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Breakfast and exercise: Which one comes first?

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The eternal exercise debate, put to rest by a dietitian and a nutritionist.

From a very young age, we are constantly told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But a lot of people still have confusion over when exactly to eat breakfast, especially if working out in the morning, too: Is it better to eat breakfast before or after an exercise routine?

To answer this question, we spoke with Kelly Puryear, a registered dietitian nutritionist, athletic trainer, and owner of Fuel for the Soul, as well as Rebecca Lewis, also a registered dietitian nutritionist and the head dietitian at Hello Fresh.

According to Kelly, the breakfast-exercise relationship will not be the same for everyone—when you decide to eat depends on your own personal goals. Are you looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or just improve your exercise performance? There’s also the question of what type of athletic activity you are doing—is it long and strenuous or shorter and less demanding?

“…Exercising on an empty stomach can promote the burning of body fat for energy during longer-duration and lower-intensity exercise, but at the expense of reduced performance and the potential for hypoglycemia if one’s blood sugar drops too low,” says Kelly.

Besides accounting for fitness goals, it’s important to listen to what your body wants, especially when it comes to exercise. When you’re eating isn’t as important as simply making sure you do eat breakfast. You need to have enough energy to complete your exercise and keep yourself going throughout the day. So it doesn’t matter if you eat breakfast before or after working out, as long as you do one or the other.

Rebecca says, “Skipping meals will lead to inadequate food intake and, when exercising, this will compromise how well you’ll feel while exercising as well as negate the benefits of training.” She also says that no matter how much you exercise, not properly nourishing yourself can result in serious consequences from losing lean tissue, such as “loss of strength and endurance, increased risk of fatigue, injury, illness, and a prolonged recovery process.” So maybe calorie-cutting and intense exercise actually shouldn’t go hand in hand.

It’s important to remember that the reason breakfast is the most important meal is because our body has been asleep for about 6-8 hours without having the opportunity to refuel. “Eating a morning meal sets up a healthy rhythm of replenishing the gap between fasting and eating,” says Rebecca.

Breakfast before exercise

For women, it’s especially important to listen to their bodies when exercising because they utilize nutrients differently than men. Kelly says that “…females use fat for fuel more efficiently than carbohydrates during exercise (especially during longer-duration exercise) so it is important for women to consume a diet higher in healthy fats (i.e. avocado, nuts/seeds, olive oil, and salmon).” Additionally, Kelly suggests that women who eat before exercise should consume small meals of healthy fats and carbohydrates, such as peanut butter and banana on wheat toast.

Exercise before breakfast

If you eat after exercise, then you should be having a breakfast that’s high in fats with a moderate amount of carbohydrates and a good amount of protein (10-20 grams). The carbohydrates will help raise your blood sugar and the protein will benefit your muscles during and after the workout. If you’re stumped on what to make for a post-workout breakfast, Kelly suggests treating yourself to an omelet (1 egg and 2 egg whites), with some cooked veggies (made with olive/coconut oil), and avocado toast.

So the definitive answer? Try it both ways, and decide which one feels better for your body, and you’ll have the right answer. And whichever method you do choose, just remember that that when you eat isn’t really as important as what you eat. When eating breakfast stay away from sugars and bad fats in favor of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. And no matter when you eat breakfast don’t forget to stay hydrated before, during, and after your workout.

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