By David Bentley, University of Adelaide
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding food intake and exercise – is it better to eat before or after exercise? And what type of exercise benefits most from eating?
Eating before exercising is important for preparing to and recovering from exercise, especially in athletic competitions. Food contains potential energy or fuel that helps muscles continue to contract during exercise, especially exercise of long duration (more than 60 minutes).
But it’s common for people to not eat before exercise because they tend to be concerned it will make them feel sluggish, or cause cramps or an upset stomach. This is a common misconception. The fact is most nutritional guidelines recommend people eat some form of food in the hours before exercise, especially carbohydrate or sugar.
Simple sugars or carbohydrates can be broken down by your body quickly to provide energy that will keep muscles functioning during exercise.
There are a number of things you should consider when thinking about food and exercise, including the type of food, how much, what type of exercise is being performed (and for how long), as well as your health or sporting objectives.
Your pre-workout carbs don’t have to take the form of bread – try one of these:
What to eat
In order to make use of the fuel in food, it must be broken down, absorbed and moved to the muscles by the blood. So the food you eat before exercise is really only useful once it’s been digested and absorbed.
It takes time for the potential energy to become available for the body. During exercise, blood shifts away from the digestive track to the muscles, leaving less blood to aid digestion. So if you’re going to eat before exercise and want that energy to be available to you when you work out, be sure to eat an hour or two beforehand.
The time needed for food to be processed and energy to become available depends on the type and quantity of what you eat.
Fatty food, protein, and fibre tend to take longer to digest than other foods. And eating food high in fat or fibre (fibre is higher in fruit and grains) may increase the risk of stomach discomfort during exercise because it remains in your stomach and isn’t absorbed.
Bigger portions of food will also obviously take longer to digest than smaller quantities. So if you’re going to eat immediately before exercise, it’s best to go for a small amount of carbohydrate foods, such a glass of sports drink.