Spinning your wheels at the gym? It might be time to rethink what you're putting in the tank.
After all, while it's common knowledge that you can't out-exercise a bad diet, a lot of exercisers assume their diets are healthier than they really are. They believe the nutrition choices are working toward their exercise results. In reality, however, they are doing anything but -- contributing to lackluster workouts, caloric surpluses and fat gain.
Here, top nutritionists share the four most common nutrition myths that work against your fitness gains.
Myth 1: You Should Avoid Carbs to Lose Weight
While eating too much of any macronutrient -- whether carbohydrates, protein or fat -- can contribute to weight gain, you still need to consume enough carbohydrates to support your workouts.
"Your liver and muscles store carbs as glycogen for immediate fuel, which is what makes your body hum most efficiently during exercise," explains nutrition scientist Lisa Davis, chief nutrition officer of Terra's Kitchen healthy recipe delivery service. Without enough carbs on board, exercise performance suffers (even though your workouts feel just as hard, if not harder) and progress stalls.
Instead of taking a low-carb approach to weight loss, Davis recommends taking a smart-carb approach. Fuel your days with balanced meals containing about 40 percent of your calories from whole, unprocessed carbs such as quinoa, fruits, vegetables, oats, and whole-wheat bread. And lay off of the added sugars such as white pasta, baked goods, candy and sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice.
Myth 2: All Protein Bars Are a Good Source of Protein
Just because the label says " protein" doesn't mean the wrapper contains much of it. In actuality, many protein bars contain fewer than 5 grams of protein along with more sugar than a candy bar and the calories of a full meal.
In certain situations -- like when you're hiking for hours and need plenty of fuel without stuffing multiple sandwiches in your pack -- you need a lot of simple carbs, calories and relatively little protein. But when you're looking for a quick, healthy snack, or a boost of muscle-building protein after a workout, some of these bars aren't ideal and can easily counteract your workouts, Davis says.
To give your muscles the protein they need, whether before, after or hours away from your workout, she recommends opting for a bar with at least 15 grams of protein. Sugar content should be below 5 grams per serving.
Myth 3: You Should Eat Immediately After You Leave the Gym to Recover Properly
You do need a blend of carbs and protein (most experts say a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of the nutrients is best) following exercise for the body to recover and to get the most out of your workouts. But sucking down a shake as you exit the gym isn't necessary, explains Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist Victoria Shanta Retelny. She points to 2017 research published in PeerJ that found that the post-exercise anabolic window (when you need to eat protein after your workout to build the most muscle) is much longer than previously believed -- as long as several hours or more following exercise.
So while you're going to build muscle whether you eat a snack immediately following your after-work workouts or you wait until dinnertime, doubling up could potentially result in overconsumption of calories, partly explaining why many people gain weight after starting a workout routine.
Try scheduling your regular meals around your workouts, she says. That way, you can make sure to get in plenty of post-workout nutrition without accidentally eating more food than you really need. As long as you eat a complete meal -- with a combination of whole carbs, healthy fats and about 20 to 30 grams of protein -- within a few hours of leaving the gym, you'll give your muscles what you need.
Myth 4: Fasted Exercise Burns More Fat
Exercising on empty, like first thing in the morning, tends to burn a greater percentage of calories from fat. But that doesn't mean a greater number of total calories or even calories from fat, for that matter.
It all comes back to those levels of glycogen, or stored carbs, housed in the body's liver and muscles, Davis says. During the night, the body burns through much of its glycogen reserves. So when you exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, the body is forced to get more of its energy from fat than it would if your glycogen reserves were topped off. However, the body cannot exercise at as high of intensities when it runs on fat as opposed to carbs, and, at lower intensities, you burn fewer total carbs. Fun fact: You actually burn the greatest percentage of calories from fat when you're sleeping, and no one's calling that a workout.
A better morning workout strategy: Consume a small, carb-rich snack such as a banana and peanut butter or a fruit-filled protein shake, Davis says. It will give your body the carbohydrates it needs for you to exercise at a higher intensity, thereby burning more calories, including those from fat.
K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a graduate degree in health and science reporting, she has contributed to publications including TIME, Women's Health, Men's Health, Runner's World, and Shape. She empowers others to reach their goals using a science-based approach to fitness, nutrition and health. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, find her on Facebook or the Web or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.