Which is Better: Exercising Before or After Breakfast?

By , and Tanya Jolliffe
If you're an early-morning exerciser, it may seem difficult (or downright impossible) to find the time or desire to eat breakfast before a pre-dawn workout. It's already tough enough to wake up for that 6 a.m. boot camp or three-mile run, much less carving out an extra hour to prepare, eat and digest a meal.
Some people prefer to sweat on an empty stomach, while others may get dizzy due to low blood sugar. Research findings are mixed. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people can burn up to 20 percent more body fat by exercising before breakfast, but other experts claim that depriving the body of fuel before a workout can result in a loss of muscle mass.
Ken Immer, the chief culinary officer for Culinary Health Solutions, maintains that the before-or-after breakfast decision should hinge on the energy requirements of each individual. "People are very different. Some bodies work better when relying on stored energy, while others need newer fuel for the best performance," he says. "I believe that it's never a good idea to exercise on a full stomach, so the timing is a crucial element."
Health and wellness coach Lorraine Miano advises against exercising without fuel. "The downside to fasting before exercise is that you may burn muscle along with fat if you haven't had a meal," she warns. "Without some fuel, you may burn less calories if you are lacking energy and can't give it your all."

5 Questions to Ask Before Choosing Breakfast 

When Immer is working with a client who is planning a strenuous morning workout, he steps them through the following questions:
  1. What time is your workout, and are you a morning person? Is it generally easy for you to wake up?
  2. Do you currently eat breakfast daily? If so, what do you eat?
  3. Would eating breakfast before exercise cause any issues with your schedule or impact your ability to fit in your workout?
  4. Do you like smoothies and/or juices? Do you have the equipment to make them easily?
  5. Is there a restaurant or food store on the way to where you work out that is convenient and budget-friendly?
For those who are doing a less strenuous workout that doesn't require as many calories, Immer recommends basing their breakfast decision on the timing of the rest of their day and how they feel during the activity. "It's also important to consider the goals for exercising, whether it's weight loss, training for a competition, weight maintenance or just for fun," he points out.

What Happens When You Exercise on an Empty Stomach? 

During exercise, the body normally uses free sugars from cells and circulating blood sugars as its primary source of fuel. When you exercise on an empty stomach, the free sugars are depleted very quickly. In the absence of free sugars, the hormone glucagon is released, which initiates the release of free fatty acids from fat stores, a process known as lipolysis. Although more fat is used after hours of fasting compared to workouts following a meal or snack, most people may find it difficult to exercise as long or hard as they do when they have eaten recently. This may mean that you don't burn any more total calories, which may negate the fat-burning benefit.
The question of whether to eat before or after exercise comes down to understanding the best way to achieve what priorities are most important to you. "For example, if you are someone who needs to eat before exercise and you have a hard time just getting up early enough for the workout, adding in breakfast time may not be an option," says Immer. "So, perhaps not working out in the morning is the best option, which makes the before-or-after breakfast question a moot point."

Pre-Workout Breakfast Tips

  • Plan ahead. When you prepare a healthy breakfast the night before, you won't have to fumble for ideas and ingredients while your brain is still waking up.
  • Keep it light. Registered dietitian Mandy Enright, creator of Nutrition Nuptials, advises her clients to have a small amount of food before a morning workout, such as a handful of cereal, small piece of fruit, yogurt or a small probiotic smoothie. "This won’t create an overly full stomach before a workout, but will provide adequate energy to kick-start the body."
  • Keep reinforcements on hand. If you plan to work out after only a light breakfast (or none at all), keep a carbohydrate gel or sports drink handy in case you begin to feel lightheaded. Be sure to eat a nutrient-rich and well-balanced breakfast once your workout is complete.
Do you notice a difference in your workouts when you eat (or don't eat) breakfast beforehand? What do you usually eat before exercising?

Updated by Melissa Rudy, 1/3/2017

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EVIE4NOW 1/13/2021
Thank you. Report
Thanks! Report
LGRIF22 10/26/2020
Well, I prefer to work out on a fairly empty stomach. I do chew gum while walking, instead of carrying a water bottle, which I did when I went to the gym for classes early in the morning. I do a lot more walking since COVID. If I eat before going out, I have to go to the bathroom before I get home.....yuck! Maybe it's my age, but I don't last as long as I used to... Report
KATHYJO56 9/1/2020
I do some of my exercise before breakfast and then eat again before my next round of exercise Report
LIS193 8/31/2020
Thanks Report
I neeeeed to eat when I first get up. It's hitting the not-too-empty/not-too-full equilibrium before exercising which is the timing and quantity challenge of my morning. Report
ASCOTT808032 4/12/2020
I like to exercise as soon as I wake up in the morning. I usually have a protein shake before exercise. Report
MUSICNUT 3/13/2020
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Thanks Report
I have a Slim Fast or a boiled egg before morning exercise. Report
Some mornings I do the treadmill before breakfast. After breakfast, we usually go to the gym. Report
Depends on the day for me. Report
Thanks Report
I usually divide my meal-a little something before exercise and the rest afterwards Report
I cannot eat before I workout. I would throw up. I also do intermittent fasting, so that isn't broken until after 10 AM. I have water with my workouts. Report
I'm up at 4:30 am and Like to do all my jogging and weightlifting before I eat breakfast. I do this 6-7 days a week switching routines around so as not to overwork specific regions of my body. I then sit down to a healthy breakfast. This helped me get my blood -sugar down from 810 to 84 and no medication. It may sound as if I'm obsessed but it works for me. Report
I almost always eat before I exercise but it is 1 to 2 hours before my class. Report
I usually exercise before breakfast. I get up very early in the morning to take my morning walk. Report
I usually feel nauseous if I exercise after eating. Report
Thank you Report
Back when I worked nights, which I did for 20 years, I would go to the early morning exercise class on my way home. This question is only important to people who live conventionally, sleep nights, work 9 to 5. The rest of us do what fits. Report
I prefer working out before breakfast. Report
Before for me Report
great article. thanks Report
Great article! Report
I practice 16/8 intermittent fasting. So when I workout, which is mid morning, I’m still in fasting mode. I lift weights most mornings and have a good workout. Usually eat 20 grams of protein afterwards. Report
getting up at 4:30 in the morning I don't workout before leaving. But since I travel by bus, I made the choice to walk the last km of my travel. That way I get a 10 to 13 minute walk each morning and My breakfast is at least an hour away so all is good Report
Good information. Report
Interesting and maybe this is why I sometimes get dizzy on that early morning walk with our dog? I do have breakfast before going to the gym & taking Fletcher out for a longer walk and rarely get dizzy then. Report
If I’m taking a class I will have coffee with skim milk and perhaps a few berries or bit of banana. More slows me down. If I am doing my own workout I can take more time before and have some oatneal as well, never a big breakfast. If it’s a hike I may eat more. I rarely eat sfter a session if it’s been intense. And yoga? An emoty stomach is best. Report
Try to get some veggies with my breakfast scramble Report
I started to exercise regularly in June 2011, and ever since I have always done my workouts on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning, without any problems. I have a nice large breakfast after exercise. Report
Really study those questions and don't rag on someone who gets different answers. Can't tell you how many people I don't talk to any more because I don't do morning exercises. I don't do mornings either. Report
thanks. Report
I'll just eat a small amount before exercising. Report
I eat light before I exercise then eat again after. It keeps me from feeling dizzy while exercising yet I don't feel like throwing up from too much food while exercising. Report
Do what you want, when you want...... Report
I can't eat breakfast before an early morning run, it makes me want to hurl on the run itself! I generally have a bowl of porridge or an omelette after my runs and that seems to work fine. Report
Well, I NEED to eat breakfast! Also, I have to get up between 5-5:30 AM to take care of the horses before driving 1 hour to work, so it's not possible for me to work out in the morning. Because my husband works nights and is usually sleeping when I return home, the most sensible time for me to either work out or go riding is early evening. Report
Working 40 hours a week, it is necessary for me to workout in the early morning. I generally rise about 2 1/2 hours before I have to leave for work just to have the time to cram in the one hour of exercise. This does not allow me to eat first, since it takes food time to digest before comfortably exercising. I'm too tired at the end of my work day to exercise, even though I have a desk job. However, I am starving as soon as I wake up, which makes exercising without food a challenge, and I do feel weak. Perhaps I should just grab a piece of fruit first.
I exercise at 5:30am and do not eat breakfast before. Report
I am never actually hungry when I first wake up, and I learned early on that if I eat breakfast before I exercise I will probably throw up. Not good. I generally exercise soon after I get up, and when I get home I shower and dress, and then fix myself a light but protein packed brunch. Report
I usually don't work out in the morning but on those days I must get it done early I find that having a light breakfast helps me get through my workout with more energy. I usually have 1/2 banana or 1/2 serving of cereal with milk. Report
I'm still not clear on this. I work out before breakfast and I'm fine. But I'm not awake long enough before I workout to realize what's going on. Completely different story on the weekends, I eat then wait about an hour and then workout. Report
I try to work out before breakfast so begin with a large (24 ounce) glass of warm lemon water and a piece of fruit before my workout which generally lasts up to an hour. However if I am feeling over tired or extra hungry when I get up, I'll eat my usual breakfast and workout later. Being retired I have that flexibility most days. My preference is to get my exercise in before eating and that has usually worked for me. I always have my water bottle on hand too, during a workout and it's usually empty by the end. Report
I've been drinking one good cup of coffee--espresso with skim milk & sweetner to wake up and get my wits about me. Then I do 45 minutes of cardio with Just Dance and work up a really good sweat. I wear wrist and ankle weights and do a continuous shuffle. Then I eat a 1/2 a cup of black bean tofu hash, Dr. Ludwig's recipe with a bit of avocado, salsa, and sour cream. I have no idea if this is the best thing to do, but it feels comfortable and it fits in with my willingness/ability etc. SO unless something a lot more specific turns up, I'll keep doing this. I'm sure they always say doing somethign is better than not doing something! Report