Fueling exercise: The importance of timing

Updated: Aug 31, 2018

Written by Bharat Bhatia.

There is a lot to be said about WHAT foods are healthy and unhealthy, but it’s also important to discuss caloric intake and WHEN we should be eating certain foods.

This is dictated by when we are physically active and when we are at rest. Energy needs are greater right before and after an exercise session rather than hours later or before.

Let us not forget that everybody is different, so this discussion can vary depending on personal needs and preferences.

The common assumption is that weight gain takes place if a person consumes more calories than they burn, and vice versa. However, the amount of calories we burn is not solely dependent on how much we exercise on any given day.

More exercise, more food

So what else dictates how many calories we burn? Like I said before, the WHEN is critical.

Burning calories has much to do with the amount of energy it takes to digest food, which can depend heavily on timing. It’s also important to keep in mind that weight gain can be water, muscle or fat.

If you eat a heavy meal right before going to bed, that energy is more likely to turn into fat because your energy requirements are low for going to sleep. On the other hand, energy requirements for a high-intensity weight-training session are HIGH.

Also, because you break down muscle during weightlifting, you need to restore that tissue. Therefore, if you’re someone who enjoys a late night gym session, it would be better to eat a heavy meal in the evening after the workout to restore muscle tissue.

It is also good to get a meal before working out in order to prepare for that exercise session. In other words, you need energy before the workout, and you need energy to restore the muscles after the workout.

Vegan pro-bodybuilder Nimai Delgado proves that it is possible to build a muscular physique eating a fully plant-based diet.

Muscle breakdown vs. fat-burning

Weightlifting is known for building muscle mass, but in reality it breaks down muscle before rebuilding it. Muscle is made of protein and water, which must be consumed to build and maintain that muscle.

The process of building muscle uses calories, which can be thought of as our own personal energy bank. And how do we fill this bank?

We do so with fat and carbohydrates. Both nutrients are the main sources of energy for weightlifting. And while protein also has energy, it is a building block better used for muscle-building rather than burned as energy. That’s why it’s important to eat before and after weight-lifting, with an emphasis on protein AFTERWARDS.

Cardiovascular exercise, a.k.a. CARDIO, is a bit different because it doesn’t utilize as much muscle and therefore has less tissue breakdown. So if you’re someone who loves cardio exercise like running, you can do so in the morning on an EMPTY stomach. In this case, you would use fat for energy with very little breakdown of muscle.

Energy as fuel

To recap, the “fuel” in our personal energy bank is burned using fat, protein and carbs. And for weight-lifting, carbohydrates are more optimal for building muscle, while protein is used as a building block to grow that muscle. To put it into perspective, think of protein as the bricks used to construct a building and carbohydrates as the labor.

It’s important to note that there are three types of carbohydrates: fiber, sugar and starch. Fiber has no caloric effect and therefore will not cause weight gain. In fact, fiber actually helps with weight LOSS. Sugar and starch raise blood sugar levels more than fat and protein. They also take less energy to digest, and so they are most likely to promote weight gain.

However, if you are not using carbohydrates for cardiovascular exercise or building muscle, the unused carbohydrates are stored as body fat. That’s why it is better to consume less carbohydrates right before you go to sleep and MORE before weight-training.

This, of course, would be a different story if you’re someone who schedules weight-training sessions in the evening. The Bottom Line

Sound complicated? Luckily, this can all be summarized with a few simple concepts:

  • Eat heavier before and after weight-lifting to build muscle and avoid muscle breakdown.

  • Eat less when going to sleep to avoid storing fat unless the workout is close to bedtime.

  • And eat carbs closer to a workout to build muscle and further from bedtime to avoid storing fat.

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