Nowadays, everyone who goes to the gym seems to think they are a sports nutrition expert. This can make it hard to separate good advice from broscience.
The only way to cut through all the nonsense is to look at the research—or have someone review it for you. We’ve done just that. Here are the top 10 workout nutrition mistakes you need to avoid.
#1: Training On An Empty Stomach.
A lot of people incorrectly recommend doing cardio on an empty stomach to increase fat burning. Research doesn’t support this practice.
One study found that when trainees ate breakfast and then did moderate-intensity exercise, fat burning and energy expenditure were significantly higher in the 24-hour recovery period than when they exercised fasted. Another reason not to do fasted cardio is that it will lead to higher cortisol levels, which could impede fat loss over time.
Do This Instead: Eat a high-protein meal pre-workout to raise blood amino acid levels and improve training drive.
#2: Exercising To Eat.
Have you ever done an extra workout or spent an extra 30 minutes in the gym so that you could justify chowing down later on? Or maybe you’ve found yourself playing catch up, forcing yourself to train to exhaustion the day after you ate more than you wanted to.
Exercising to eat is a never-ending nightmare that has you constantly chasing the perfect body. Exercise is a great tool for weight management, but when it becomes all about losing, it yields diminishing returns. Exercising to eat often leads to hormonal imbalances and overtraining and does nothing for your self-worth.
Do This Instead: Workouts should be about performance, not fat loss. Focus on setting PRs, not a cycle of punishing exercise and food rewards. Use food as a way to speed recovery and repair and you’ll reach new levels of athletic and aesthetic success.
#3: Not Getting High-Quality Protein Post-Workout.
Whether you are training with weights, doing sprints, or going for a run, high-quality protein is a must. In the case of resistance exercise, lifting weights stimulates protein synthesis and consuming 20 grams of protein will maximize the muscle building response. Following sprints or aerobic exercise, protein consumption helps with tissue repair and aids in glycogen restoration, which is the energy source for the muscle.
Neglecting to have a high-protein meal post-workout doesn’t mean you’ll get all catabolic and lose muscle mass. But it does mean you’re leaving potential gains on the table. You may experience a slightly delayed recovery—something that any hardcore trainee knows they need to avoid.
Do This Instead: Get 20 grams of high-quality protein soon after you finish your workout. High-quality protein is defined as containing 10 grams of essential amino acids, which can be found in animal products including fish, meat, eggs, dairy, or whey protein.
#4: Eating High-Carb Pre-Workout For Energy.
A lot of people think a high-carb meal pre-workout is the holy grail of good nutrition. But the reality is that most people will do better saving carbs for after their workout.
If you’re training for fat loss, you don’t need the extra calories from carbs and it’s highly likely that your muscle glycogen stores will be full as long as you have a fairly normal eating pattern. Muscle glycogen is the fuel source for the muscle.
Another reason to skip the carbs pre-exercise is that they spike insulin and negatively affect the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine that enhance motivation and training drive.
Do This Instead: Save higher carbs foods for post-workout because the muscle cells are hypersensitive to insulin. The body is primed to replenish glycogen fuel stores instead of storing carbs as fat.
#5: Never Taking Advantage of Caffeine.
Caffeine is the most effective performance-enhancing aid available. It puzzles many sports nutritionists that more people don’t use it to run faster, train harder, and just be generally more awesome.
Controlled studies show caffeine can boost performance a whopping a 20 to 25 percent, which translates into a much smaller 5 to 10 percent performance boost in real-world competition. Caffeine is so effective because it blunts pain, reduces fatigue, and increases work capacity and performance drive. It also improves fat burning, sparing glycogen stores and releases calcium for increased endurance.
Do This Instead: If you’re not a coffee drinker and want to try caffeine, start with a low dose (1 to 3 mg/kg/body weight), which equals one to two cups of coffee.
#6: Thinking You Can Get Away With A Junk Food Diet Because You Work Out.
If you think it’s only the couch potatoes who need to eat healthy, think again.
Even if you don’t pack on the pounds from trashy nutrition, a diet high in sugar, artificial flavors, and processed foods is a bad choice because it lacks the much needed nutrients for recovery and repair from workouts. Junk food also takes a toll on your digestion and your liver, leading to the buildup of inflammation and damage to tissues. Insulin sensitivity is degraded and cells aren’t as healthy.
Do This Instead: Instead of thinking of your workouts as an excuse to embrace junk food, use them to kickstart healthy eating. A whole foods diet will give you more energy during workouts and you’ll recover faster, feeling that much more amazing.
#7: Favoring Powders Over Real Food.
Nowadays you can get everything from protein to creatine in powder form. These supplements are super convenient and beneficial since they allow you to control exactly what you’re putting in your body. But relying on them for most of your meals is a bad choice for a few reasons:
First, as great as whey protein is at blunting hunger, whole food is important for satiety and fulfillment from meals. Second, although various powders can pad nutrient intake in some cases, there’s no replacement for the naturally occurring antioxidants in many foods like fish, eggs, leafy greens, and berries. Third, real foods provide abundant flavors, textures, and nutrition that are thought to have a significant ergogenic benefit for health and performance.
Do This Instead: Take a food-first approach so you get all you can out of whole food nutrition. Fill in any nutrient gaps with high-quality supplement powders for the perfect diet.
#8: Eating A Low-Salt Diet.
Unless you have high blood pressure or some other condition that warrants a low-salt diet, avoiding salt can cause reduced performance. What a lot of people don’t realize is that adequate sodium is essential for cellular hydration. If you overload on water without sufficient sodium, you just dehydrate yourself.
In addition, in hot, humid weather, sodium supplementation has been shown to improve performance. When trained cyclists drank a pre-workout beverage with 1,000 mg of sodium they rode 20 minutes longer to exhaustion (99 vs. 79) minutes in 90-degree heat.
Do This Instead: If you rely on processed or restaurant food, you probably get all the salt you need. But if you train hard, sweat a lot, and eat a whole foods diet, feel free to salt your food. When training in the heat, sodium is just as important as water.
#9: Carbs Are Imperative Post-Workout To Spike Insulin.
Broscience says “you gotta have carbs with your protein post-workout to spike insulin.” This is not true.
All that’s necessary to maximally trigger protein synthesis post-workout is about 20 grams of high-quality protein. Carbs aren’t necessary. Nonetheless, there are some benefits to consuming carbs post-workout:
They will replenish glycogen stores so you can thrash your muscles again the next day.
They support hormone balance and neurotransmitter function.
They are delicious and because the muscles are hypersensitive to insulin after training, post-workout is the best time to eat carbs.
Do This Instead: No need to stay away from carbs post-workout if they fit into your overall nutrition plan. Just don’t think you need carbs to trigger protein synthesis—20 grams of protein will do the trick.
#10: Mismatch Between Calorie Intake & Activity Level/Goals.
If you’re not getting the results you expect from your training, it’s quite possible there’s a mismatch between calories and your activity levels.
For example, if you’re a hardcharging athlete who’s trying to pack on muscle, add 50 pounds to your deadlift, or drop your 400 meter time, you may not be eating enough to provide your body with the nutrient building blocks needed to recovery. You need a wide variety of whole foods to replenish everything from glycogen stores to blood antioxidant levels, while also addressing the protein threshold of 20 grams of high-quality protein multiple times a day.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to reduce body fat but eating like an athlete, it’s likely you’re not achieving the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss. If you’re not mindful of portions, it’s easy to overshoot calories. Or if you’re mainly sedentary with a desk job, you may need to dial back your energy intake to match your activity levels.
Do This Instead: Do an honest food journal so you get a picture of calories and macronutrient distributions and have a place to start troubleshooting.