A recent article has a few take home points that I would contend. The article suggests that eating before a workout is critical so that the body stays away from cannibalizing its own muscle the moment you break a sweat. Additionally, it suggests that the body strictly burns sugar for energy. Finally, the article proposes that stocking up on sugars prior to exercise is the answer to avoid bonking. Sounds like the traditional line from the typical performance nutrition "expert" who has neglected to understand the real story behind pre-workout fueling. Lets review the facts about fueling the body as I explain my points of contention.
what you need to know about how the body is fueled
The body has an alternative, more efficient and effective fuel source other than sugars: fat!
When you load up on carbs before activity, the body will choose the sugar every time.
This means that your body never has a chance to get into a state of fat burn. It's amazing to me that everyone who breaks a sweat during a workout is in some way motivated by burning fat, but so many insist fueling with sugar.
Burning primarily sugar for fuel is a devastating error in the quest to shed body fat. Not only does it mean that you limit your chances of torching body fat but the cost of running on sugar at the cellular level is much greater than the cost of burning fat. The article at the root of this discussion suggests that ATP is a naturally occurring energy source in the body. ATP is indeed the currency of energy in the body but saying it is "naturally occurring" is misleading. It is produced by converting either sugar or fat into a usable energy source.
ATP is indeed the currency of energy in the body but saying it is "naturally occurring" is misleading.
Dumping out your piggybank of carbs or fats at your body's cash register and expecting your body to give you energy in return would be like dumping your piggybank of american coins and dollars on the counter of a store in Canada. They are going to ask you to convert your American dollars into Canadian currency before making the sale. The point is that the body requires you take your carbs (sugars) and fats to the bank for exchange into the proper currency. The bank is your cell (specifically the Proton Pump) and the proper currency for usable energy is ATP.
TAKE NOTES - this is big
You get taxed on converting sugars into ATP differently than you get taxed on converting fat. Within the cell, during the conversion of sugar into ATP there are three compounds of Carbon Dioxide that are produced as a byproduct of the conversion process. When you bring fat to the cell to be converted into ATP only two compounds of CO2 are produced as a byproduct of the conversion process.
In other words the tax on converting sugar to ATP is 30% greater than when you convert fat into ATP. CO2 makes the cellular environment more acidic. A more acidic cell sounds to me like something to avoid, but here's exactly why it's the opposite of good: the lower pH environment in the cell results in less ATP production by the Proton Pump. Less ATP equals less available fuel or energy.
See the Proton Pump pumping out ATP (gold nuggets) in this cellular animation video from 1:10 - 1:30:
Direct your body towards burning your own body fat for energy. Eating cereal and "energy bars" before exercise is not the way. Eating primarily healthy fats and proteins no sooner than 2-4 hours prior to exercise and pumping the brakes on the carbs until after the gym is one way. Taking in the healthy fats more regularly trains your cells how to use fat for fuel more efficiently. The post-training carbs will top-off any depleted glycogen stores just in case you ever need them. Only thing is you may not need them very often if you are regularly burning fat for fuel - converting fat into energy equals more gold nuggets of ATP available to do more work with!
TAKE TO THE TRENCHES
Start slow and give this a try before your less intense, shorter workout days to get used to it. Keep in mind that unless you are hungry there is no law that says you must eat before you break a sweat. Assuming your goal is fat burn then exercising on an empty stomach is one way to become a fat burning machine!
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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Founder of TD Athletes Edge, where he provides fitness, recovery and nutrition guidance to aspiring and professional athletes. For training advice, visit www.tdathletesedge.com and follow him on Twitter/Instagram through @tdathletesedge.
Powering the Cell: Mitochondria [Motion picture]. (n.d.). Https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrS2uROUjK4.
Special thanks to Dr. Cate Shanahan and Luke Shanahan for helping me to explore the goldmine that is the Proton Pump.