The topics of fitness and fat loss came up at the family dinner table over Easter weekend.
Seeing as though my Dad was a shredded F-16 pilot for over 20 years, we asked him about his methods for staying lean.
From his twenties through his forties, Dad was the guy who worked out often, completed Eco-challenges, raced triathlons, took kayaking classes in raging rivers and ice-climbed often.
But what about his nutrition?
I can remember him making these crazy shakes with aloe vera (from his own plants), mulberries, molasses, tofu, and whey protein.
I also remember him eating a lot…. what was his secret?
His response was, “I always thought that whatever you ate after a workout didn’t count. They were like free calories.”
I’m still not sure what shocked me more that night: the fact that Dad used to count calories or that he actually believed in “free” calories.
Is there any truth to my Dad’s statement? Was he shredded because he ate most of his food post-workout? Or because he lived a full-throttle life in the outdoors when he wasn’t dogfighting in the skies?
Meet Hypothetical Kathy.
Now, meet Hypothetical Jim.
It’s 4:45 p.m. and both Kathy and Jim are anxiously thinking about their 5:30 p.m. workouts.
Jim is just beginning to take group exercise classes and he never knows what the instructor will challenge him to do.
Kathy has been strength training for six months and tonight she is planning to hit a PR deadlifting.
Both of them are super stoked to get to the gym.
Both of them are hungry.
Both of them are trying to lose a few L-Bs, if you know what I mean.
Kathy, hasn’t eaten since her 11 a.m. lunch.
She decides to grab a Quest bar [carbs + fat + protein].
Jim on the other hand, is feeling very hungry. But he worries that if he eats now he will get a cramp halfway through class.
He decides to forgo the snack.
Both Kathy and Jim CRUSH their workouts.
Afterward, Kathy decides to wait until her 8:30 dinner reservation to eat (roughly two hours).
Jim grabs a protein shake [protein+fat+carbs] from his gym smoothie bar, hits the showers and heads out to dinner.
Did they do it right? Did they fuel correctly?
What is the best Pre- & Post-Workout nutrition method for fat loss?
You’ve probably read that eating before a workout blocks any fat burning.
Conversely, you may have read that eating before a workout fuels you perfectly so you can enter #beastmode AND lose more fat.
You’ve also read that you should only eat fat and avoid carbs altogether to finally lose those extra pounds.
So what is actually true?
Was Jim or Kathy correct with their strategy?
Should both of them have eaten before, or after?
Or, before AND after?
Only protein? Or just carbs? Or fat?
You see, the thing is, pre- and post-workout nutrition depends on the individual.
Yes, there are studies that show benefits of eating before and/or after in an immediate fashion– but those studies are done in controlled environments and consider only the short term.
The studies** done on post-workout nutrition were completed on subjects studied in a fasted states.
They also showed that the body may process nutrients faster in the short-term and jumpstart the recovery process; but when comparing the long-term results in fat loss between those who did fuel immediately after eating and those who did not eat in the ‘post-workout window’ were unvarying.
To lose fat, what really matters is how much you consume on a daily basis, aka your caloric total for the day.
Clearly there is no doubt that consuming something with carbohydrates and protein (to replenish glycogen and to give your body amino acids to rebuild muscles) post-workout has benefits, but as far as whether or not it will catalyze your fat loss burning mechanisms to lose weight….
….that depends more on the whole picture of what you have eaten that day.
In example, if Jim had eaten 2,200 calories before his workout and his total caloric goal for the day was 2,500, then slamming a big shake immediately after his workout in addition to going out to dinner afterward might not be the best idea.
The extra shake would add more calories than he needs for the day, possibly putting him in a caloric surplus. Regardless of helping him recover post-workout, the extra shake would not promote fat loss unless he only had the shake an omitted the dinner outing.
And yes, he did burn calories during exercise; but in order to lose weight effectively calories should come first regardless of how many you think you are burning.
It is all about picking and choosing what, when and how much to eat at certain points in the day when you feel hungry.
For some people like Kathy, they need a little snack to boost their energy for the workout.
For others, staying on track might mean adding a light mid-morning snack to avoid going overboard at lunch because their workout is at 3:30 p.m.
This is why planning is so important.
Pre- and Post-workout nutrition can help you feel energized enough to PR, help you recover faster, refuel your muscles, AND help you lose weight as long as you plan accordingly.
Consider this scenario: you are striving to eat 1,800 calories for the day and it is 4:45 pm before an exercise class. You have already eaten 1500 calories. What do you do?
In order to lose weight, it would be better to forgo the pre-workout snack and save the remaining 300 calories for dinner after class…
…..or even skip the workout (…Gasp!) to be able to hit your hit your calories for the day if you already feel hungry.
But what might be even more optimal for someone like Kathy (who likes to eat before she lifts), is to eat a smaller lunch and then add a 150-200 calorie snack an hour or so before class (and leave additional room for dinner later on).
Here’s an example for Kathy who is eating 1,800 calories a day (she weighs 147 and is trying to lose weight slowly) and lifting in the afternoon:
Breakfast: 450 calories
Morning snack of fruit or greek yogurt: ~100 cals
Early lunch: 450 calories
Afternoon snack: 200 calories
Out to dinner on a Friday: 600 calories
With the plan above, Kathy could even squeeze in a small post-workout snack if she thinks she will get hungry before her 8:30 dinner reservation. All she has to do is reduce dinner to 400-450 calories to fit in a snack.
It is all about making a plan fit to keep you feeling your best.
The bottom line is pre- and post-workout nutrition can be used as a strategy to:
1. Help you feel and perform your best in the gym
If you feel sick when you eat and then run on treadmills or lift weights, don’t have a pre-workout snack right before; OR make sure you eat one-three hours prior.
Carbs are fast-acting fuel so try and have some carbs with fiber and low to moderate amounts of sugar. (Think crackers, bananas, rice, half of a sweet potato).
If you are working on keeping your protein consumption high and haven’t had much protein so far in the day, then making sure your pre-worout snack includes protein is a smart choice.
A good guideline is to have at least 5 grams of protein in your pre-workout snack.
If you feel like you recover better when refuel right after a workout, then by all means, have a shake with protein after your exercise.
A good guideline for how much protein to have in your post-workout snack is around 10-15 grams for a 150 to 200 calories.
Listen to what your body needs and try not to workout if you are ravenous, or conversely, if you are overly stuffed from a late lunch or early dinner.
2) Help get you to your caloric and protein totals for the day
As far at total protein consumption goes per individual, the studies vary on what exactly is enough protein.
Generally, .7 to 1.3 grams per pound of bodyweight is a good guideline for how much protein you should eat to build or to maintain the muscle mass you have built.
If ordering a shake from your gym or making one post-workout at home helps you squeeze in an extra 20 grams of protein (and keeps you within your caloric parameters)— awesome!
Important tip: Just like the example for Jim, don’t slam a “healthy” protein filled snack before and after workouts just because you heard it is good for you— depending on what you eat the rest of the day there is a chance that those extra pre- and post-workout snacks could send you over the amount of calories you actually need for the day in order to maintain current weight or lose weight. Be aware of how much you consume.
3) Help you maintain a caloric deficit and still exercise
This is the best way I use pre-and post-workout nutrition.
While trying to maintain a deficit and continue to get stronger/maintain my current strength, I often have to “sandwich” my workouts with mini-meals.
It is not uncommon for me to eat 250-350 calories before a workout. Then afterward I eat another 200-300. I tend to eat larger snacks pre-workout than post, as of recent.
This is just and example of what I do, sometimes.
There are a million ways to eat pre- and post-workout.
As long as you account for what you are eating before or after you exercise, you are going to be fine!
Knowing what is going into your body is the most crucial tip I can give you for fat loss.
Calories are King.
The bottom line is that in order to lose weight you must be in a caloric deficit, eating less calories than your body needs at its current weight.
And, as some of you know, being in a caloric deficit can make you feel less energetic at times.
It’s tough to imagine running up an incline on a treadmill or deadlifting a lot of weight when you are eating less than usual.
However, saving room in your calories for a pre-workout snack can give you the boost you need to crush that workout!
Remember, listen to your body.
If you are hungry and feel you will perform better with a healthy snack, have one– just don’t consider it to be a “free” calorie.
If you look forward to having a protein shake after a workout to feel rejuvenated, whip it up!
Just remember to keep track of how much you are eating and understand whether or not the amount of calories in the snacks will help you stay in line whether you are trying to lose weight, (caloric deficit), gain muscle (slight caloric surplus) or maintain muscle (maintenance calories).
As for my Dad, I am still not sure what he believes although I did my best to talk him out of believing in “free calories.” 🙂
#DARETOEAT & #DARETOMOVE
**Sources: “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?”
Alan Albert Aragon1 and Brad Jon Schoenfeld2*Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:5 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-5