Q | I’m never hungry before my early-morning workouts. Should I eat something anyway?
A | The short answer, for most people, is “maybe,” says Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, a dietitian with Life Time in Chanhassen, Minn. An easy-to-digest, preworkout snack including carbs and protein can help fuel you, keeping your energy level up while preventing midworkout hunger pangs, tiredness, headaches, and nausea, which some people experience when working out on an empty stomach (even if they weren’t hungry to begin with).
Some simple ideas include a hard-boiled egg, a tablespoon of nut butter with a banana, or a small portion of sweet potatoes. Protein shakes or beverages made with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are also good options if eating solid food isn’t appealing, notes Kriegler.
That being said, the short answer isn’t the whole answer.
You may have good reason for little to no early-morning hunger, such as an intermittent fasting protocol. If this is the case, and you feel great when you wake up, during your workout, and throughout the day, don’t feel obligated to change what’s already working.
It’s important to listen to your body, however. You may not be hungry when you first get up — but are you hungry or fatigued while exercising? Do you feel ravenous afterward? If so, you might want to rethink your regimen and experiment with alternate nutrition practices.
According to Kriegler, there are two major factors that determine morning hunger — sleep quality and overall nutrition. Both affect hunger via hormonal responses.
When you don’t get enough shut-eye, two things happen: Your body produces more ghrelin (the hormone that regulates appetite, making you feel hungry) and more cortisol, an energizing hormone. The result? Unpredictable hunger pangs.
“It won’t be apparent immediately upon rising because cortisol may blunt your hunger sensation as it helps you wrangle the energy necessary to start working out,” Kriegler says.
Cortisol can also wreak havoc on your blood sugar. When you wake up, a surge of this hormone (which, again, is higher with inadequate sleep) tells your liver to release glucose into your bloodstream. This can set you up for a dramatic postworkout drop in blood glucose.
“Working out without eating can bring blood glucose back down quite aggressively, especially when workouts are high intensity or long duration,” says Kriegler. “Low glucose levels trigger a chain of events that make you very hungry — for sugar, usually.”
If this accurately describes your experience — no hunger when you wake up, intense hunger during or after your morning workouts, strong sugar cravings all day — eating a preworkout snack may not be enough to balance hormones and keep your energy up. You’ll also need to prioritize sleep (even if it means curtailing the length and intensity of your workouts) and eat a whole-foods diet that balances blood sugar throughout the day.
A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Experience Life magazine. Click here to subscribe.