What To Eat After a Workout, According To a Registered Dietician

January is a popular time for setting goals and getting back into healthy routines after the holidays. As you dive into your 2021 fitness resolutions, remember to refuel your body after your workouts, especially after your “hard” days at the gym. After all, eating well is just as important as exercise when it comes to reaching your fitness goals.

The important elements of post-workout nutrition are replenishing glycogen stores with simple carbohydrates, rehydrating with water and electrolytes, and repairing muscle with protein-rich foods.

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Glycogen stores are the carbohydrates stored in your muscles. When you exercise, your body uses your glycogen stores for energy. “It is important that athletes replenish their carbohydrate stores and also get enough protein and nutrition to promote muscle repair and growth post-workout,” says Rachel Meyer, MS, RD, LDN, and owner of Pro Lifestyle Nutrition. “Getting enough carbohydrates will also help to spare protein from being used as energy.”

Despite the recent “low-carb” trend, research still shows that a combination of carbohydrates and proteins is optimal to regenerating muscle glycogen stores. In the first 30 minutes after a workout, muscle tissues are extra sensitive to certain hormones and nutrients according to Today’s Dietitian. Therefore, this narrow timeframe is the best time to take in nutrient-rich foods.

Simple carbs like white bread, fruit, pasta, chocolate milk, will create an insulin spike to increase your body’s ability to quickly refill your carbohydrate stores during the initial 30 minute window. If you eat after that timeframe, your body’s conversion of carbs into glycogen will slow down. It may process some simple carbohydrates into your fat stores, rather than your carbohydrate stores. After the initial 30 minutes after your workout, reach for complex carbohydrates, like whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread, instead of a piece of white bread.

Also, eating complex carbohydrates in your regular meals (when you are not working out) will help your body absorb the carbohydrates that you consume more slowly, and will less likely be converted into adipose tissue (aka body fat).

These recommendations are for athletes and people that are working out to depletion. Lower levels of carbohydrates may do for light aerobic exercise, like walking or aerobic fitness classes. In addition to carbohydrates, athletes should make sure that within 2 hours of exercise that they are consuming protein to help with muscle repair and building, as well as sodium, chloride, and potassium to replenish electrolytes, which can be found in canned tuna, salted nuts, and bananas, respectively. Ahead are some of the best foods to eat after a grueling workout.

The Best Post-workout Meals

A rice cake with almond butter and banana

Rice cake and banana provide both simple and complex carbohydrates. The almond butter has protein, healthy fats, and salt (salt is made up of sodium and chloride). The banana also contains potassium, rounding out this snack as a perfect macronutrient and electrolyte balanced post-workout snack.

Egg omelet with spinach and tomatoes on a slice of bread

The eggs in an omelet contain protein, healthy fats, sodium, and other minerals to decrease inflammation. Spinach and tomatoes contain vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes to decrease inflammation and rehydrate. Bread is a good source of carbohydrates.

Tuna and tomato slices on crackers

Tuna is a great source of lean protein, healthy fats, and sodium. Add some tomato slices for potassium and crackers for simple carbohydrates, and you have a well-balanced post-workout snack.

Cottage cheese with tropical fruit

Cottage cheese is an underrated source of protein and also contains sodium for post-workout goodness. Many tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes, and kiwis are rich in potassium and simple carbohydrates which are great after a workout.

White spaghetti and meat sauce

The classic long distance runner meal that also works for any type of endurance athlete: carbohydrates from the spaghetti, protein from the meat, and potassium and sodium chloride from the tomato sauce.

Read more: How to Make Spaghetti Sauce

Stir-fry with rice, veggies, and a protein (lean steak, chicken, or fish)

Meyer recommends this combination of nutrients for serious athletes. The rice contains the carbohydrates, one would get protein from the choice of lean protein, and electrolytes from the vegetables and seasonings that you add to the stir-fry.

Fruit and peanut butter

Meyer recommends this combination of nutrients for recreational athletes. It is simpler and a little lower carbohydrate than the other meals mentioned in this list, but if you are having a light workout day, this can do the trick to fill up your glycogen stores and repair your muscles.

Remember that your nutrition is as important as your workout. Refueling your body the right way will make sure that your muscles recover and perform optimally the next time you hit the gym, so you’ll start seeing results.

How much should you eat after working out?

In a post-workout meal, one should consume between 15 to 25 grams of protein, which would contain approximately 10 grams of essential amino acids, according to Today’s Dietitian, which means you should eat 0.14 grams per pound of your body weight every three to five hours. There is additional evidence showing that eating protein from whole food sources may be more beneficial than taking protein supplements after a workout.

According to Meyer, your post-workout carb and protein intake depends on the type and length of your exercise routine, and what you’ve been eating throughout the day. You’ll probably need to eat less carbs and protein after a light aerobic exercise, like walking, or after a low-impact workout.

“If a person increases their activity level or changes the type or intensity of the activity, it is important to re-evaluate their calorie, protein, and carbohydrate needs to make sure they are eating enough and supporting an efficient metabolism, body composition and fitness goals, and overall health,” Meyer said.

If you need personalized advice, consult with a registered dietitian-nutritionist for nutrition advice tailored for your fitness regimen.

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