The question of eating breakfast before or after your workout is surprisingly common (in fact, you may have even asked it yourself) and like many things in the fitness world, there are at least two sides to the story.

I like to workout in the mornings, before work and before the rest of the City has really woken up. Every morning during the week I rise about 6.30am and go to the gym, do a 45 min (on average) workout and then cycle four miles to work.

I’ll do all of this without eating before-hand, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to wake up a half hour or an hour before the gym just to eat food. I’m already a zombie at 6.30am never mind 6am! And secondly, I’m big into Intermittent Fasting at the moment and I’ve been doing that for some time now.

In a VERY brief overview, ‘Intermittent Fasting’ (IF) is essentially giving your body a minimum of 12hrs between meals so that your system has time to stop digesting the food you’ve eaten and has time to start breaking down fats in the body and repairing the body. So ideally for ‘IF’ you will leave 16 hours or more between meals to give your system a rest from digesting so that it can dig into fat reserves and burn fat instead. So I will eat between the hours of 1pm – 8pm/9pm every day and from 8/9pm – 1pm the following day I will fast; giving my digestive system some recovery time.

Anyway, back to my morning exercise…

I won’t eat before working out and I suppose I am always curious how this routine effects my body. Is it healthy for me to be working out before I’ve eaten anything five mornings a week? Should I be eating something before the gym or is it ok to wait a few hours and then have my breakfast a little later?

I’m going to look at both options!

Arguments for ‘YES’ breakfast before exercise

Some argue that eating breakfast before a workout is absolutely essential for burning fat and building fitness.

An article in the ‘International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism’ claims that eating breakfast before working out will help the body burn more fat during exercise and afterwards also. The study took 8 men, all 27yrs old and average weight/height and tested them over two weeks. Results showed that in the FED state (Food-Fed Breakfast); subjects burned more calories during the 36 min cardio exercise and for 24 hours after and also burned more fat as fuel throughout the workout and at 12 hours and 24 hours following the workout.

So this research argues for eating before working out suggesting that you eat something easily digestible and high in carbohydrates 20-30mins prior to working out (fruit, energy bars, etc).

Arguments for ‘NO’ exercising before breakfast

Exercising on an empty stomach first thing in the morning some also claim has amazing health benefits. A study in the Journal of Physiology by Van Proeyen et al., 2010 titled: “Training in the fasted state improves glucose tolerance during fat-rich diet” claims that exercising before your first meal of the day counteracts poor diet and aids weight loss.

This fascinating study lasted for six weeks and followed 28 healthy men aged 18-25. Results showed that the men who exercised before eating breakfast showed no signs of insulin resistance and didn’t put up weight in comparison to the other groups involved who ate similar diets and did the exact same exercise routine four times per week. This study however was definitely skewed in my opinion as the two other groups of men were made to drink sugary drinks (sports drinks) during workouts or ordered not to exercise at all although, the authors claim that all the men involved did overall have similar high-calorie, high-fad diets and that the only difference in the groups was WHEN they exercised and of course what was consumed during exercise (sugary, sports drinks).

From this study the authors concluded that: “This study for the first time shows that fasted training is more potent than fed training to facilitate adaptations in muscle and to improve whole-body glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity during hyper-caloric fat-rich diet.” (Proeyen et al., 2010)

So does exercising in the fasted state force the body to shed excess fat??

It’s up for questioning to be honest and definitely requires further study but it doesn’t seem to be harmful either way. It is argued in many, many, many studies that exercising on an empty stomach is really beneficial as our fat burning processes are controlled by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and our SNS is activated by exercise and fasting. This therefore means that the combination of both maximizes the impact of fat breakdown for energy. We need energy to exercise so if we exercise in a fasted state, we’re digging into those deep energy reserves (i.e. fat reserves) and breaking them down so that we have energy to exercise. Sounds straightforward right? According to these studies that I have filtered through, eating a full meal (high in carbohydrates) actually inhibits our SNS and reduces fat burning effects of exercise. Fasting exercise also claims to help with insulin regulation and overall increase in muscle protein.

It’s Subjective!

Like everything to do with our bodies, I really think this whole topic is very subjective. Some people find it really hard to exercise when they haven’t eaten before-hand and this is usually due to changes in blood sugar levels. Others will feel physically ill if they eat before working out.

The best advice that anyone can give you, ever, when it comes to your body is just to listen. Listen to what your body tells you, to how you feel. So many factors can play a role… Age, weight, body fat percentage, if you’re pregnant, taking medication, level of fitness, type of exercise, etc.

Personally, I typically exercise in the mornings before eating because I enjoy this routine. It ensures I get my exercise done for the day and it starts me off on the right note – mentally! But morning exercise isn’t for everyone, breakfast isn’t for everyone, fasting isn’t for everyone… It’s all subjective and all it comes down to is to find what works for YOU!

That’s the key!

Before I leave you, here at some healthy breakfast ideas to go along with this article and it is up to YOU whether you want to try these breakfast recipes out before or after a morning workout. The below listed breakfast ideas are a guaranteed great start to the day for optimal health, fitness and weight-loss.

  1. Eggs

    Eggs in pretty much every form: Omelettes, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs… They are low in fat, high in protein and bursting with essential nutrients and vitamins. Mix them with either more protein (meats, fish) or vegetables for the perfect fat-burning and protein-filled morning meal.

  2. Oatmeal

    Oatmeal is packed with fibre and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. It is a ‘slow release’ carbohydrate, meaning it releases energy throughout the day and doesn’t spike blood glucose (insulin) levels. Insulin plays a huge role in signalling fat storage in our bodies so keeping a balanced and relatively low blood glucose level aids fat loss. Try oatmeal made with just water but add in some natural, organic peanut butter for added protein to help build muscle.

  3. Greek Yogurt

    A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed which foods are correlated with weight change, including the top 5 foods that promote weight loss and Greek Yogurt was one of them! It’s high in protein which helps build muscle (especially post-workout), low in fat and packed with probiotics. And it tastes delicious! Try Fage 2% Greek Yogurt. It is so delicious.

So that’s all for today. Thanks for reading and happy working out!

Be Smart, Eat Smart!

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Megan O'Neill

Megan O'Neill is a musician, psychologist, nutrition advisor and an absolute health-nut! She currently resides in London, but - as you may have guessed from the name - is originally from Ireland. Six years ago, following an incredible trip to Asia, she suddenly became very ill with IBS, food intolerances and chronic fatigue. No-one could have predicted how that fateful trip would... Read More

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