Peanut butter and banana toast, pictured here on a white marble countertop, is a great food to eat before a workout.

The Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout, According to Registered Dietitians

How to fuel up for a sweat session, whether you have three hours or three minutes to spare.

By Michelle KonstantinovskyOctober 19, 2023


Here’s the thing about nutrition: You’re much more likely to encounter an “it depends”-style answer to any dietary query than a hard-and-fast rule. So if you’ve been pondering over the “best” foods to eat before a workout, you might want to brace yourself for some serious nuance and accept the fact that there simply is no “perfect” pre-exercise diet. 

That being said, there are some guiding principles that registered dieticians endorse for pre-workout fueling, whether you’re planning to have a full meal or only have time for a quick snack on the go. Here’s what everyone should know about what (and when! And why!) to eat before a workout.

Should You Eat Before a Workout?

In short, it’s generally a good idea to fuel up before exercising, especially if you’re doing a more intense workout. But of course, there are many factors to consider when you’re trying to decide whether or not to eat before a workout. For many, getting in some kind of pre-workout fuel is non-negotiable, and for others, the thought of stomaching anything before working up a sweat is seriously unappetizing.

In addition to personal preference, the concept of fasted cardio (i.e. exercising on an empty stomach) has gained popularity in recent years, leaving many exercisers confused about whether or not eating could actually impede their progress. While there may be some research to support performing some types of exercise fasted, working out without fuel isn’t recommended for everyone, and it’s definitely not a good idea if you’ll be going all out in a high-intensity or strength class.

“Generally, I would say cardio is more acceptable when it’s fasted, whereas strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts require you to be fed,” says registered dietitian and naturopathic physician Jaime Schehr, ND, RD​. “If you’re doing steady-state cardio that is less than 60 minutes in length, you’re most likely fine to do it fasted if you’re hydrated.” That said, if your heart rate goes soaring (such as higher than zone 3) during the workout, you’ll need some fuel, she adds.

Risks of Exercising Without the Proper Fuel

If you’re wondering what could be “unsafe” about working out on an empty stomach, there are serious risks to consider, like overtraining, along with the dizziness and fatigue that some people experience when undereating. But there’s also the very real possibility that skipping a pre-workout meal or snack could actually be undermining your fitness goals.

“When you’re trying to build muscle by lifting weights, or you're doing HIIT workouts where your heart rate is getting really high and you're completely fasted, you don't have the quick energy that's needed to support that workout,” Schehr explains. “You could actually end up hindering your body’s ability to generate more muscle or build strength or have the stress response needed to support the high-intensity exercise because you don't have the available fuel.”

The Benefits of Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks

The main reason Schehr and other experts advocate for pre-workout fuel is that our bodies run on one main energy source: glucose. Otherwise known as blood sugar, glucose is what powers multiple systems in the body, and when it’s not used immediately, it’s stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver for later use, like during exercise. But in order to make this essential energy source, your body requires carbohydrates, which, along with proteins and fats (as well as cholesterol, fiber, and water) make up the macronutrients everyone needs to survive and thrive—including during workouts. 

While carbs (think: bread, pasta, rice, and even fruit) have historically gotten a bad rap because of their supposed role in weight gain (a false oversimplification of the facts, by the way), they are absolutely critical and play a significant role in your workouts. “If someone's not giving their body an adequate amount of carbohydrates, then their body could break down the protein found in muscle to give them enough energy,” says registered dietitian and The Wellful owner Brenna O'Malley, RD. “Carbs are what's broken down into glucose and are what gives your brain, your muscles, and your nervous system energy.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to force down a bagel at 5 AM in fear of jeopardizing your 6 AM workout gains, though. “You don’t want to make yourself sick just to have the goal of eating something before you work out,” O'Malley says. “But it’s important to check in with how you feel.” Even if you're just having a little something before exercising and enjoying the rest of your breakfast afterward, it can help fuel your body through a workout, she adds.

Generally, What Should You Eat Before Exercise?

If you’re planning to take on a more intense sweat sesh, carbs are a great choice before a workout, namely because they’re quicker to digest than other macronutrients and provide the fastest source of energy. But if you feel better eating something else, experiment with other types of snacks and follow your intuition. 

“There's research that shows what we call 'protein-fed workouts' may support a person who can’t eat before their workout because it makes them nauseous but they want to do strength training or HIIT,” Schehr says. “For some people who work out in the morning and can’t eat a meal, having something like protein powder mixed with almond milk could potentially give them the benefit of a fasted workout, but not at the expense of building lean muscle.”

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around carbs versus proteins versus fats, here’s a quick breakdown of each macro, along with some sample foods to consider eating before a workout:


As we touched on earlier, carbs are sugar molecules that are broken down into glucose, your body’s main energy source. There are a few different categories of carbs, but experts generally recommend that the majority of your overall carb intake be in the form of “complex” carbohydrates, like starches (think bread, cereal, or pasta) and fiber (such as vegetables, some fruits, beans, seeds, and whole grains). 


Otherwise known as “the building blocks of life,” proteins are found in every single cell of your body and are necessary to help repair and make new cells (which is why you definitely need them for muscle growth). During digestion, your body breaks protein from food into amino acids, which are essential to maintaining overall health. Your body naturally produces some types of amino acids, but others must come from proteins like meat, milk, fish, and eggs (animal sources) and beans, soy, legumes, nut butters, and some grains like quinoa (plant sources).


Just like carbs, fats were once wrongly vilified, but they’re vital to your overall health and, yes, exercise performance. During your workout, your body first burns through the calories from carbohydrates you’ve eaten for energy, but after about 20 minutes, it taps into the calories from fat to help fuel your activity. Generally, experts recommend getting the majority of your fat intake from unsaturated sources, such as olive oil, avocados, seeds, and nuts. 

So, armed with all that macro knowledge, which food group is best when it comes to pre-workout snacking? Again: it depends, and the best foods to eat before a workout for some will be different from others. But for the most part, the closer you are to your workout window, the more you want to focus on the quicker-digesting carbs and proteins since fats take the longest to digest and could leave you feeling sluggish if eaten right before exercise

And, of course, consider hydration an essential part of your fueling plan. To help prevent the unpleasant and potentially dangerous effects of dehydration (such as weakness and fatigue), you’ll need to hydrate all day long—not just before your workout. “Hydration should never just happen in the moment; it’s about staying on top of your needs,” Schehr says. “So, for example, if someone is getting up at 5 AM on Thursday to work out, they need to be drinking an adequate amount of water on Wednesday.”

How Long Before Working Out Is It Best to Eat?

Not only is what you’re eating before a workout important to consider, but when you’re eating it is key, too. For some afternoon or evening exercises, fitting in a well-balanced meal or two prior to working out isn’t a problem. But for morning exercisers, timing can be a bit trickier. Regardless of when you’re working out, the general guidelines are:

  • If you have three to four hours before your workout, go ahead and have a meal consisting of carbs, proteins, and fats.

  • If you have one to two hours before your workout, go for a snack that’s higher in carbs, but may include some protein. If you’re not sure where to begin, some snacks to consider include half a sandwich, pretzels and hummus, or peanut butter and banana, O’Malley says.

  • If you’re about to start your workout and need something in your system, easy-to-digest carbs are your best bet. “The closer you get to your actual workout, the more quickly you want to be able to digest the food, and the more carb-heavy it should be,” O’Malley says, listing bananas, oatmeal, or other fruits as worthy examples.

The Best Pre-Workout Foods for Your Routine

With all those nuances and individual variables, preferences, and needs in mind, what are some of the best pre-workout foods you might want to consider adding to your routine? 

Here are a few popular pre-workout food ideas, per Schehr:

  • Bananas or toast with peanut or almond butter

  • Protein powder mixed with almond milk

  • A protein bar with a one-to-one ratio of about 10-12 grams of protein and 10-12 grams of sugar

  • Turkey roll-ups

If you’re an early riser who prefers to exercise first thing in the morning, you may want to pare down your pre-workout fuel—but chances are you can still take in something, even if it’s small. “You might not want to have a meal before a workout, but that doesn't mean you should have nothing,” Schehr says. Think about how your body handles food and which snacks or meals land well for you, especially in a shorter amount of time. For instance, if you're waking up for an early-morning sweat sesh, you might consider something like a banana, rice cake, or piece of toast, Schehr says.

It’s also important to consider how you’re fueling yourself throughout the day, not just before a workout. “It’s helpful to zoom out and make sure you're eating enough throughout the day and staying hydrated and taking care of yourself outside of that two-hour or so window before your workout,” O’Malley says.

What Should You Avoid Eating Before Your Workout?

Since preference and tolerance are really the name of the game when it comes to pre-workout nutrition (and all nutrition for that matter), the foods to avoid are highly individualized. There are, however, some more common culprits for sabotaging a solid workout. Here are a few to consider, according to Schehr:

  • High-fiber foods: While fiber is essential to an overall healthy diet, high-fiber foods like beans, broccoli, and even some whole grains are slow to digest and can leave you feeling uncomfortable before getting active.

  • High-fat foods: Similarly, high-fat foods take longer to move through your digestive system, and will likely induce more sluggishness than energy when it comes to exercise.

  • Carbonated drinks: While some people may enjoy a fizzy pre-workout drink, the bubbles may induce bloating, and certain high-sugar, high-caffeine concoctions can leave you more dehydrated than you’d be if you just drank plain water. (Note, though, that caffeine by itself is totally fine before a workout, so long as you can tolerate it and stay plenty hydrated.)

The Takeaway

Every exerciser has unique nutritional needs, but there’s no reason to skip pre-workout fuel if you have the time, can stomach at least a snack, and you’re trying to make any type of gains in strength, endurance, output, and more. Consider your personal preferences, the workout you’re doing, and the timing when deciding on your pre-work snacks or meals. Remember that proper nutrition and hydration is a round-the-clock job, and, as Schehr points out, it’s important to always prioritize your individual needs. “If we are going to spend the time taking care of ourselves to exercise, we also want to do that with nutrition,” she says. “If we let the pendulum swing too much to either side—including overtraining and undereating or paying attention to food but not exercise—we’re never going to feel as good as we possibly could as when we pay attention to both. If we all asked ourselves more how we feel versus what we should do, we'll have more clear answers on how to make the right decisions.”

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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