Workouts demand proper nutrition for energy and refueling of working muscles. What you eat after a workout is just as important as your pre-workout meal. Common questions surrounding post-exercise meals are the best foods to eat and how long should you be waiting?
To have a better understanding of how the right foods can help you after a workout, it is important to know how physical activity affects your body.
Post-Workout Meal Is Important
When you are exercising, your muscles use up glycogen stores for energy. This results in your muscles lacking glycogen while some proteins are also being damaged (1, 2). Eating the right types of food to get enough nutrients can help your body get these things done faster. It is specifically important to consume more carbs and proteins after an exercise. These will help your body increase muscle protein synthesis or growth, decrease muscle protein breakdown, restore glycogen stores, and speed up recovery.
Proteins Can Repair and Rebuild Muscles
As mentioned earlier, exercise can trigger the breakdown of muscle proteins. The rate at which this can occur will depend on the workout or the level of training, but even athletes experience muscle protein damage (3, 4, 5).
Eating protein-rich foods after an exercise gives you the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild proteins and muscle tissues (1, 6, 7, 8). You are advised to take 0.14-0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight soon after exercise (1). Studies have shown that taking 20-40 grams of protein can help maximize your ability to recover from after a workout (6, 7, 9).
Carbs Will Help You Recover
Your body uses glycogen stores for energy during exercise, and eating carbs after will help replenish them. The rate at which your glycogen stores are used will depend on the level of activity that you are doing. If you do endurance sports like running and swimming, you will need to consume more carbs as compared to when you did resistance training.
Approximately 0.5-0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight is recommended to restore glycogen stores. This should be taken within 30 minutes after a workout (1). To boost insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, take carbs and protein at the same time (10, 11, 12, 13). Take them in a 3:1 ratio (14, 15). Rebuilding glycogen stores is specifically more important for people who exercise often, like twice a day.
Fat Isn’t Always Bad
A lot of people think that eating fat after exercise will slow down digestion and inhibits nutrient absorption. While fat may delay post-workout meal absorption, it won’t reduce its benefits. Evidence shows that whole milk was more effective at promoting muscle growth after an exercise than skim milk (16). More so, another study proved that consuming a high-fat meal after an exercise will not affect muscle glycogen synthesis (17). While limiting your fat intake can help avoid other health problems, including some fat in your post-exercise meal will not affect your recovery.
Timing Really Matters
Your ability to rebuild protein and glycogen is enhanced after an exercise (9). For this reason, you have to take a combination of protein and carbs as soon as you are done exercising. Although the timing does not need to be exact, experts say it’s better if done within 45 minutes. In fact, when carb consumption is delayed by as little as 2 hours, it may cause 50% lower rates of glycogen synthesis (9, 13). If you think you cannot eat right after a workout, do it before instead. Some studies say that the benefits of consuming a meal before a workout may still apply after training (9, 18, 19).
Best Foods and Drinks to Take After A Workout and Why
Consuming whole eggs after resistance training can help promote protein synthesis better than just taking egg whites with the same protein content (20). The nutrients in the yolk stimulate the muscles more effectively.
2. Milk Protein
As few as 9 grams of milk protein is enough to promote muscle protein synthesis, which can help in recovery after a workout (21).
Milk-based proteins are also more effective than soy-based proteins at promoting muscle protein growth after resistance training (22). Experts say that while both milk and soy proteins can help people maintain and build muscle mass, milk proteins are more effective at growing lean muscle mass faster.
3. Ricotta Cheese
A half-cup serving of Ricotta cheese offers as much as 14 grams of milk protein. It also contains whey protein, which is high in leucine and can be effective at sparking new muscle growth. Also, pairing whey protein with carbs after an exercise can help make your bones stronger (23).
4. Cottage Cheese
Over the past few years, Greek yogurt has gained all the attention when it comes to getting a good source of dairy protein. But did you know that cottage cheese actually contains more protein, as well as under 3 grams of leucine per cup? This amount is good enough to help build and maintain muscle post-exercise (24).
A single cup of low-fat kefir contains 9.2 grams of high-quality protein, which can help repair new cells, including those in the muscles (25). They contain essential amino acids, which can be obtained through your diet.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can help boost muscle protein synthesis and increase the muscle cells size in healthy young and middle-aged adults (26). Excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon and tuna. Six ounces of tuna packed in water contains 41.6 grams of protein and 5.4 grams of fat (27).
Another study revealed that consuming 6 grams of oil drawn from fatty fish every day for a week before resistance training may help relieve sore muscles (28).
Consuming fiber-rich foods after a workout can help replenish your blood sugar levels. Chickpeas contain both carbs and plant-based protein in one single pack. They make an excellent post-workout snack!
8. Sweet Potatoes
Carbs are needed for post-exercise recovery. Evidence shows that consuming carb-rich foods like potatoes and grains can help control the drop in your immune system that may happen after a strenuous exercise (29). The carbs you eat post-workout are more likely to be used as energy than stored as fat.
A handful of nuts can give you fiber, protein, and healthy fats immediately after a workout to keep your stomach full until you can get something more substantial to eat. Always bring a small pack of almonds in your gym bag. Nuts are very versatile! You can top your salad with walnuts and more.
10. Whole Grain Bread
Bread certainly gets a bad rap for dieters these days. But carbs are needed to help fuel your working muscles and your brain. Quality carbs like those present in whole-grain bread can go a long way in replenishing your muscles.
Here’s another powerful grain that you can add to your diet, especially if you are a vegan. This is loaded with protein and fiber.
Who doesn’t love blueberries? Aside from being delicious, they are packed with dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and antioxidants. All types of exercise cause oxidative stress. For this reason, it is very important to consume anti-oxidant rich foods as your post-workout meal. Blueberries can also help accelerate muscle recovery time (30). You can incorporate blueberries into your diet in different ways. A post-training blueberry smoothie would be perfect!
Many people are a sucker for a good avocado. This fruit contains high amounts of magnesium, which can help improve performance parameters in both aerobic and anaerobic exercises (31). It also has a good value of potassium, which can regulate fluid balance and control the electrical activity of the heart and other muscles. It’s an excellent source of folate and vitamins B6, C, and K, which have anti-inflammatory properties that may help relieve exercise-induced stress.
Bananas are an excellent snack that you can enjoy immediately after an exercise. It gives you carbs and potassium, which are muscle friendly nutrients. If you don’t like eating them raw, prepare a smoothie or mash them with peanut butter for a toast.
15. Green Leafy Vegetables
Just like blueberries and avocados, green leafy vegetables are also excellent post-workout foods. They are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are low in calories. They can also help minimize free radicals released during training. There are several options to choose from. Check out spinach, kale, watercress, or arugula.
16. Herbal Tea
Herbal tea contains several nutrients and compounds that can help the body process protein and carbohydrates more effectively. Yerba mate was found to be effective in helping participants recover their strength faster within 24 hours after a workout (32). Another research in mice revealed that yerba mate extract can boost metabolism and help expend more energy (33).
17. Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is rich in antioxidants and has several anti-inflammatory compounds that have been effective in helping athletes recover from intense exercise, but it is not limited to weight training (34). Tart cherry juice can also help lower systolic blood pressure approximately 90 minutes after a workout. Evidence also shows that it can promote sleep (35).
It is very important to keep yourself well hydrated before, during, and after exercise. The body loses water and electrolytes while sweating, so drinking a lot of water can help promote performance and recovery.
Taking the right foods and drinks to fuel your body after a workout will be the most important part of achieving your fitness goals. Plan and prepare a healthy post-workout meal or snack. Remember to replenish your fluids and electrolytes by drinking more water before, during, and after an exercise. Carbohydrates, proteins, and some fats can help encourage muscle protein production and promote recovery with the most promising results.