Everyone seems to have an opinion about what to eat after a workout — and what to eat in general — when on a fitness program. All the carbs! Absolutely NO carbs! No fat, low-fat, put-tablespoons-of-butter-in-your-coffee amounts of fat. Some say sugar is out, others recommend snacking on gummy bears post-gym.
So what gives?
Plenty of science, pseudo-science, and straight up falsities about what to eat after working out are floating around the internet in staggering quantities. We took a look at the actual science to determine what foods are best for fueling up after a trip to the gym — so you know what to eat to recover faster, feel better, and get stronger.
What to eat after a workout
Why does what you eat after a workout matter?
Before you can really understand why you need to eat certain foods after a workout, you need to understand what said workout does to your body.
When you do any sort of strenuous physical activity, you deplete your glycogen — AKA carbohydrates that live in our muscles to give us energy — stores. If you’re doing any sort of resistance training, you’re also creating tiny micro-tears in your muscles and damaging muscle proteins. That’s a good thing — your muscles get stronger during the healing and repairing process.
Enter, nutrition. After a workout, you might be “resting,” but your body is hard at work restocking glycogen and repairing muscle fibers. Without the proper nutrients, you can seriously slow down the recovery process because you’re denying your body the fuel it needs to do the work.
In a nutshell: You gotta eat right if you want your body to heal and get stronger.
What are macronutrients?
Think of macronutrients as the building blocks of your diet: Protein, carbs, and fat. All three are part of a balanced, healthy diet that keeps your body running at peak performance.
On the other side of the spectrum, micronutrients are those other vitamins and minerals our bodies need to keep our immune systems, brain function, metabolism, and more working as they should. You’ll find them in fruits, veggies, and of course your daily multivitamin.
How macronutrients affect the body
Carbohydrates after a workout
Carbs help replenish the glycogen stores you burn through while working out. Intense cardio like cycling or running will burn through more glycogen than resistance training like weightlifting.
For people who exercise daily or in big amounts (i.e. long runs), eating plenty of carbs post-workout is crucial — not only for recovery, but also for energy levels and mood. Studies show you can restore your glycogen levels to normal by eating 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight right after working out — AKA 80 grams of carbs for a 160-pound person.
Protein after a workout
There’s a reason you see bodybuilders chugging protein shakes post-workout. Since resistance training breaks down muscle protein, eating protein helps you repair and rebuild the muscle fibers you damage while working out by giving your body the amino acids it needs to get it done.
This study recommends eating 0.14-0.23g protein, per pound of body weight, in order to quickly recover from your workout. That’s about 22 to 37 grams of protein for a 160-pound person, which supports several studies that claim 20 to 40 grams of protein are ideal for post-workout recovery.
Fat after a workout
Fat used to be demonized. Now, it’s glorified. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, according to current studies, which claim healthy fats are great for you in moderate amounts.
While fats are good for you and you should definitely eat them, studies show they don’t much affect glycogen stores or muscle recovery. So, while you can totally eat them post-workout if you want, you’ll still need protein and carbs.
Good post-workout foods
Enough science, already. What ACTUAL foods can you eat after a workout? Here are some options that are great for you:
Carbs: Brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, oatmeal, and quinoa
Protein: Chicken, salmon, eggs, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or a protein powder (plant-based or animal-product-based are both fine!)
Fats: Nuts, nut butters, or avocado
Good post-workout meals and snacks
You can build the perfect post-workout meal by combining one thing from each of the three elements above. Here are some examples of what to eat after a workout:
Two eggs, half an avocado, and two pieces of whole grain toast
Oatmeal with whey protein
Grilled chicken with brown rice and leafy greens
Cottage cheese with berries and toast
What to eat after cardio
Cardio depletes your glycogen stores more than it tears muscle fibers (though it does do both). Those who are doing heavy cardio like running, swimming, or cycling should be eating a higher quantity of carbs and a moderate amount of protein — like a bowl of rice or pasta with meat or tofu.
What to eat after resistance training
Resistance training doesn’t deplete glycogen stores as much as cardio, so a weightlifter is going to need, in general, fewer carbs than a long-distance runner to stay healthy. If you’re doing regular resistance training, aim to get that 20-40 grams of protein in post workout, then supplement with carbs and fat.
How long should you wait to eat after a workout?
It’s recommended to eat your post-workout meal within 30 to 45 minutes of working out. This is because your body really wants to rebuild glycogen stores after a workout, enhancing your ability to do so.
Studies suggest you could half your amount of glycogen recovery if you wait two hours after a workout to eat — unless you ate before a workout, since your body will still benefit from that food after exercise.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
I honestly should have led with this. YOUR. BODY. NEEDS. WATER.
Especially if you’re exercising regularly, since you sweat more when you work out (duh) and deplete your electrolytes. Proper hydration — 80+ ounces a day, more if you work out hard! — will speed up recovery and help you work out better and harder. It will also improve just about every other aspect of your life, because water is straight magic.
Do you have thoughts on what to eat after a workout? Tell us in the comments below!
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