakes and supplements, fasted exercise is yet another specialized strategy that is best suited to athletes and is only going to make things “1% better” at best. There are much better things for the average person to prioritize in their weight loss journey, such as building healthy PHFF meals and getting in a sufficient amount of exercise to accompany those meals.

HOWEVER, before we continue, make sure that none of these describe you right now:

  • You're not getting at least 7 hours of sleep

  • You're experiencing any adrenal, thyroid or any hormonal issues

  • You're in a season of high stress

If any of the above describe you, fasted workouts might not be the best for you right now because they could be causing too much stress and inflammation in your body. Inflammation is a major contributor to weight loss resistance, which will most probably undo any of the benefits you might get from working out fasted.

The Benefits of Working out While Fasting

There are really only two “benefits” to working out out while fasting, and both of them are “benefits” worthy of scare quotes.

The first is that yes, this less-calories-in, more-calories-out strategy is going to cause fat loss - but not in the way you were probably hoping. While it’s not impossible that eating less while exercising more can cause the weight on the scale to go down, what is impossible is that it will do so successfully in the long-term. You can do a lot of crazy things to lose weight tomorrow or next Friday, but all of those are incompatible with being healthy and happy in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

The second “benefit” is that you won’t have to make time for a nourishing breakfast before hitting the gym. Yep—we see you, Miss “too busy to eat breakfast.” And we don’t buy it for a second. It takes between three and five minutes to make scrambled eggs for one person — you have the time!

The Risks of Intermittent Fasting and Working Out

Almost all research on fasting has used male subjects – probably because it’s way harder to do this type of research with women because of the monthly cycle/changing hormones. So almost every claim that “fasting is good for you” is really only applicable to men. There's little to no evidence of the same being true for women. Some women (especially the athletes we keep banging on about) might benefit from fasted workouts every now and again, but they're the exception, not the rule.

Exercising while fasting is a hormetic stressor — a "healthy" kind of stress. Small doses of hormetic stressors can have benefits, but if your stress bucket is already close to overflowing from living a normal hectic life in the 2020s, then repeated exposure to these kinds of stressors can actually cause your body to hang on to fat more stubbornly — because you’re making it think that it’s fighting for its life!

If your adrenal or thyroid health is poor, if you’ve been undereating or not getting enough sleep, if you’re stressed out of your gourd—you DO NOT get to fast while working out. In general, we don’t recommend that women fast for more than 12 to 14 hours at a time—and that’s with or without exercise.

If you insist on a fasted workout anyway, we recommend consuming aminos before or during the workout, and then eating within an hour of that workout. This will help support your muscle tissue. We also ask that you keep an eye on how you feel throughout the day—for example, are you experiencing a heavy energetic crash in the late morning or earlier afternoon? This can be from the fasted workout, especially if any caffeine was consumed beforehand. 

In the longer term, are you experiencing hair loss, or a loss of menstrual cycle? Are you feeling cold all the time, or “tired but wired” at bedtime? These are signs that you’re overflowing the stress bucket and beginning to experience hormonal imbalances as a consequence. These signs are your body’s version of dialing 911 to ask you to cut it out with the fasted workouts already.

Suitable Exercises for Working Out While Fasting

The only exercises that we can recommend while fasting are NEAT movement, such as walking, incline walking, and Zone 2 cardio. These are moderate, low-stress forms of exercise that you might be able to do without fueling up properly. Anything else really isn't suitable for when you're fasted — despite what certain sources might say.

What Kind of Weight Loss Can You Expect From Fasted Workouts?

The idea of fasted exercise for weight loss is that you’ll empty your reserves of glycogen (or stored glucose/blood sugar) and start burning fat for energy instead—similar to what happens when you stop eating carbs in a keto diet and achieve ketosis. Once again, you certainly can lose weight this way, but what you cannot do is rely on this method consistently for the rest of your life.

What to Eat After a Fasted Workout

The meals that you should eat after a fasted workout are the same ones that you should eat all the time—nutritious and filling PHFF meals. This combination of protein, healthy fat, and fiber is what your body wants and needs before and after exercise. In fact, it’s what your body needs all the time, exercise or not. 

Summing It All Up

Hopefully by this point you know that the real secret to workout nutrition is as simple as fueling your body properly with quality macronutrients. It's not about gimmicky pre-workout or expensive post-workout, it's not about trying to cut corners using supplements, and it's definitely not about starving yourself into submission in an attempt to trick your body into burning the fat through some kind of "metabolic manipulation".

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