Around Workout Nutrition While Dieting – Q&A

Question: Should I continue with around workout nutrition while dieting?

Answer: Since summer time is approach and everyone (more or less) is dieting to look good at the pool, this is a question that comes up fairly often.  I’ll be honest that I spent years going around and around with this one in my head before finally coming to some conclusions about it.  These are those conclusions.

The usual rationale for avoiding around workout nutrition while dieting goes something like this: if you consume nutrients (especially carbohydrate) during or after training, you will either impair fat mobilization/burning by increasing insulin levels or impair the hormonal response (growth hormone gets brought up a lot) and slow fat loss.  Some suggest only consuming protein around training for this reason although they all seem to forget that protein (and especially the Branched Chain Amino Acids) raise insulin.

A related idea is of doing training first thing in the morning fasted to take maximum advantage of the increase in blood fatty acids which occur during the overnight fast.  And certainly, for certain types of activity (especially low intensity aerobic activity), there is certain some truth to this.  Of course, those types of activities don’t generally require much in the way of around workout nutrition in the first place.

Certainly this strategy has been used for decades by contest prepping bodybuilders or other athletes who need to lean out.  As I discuss in detail in The Stubborn Fat Solution, for individuals looking to shed the last bit of stubborn fat, there is probably some rationale to this strategy due to the profound impact of insulin on fat mobilization.  Of course, for people who can’t work out first thing in the morning or fasted, there are also ways to get around that (discussed in the book) and still deal with stubborn fat.

But what about higher intensity activities such as weight training or more intense types of metabolic work, should around workout nutrition still be maintained (to at least some degree) while dieting?

The short-answer, in my opinion, is yes.  Here’s the longer answer.

First let’s look at metabolic work, cardio and interval type work.  For the most part, concerns about impairing fat oxidation during higher intensity activity with the consumption of during workout nutrition don’t seem to be warranted in the first place.

As Alan Aragon reviews in his book Girth Control, research clearly shows that the consumption of carbs during moderate and higher intensity aerobic activity doesn’t negatively impact fat oxidation in the first place.  Basically, it’s only low intensity aerobic activity where this is an issue and, as noted above, that type of training doesn’t require much in the way of nutritional support in the first place.

I’d even go further and argue that proper during workout nutrition during higher intensity activities can help with fat loss simply because it tends to improve intensity and performance, allowing people to work harder and/or longer which burns more calories which is far more important in the big scheme of fat loss.

Trying to perform higher intensity training when blood sugar is down often goes badly (there is a lot of individual variability in this).  From a fat loss standpoint, I consider being able to train effectively far more important than any small benefits from a hormonal or other perspective.

Of course, I’d make the same argument for weight training (with the exception of activities done specifically to deplete muscle glycogen); the ability to maintain training intensity in the weight room (which is the key to maintaining muscle mass) is far more important in the big scheme of things than any small hormonal effect or what have you.  As well, weight training doesn’t generally use fat for fuel to any great degree in the first place.  Worrying about ‘impairing fat burning’ during weight training sessions is missing the point.

It’s also worth noting that much of the concern over post-workout nutrition under these conditions may be equally misplaced.  It’s usually feared that consuming carbs after a workout will impair any post-workout fat burn (I’d note that any effect from this is very small in the first place).

However, research shows that following high-intensity (aerobic) activity, the body continues to use fat for fuel even when carbs are consumed immediately after workout; under those conditions the carbs go to refill glycogen stores but the body continues to use fat for energy production.

And given that proper post-workout nutrition is one of the key aspects to improving overall recovery (always at a premium when folks are dieting), I think that the benefits of maintaining at least some around workout nutrition outweigh any slight negatives in the case.

Finally, there is also the often forgotten fact that most of the ‘fat burning’ that happens during a diet doesn’t occur during training (especially weight training) in the first place.  Rather, it’s what happens the other 23 hours of the day that will have the biggest impact on overall fat loss.  And that’s mostly related to diet.

Don’t get me wrong, exercise clearly contributes to fat loss through a variety of mechanisms but, again, it’s less the hour you spent training and what happens in the other 23 hours of the day that will maximally affect fat loss.

Basically, at least if you’re talking about moderate to high-intensity types of training, I think the benefits of around workout nutrition far outweigh any of the negatives.  During workout nutrition can help to maintain training intensity and proper post-workout nutrition improves recovery.  I think those benefits far outweigh any small or nonexistent negatives that might occur.

Basically, rather than cut carbs/protein from around hard training sessions, I’d rather see those cuts (especially carbohdyrates) coming from other meals of the day.  Some dieters will actually take this to the extreme of only consuming carbohydrates around training and eating no starchy carbs the rest of the day.

This is essentially the Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) that I discussed in my first book The Ketogenic Diet and it can provide any benefits of a full-blown low-carbohydrate diet while still allowing trainees to maintain training intensity and recovery from high-intensity worouts.

However, that may not be desired or required for all dieters.  Some people do poorly on low-carbohdyrate diets and will need to consume some carbs at other meals of the day in addition to any around training nutrition.  This means that, in most cases, the amount of around workout nutrition consumed may have to be scaled back somewhat.

Someone consuming a lot of calories around training may leave themselves with almost nothing to eat the rest of the day on a diet and scaling the values back may be necessary. I can’t give recommendations beyond that since a lot will depend on how much is being consumed around training in the first place.

A trainee consuming a very large amount of carbs and protein post-workout (e.g. 100 grams carbs/40 grams protein) might cut that in half while dieting; someone consuming a small amount in the first place (e.g. 20-30 grams of each) might not cut back anything at all.

Of course, I also think that training volume (especially in the weight room) should be reduced while dieting in the first place which means less requirement for around workout nutrition in the first place.  But talking about weight training on a diet is another topic for another day.

But I don’t think that around workout nutrition should be eliminated while dieting completely, especially for moderate to high-intensity training sessions.  The benefits from being able to maintain training intensity and recovery far outweigh any small benefits from the hormonal response or what have you (especially given that most fat loss happens outside of the gym anyhow).




11 thoughts on “Around Workout Nutrition While Dieting – Q&A

  1. Great answer, covers pretty much everything I need to know on the issue.

    I am dieting down right now and I find i get extremely worn out after a few weeks and end up having to take a week off every now and then to catch up, so I’m very curious on what you have to say about training while dieting.

  2. Nice article. You say talking about weight training on a diet is a topic for another day.
    I’d really like to read that information as it’s something i don’t know how to do properly.

  3. I agree. Many times people will wind up “chasing their own tails” by cutting back on calories too much. If you don’t have the energy to train with a decent amount of intensity, then it’s probably not going to be worth it in the long run. Besides, you will get a greater fat burning boost if you put on a few extra pounds of muscle mass – rather than trying to starve yourself thin, you’ll end up with a learner and more muscular body!

  4. Very interesting. I am sort of musing here, and i know anaerobic work wasn’t the focus on this article (although Lyle touched on it) but i recently saw someone sipping on a high carb sports drink while doing what looked to be depletion anaerobic work (high reps to failure, very short rest periods) and I was thinking about how counter intuitive that was at first.

    Here you have a situation where he presumably created an physiological environment conducive to glycogen depletion (very low carb/calorie diet, high rep training) and he was introducing carbs to maintain training intensity….to deplete glycogen. it appeared to be nonsensical
    in an a priori manner, but then I thought about it. Assuming a 6% carb solution would maintain anaerobic work capacity (most research I’m sure has been done in aerobic exercise) would introducing small amounts of carbs allow someone to train harder and ultimately use more glycogen for fuel? Does glucose in the bloodstream automatically “pinch hit” for glycogen in fueling less ATP-dominant muscle contraction? I’m assuming that part of the perceived fatigue in doing depletion work is the low blood glucose from the low carb component of the diet. If this fatigue could be partially improved with a glucose solution thus allowing the person to do more reps and thus, burn more glycogen, wouldn’t this be an advantageous situation? I do realize that substrate utilization is key in this specific circumstance and that the introduction of exogenous glucose may interfere with this process but I’m not knowledgeable enough to theorize how much.

  5. Lyle, from what I’ve read from you and others, I’m inferring that baring a few specific circumstances (sports performance, stubborn body fat, etc) that substrate utilization is not nearly important as the bro science people have told us. But I’m wondering what if you have a situation where say a female has a very low BMR and can only comfortably create a 300 calorie or so dietary deficit that could easily be diminished by 1 cheat meal on the weekend. Here it would seem that creating the largest deficit possible with exercise is the only way to reliably induce fat loss. So assuming that the trainee is actually doing aerobic exercise at a capacity that is amendable to being increased with supplemental carbs, you would have to be in a situation where they burn MORE calories from the increased intensity versus the extra calories from the carbs.

    I’m wondering if this is feasible. A cursory look seems like it should be since you would have someone who has created a caloric deficit via diet and a majority of that deficit would be from carbohydrate that their aerobic intensity may be impaired in which case supplemental carbs will improve performance and energy expenditure. How much of an improvement are we talking here and what amount of carbohydrate keeping in mind the thermodynamics of fat loss?

    I remember Michael Colgan pimping a 6-8% carb solution (TwinLab Ultra Fuel) for endurance athletes citing specifically that the carbs would be preferable to fatty acids for fuel and this was the reason for the performance enhancement in aerobic exercise. There was also some fructose in there to prevent liver glycogen depletion but that wasn’t the main factor at play. But these were endurance athletes, not overweight people who need to grind out 45 minutes of cardio usually at an effort that is way, way below their VO2 max and probably would not only NOT benefit form extra carbs, but will have just added extra calories to their diet. Most females would be doing VERY well to burn off 10 calories per minute on cardio so 45minutes would be 450 calories. Would adding an extra 20 grams (80 calories) actually increase their intensity OR duration enough to get these calories “back”?

    Again that’s assuming that your average overweight trainee is even doing cardio at a level that can be improved with supplemental carbs in the first place. Most will begrudgingly plop on the treadmill and crank out 2 miles at 4 mpg to the tune of a whopping 200 calories or so. Personally I was amazed at how much fewer calories I burned (according to the Bodybugg) vs. the machine’s estimate; and this was at high intensities!
    I guess all I’m saying is I’m envisioning overweight people who are going to read this and misinterpret what you said and will go do their 30 mins of shit-all cardio while downing their 32 ounce blue-ice Gatorade.

  6. One last thing (way too much time on my hands today).

    Nick, you said “Besides, you will get a greater fat burning boost if you put on a few extra pounds of muscle mass.”

    Have you read Lyle’s articles on the average increase in RMR with each pound increase in LBM?

    Dude, I’m not trying to flame you or start a fight but I’m on my fourth cup of coffee today and i just can’t help myself. I hate, HATE ad copies like yours so bad. They rely on Kevin Trudeau style hyperbole and “secrets” and other nonsense. This is an evidence based field and while I’m sure you can give your trainees good real world advice, you’re not constructively adding to the discourse either. I know you’re just trying to make a living and I’m sure you really are helping people with their fitness goals but I can’t help but think that you are one of those people who loves Muscle Milk.

  7. great article thanks

    i totally agree with you. there is no way you can lift weight without a proper workout nutrition.

  8. Agree with Alex, I’ve tried weight training both on an empty stomach and in the morning with a light meal beforehand. Both were some of the worst workouts I’ve ever had, and the mental hit from having those shitty workouts was probably worse than the poor performance itself.

    It really is a matter of personal experimentation/preference though. If you can lift under those circumstances or can live with cutting back intensity as a result, then great. The vast majority will see a dropoff though.

  9. Hey Lyle!

    I am also trying to figure out how the training in the weight room should be when the goal is to reduce body fat. Im a powerlifter who is shifting weight class, from -120 to -105 primary to improve my insulin sensitivity. But offcourse i want to do this with minimum impact on my strength and muscles.

  10. This situation reminds me of the ‘training at altitude’ issue.

    Initially there is a boost from training at altitude, due to the body having to work harder to get it’s O2 in, but the decrease in intensity (due to that very lack of O2) quickly kills intensity and the athlete finds themselves having to cut back workouts or go to a lower altitude to ramp up intensity again.

    Hence the use of altitude tents, or ‘living high, training low’.

    Perhaps something like ’23 hours low cal, 1 hour high cal’, or something much more catchy (I’m clearly not cut out for headline writing) applies to this situation.

    Keep up the good work Lyle, your work is much appreciated.

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