The last post explored why the answer to the title question is usually NO. For most people, most of the time, workouts do not need any special snacking or sports products before, during, or after the event. In a society where the vast majority of people who exercise do so to lose or maintain weight, more calories simply aren’t needed, or are even counterproductive. Most people have probably seen news reports of research studies that conclude the exercise does not help weight loss. A lot of exercisers, athletes, and personal trainers were upset with this, but I think a lot people felt their frustrating personal experience validated.
What Is Going On Here?
First, most people overestimate the calories they burn during exercise. Our bodies are quite efficient. Evolving in an environment of food scarcity has ensured that. Based on Allen Lim’s research, I estimate no more than 500 calories an hour for most people. Obviously, there’s a range, where an experienced fit athlete may burn less due to better technique and efficiency compared to a beginner with poor technique. The unfortunate and simple truth is exercise does not burn nearly as many calories as people think.
Second, most people underestimate the amount of calories they consume. Research studies show that people underestimate calories by 30-50%, even professionals! But you don’t need research do determine this. Just look around. Well over 70% of people are not at their ideal weight. Yet these people (most of us) consistently eat more calories than they need, even when they don’t want to!
So Why Do We Get It Wrong?
We let our conscious mind and executive function try to solve problems that our autonomic nervous system already handled. Translation: We OVERTHINK it.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT!
But that’s exactly what the fitness articles encourage us to do: Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, eat a pre workout snack, drink a sports drink while you exercise, be sure to consume calories within 30 minutes of finishing. The assumption here is that exercise is so tricky, your survival instincts are not up to the challenge and that your conscious mind has to step in and “figure it all out” so you won’t collapse.
Think about that for a moment: Do you honestly think we could have survived as a species struggling to gather enough food to eat if we had to think through every calorie? Did our ancestors count their calories with sticks in the sand? Did they count up how many glasses of water they drank that day to know if they were hydrated? Of course not! So why do we think we need to now?
Consider the fabulous precision of the autonomic nervous system: You do not have to consciously think about your heart rate, breathing, or digestion. It is all orchestrated perfectly without any effort on your part. Why should eating and drinking be any different? It isn’t. Our thirst and hunger operate in the same way as our need for oxygen. While we can consciously influence these mechanisms, there is really no need.
So Why Doesn’t Exercise Cause Weight Loss?
Folks have suggested that people simply overcompensate by eating more calories so that they don’t lose, and maybe even gain. It could happen consciously, as in a reward system, like, “I worked out today, so I deserve a treat.” Remember the small number of calories exercise burns. That treat negates the workout.
But I think the unconscious action of the brain is more important. Your brain has already accounted for the calories burned, and simply increases your appetite without any conscious thought. When you sit down to eat, you eat more. If you added in snacks, you could easily create a surplus. I believe that this happens as seamlessly as responding to decreased oxygen availability at high altitude. If you travel from sea level to the mountains, your brain recognizes that oxygen is harder to come by. You might become consciously aware of this if you try to exercise, or you might not. But the brain immediately speeds up the breathing rate and heart rate to compensate. Not dramatically, you won’t be puffing with a racing heart, but it is measurable. I believe our thirst and appetite operate the same way.
Do You Really Need To Eat That?
I believe the answer is most often NO.
Your brain is unconsciously on it, and will make sure you get the fluids and calories you need. If you let your conscious brain try to step in, it ends up solving the problem twice. Trust your body to know what it needs, and its ability to get it.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT!
There are times to eat during and immediately after exercise, and the conscious mind can help with the planning and logistics, but it shouldn’t take charge. Next time…
Allen Lim wrote very succinctly at the beginning of his cookbook for athletes:
“First Ask This> Do You Really Need To Eat That?
If you’ve ever run out of fuel while exercising and ‘bonked’ or ‘hit the wall,’ then you know how important eating early or often is to performance. . . However, once we take a look at the numbers I think you’ll agree that in many situations we are better served not eating anything when we’re exercising.” (Feed Zone Portables, p. 4)
Pre and Post workout nutrition is way overstated.
As an endurance athlete who does not eat animal foods I get asked a lot:
- What should I eat before I work out?
- What should I eat while I work out?
- What should I eat after I work out?
The answers I used years ago came from the sports nutrition and supplement industry:
- a gel or half a bottle of sports drink
- 1-2 gels plus sports drink per hour
- a post workout recovery drink
Then I wised up a little and decided that such engineered food wasn’t all that nutritious. So I changed my answer:
- a recovery smoothie in the blender with fruit, some spinach and protein powder
A slight improvement, but I still wasn’t at racing weight, and I was going through canisters of powders and potions like they were going out of style, all while searching for this elusive “recovery” that would allow me to train myself into the ground and bounce right back.
So I wised up a little more and realized real food worked better than the engineered stuff and my answer changed again:
- whatever the last meal was, breakfast or lunch, ideally 2-3 hours prior
- maybe a sport drink, maybe some dates, maybe a rice ball/cake
- maybe a recovery smoothie, or some fruit and a meal an hour later
Then I wised up even more and began to question the whole process, with a new answer:
- the previous meal
- the next meal, whenever that was
Everything went just fine and I learned that:
The Problem of Pre/Post and During Workout Nutrition is an ILLUSION!
You don’t need to expend any special effort to fuel up before a workout. You do not need to guzzle down 250 calories an hour during exercise, nor do you need some magic concoction after a workout.
Folks, we are a nation that is 70% overweight or obese. We do not need to look for new places and times to take in calories. Yet all the magazines drill into our heads that as soon as we start exercising, suddenly fueling becomes a tricky problem that requires diligent effort to overcome.
Most people, most of the time, who are exercising for an hour or so, do not need to eat anything. That’s right: NOTHING! If you are eating a healthy diet of adequate calories, you do not need to suddenly increase that. Your regular meals can suffice. What I see is a weird practice of people trying to limit their portions and calories at meals, then add all those calories back in the form of workout fuel and pre/post workout snacks. Madness! Just eat your regular meals and exercise. Your appetite will balance out whatever additional energy expenditure you engage in. Your brain is pretty smart like that, just trust it.
So why don’t people just trust their brain and eat normally?
Because some people do have to make a special effort. These are special people. We want to be like them. They are professional athletes, and they are not like the rest of us.
Professional athletes train multiple times a day for hours at a time. Their energy demands are very high. And it is crucial that they recover from the first workout of the day in time to put in a quality effort for the second (or third) workout. But that does not reflect the reality of a normal person, with a normal schedule, who exercises for an hour or so.
An average exerciser can store 1000 calories or so of carbohydrate in their muscles. And many thousands of calories of fat. An average exerciser burns no more than 500 calories an hour for aerobic exercise. See the numbers? Until your exercise session goes well over two hours, fueling is not necessary. Post workout fueling would be important if you trained right after waking, but that’s OK, it’s called “breakfast.”
Thanks to the sports nutrition industry and our own insecurity, we think we need far more fuel than we do. For special events, like really long weekend efforts, or races at high intensity, some more fuel is needed. But regular people, on regular days, doing regular exercise, only need regular meals.
Eat, Sleep, Train, Live
Don’t Overthink It