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We always talk about what to eat before a workout as it sets the tone for the entire duration. It can seriously switch it up from sluggish to a strong performance from start to finish.
But it’s no secret that eating a cheesy stuffed crust pizza before the gym will set you back, no matter how good it tastes. But what many people don’t know is that what you eat after a workout is even more important, so let’s find out why according to the experts.
Why Is Eating After a Workout So Important?
So, you’ve finished your workout and now it’s time to relax, right? Not quite. If you’re a regular exerciser, your workout shouldn’t be considered complete until you’ve had your post-workout meal. But we’re not talking about a full-on meal, just a small portion of food to enhance your workout. Nothing strenuous, you’ve already done the hard part (phew).
“Eating after a workout is considered important for two reasons. First, eating after a workout helps to replenish your glycogen stores. Glycogen is your body’s main source of energy,” says Serena Poon, Celebrity Chef, and Nutritionist. “Additionally, eating after your workout helps to rebuild and grow your muscles.” We bet we have your attention now.
How Long Should You Wait to Eat After a Workout?
Like many things in life, timing is key, especially when eating after a workout. The time in which you should eat depends on the intensity of your workout which can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. If you seriously pushed yourself to the limit, (but be honest with yourself), you shouldn’t wait for longer than 30 minutes.
“For glycogen replenishment, it is important to eat soon after your workout, within one to two hours immediately following your workout,” explains Poon. “One study found that waiting two hours decreased glycogen re-synthesis by 50%,” which is pretty drastic. So unless you didn’t break a sweat at all, waiting the full two hours is overkill.
For athletes or intense gym-goers, Poon says the rules are a little different. Your muscles will have more damage control to do. “For muscle repair, some studies show that the most effective way to support this process is by eating up to 20g of protein every three hours during the 12 hour period following a resistance workout,” she says. While “others recommend that protein should be consumed within the period immediately following your workout” – this is the most widely followed method when eating protein post-workout.
What Should You Absolutely Avoid Post-Workout?
While it’s tempting after a workout to treat yourself as a reward, don’t let temptation win and prioritize foods that nourish your body and support recovery. “I would recommend avoiding foods known to cause inflammation post-workout,” Poon says.
“Foods such as processed and red meat, refined grains, sugar, and anything highly processed, like fast food, put added strain on your body,” which defeats the end goal of repairing and replenishing the body post-workout.
What Type of Food Categories Should You Eat After a Workout?
You should focus on refueling your body post-workout, so carbohydrates and protein are the way to go, but if possible, get your fix in the form of whole foods to reduce inflammation. They also add extra value with essential vitamins and minerals.
“Carbohydrates are important to help replenish glycogen (aka stored carbs in the muscles) used up during the workout,” explains Mascha Davis MPH, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, founder of MiniFish.co and author of Eat Your Vitamins. “This will help keep your energy steady and also prepare you for the next time you workout. Ideally, you want to consume 0.5 – 0.7 grams of carb per lb of body weight within 30 – 60 minutes of the workout.”
It’s recommended that you eat more protein than carbohydrates to help with muscle protein synthesis and inhibit muscle breakdown, around “0.14 – 0.23 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight,” she says, but within the same time frame.
You can even incorporate fats into your post-workout meals. Davis suggests adding in healthy fats to further decrease inflammation in the body and promote optimal recovery. But keep their proportion small in relation to carbohydrates and protein, they shouldn’t ever outweigh them. “Unsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado oil, avocados, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies), nuts and seeds” are all good options.
“If you engage in a long or particularly hot bout of exercises (generally over one hour), you may need to replenish your body with electrolytes lost through sweat, such as sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium,” says Davis. Put simply, electrolytes are charged minerals and compounds that do most of the heavy lifting in the body.
They work to keep the body hydrated, balance blood acidity and pressure, rebuild damaged tissue, and regulate nerve and muscle function. Electrolytes sound hard to replace, but they’re as easy as eating spinach, kale, beans, strawberries, oranges, yogurt, chicken, and olives.
Don’t Forget to Rehydrate
We all know how vital drinking and replacing water loss throughout the day is. Davis reminds us that “water intake is important for body temperature and blood pressure regulation, nutrient transportation, and joint lubrication.” But after a super sweaty workout, we lose a lot of water in a short period of time through sweat and our breath which needs to be replaced asap.
“Lack of water intake and subsequent dehydration can lead to headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, heatstroke, and heat exhaustion,” says Davis. “Losing only 1 – 2% of body water leads to impaired brain function and decreased performance.”
What Happens to the Body if You Skip Post-Workout Refueling?
Skipping it once or twice isn’t the end of the world, but regularly not eating after a workout will mean “you are more likely to be underfueling for your entire day which can lead to increased risk for nutrient deficiency, injuries, and illness,” says Davis.
“You may also end up extremely hungry at night and then eat past comfortable fullness which can impact sleep quality.” So if you value your sleep and putting on weight isn’t the kind of gains you want, make eating after your workout a priority.
According to Davis, not refueling after your workout could even hinder your progress in the gym as “undereating can actually cause loss of muscle since the body will begin to break down muscle for energy if there isn’t enough fuel.”
Post-Workout Meals Should be Part of Every Athletes’ Routine
“Muscle protein synthesis will still occur so long as an adequate amount of protein is consumed throughout the day,” says Louise Garner, MNU Certified Nutritionist and Online Fitness Coach at Bel. “Athletes may be different, of course. If an athlete is training for a particular event it is beneficial to consume enough carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores in plenty of time before their event or their next lot of training” for optimal performance.
Protein is also important for athletes to support muscle recovery after a workout. Without it, they have a higher chance of injury than the average person with more regular and vigorous sessions.
Does What Workout You do Affect What You Should be Eating Afterward?
No matter what type of workout you’ve completed, protein and carbohydrates are a necessity. You’ll always need to consume both to replace your source of energy and help to repair muscle. The only thing that’ll be different is how much you need and when.
“For someone looking to build size in the gym, protein is super important, somewhere around 1.7 – 2.2g per kg of bodyweight is where they want to be,” explains Garner.
If you’re aiming to lose weight and “doing lots of intense exercise such as short bursts of hard exercise, depending on how long the session is for, they may want to consume some form of carbohydrate during the session if the session lasts longer than 90 minutes or so,” she says. Something light and easily accessible so you can continue to workout without feeling full such as an apple, legumes, nuts or seeds will do the trick. If you’ve got 90 minutes in you, you’ll still want to eat good carbohydrates after your workout as well to prevent overeating later on and have all your hard work go to waste.
Carbohydrates are also needed to replace glycogen stores as they’re limited in the body and it’s down to us to replenish them, says Garner. “If you have had a really hard workout, consuming some form of carbohydrate may make you feel better quicker as you are replenishing those stores relatively quickly, but to augment muscle gain, the only thing we really NEED is protein.” So while electrolytes and unsaturated fats have added benefits, they’re optional.
Poon’s top 3 post-workout meals:
- A piece of whole-grain toast with peanut butter, honey, and banana. This is a simple post-workout snack that will replenish your body with carbohydrates, protein, amino acids, and some electrolytes (potassium). Plus, it’s delicious. If you engaged in a workout that extended beyond an hour, treat yourself to a pinch of Himalayan pink salt.
- A smoothie with high-quality protein powder, fruit, and spinach. Smoothies make great post-workout recovery snacks because they are convenient, easy to digest and you can mix in a lot of recovery-supporting whole foods. For my post-workout smoothies, I add a packet of my chocolate superfood powder with pea protein, Just Add Water, ice, a banana, a handful of organic, fresh spinach, a spoonful of almond butter, and a cup of almond milk to a blender and enjoy as soon as possible.
- Chia pudding. Chia seeds are an excellent source of protein that contains a full amino acid profile. Place your organic chia seeds in a jar with the nut milk of your choice and place them in the fridge overnight. When you are ready to eat your chia pudding post-workout, top with sliced banana and pumpkin seeds for added nutrition and flavor.