What to Eat If You’re Hungry During a Workout

There are a few factors to consider when fueling during exercise.

March 23, 2021

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Muslim woman drinking sports drink after working out in park on fall afternoon

Photo by: Thomas Barwick

Thomas Barwick

What if you get hungry during your workout — should you eat? If food is a good idea, what should you reach for? If you’re an avid exerciser, these queries have probably crossed your mind. It turns out there are several possible factors to consider when fueling during exercise.

How to Fuel Your Workouts

Food is fuel. There’s no disputing that calories are what you need to energize your workouts. But since there are so many different forms of exercise, there are various ways to fuel them. To help support physical activity, a regular, balanced diet of carbs, protein and fat is essential. Carbs and fat are your major energy sources, and protein supports healthy muscles. Day in and day out, you need all three of these macros to give your body what it needs. Since they are all digested differently, you have to consider the timing and your tolerance of taking in calories while exercising.

You may also want to ask yourself why you are hungry during a workout and rule out not eating enough beforehand. In general, longer-duration activities, lasting 90 minutes or more, increase the likelihood you’ll want some calories coming in during the exercise bout.

Choose Easily-Digestible Carbohydrates

Sports dietitian Angie Asche, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body, points out the need for choosing easily digestible carbs during exercise: "As your exercise duration increases, so does the amount of carbohydrates necessary to fuel performance. What you should eat really depends on multiple factors: What do you like to eat? What foods do you tolerate best, or are you prone to GI upset with certain foods during exercise?”

As far as what to eat that will work best for you, it may take some trial and error. If you are a competitive athlete, never try a new food on a competition day, just in case it doesn’t agree with you. “If you're unsure, I recommend starting with options that are rich in carbohydrates, lower in fiber and very easy for most people to digest,” Asche suggests. “The first several to come to mind are a banana, granola bar, fig bar, or slice of bread or waffle with a drizzle of honey.” And don’t forget about staying hydrated, as that also plays a role in carbohydrate digestion. “Keep in mind, if you plan to consume solid food or highly concentrated carbohydrate sources, be sure to balance this with fluids to reduce any risk of GI upset during exercise.”

What About Sports Drinks?

Some exercise enthusiasts may benefit from a sports drink during a workout. Liquids are often tolerated more easily, plus they help keep your hydration and electrolyte levels in check. “Sports drinks are another option, and they contain carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes all in one. There are a lot of different choices on the market, but they’re also easy to make at home,” adds Asche. Try a homemade blend made from ingredients like diluted orange juice or coconut water with a sprinkle of sea salt, or check out our list of sports drink tips.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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