There’s a lot of confusion surrounding food intake and exercise – is it better to eat beforehand or afterwards? 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.
- What to eat
- When to eat
- Other things to keep in mind
- What’s in a Carb?
- Prioritize Pre-Workout Fuel
- Eat While You Train
- Snack When You Slow Down
- Don’t Forget Recovery Meals
- What About Carbo-Loading?
- Carbs: good or bad for your workout?
- Should You Eat Carbohydrates Before Exercise?
- How the Body Burns Carbohydrates
- What Happens Without Carbohydrates
- When You Need Carbohydrates
- 1. Don’t Eat Carbohydrates Before Moderate Cardio Workouts
- 2. Eat Carbohydrates Before Hard Cardio Workouts
- 3. Eat Carbohydrates Before or During Hard Weight Training Workouts
- 4. Eat Carbohydrates Before or During High Calorie-Burning Activities That Require Extreme Focus
- Workout nutrition explained. What to eat before, during, and after exercise.
- Quick summary
- Not everyone needs nutrient timing
- Workout nutrition in detail
- Passionate about nutrition and health?
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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.
It’s best not to eat fatty foods before exercising. Flickr/Jamela
When to eat
Generally, food eaten before exercise is better tolerated before an easier work out. Or in types of exercise where the body is supported, such as cycling, compared to running or swimming where there’s considerable motion of the stomach and contents.
So unless you accustomed to it, it’s probably best not to eat before running or swimming. Or when you intend to exercise quite hard.
One of the reasons why we eat before exercise is to provide fuel for the muscles. But the body already has a stored fuel source (muscle glycogen) that can be used in short-term, hard activities.
So it’s not necessarily beneficial to eat something prior to a short, hard bout of exercise. Indeed, it’s probably better to eat after such exercise to recover from it.
In these instances, replace muscle glycogen stores using simple sugars such as fruit and sports drinks.
The most important nutritional strategy after working out is fluid replacement. Drink water, juice, or carbohydrate-rich sports drinks to replace fluid lost during exercise through sweat.
Other things to keep in mind
Many people “train” themselves to eat before exercise. This takes time and experience. Only practice eating before exercise if your purpose is performance, that is to be competitive in an event.
If you’re exercising for health reasons, eating before exercise may not even be necessary.
And people who are exercising for weight loss may be best served to not eat. But in all cases, seek specific advice from a dietitian or exercise physiologist on specific requirements.
Exercise expends energy. Stored energy is also in body fat or adipose tissue. When we exercise we can potentially use some of the this stored energy, which is why exercise is used to improve body fat loss.
Maintaining a normal diet is probably all that’s required to prepare yourself for between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise.
It’s only when longer, more demanding exercise or a sporting competition is involved that you should pay much closer attention to your nutrition. In those instances, eating simple carbohydrates one or two hours beforehand is recommended.
Cutting carbs gets really trendy about once a decade, according to Dana Lis, director of performance nutrition at the University of California at Davis. This time around, it’s in the form of the high-fat ketogenic diet, which has no demonstrable performance benefits for athletes. One recent review published in the Journal of Physiology notes that a complete lack of scientific evidence relating a ketogenic diet to performance gains in elite athletes “has not dampened the interest in and application of the keto adaptation regime to potentially optimize performance.” Another 2017 study noted that race walkers actually saw their performance decline when going low-carb. But people still hop on the bandwagon.
Experts (and the research) agree that carbohydrates are still king when it comes to fueling performance. Our muscles require glycogen, which we get from carbs, to power our bodies through miles of running, biking, skiing, or paddling. “We need carbohydrates, especially to fuel hard efforts,” says Lori Nedescu, a registered dietitian and professional cyclist. As long as you know what type you need, and when you ought to eat them, they can do a lot for you. Here’s how to get the most out of carbs, whether you’re working out or vegging out.
What’s in a Carb?
Not all carbohydrates are created equal, but they each serve an important purpose in your diet. “Simple carbs are the easier-to-digest, more processed carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates are more fibrous and harder to break down,” says Lis. “Fiber is critical for general health: it slows down the absorption of sugar, can steady blood-sugar levels, and it’s super important for gut health.” A doughnut or other sugary snack has plenty of simple carbs, while a slice of whole-wheat bread or a bowl of brown rice will offer more fiber and complex carbs.
Lis’s best advice when it comes to carbohydrates? Use simple carbs to refill energy-providing muscle-glycogen stores that are drained during training, and use complex carbs to pack in necessary fiber and micronutrients when you’re not focused on performance.
Prioritize Pre-Workout Fuel
Nedescu recommends fueling up with a meal centered around simple carbohydrates, as well as a bit of fat and protein, around two to three hours before your workout. That might mean oatmeal with fruit and peanut butter, rice with chicken, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you’re gearing up for a tough workout (over an hour in duration or involving high-intensity training), add a small serving of about 100 calories of carbohydrates 15 minutes before you head out the door. On race day, the same rules apply, but they’re even more important to follow. “You need to top up your fuel stores—that muscle and liver glycogen—so that you’re ready to perform at your best,” Lis says.
Eat While You Train
Nedescu’s recommendation for athletes is to take in anywhere from 120 to 360 calories per hour while exercising, primarily in the form of carbohydrates—but what you actually need depends on your own body and what your gut can handle, as well as the duration of your workout and your workout intensity. “More intensity means more calories and more carbohydrates,” says Lis. “But tolerance also comes into play—a lot of people can’t handle taking in 400 calories in gel form.”
Experiment to find out how many carb-based calories make you feel fast, not full, and which snacks are easy on your gut. For a more leisurely paced endurance workout, Lis encourages athletes with a sweet tooth to indulge in tasty treats like a cookie. For more specific intervals or tougher workouts, opt for something easier to digest, like a gel or sports drink. And don’t use race day to try something new, Lis warns. What you eat midrace should be similar to what you eat in training.
Snack When You Slow Down
You might be familiar with the importance of post-training protein, but carbohydrate stores are just as important to replenish, says Lis. “Your immune system needs carbohydrates,” she adds. Exercise stresses your immune system, and carbs during and after a workout have been shown to counteract that impact. A snack with a combination of carbs and protein will do the trick. “Prioritize that serving of 20 grams of protein first, then add some carbohydrates—around 0.5 to 0.7 grams per pound of body weight is a good goal,” she says.
Don’t Forget Recovery Meals
“Usually, the evening is a good time to lower carbohydrates and prioritize those more complex carbohydrates and vegetables, along with protein and fat,” says Lis, adding, “A lot of athletes end up binging at night if they try to restrict carbs or calories throughout the day.” If you’ve fueled well for your training, it should be easier to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a villager and dinner like a pauper,” she says, meaning: a heavy breakfast to fuel your training, a moderate lunch to boost energy stores after your workout, and a more vegetable-focused, leaner dinner to end the day. To build that healthy dinner, start with a vegetable-packed plate, add protein and healthy fats, and top with a small serving of carbohydrates to round out the meal.
What About Carbo-Loading?
You can boost your energy by topping off your carb stores 24 to 36 hours before a big effort, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat an entire package of pasta. Instead, adjust the balance of your macros within meals. Begin to prioritize carbohydrates while slightly lowering fat, protein, and fiber. Too much fat and fiber may cause GI distress, and dropping calories from fat and protein allows you to increase your carb intake without overeating and feeling uncomfortably full on race day. Most importantly, make sure that carbs are the center of your meal. “My teammates know that during a stage race, we institute a salad ban,” says Nedescu. For easy-to-digest calories, Nedescu will eat rice with eggs and some maple syrup, and Lis recommends making a carb-heavy fruit smoothie to sip throughout the day prerace.
Lead Photo: Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy
Recently I was asked by a gym member what I thought about an article titled, “5 reasons you need to be eating carbs” that was written by a dietitian and published on the website of one of the gyms (Goodlife Health Clubs) where I work. Here is the article for your reference.
Aside from agreeing with the first two lines of the article, I pretty much disagree with everything else. And here’s why. The article misses the mark on some of the most basic principles of metabolism, it mischaracterises the low-carbohydrate diet and ignores the latest scientific evidence.
1. The author claims that carbohydrates “help to balance your energy levels” and justifies it by saying that low glycaemic index (GI) foods help achieve a “steady, stable stream of energy for two or more hours post consumption”. This is plainly wrong.
When researchers actually put this to the test under experimental conditions, they found that after ingesting carb-laden food with a known GI, the blood glucose response in 63 different people was so wildly varied and unpredictable, the researchers concluded that the “GI” value of food could not be used to predict anyone’s glycaemic response.
Nutritionist, Jennifer Elliott published a detailed critique of the flawed GI concept in a submission to the Western Australian Government’s investigation into type-2 diabetes (T2DM) prevention and management. She wrote;
“GI ranking of foods one of the most inane concepts in the world of nutrition, despite reasonable competition….. The harm caused to people with diabetes in putting their faith in the GI as a way to make food choices that will help manage their condition, instead of a method with a sound physiological basis and proven benefits eg reducing carbohydrate intake, is potentially immense.”
It only takes common sense to realise that minimally processed foods and whole foods like eggs, fish, meat and butter do not cause dramatic spikes in blood glucose levels, they provide sustained satiety and they should constitute the majority of your diet.
The article posted on the gym’s website also claims that “very few people can maintain a low-carb diet beyond 3-6 months, without negative side effects“. A recent peer-reviewed study led by Dr Sarah Hallberg published in Diabetes Review, demonstrated long term adherence to a low-carb diet that included healthy, satiating fats. The study, funded by Virta, presented data from the first 12 months of a five-year study investigating standard- of-care, low-fat and low-carb therapies.
I myself have been following a LCHF approach to nutrition for six years and it is easy. What I find frustrating is when we are constantly told by so-called experts that our brains are going to stop working if we don’t eat enough carbs. The truth is that on low carb diets once we become “fat burners” instead of “carb burners”, our brains can also use ketones (a byproduct of fat metabolism) as a supplementary fuel source.
I myself, have coached over 200 people over the last three years to improve their health and move away from the poor advice being disseminated to the public. The majority of them are still following the lifestyle and they are loving it.
Professor Tim Noakes & Andre Obradovic Cape Town 2017
Professor Tim Noakes who founded the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and was awarded the prestigious South African Association for the Advancement of Science prize, also adopted a LCHF approach six years ago after his father died from T2DM. Prof Noakes was shocked after he, himself, developed T2DM despite being a fit marathon runner. He blamed the constant “carb loading” he did in preparation for his marathons as well as his family history. As a result, he has become one of the world’s biggest advocates for LCHF and has established a research foundation to help turn the tide on obesity and diabetes.
2. The article claims that carbs are “essential for exercise performance“. However, one of the most enduring myths about carbohydrates is that they are “essential” in the diet. Even the most basic biochemistry book will tell you that dietary carbohydrate is not an essential macronutrient,, unlike protein and fat.
I am not suggesting that we remove all carbohydrates from our diet, as consumption of appropriate vegetables, depending on your own level of insulin resistance, body composition, and intensity of exercise are important considerations. The key point is that you do not need to consume carbohydrates because your body can synthesise all the glucose your body needs to carry out the biological process of growth and metabolism. Our liver is able to perform this function in a process known as gluconeogenesis.
Research by Dr Eric Westman analysed the traditional diets and the health status of the Inuit who ate very low-carb, high-fat diets, and it clearly shows these people were very healthy and able to work very hard for weeks and months without ingestion of carbohydrates. While there are healthy populations that have eaten relatively high-carbohydrate diets compared to the Inuit, or the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya in general, the world has become obese and sick by following the mantra that we need to eat mostly carbs and that we should not deprive ourselves of them.
There is growing anecdotal evidence that marathon runners and those participating in Iron Man and other ultra-triathlon events, have improved their performance after reducing their daily intake of carbohydrate-rich foods. If you’re interested to hear more, there is a podcast featuring Stefano Passarello, a CEO based in Hong Kong, who has attained the highest level of triathlon success in his very first year in the sport. A 2:26 marathon runner who turned to triathlon due to repeated injury, Stefano qualified for Hawaii Ironman World Championships and ran a 2:53 marathon off the bike in Kona! This is the third fastest amateur marathon split in the 40-year history of the Ironman! Stefano’s approach to nutrition is ultra low carb.
Stefano Passarello Ironman AG World Champion
From my own experience over the last six years, I have been training 15 hours a week for Half Ironman and marathons and my performance has increased. I train endurance athletes, all who follow a LCHF approach to nutrition and it works. Some of the world’s best endurance athletes follow this approach.
I also know from personal experience, when I was following the advice of a highly qualified (but mainstream) nutritionist, I was overweight, frequently injured and always hungry and stressed. Since sacking them and moving to a LCHF approach, I have been between 64-66kg for six years and running and performing faster than when I was 48.
Interestingly, Virta co-founder and CEO Sami Inkinen won his age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships only to find out the same year, he had prediabetes. Unsatisfied with the conventional wisdom of “exercise more and eat less,” Sami delved into the causes of T2DM, leading him to Drs. Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek, renowned experts on the science of carbohydrate restriction and metabolic health. In a recent blog they wrote:
Sami Inkinen 2011 Ironman World Championships
“Published science has shown that ketones that are produced from either dietary fats or triglycerides stored in our adipose tissue reserves are an excellent fuel for the brain. Further, we now know that these ketones produced by the liver also have multiple beneficial effects on the heart, kidneys, and other organs that appear to translate into improved longevity. Additionally, new research has highlighted that skeletal muscles, even those of competitive athletes, are not solely dependent on high dietary carbohydrate intake for glycogen replenishment and performance .”
Getting back to the article about why you allegedly “need to be eating carbs”, the author also falsely states that if you are “not consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel your exercise, replenish glycogen stores and support essential bodily functions, there is a risk your protein intake will be used for these tasks, and not for muscle growth and repair” and that this will leave you “vulnerable to injury and illness in the long term“.
The statement is breathtaking, as is the claim that if you are looking to build size and muscle mass, carbohydrates can help you “reach the calorie surplus you need“. To understand how misleading this claim actually is, you only have to read the seminal work of Phinney and Volek, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Phinney is a physician and Volek is a dietitian and former champion powerlifter; both have been on a ketogenic (very low-carb, very high-fat, moderate protein) diet for upwards of two decades and also happen to be two of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of carbohydrate and sports performance.
3. The article claims that high fibre carbohydrate foods promote bowel health. However, closer analysis of the literature is leading doctors to think that the benefits of fiber have been oversold. For example, a well designed study showed that constipation, bloating, bleeding & pain significantly improved when people cut fibre from their diet.
In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine there was a major review article on the causes and treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). One of the points discussed was the role of fibre in bowel function. For years, modern gastroenterology has put its whole emphasis on the fibre theory of bowel function which, briefly stated, is the theory that those who consume lots of fibre will have healthy bowel function. Fibre, by the way, is a term that encompasses the family of complex carbohydrates and other substances that are present mainly in the cell walls of plants used as food. The term includes cellulose, gums, mucilages, pectins and lignins. Humans cannot digest fibre, but these substances are said to contribute to the health of the digestive tract.
Rather than focusing entirely on fibre, we should look at the intestines as a complex ecosystem. Like all ecosystems, the intestines are populated by a wide variety of organisms all of which interact with each other and with their host. Each organism needs to be fed and its waste products eliminated, and each individual organism and the organisms as a whole have a profound connection with the health or disease of their host.
The big problem with legumes and wholegrains is the fact that they can cause serious damage to our digestion, which can lead to mineral deficiencies in our body. As discussed in the reference from the Weston A. Price Foundation phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds and beans represents a serious problem in our diets. This problem exists because we have lost touch with our ancestral heritage of food preparation. Instead we listen to food gurus and ivory tower theorists and we eat a lot of high-phytate foods like commercial whole wheat bread and all-bran breakfast cereals which often contain high amounts of sugar
4. Lastly, the article claims that you may live longer if you eat lots of carbs. The author uses epidemiological studies to justify this claim. However, these types of studies are often fraught with limitations because epidemiological studies that show a “weak association” between two factors cannot prove causation. For example, the idea that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters is likely to be because the latter group might smoke more, or exercise less – and it has nothing to do with their meat consumption. On the other hand, there is a considerable amount of evidence from randomised controlled trials (RCTs, the so-called “gold standard of modern science) to show that low carb diets are more effective at managing diabetes and weight gain, compared to low fat diets.
The article also claims that low carb diets are “trendy”, ignoring the fact that this nutrition approach was the gold standard treatment for people with type-1 diabetes before the development of medications like insulin.
For further reading, I’d recommend the works of US science writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, and Nina Teicholz’s ground-breaking work, Big Fat Surprise, Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong In A Healthy Diet.
So, what do you make of it?
Is Goodlife Health Club and the Fitness Industry as a whole focussed on the health and well-being of its members and the community? Misleading advice from articles like the one I write about here, are sure to keep its members overweight, struggling to be fit and healthy and it will keep them filling the classes and booking those PT Sessions.
I feel quite strongly about this issue and I’m concerned about the conflicts of interest that exists for the fitness industry at large with delivering appropriate, unbiased messages to the community while trying to maintain its profit margin. It is time to step up and consider this and really think about the misinformation that is being peddled to the public in an attempt to capture your business.
Andre Obradovic is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Triathlon Australia Development Coach, ICF Leadership PPC Level Coach, A Primal Health Coach, a Certified Low Carb Healthy Fat Coach and Certified Personal Trainer. He is a passionate triathlete and marathoner in the 50-54 age group. He also is a registered member of Fitness Industry in Australia and works at 3 gyms including Good Life Health Clubs.
Much like dietary fat, carbs have gotten the short end of the nutritional stick. Yes, there are high-glycemic carb offenders, like donuts and bagels, that quickly turn to sugar, effectively bloating your stomach and packing on the pounds.
But just as you shouldn’t fear all dietary fats, there plenty of reasons to eat carbs. “Good,” complex carbs are crucial to keeping our bodies and brains regulated. In fact, a new study from the University of Chicago Press Journals suggests carbohydrates (particularly starches) are the reason our brains have gotten bigger and we’ve become smarter over the last million years. The human brain uses up to 25 percent of the body’s energy budget and up to 60 percent of blood glucose, the researchers add. Since carbs are our main source of energy, it pays to have the right kind in your diet.
Complex carbs contain longer chains of sugar molecules, so it takes more time for our bodies to break them down. What this means is you’ll have more energy when you hit the gym, your appetite will be curbed for longer, you’ll recover faster from a tough training session, and your brain will stay sharp (not to mention you’ll be in far better spirits than your friends on low-carb diets) when you eat them.
Now, when you’re grocery shopping, know that food labels include sugar and fiber in the total number of carbohydrates. Because our body breaks carbs into sugar, you want to choose high-fiber carbs, which take longer to break down and provide more lasting energy. To help you discern the best-of-the-best, we thought outside of the bread box and chose 10 nutritious carb sources from most of the major food groups (vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruit, dairy) so you’ll get a variety of vitamins and nutrients to support a healthy lifestyle.
And if you’re not sure about the amount of carbs you should eat each day, know that your body size, activity level, fitness goals, and genetics will alter the number. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests about 55 percent of your daily calorie consumption should come from carbs (bodybuilders will get about 50 percent of their calories from carbs, and low-cab eaters will get as low as 10 or 15 percent of their calories from carbs).
Check out our guide on using carbs wisely to calculate your maximum daily allotment, and how to properly fit them into your diet.
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Carbs: good or bad for your workout?
Carbs get a bad rap. But the truth is our bodies need carbs. They give us the energy to do everything from thinking creatively to hitting the gym. Cutting out carbs can actually make it harder to lose weight. Still, that doesn’t mean you should consume them indiscriminately. Some carbs are better than others. Here’s what you need to know.
Simple carbs burn quickly
When you hear advice about staying away from carbs, these are the ones to avoid. Simple carbs like white bread and pasta break down quickly in the body. They give you instant energy but it does not last. Once your body burns through these simple carbs, your blood sugar takes a nose dive. You crash and, what’s worse, you’re likely to crave more (high-calorie) empty carbs for a quick pick me up. Simple carbs put you on the crash and burn path. Break the cycle by adding nutrients, like fiber or protein.
Complex carbs have staying power
Complex carbs contain protein and/or fiber, which slows their absorption. Think apples, brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, whole grain toast or yogurt. Your body has more time to benefit from the nutrients, and you enjoy sustained energy without blood sugar dips.
Carbs power your workout
Want a good workout? You’ve got to eat carbs. It would be tough to generate enough energy to sustain a hard workout without carbs. How much do you need? It depends on how hard, and how often you work out as well as other factors, like age, gender and weight. The Mayo Clinic recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your diet be comprised of carbs. On a 2,000-calorie diet that equals between 225 and 325 grams of carbs. Again, needs vary. For example, if you are very active you may need to exceed the upper limit. Marathoners often carb-load before a race. If you are preparing for a big event that will require a lot of energy, you may want to increase your carb intake by 100 grams or so daily a couple of days before. For everyday exercise lasting at least an hour reach for carb fuel of 200 calories (or less) about an hour before.
Carbs support post workout recovery
Carbs not only give you the energy you need for an intense workout, they also support recovery and muscle growth. Choose a small post-workout snack of protein and carbs to replenish glycogen stores. Doing so helps your body recover and prepare for the next workout session. It also gives you enough energy to do something with your day other than crash on the couch after a killer workout. Pack a non-perishable snack that you can ingest within 30 minutes of your workout for best results.
Carbs are not the enemy. They are good for your workout in that they provide the energy you need. Carbs also support your recovery and muscle growth. Skipping carbs can negatively impact mood and weight loss goals. Go ahead, enjoy complex carbs in moderation.
Should You Eat Carbohydrates Before Exercise?
If you ask many physicians, sports nutritionists and dietitians, they’ll tell you that carbohydrates must comprise a major part of your daily dietary intake if you’re going to be able to maintain optimum physical performance. But is that really the case? In this episode, you’ll find out whether you really need to eat carbohydrates before you exercise, and if so, how much what kind of carbohydrates to eat.
The podcast version of this episode is brought to you by Betterment, an easier way to invest. Visit www.betterment.com/getfit.
How the Body Burns Carbohydrates
The general consensus among nutrition professionals that active people need to eat carbohydrates before exercise is based on many studies that have been performed in the last 100 years, primarily linking muscle carbohydrate stores to a better ability to perform high intensity exercise. In addition, many doctors report that their patients who follow low carbohydrate diets frequently experience lightheadedness, weakness, fatigue and poor motivation – especially when they’re trying to exercise.
This makes pretty good sense, since when you ask your muscles to work hard or produce a very strong contraction, they need access to fast-burning energy – which is exactly what carbohydrates are. Compared to fats and proteins, carbohydrates offer a muscle pure sugar that it can use to produce energy, or ATP. Muscles (and the rest of your body) can still use fats and proteins to produce energy, usually by converting them into useable forms of sugars, fats or amino acids, but this process takes a longer time to complete and isn’t your bodies preferred form of making energy for high-intensity exercise.
What Happens Without Carbohydrates
So what happens if you’re completely carbohydrate depleted, and your body has no sugar to burn? First, you find it more difficult to produce an intense contraction, like a maximum bench press or an all-out sprint. Second, your motivation to exercise begins to drop, since carbohydrates boost tryptophan levels. Tryptophan assists with serotonin synthesis, and serotonin synthesis improves you mood and motivation. As a matter of fact, researchers from Arizona State University found that a very low carbohydrate diet significantly enhanced fatigue and reduced the desire to exercise in overweight adults.
But there are three problems with most studies that show carbohydrates to be important for quality of exercise or motivation to exercise:
they don’t allow the subjects in the studies ample time to adapt to a low carbohydrate diet, which can take several weeks or even months
they do not take into account ensuring that the mineral and nutrient intake of a low carbohydrate group is as high as that of a high carbohydrate group
they feed the low carbohydrate subjects a higher protein diet, which can increase production of acidic compounds that could actually harm exercise performance.
One researcher named Steven Phinney has studied small groups of bicycle racers performing at a brisk bicycling pace (22-24 mph) for several hours. Unlike most bike racers in low carbohydrate studies, these bicyclists were allowed ample time to adapt to a diet of about 15% protein and over 80% fat, with the only carbs coming from the small amount of carbohydrates naturally found in meat. These cyclists’ performance was not affected negatively by the presence of nearly zero carbohydrates in their diet – although their muscle carbohydrate stores were significantly reduced. This was primarily because their bodies had become accustomed to burning fats as a fuel during exercise.
When You Need Carbohydrates
It’s been a little while since my What Should You Eat Before and After Exercise article, and I’ve been seeing quite a bit of research since then that suggests it is not necessary in all cases to eat before and after a workout. So when do you need carbohydrates for exercise and how should you get them? Here are 4 quick and dirty tips:
1. Don’t Eat Carbohydrates Before Moderate Cardio Workouts
During long cardio workouts, your body is actually very efficient at using fats as a fuel, especially when your intensity is not high. To put things in perspective, a champion marathoner running the Boston marathon is running at an intensity that would necessitate frequent carbohydrate feedings during that long workout. But an easy 90-minute morning jog does not require carbohydrates. You can simply roll out of bed and start running (I personally do this quite frequently). The first couple of weeks will be somewhat unpleasant as you grow accustomed to relying on fats as a fuel, and for that reason you can wean yourself off of long workout carbohydrates by having something like a sports gel about halfway through, but ultimately you won’t really need the carb load.
2. Eat Carbohydrates Before Hard Cardio Workouts
During hard cardio workouts, your body’s sugar needs are elevated and the muscles rely more on fast-burning carbohydrates as a fuel. But it is important to understand that you really do need to be exercising at a high intensity. When I ran an exercise physiology lab in which we measured carbohydrate utilization during exercise, people were usually running up a very steep treadmill incline at about 85-90% intensity before their bodies were burning primarily carbohydrates as a fuel. If you’re simply getting a little muscle burn or exercising under an 8 on a 1-10 scale during exercise, you don’t need dietary carbohydrates during a cardio workout. If you are actually at that high intensity, then you’re probably working out too hard to eat, in which case you can simply consume an easily digesting carbohydrate before you begin your workout. Fruit, potatoes, sports drinks or energy bars would all do the trick, and are generally best consumed 30 minutes to 2 hours prior to your hard workout (the bigger meal, the longer the time you’ll want to allow for digestion).
3. Eat Carbohydrates Before or During Hard Weight Training Workouts
An easy or short weight training circuit at the gym doesn’t really need to be fueled by dietary carbohydrates, especially when you bear in mind that your body naturally carries about 1,500-2,000 calories of storage carbohydrates that it can burn through, and it usually takes 1-2 hours of weight training to deplete this. In contrast, this afternoon I’ll be headed to the gym to do the Most Difficult Workout Ever Created, which is 2 hours of brutal lifting, and I’ve just finished a meal of rice crackers, yogurt and honey to get me ready for it!
4. Eat Carbohydrates Before or During High Calorie-Burning Activities That Require Extreme Focus
Due to the tryptophan-serotonin connection, and also due to the fact that low blood sugars can potentially decrease focus and intensity, you shouldn’t venture fasted or only fed on fats and proteins if you’re about to embark on something like a high intensity 2-hour tennis match. While 18 rounds of golf or even a game of baseball can be fueled on fats and proteins, if you’re both trying to focus and simultaneously burn a high number of carbohydrates, you should eat 2 hours before the event, and then consume 100-300 calories of carbohydrates during the event (and during a long, grueling focused event like Ironman, I personally eat 350-450 calories of pure sugar from sports gels for up to 10 hours!).
Ultimately, carbohydrates have their time and their place, but if you find yourself constantly relying on carbs to get you through every workout, you’re probably not doing your body any favors when it comes to becoming more efficient at fat-burning.
If you have more questions about eating carbohydrates before exercise, or your own tips about how to stop weight gain from happening when you exercise, share them in Comments or on the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page!
Carb Food Sources image from
Workout nutrition explained. What to eat before, during, and after exercise.
We all know that what you eat is important. But what about when you eat? Especially if you’re active?
In this article, we’ll review the evidence on workout nutrition and give you practical recommendations for what to eat before, during, and after exercise.
By eating a healthy, well-considered meal 1-2 hours before exercise, and another healthy, well-considered meal within 1-2 hours after exercise, most people can meet their workout nutrition needs without anything else.
In other words:
If you’re a healthy person who exercises regularly, you probably don’t need special workout nutrition strategies.
Athletes have special needs
Of course, if you’re…
- An endurance athlete. You train for high-level competition. You log a lot of high intensity miles each week. For you, carbohydrate and calorie needs are likely higher. You could add a protein + carbohydrate (P+C) drink during your training.
- Training as a bodybuilder. You lift weights with serious muscle growth in mind. You want to gain weight. Your protein and calorie needs are likely higher. You could also add a protein + carbohydrate (P+C) drink during your training.
- Getting ready for a fitness competition. You accumulate a lot of exercise hours. You’re trying to drop to a single-digit body fat percentage. For you, carb intake should be lower. You’d benefit from the performance-enhancing, muscle-preserving essential amino acids (EAA) during your training.
Here’s a handy table that outlines our recommendations by goal and by body type (though we’d emphasize goal over body type).
Workout nutrition guidelines by goal and body type
|Body type||General goal||Pre-workout||During workout||Post-workout|
|Ectomorph||Muscle gain or endurance support||Eat normally 1-2h prior||Water, P+C drink, or EAA drink during||Eat normally 1-2h after|
|Mesomorph||Physique optimization or intermittent sport support||Eat normally 1-2h prior||Water, P+C drink, or EAA drink during||Eat normally 1-2h after|
|Endomorph||Fat loss or strength sport support||Eat normally 1-2h prior||Water or EAA drink during||Eat normally 1-2h after|
Most everyone else: Focus on food quality & quantity
- if you’re exercising for general health and fitness;
- if your goals are more modest; and/or
- you don’t have unique physiological needs…
…then you probably don’t need any particular workout nutrition strategies.
- eating more minimally processed proteins, veggies, quality carbs and healthy fats;
- ensuring your portions are the right size, and in the right amounts, for you; and
- eating slowly, until satisfied.
For more on these, check out … How to fix a broken diet: 3 ways to get your eating on track.
Not everyone needs nutrient timing
These days, even women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan recommend exercise drinks to help with hydration and recovery. Nutrient timing, they say, is important for every exerciser.
Well, we hesitate to disagree with the eminent sports nutrition pros staffing lifestyle magazines, but most people don’t need to worry about nutrient timing.
At Precision Nutrition, we’ve worked with over 100,000 people through our coaching programs. This experience, combined with the latest scientific evidence, suggests that for most people trying to look and feel their best, nutrient timing is not a main priority.
For a full review, check out … Is nutrient timing dead? And does “when” you eat really matter?
Indeed, for a lot of people, stressing out about:
- when to eat their carbs;
- when to eat their fats; and
- what to supplements to take in and around their workouts…
…can be distracting, even self-sabotaging.
(For other people, nutrient timing actually gives them a framework for making good food decisions and controlling total intake. Of course, if that’s you, rock on with the nutrient timing!)
Remember, we’re not saying nutrient timing is good or bad here.
It certainly can, and often does, work.
But nutrient timing is just one tool. Like every tool, it has to be used skillfully, in the right way and in the right situation.
What’s true for the pre-diabetic office worker who’s never exercised is certainly not true for the serious endurance runner or the long-time bodybuilder. In fact, as noted earlier, the people who stand to benefit most from specific nutritional strategies around their workouts are athletes.
So, in the end, if you’re reading this as an athlete, or a serious exerciser – or a trainer/coach who works with these populations – know that these strategies could help make a difference.
Nutrient timing isn’t magic
Nutrient timing won’t suddenly transform your physique or performance. This is especially true if you aren’t yet doing the fundamental nutrition habits consistently.
If you’re a recreational exerciser who just wants to look and feel better, nutrient timing might help, but might also be a lot of work for minimal return.
Workout nutrition in detail
For those of you interested in learning more, let’s dig in.
First we’ll cover what’s happening during the pre-exercise, during-exercise, and post-exercise time periods.
Then we’ll share what to eat to get the most out of them.
Pre-exercise nutrition needs
What and when you eat before exercise can make a big difference to your performance and recovery.
In the three hours before your workout, you’ll want to eat something that helps you:
- sustain energy;
- boost performance;
- preserve muscle mass; and
- speed recovery.
Here are a few ways to ensure you’re meeting your requirements.
Protein before exercise
Eating some protein in the few hours before exercise:
- Can help you maintain or even increase your muscle size. That’s important for anyone who wants to improve health, body composition, or performance.
- Can reduce markers of muscle damage (myoglobin, creatine kinase, and myofibrillar protein degradation). Or at least prevent them from getting worse. (Carbohydrates or a placebo eaten before exercise don’t seem to do the same thing.) The less damage to your muscles, the faster you recover, and the better you adapt to your exercise over the long term.
- Floods your bloodstream with amino acids just when your body needs them most. This boosts your muscle-building capabilities. So not only are you preventing damage, you’re increasing muscle size.
Before you rush off to mix a protein shake: While protein before a workout is a great idea, speed of digestion doesn’t seem to matter much. So any protein source, eaten within a few hours of the workout session, will do the trick.
Carbs before exercise
Eating carbs before exercise:
- Fuels your training and helps with recovery. It’s a popular misconception that you only need carbs if you’re engaging in a long (more than two hour) bout of endurance exercise. In reality, carbs can also enhance shorter term (one hour) high-intensity training. So unless you’re just going for a quiet stroll, ensuring that you have some carbs in your system will improve high intensity performance.
- Preserves muscle and liver glycogen. This tells your brain that you are well fed, and helps increase muscle retention and growth.
- Stimulates the release of insulin. When combined with protein, this improves protein synthesis and prevents protein breakdown. Another reason why a mixed meal is a great idea. No sugary carb drinks required.
Fats before exercise
Fats before exercise:
- Don’t appear to improve nor diminish sport performance. And they don’t seem to fuel performance — that’s what carbs are for.
- Do help to slow digestion, which maintains blood glucose and insulin levels and keeps you on an even keel.
- Provide some vitamins and minerals, and they’re important in everyone’s diet.
Pre-exercise nutrition in practice
With these things in mind, here are some practical recommendations for the pre-exercise period.
Depending on what suits your individual needs, you can simply have normal meal in the few hours before exercise. Or you can have a smaller meal just before your exercise session. (If you’re trying to put on mass, you may even want to do both.)
Option 1: 2-3 hours before exercise
This far in advance of your workout, have a mixed meal and a low-calorie beverage like water.
If you’re a man, here’s what your meal might look like:
If you’re a woman, here’s what your meal might look like.
Note: Your actual needs will vary depending on your size, goals, genetics, and the duration and intensity of your activity.
For example, an endurance athlete preparing for a 20 mile run will need more carbs than someone getting ready for a 45 minute gym session.
This article talks more about how you can individualize these meals for your own needs.
Option 2: 0-60 minutes before training
Rather than eating a larger meal 2-3 hours before exercise, some people like to eat a smaller meal closer to the session.
The only issue with that: the closer you get to your workout, the less time there is to digest. That’s why we generally recommend something liquid at this time, like a shake or a smoothie.
Yours might look like this:
- 1 scoop protein powder
- 1 fist of veggies (spinach works great in smoothies)
- 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs (berries or a banana work great)
- 1 thumb of fats (like flax seeds or avocado)
- low-calorie beverage like water or unsweetened almond milk
Here’s a delicious example:
- 1 scoop chocolate protein powder
- 1 fist spinach
- 1 banana
- 1 thumb peanut butter
- 8 oz. chocolate, unsweetened almond milk
It probably goes without saying, but with pre-training nutrition, choose foods that don’t bother your stomach. Because… er… you know what happens if you don’t.
During-exercise nutrition needs
What you eat or drink during exercise is only important under specific circumstances. But if you are going to eat during exercise, your goals will be similar to those for pre-workout nutrition. Above all, you’ll want to maintain hydration, so for most, water is all you need here.
Goals of nutrition during exercise:
- stay hydrated;
- provide immediate fuel;
- boost performance;
- preserve muscle; and
- improve recovery.
Protein during exercise
Eating protein during exercise:
- Helps prevent muscle breakdown. This can lead to improved recovery and greater adaptation to training over the longer term. And this is especially true if it has been more than three hours since your last meal. You only need a small amount of protein to control protein breakdown — around 15 grams per hour. If you’re the type of person who prefers to exercise on an empty stomach, then 5-15 grams of EAAs during training can be helpful. (15 grams per hour during training, 5 grams per hour during competition.)
- Is really only necessary for some people: athletes doing long, intense training bouts, multiple daily training sessions, and/or more advanced individuals trying to make significant changes to their body composition.
Carbs during exercise
Eating carbs during exercise:
- Provides an immediate fuel source. This helps boost performance and facilitate faster recovery. It keeps our stress hormone cortisol down, and beneficial hormones up.
- Is only beneficial in certain circumstances: endurance athletes on long runs, for people who want to gain a lot of muscle, and for highly active people who need every calorie they can get to increase size, strength, and/or performance.
How many carbs should you eat?
That depends. The maximum amount of carbohydrates that can be digested/absorbed during exercise is 60-80 grams per hour. And these rates are best achieved with a mix of glucose, fructose, and maltodextrin (as they use different transport mechanisms).
However, if you include protein in the mix, you can achieve the same endurance benefits with only 30-45 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Note: the protein also protects against muscle breakdown so it’s typically a good idea to add some in.
Fats during exercise
Eating a bit of fat before and after exercise can be a great idea. (And tasty, too!)
But you should try to avoid eating fats during exercise. That’s because fats can be more difficult to digest. And during training, you don’t want to give your stomach more work than it can handle.
During-exercise nutrition in practice
Do you need to eat during your workout?
That depends on how long it’s been since your last meal and the length/type of exercise you’re planning on.
Exercise lasting less than two hours
For training that’s less than two hours long, the main focus should be hydration. This is especially true if you’re using good pre- and post-training nutrition. So make sure you bring plenty of water.
But what about sports drinks? They don’t offer much benefit for events less than two hours long. Especially if you ate a good pre-exercise meal.
There are some exceptions, though.
- If you’re exercising in the heat and sweating a lot, sports drinks may be useful since they have electrolytes that help speed hydration and recovery.
- Also, if you’re going to be competing or training again in less than eight hours, sports drinks may jumpstart recovery before the next session.
- If you’re trying to gain maximum muscle, then including a protein and carbohydrate drink or some EAAs during training could provide a small advantage.
- Finally, at the highest end of sport or competition, while it may not help, it certainly won’t hurt to sip on a sports drink during competition to ensure maximal hydration and energy supply.
Exercise lasting more than two hours
For training that is longer than two hours, sports drinks can be a huge help. Every hour you’ll want to consume:
- 15 grams protein
- 30-45 grams carbs
This can come in the form of liquids, gels, or even some solid food.
Many endurance athletes prefer to drink water and eat fruit and other foods to supply their energy even on really long runs. Either approach is fine, as long as you ensure you’re getting enough protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes, especially sodium.
And if you are competing for longer than two hours, you’ll likely want to lower the protein and up the carbs, so every hour you’ll want to consume:
- 5 grams protein
- 45-60 grams carbs
More protein during training to emphasize recovery, and less protein during competition to emphasize performance.
If you are exercising intensely for longer than two hours, especially in the heat, do not rely on water alone. This will decrease your performance and your recovery. And it could also lead to hyponatremia, a condition in which the sodium levels in your blood become too low. Hyponatremia causes your muscles and heart to contract erratically, and can even lead to death.
Under these conditions, when you’re sweating a lot, go with sports drinks.
Post-exercise nutrition needs
Now let’s take a look at post-exercise nutrition.
Post-workout nutrition can help you:
- build muscle; and
- improve future performance.
Protein after exercise
Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, leading to increased or maintained muscle tissue. So it’s a great strategy for better recovery, adaptation, and performance.
In the past, most fitness experts recommended fast acting proteins like whey or casein hydrolysate. This is because early research indicated that the more quickly amino acids get to your muscles, the better the result.
However, new research shows that hydrolyzed, fast-digesting proteins may get into our systems too fast. Because they’re in and out of the bloodstream so quickly, they might not maximize protein synthesis or maximally inhibit protein breakdown after all.
What’s more, hydrolyzed casein is preferentially taken up by the splanchnic bed (i.e. our internal organs). Which means it isn’t maximally effective for improving protein synthesis elsewhere.
And the protein you ate before training is still peaking in your bloodstream, so how quickly this protein gets there doesn’t really matter.
In other words, there’s no real evidence that protein powders, especially the fast-digesting kind, are any better for us than whole food protein after training.
They’re probably not worse either. Which means you can choose whichever type of protein you want for your post-workout meal.
Want fast and convenient? Make an awesome post-workout Super Shake.
Want real food? Then make an awesome high-protein meal.
Any high quality complete protein should do the job, as long as you eat enough. That means about 40-60 grams for men (or 2 palms) and 20-30 grams for women (1 palm).
Carbs after exercise
Contrary to popular belief, it’s unnecessary to stuff yourself with refined carbohydrates and sugars to “spike” insulin and theoretically restore muscle and liver glycogen as rapidly as possible after your workout.
In fact, a blend of minimally processed whole food carbohydrates, along with some fruit (to better restore or maintain liver glycogen) is actually a better choice, because:
- it’s better tolerated;
- it restores glycogen equally over a 24-hour time period; and
- it might lead to better next-day performance.
Endurance athletes who perform two glycogen-depleting sessions within eight hours of one another might be an exception to this guideline, as speed of glycogen replenishment is critical in that situation. But for most healthy exercisers, whole food with some fruit is likely a better way to go.
Research shows that muscle protein breakdown is most inhibited and muscle protein synthesis happens best when insulin is at 15-30 mU/L. This is only about three times above fasting levels of 5-10 mU/L.
These levels are easily reached if you eat a mixed meal or drink Super Shake a few hours before and after training. Plus, with mixed meals, your levels should stay at this rate for about four hours after consumption.
Fats after exercise
Dogma has it that we should avoid fats after exercise because they slow the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
While this is true, in most cases, it’s also irrelevant. We’ve already seen that speed of digestion of protein and carbs is not necessarily as important as we once thought. The same with fats.
In fact, one study compared what happens when people drink skim milk rather than whole milk after training. Participants drank either 14 oz. of skim milk or 8 oz. of whole milk (that equalized the calories, for those of you who love calorie math).
The skim milk drinkers got the same number of calories — along with six extra grams of protein. So you’d think they’d have the advantage.
Yet the whole milk drinkers actually ended up with a higher net protein balance! And the researchers had no explanation other than the fat content of the whole milk.
Additional research shows that eating as much as 55 grams of fat post-training, and another 55 grams in the two subsequent meals did not get in the way of glycogen replenishment compared to lower fat meals with the same amount of carbohydrates.
Clearly, fat doesn’t reduce the benefits of protein and carbohydrate consumption around training. In fact, it actually might provide some benefits of its own!
Post-exercise nutrition in practice
While you don’t have to rush in the door and straight to the fridge the minute you finish at the gym, you shouldn’t dawdle and poke around forever before eating. Failing to eat within a two-hour window following training can slow recovery.
But this is context dependent; what you ate before your workout influences things.
If your pre-training meal was a small one or you ate it several hours before training, then it’s probably more important for you to get that post-workout meal into your system pretty quickly. Probably within an hour.
If you trained in a fasted state (say, first thing in the morning before breakfast) then it’s also a good idea to chow down as soon after your workout as you can.
But if you ate a normal-sized mixed meal a couple of hours before training (or a small shake closer to training), then you have a full one to two hours after training to eat your post-workout meal and still maximize the benefits of workout nutrition.
So go ahead — spend an hour in the kitchen cooking up a feast.
0-2 hours after exercise
The approach to recover from training is the same as your preparation for a workout: have a mixed meal of real food.
Again, here’s how men might build it:
- 2 palms of protein;
- 2 fists of vegetables;
- 2 cupped handfuls of carbs;
- 2 thumbs of fats;
- low-calorie beverage like water.
And here’s how women might build it:
- 1 palm of protein;
- 1 fist of vegetables;
- 1 cupped handful of carbs;
- 1 thumb of fats;
- low-calorie beverage like water.
Sometimes after training you might not feel hungry. And that’s okay. If you don’t feel like eating, you can go with liquid nutrition.
Make a Super Shake using the same hand-sized portion guidelines as discussed above.
In the end, there’s no perfect pre-and-post-training feeding regimen for everyone.
What to eat is always context specific.
The protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fluid requirements for a 155 lb. endurance athlete in the midst of marathon training vs. a 225 lb. bodybuilder recovering from a heavy resistance-training session are quite different.
Times of your training year will also dictate different needs in the post-exercise recovery period. That same bodybuilder will need a different approach when he starts to diet in preparation for a contest.
For most of us, people without athletic competitions on the horizon, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain some combination of high quality protein, high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruits and vegetables.
These whole foods provide an awesome blend of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that build muscle, supply energy, decrease inflammation, and boost recovery.
Of course, you can eat solid foods or drink smoothies. And the amount of each macronutrient can vary depending on your needs as well as personal preferences and tolerances.
In terms of timing, you have about one to two hours on both sides of your training to still get maximal benefit.
And, according to the most recent data, the total amount of protein and carbohydrate consumed over the course of the day is far more important to lean mass gain, fat loss, and performance improvements than any specific nutrient timing strategy.
So enjoy your workout. And your meals.
Passionate about nutrition and health?
If so, and you’d like to learn more about it, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. Our next group kicks off shortly.
What’s it all about?
The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.
Developed over 15 years, and proven with over 100,000 clients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.
Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.
Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 30% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.
We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, April 8th, 2020.
If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.
- Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 30% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
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If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.