Is it better to eat more on workout days?

Eating more on workout days is a strategy used by many athletes and fitness enthusiasts to support their training goals. The rationale is that on days when you exercise intensely, your body has an increased need for nutrients to power you through your workouts and to help your muscles recover and grow afterwards. But is ramping up your calorie and nutrient intake on workout days actually beneficial, or is it unnecessary or even counterproductive? There are good arguments on both sides of this debate.

Quick Answer

For most people doing moderate exercise, eating slightly more on workout days is recommended. An extra 200-300 calories, focusing on protein, complex carbs and healthy fats, is sufficient. Elite athletes doing very intense training may need more substantial increases in calories/nutrients on workout days. Eating excessive extra calories is not beneficial.

The Case for Eating More on Workout Days

Here are some of the top reasons why it can be advantageous to increase your food intake on workout days:

  • Increased calorie burn – Exercise increases the number of calories you burn. To avoid being in a calorie deficit, you’ll need to eat more to fuel your workouts.
  • Increased nutrient needs – Exercise creates a greater need for nutrients like protein to build and repair muscle tissue. Carbs help fuel your workouts. Consuming more of these nutrients on workout days helps optimize training adaptations.
  • Improved recovery – Eating more nutrients after training helps replenish glycogen stores, facilitate muscle protein synthesis, and reduce inflammation, enhancing recovery.
  • Support muscle growth – Consuming more protein and calories on training days helps provide your body with the raw materials to build new muscle after strength training.
  • Maintain & gain muscle mass – Without increased calorie and protein intake on training days, you may struggle to maintain or gain muscle mass over time as you break down muscle tissue during workouts.
  • Fuel performance – Eating more carbs before and after workouts provides your body with adequate glycogen to perform at your best during intense or long duration activities.
  • Appetite cues – Feelings of increased hunger are common after workouts, so eating more on those days helps satisfy your body’s natural appetite signals.

The key point is that the body has increased nutritional demands on workout days compared to rest days. Failing to meet those demands can hinder your performance, recovery, and ability to get the most out of your training over time. So it makes sense in many cases to bump up your calorie and nutrient intake.

How Many Extra Calories on Workout Days?

As a general guideline, here’s a rough estimate of how many extra calories are likely needed on workout days for different groups:

  • Casual exercisers: 200-300 extra calories
  • Moderate exercisers: 300-500 extra calories
  • Highly active individuals: 500-800 extra calories
  • Elite and endurance athletes: 800-1000+ extra calories

These estimates are based on how many additional calories are typically burned during various intensities and durations of exercise. The exact number of extra calories needed will vary based on your workout program, body size, and goals.

What Should You Eat for More Calories?

Here are some smart ways to get those extra workout day calories:

  • Focus on more protein – eat an extra chicken breast, protein shake, eggs, fish, etc.
  • Add in complex carbs – try extra rice, quinoa, oats, sweet potatoes, etc.
  • Include healthy fats – add in an avocado, nuts, nut butters, olive/coconut oil, etc.
  • Try a post-workout recovery meal or snack.
  • Drink calorie-containing beverages like milk or juice.
  • Have larger portions of nutritious whole foods.

Avoid empty calories from sugar, refined grains, fried foods, and processed snacks. Focus your extra intake on protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats to properly fuel and recover from your workouts.

The Case Against Eating More on Workout Days

Despite the potential benefits outlined above, there are some experts and evidence that suggest eating more on workout days may not be necessary or optimal. Here are some of the top arguments against increasing calories on training days:

  • Most people overestimate calorie burn – Exercise tends to burn fewer calories than people expect. You may not need extra calories to make up for expenditure.
  • Increase hunger & appetite – Eating more frequently ramps up hormones that stimulate appetite, creating unhealthy cravings on other days.
  • Undermines fat loss – Spikes in insulin from increased calories can inhibit fat burning both during and after workouts.
  • Unnecessary for muscle gain – Protein is more important than total calories when it comes to building muscle mass after training.
  • Metabolic adaptation – Excess calories every workout can cause your body to adapt by reducing baseline calorie needs on rest days.
  • Weight gain – Providing your body with excess calories too frequently can lead to unintended weight gain over time.
  • Blood glucose issues – Large meals on workout days may induce an unfavorable blood sugar and insulin response for some individuals.

In essence, the viewpoint against eating more on training days argues that the extra calories aren’t needed, may inhibit fat loss, increase hunger, and promote metabolic issues or weight gain in some cases. Moderation and sticking to consistent intake daily can be better.

Potential Problems with Overdoing Workout Calories

Here are some specific drawbacks that can occur if you get excessive with calories on workout days:

  • Fat gain – Too many extra calories end up stored as body fat.
  • Insulin resistance – Large spikes in insulin from overfeeding can cause cells to become less sensitive to insulin.
  • Energy crashes – Reactive hypoglycemia can occur following periods of overeating carbs.
  • Poor recovery – Excess food intake right after workouts interferes with the body’s natural recovery capacities.
  • Inflammation – Eating too much in general, especially refined carbs, can trigger inflammation.
  • Gastrointestinal issues – Overeating causes discomfort, bloating, gas, constipation, etc.

Timing and meal composition are also important considerations here. The point is that substantially overshooting your increased calorie needs on training days comes with potential downsides.


At the end of the day, there are good arguments on both sides of this debate. For most general fitness enthusiasts, a small to moderate calorie increase on workout days is prudent to optimize training effects. However, going to extremes with excessive calorie intake frequently is likely unnecessary and counterproductive.

Here are some general evidence-based guidelines on the best workout day nutrition approach:

  • Focus on sufficient protein intake daily – 1.2-2.0 grams per kg of bodyweight is a good target.
  • Time some carbs pre-workout and protein post-workout.
  • Increase total calories only moderately, starting with ~200-300 extra on training days.
  • Add calories conservatively and assess your individual needs and responses.
  • Focus extra calories on protein, carbs and fats from nutrient-dense whole foods.
  • Avoid going drastically overboard on total calories or spiking insulin levels.

With a thoughtful approach, eating properly on workout days can absolutely complement your training and physique goals. But more is not necessarily better – moderation and avoiding extremes tends to work best for most people.

Example Meal Plans

Here are some sample meal plans that illustrate appropriate calorie and macro nutrient targets for workout days versus rest days:

Male workout day

Calories: 2,800

Protein: 180g

Carbs: 350g

Fat: 80g

Meal Foods
Breakfast Oatmeal made with milk, protein powder, banana, almonds
Snack Cottage cheese, berries
Lunch Chicken breast, sweet potato, veggies, olive oil
Pre-workout Whole wheat toast, peanut butter
Post-workout Protein shake, banana
Dinner Salmon, brown rice, broccoli

Male rest day

Calories: 2,300

Protein: 160g

Carbs: 260g

Fat: 80g

Meal Foods
Breakfast Greek yogurt with granola and fruit
Snack Whole wheat crackers, hummus
Lunch Tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread
Snack Mixed nuts
Dinner Tofu stir fry with veggies and quinoa

This adjusts calories while keeping protein intake high and modifies carbs/fats based on activity level. The exact foods can be tailored to individual preferences.

How to Determine Your Needs

Here are some tips for determining your own ideal calorie increase for workout days:

  • Start conservatively – Try adding ~200 extra calories on training days at first.
  • Monitor weight & measurements – If losing weight too quickly, increase calories slightly.
  • Track hunger levels – Increase intake if excessively hungry, especially post-workout.
  • Consider workout duration & intensity – The harder you train, the more calories may be needed.
  • Adjust as needed – Make small tweaks over time based on your goals and response.
  • Talk to a professional – Consult a registered dietitian or nutrition coach if needed.

It’s not an exact science and takes some trial and error. The best approach is to start with small increases and find the sweet spot that provides enough fuel without overdoing it.

Signs You May Need More Calories on Workout Days

  • High hunger, especially after workouts
  • Fatigue during workouts
  • Loss of strength over time
  • Inability to gain muscle
  • Weight loss stall
  • Increased soreness & recovery time
  • Loss of menstrual cycle

These may be signs you’re underfueling activity and need to bump up workout day calories. Track progress and symptoms and adjust as needed.

Signs You May be Eating Too Much

  • Weight gain
  • Continually increasing body fat
  • Bloating or GI discomfort
  • Lethargy
  • Moodiness
  • High inflammation

These could indicate excess calorie intake on training days. Try pulling back a bit and see if symptoms improve.

Pre and Post-Workout Nutrition

Nutrient timing around workouts is also an important consideration. Here are some quick evidence-based guidelines:


  • Eat 1-2 hours before exercise
  • Consume easily digested carbs
  • Drink fluids to stay hydrated
  • Have a small protein source
  • Good options: oatmeal, banana, nutrition shake, yogurt, etc.


  • Eat within 60 minutes after training
  • Prioritize protein consumption – 20-40g
  • Also consume carbs to replenish glycogen
  • Good options: chicken, fish, eggs, protein powder, rice, quinoa, fruit

Properly fueling around workouts enhances performance, recovery, and muscle growth. Timed nutrients are another way to optimize results on training days.

General Nutrition Guidelines for Active Individuals

Here are some additional evidence-based diet tips for physically active people:

  • Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise.
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • Choose nutrient-dense minimally processed foods whenever possible.
  • Eat carbohydrates proportionate to activity levels.
  • Get adequate healthy fats each day from sources like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado.
  • Take a multivitamin to cover micronutrient needs if desired.
  • Support workout recovery with sleep, hydration, foam rolling, etc.
  • Listen to hunger cues and avoid forcing extra calories.

An overall balanced, nutrient-dense diet tailored to your activity level goes a long way. Workout nutrition is one part of the equation for fitness success.

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