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Are Pre-Workout Carbs Best For Fat Loss With Early Morning Workouts?

Ask this question to any number of nutritionists or fitness trainers and you’ll likely hear a distinct difference in opinions.

There are those who will say that a carbohydrate based pre-workout meal or snack is essential and others who will argue that exercising in a fasting state is the best way to go for fat loss.

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

Well, as is often the case with exercise and nutrition science, it kinda depends.

There is no one pre-workout nutrition strategy that will be best for everyone. As you can imagine individual differences with body fat percentage, lean muscle mass, insulin sensitivity, rate of metabolism, etc, along with training objectives will all factor into the equation.

For the purpose of this discussion I’m going to be addressing considerations with pre-workout nutrition for middle age adults who are looking to lose fat. After all that’s my specialty and area of expertise.

If you’re a triathlete, cyclist, runner, or other endurance athlete this discussion won’t pertain to you. I’m also not talking to the bodybuilding crowd or athletes who will be completing more prolonged workouts or practices lasting an hour or more.

This is for those of us over 35 who are getting up early in the morning to workout and want to know what’s best to eat, or not to eat, to optimize fat loss.

More after the jump….

What I’m about to share with you comes not only from some credible research, but more importantly from years of trial and error experimentation and observation with personal training clients.

While I often cite research studies in my blog posts, I’ll be the first one to tell you that it’s best not to latch on to any particular set of conclusions. Experience has shown me that controlled studies aren’t always an accurate reflection of what to expect in the real world.

There’s also the matter of individual differences that seldom gets taken into consideration. A research study conducted on highly trained and conditioned cyclists is understandably not applicable to an overweight and de-conditioned middle age adult.

My point is regardless of what someone may have told you or what you’ve read, it’s always best to listen to your body and use experimentation.

With that being said here’s my opinion on this controversial topic…

To cut right to the chase, I’m going to give you my one sentence verdict on this entire debate.

Pre-workout meals are optional, whereas post-workout recovery meals are critical.

In other words, while not eating anything at all prior to an early morning workout is an option for some, everyone will benefit from a supportive nutrition post-workout recovery meal.

Here are some factors that I would consider when making a recommendation to a client regarding a pre-workout meal or snack before an early morning workout.

  • Age of the individual
  • Body fat percentage (how much fat do they have to lose)
  • Lean body composition (how much muscle are they carrying)
  • Medical conditions (specifically those related to blood sugar regulation)
  • Type of training (what type of workout are they doing and for how long?)

Generally speaking, the more lean muscle one has (and thus less body fat) and the higher the intensity of the workout or longer the duration, the more value those pre-workout carbs have.

On the flip side of this coin if the individual has a good bit of fat to lose, the less likely they are to need pre-workout carbs before their early morning workout.

The whole idea that one MUST have a small amount of carbohydrate before physical activity regardless of the time of day is simply not true, especially when that activity isn’t of prolonged nature (lasting an hour or more).

In fact there’s quite a bit to be said about the potential benefits of not consuming that pre-workout  meal prior to your early morning workout.

It’s important to remember that all fat burning processes in the body are controlled by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is activated by such things as exercise, a lack of food, adrenal hormone secretion, and stimulants like caffeine for example.

The combination of fasting and exercising optimizes the impact of cellular catalysts (such as cyclic AMP and AMP Kinases), which force the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy.

When exercising in the absence of elevated blood sugar the adrenal glands will be triggered to release fat burning hormones adrenaline and nor-adrenaline through the blood and nervous system respectively. IV hydration therapy promotes better health and will help enhance your immune system and reduce fatigue after exercising.

Bottom line is from a metabolic standpoint there are a lot of adaptations that occur when exercising in a fasted state which can help stimulate fat burning.

Regardless of whether you eat before your morning workout or not, the objectives remain the same.

- Boost neurotransmitters (enhanced mental alertness)
- Keep fat burning hormones at a peak level
- Keep insulin levels low (by not having excess blood sugar)
- Reduce blood flood and energy necessary for digestive functions
- Have sufficient energy to fuel the demands of the workout

Many people don’t fully understand this, but when you’re in the middle of a workout you’re primarily utilizing STORED fatty acids and glycogen (stored carbohydrate) from the liver and muscle cells for energy, and not utilizing the food you just consumed prior to the workout anyways.

So in other words what you consumed the previous day and prior to going to bed the night before will be providing the majority of fuel from stored reserves and often times it’s more than enough, especially when the workout duration is less than an hour.


I should mention there will be those who are especially sensitive to hypoglycemia because of a medical condition, medications they are taking, or other factors. For individuals who experience nausea, dizziness, and/or feel light-headed when training in a fasted state, you may very well need some glucose prior to exercise.

What NOT to consume prior to an early morning workout (30-45 minutes before) if fat loss is a primary goal

- starch carbohydrates from breads, cereals, etc.
- high sugar processed carbs
- bars of any type (regardless of how “natural)
- heavy food of any sort that will require a lot of digestion
- peanut butter and other fats

Remember if you elect to eat anything you’d want it to be easily assimilated and digested. Eating any of the above would either raise insulin levels and/or activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which promotes energy storage- the exact opposite of what you’re shooting for.

If one was to eat ANY carbohydrates at all prior to an early morning workout, what would be best?

In my opinion, if any carbs were to be consumed upon awakening, prior to the workout, they would best come from low-glycemic fruits.

- blueberries
- raspberries
- strawberries
- grapefruit
- apple
- cherries

I’m talking a small amount (1 cup or less or 1 medium fruit). You’d only want 20-25 grams of pre-workout carbs regardless, and again I’d look at other options first unless you find you really need the sugar.

My top recommendations for optimizing fat loss with early morning workouts…

Number one would be to train in a fasted state if you’ll be working out within an hour of awakening and don’t have health issues or experience dizziness, nausea, etc, from low blood sugar.

I would go here first instead of trying to get in that bar, bagel and peanut butter, or whatever.

(Not a very good option for a pre-workout meal first thing in the morning)

There’s just a lot of potential upside for fat loss with training this way, especially for middle age and older adults.

Don’t look for that bowl of cereal, bagel, etc, to give you a boost for your workout first thing in the morning. There’s a chance it could do the exact opposite.

For those who can tolerate caffeine and have no medical conditions that would call for avoiding it, this can be a beneficial pre-workout aid to consider.

Remember how we talked about caffeine stimulating the sympathetic nervous system? This can be a good thing as it serves not only to trigger the release of fat burning hormones, but it also helps with mental alertness and an energy.

If you’re not a coffee or tea drinker, you could look at doing an Advocare Spark as an alternative.

This is a personal favorite pre-workout choice of mine because it contains not only a small amount of caffeine, but also has electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

Click here

(to learn more or to purchase. the new watermelon flavor is awesome by the way!)

Rolling out of bed and grabbing a coffee or hot tea is one option, or you could blend up a packet of Spark in your water bottle and sip on before and during your workout.

There’s also another option that is worth mentioning that doesn’t involve a fasting state…

That would be consuming a small amount of whey protein powder (15-25 grams) mixed with water prior to your workout.

This would be my first option for those who find they just need “something” prior to their workout. From a fat loss standpoint, I’d recommend this over eating even a small amount of carbohydrate from low-glycemic fruit.

There’s a lot to be said about the benefits of whey protein and water consumed prior to higher intensity resistance training workouts, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.

Ok, as a recap here are my top recommendations for middle age adults who are doing early morning workouts and want to lose fat.

  1. Exercising in a fasting state or…
  2. Exercising in a fasting state, but incorporating caffeine from coffee, tea, or something like an Advocare Spark energy drink, or…
  3. Consuming whey protein powder (15-25 grams) and water prior to the workout
  4. And if carbs must be included for some reason it would consist of (15-25 grams) from low-glycemic fruit.

One thing that I should mention before I wrap this up. This discussion was about whether or not to eat something for early morning workouts and if so what the best options would be.

By “early morning” I’m referring to working out within an hour of awakening. If you’re going to be working out 2-3 hours after awakening there’s more call for having a light meal or snack consisting of easily assimilated protein and fiber. Just remember to eat light, if you do.

I hope you’ve found this discussion to be informative and helpful. While this is a highly personalized question, the recommendations I’ve given you come from what I’ve found to be most effective with working with middle age adults over the years.

Take them for what they’re worth and use your own experimentation. What best helps you to shed those pounds and inches while still being able to train hard and make gains in the gym is the way to go.

Feel free to leave your comments or questions below.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts, a Charleston personal fitness training studio that specializes in weight loss and body transformation for middle age adults. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Fat Loss.