This Is What You Should Eat After Your Workout
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
"What should I eat after I workout?" is one of the most asked questions in fitness—second only to "how much should I work out?" and "what should I eat to be healthy?" And the reason it's so often asked is simple: information overload. One person says this, one person says that, and suddenly, despite having spent hours searching the internet, you're back at square one because all the answers contradict.
Instead of asking foodies or people who can only speak to what works for them, we asked experts at the forefront of their field to cut through the noise and tell us what we should actually be eating after a workout.
Here's what they said.
What should we eat after we work out? What are the general guidelines?
As your Google searches may have told you, getting protein after a workout is nonnegotiable. Protein gives our bodies what they need to rebuild our muscles, which in turn reduces soreness and risk of injury. Also, strength happens during recovery—when your muscles repair themselves, you get stronger—so if you want to gain any physical benefits from your workout, you need to eat protein.
You know what pairs well with protein? Carbohydrates. Preferably complex carbohydrates.
"Two cardinal rules to help replenish the body after a workout is to eat protein and pair it with complex carbohydrates," says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, R.D. "If you're on the go, grab an apple with peanut butter or a hard-boiled egg with an orange—those are great food pairings. If you're eating dinner, have some chickpea pasta with veggies, which has protein, carbs, and fiber to keep you full."
But protein and carbohydrates aside, there are other components that we should be looking for in our post-workout food—ones that we often don't think of.
As Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., told us, if you spend most of your workout sweating, you're losing water, sodium, and a slew of other electrolytes. The best way to avoid fatigue, muscle cramps, and dizziness, is to have a post-workout snack that rehydrates your body and refills your electrolyte stores.
"A post-workout snack should ideally consist of water to properly maintain energy levels and electrolyte balance, protein for muscle recovery, and carbohydrates to replenish energy stores,” says Keri Glassman, M.S., R.D., CDN.
Beckerman agrees, saying that drinking plenty of water and eating foods that will rebalance your sodium loss is necessary after exercise. "If you're someone that sweats a lot, you may be more susceptible to dehydration and muscle cramps," she notes. "I recommend eating foods like beets, celery, and chicken breast, and potassium-rich foods like watermelon, cantaloupe, and avocado."
Why should I eat these foods post-workout?
We've already sussed out why you should eat protein, but you might be wondering why you should eat carbohydrates. It's relatively straightforward: When we exercise, we deplete our glycogen stores (aka carbohydrates stored in our muscles that are used for energy), and eating carbohydrates refills them. By eating carbs and protein within an hour of our workout, we decrease protein breakdown and give our bodies fuel while also providing ourselves with the macronutrients we need to recover.
Of course, every person is different, so experts suggest using the above guidelines in a trial-and-error fashion.
"Some people respond better to eating more carbohydrates and less protein post-workout, and vice versa," Beckerman says. "It's important to get to know how your body responds to different types of foods, when they are eaten, and how it may impact their digestion, mood, and sleep."
That said, water, like protein, is also a necessity. Dehydration spares no one.
What shouldn't I eat post-workout?
Perhaps a less common (and equally important) question, knowing what not to eat can make choosing a post-workout meal easier. Some foods are obvious, but others...not so much.
The obvious: Avoid sugar and processed foods.
"As with any time, post-workout or not, I wouldn't recommend soda or processed packaged sugar and unhealthy chemical-laden snack foods," Glassman says. "Your body is prime for replenishment, and fueling it with unhealthy foods takes away from all of the hard work you just did while exercising."
Sugar, of course, lives in candy and treats, but it also hides in smoothies, juices, and any type of bar (protein or otherwise). Plain and simple: These foods will not replenish your body.
Beckerman adds that we should stay away from foods that are tough on our digestive system, like spicy foods, and instead opt for foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like protein, fats, and carbohydrates. She, too, warns that processed foods are a no-go.
"Unfortunately, highly processed and artificial foods are not well received in the body in general," she says, "and especially not after a workout."
What are some good examples of post-workout meals and snacks?
"Greek yogurt or dairy-free yogurt with sunflower seeds and berries is my go-to," Beckerman says. "These foods are full of essential vitamins and minerals that are needed after a workout."
She also recommends whole grain toast with avocado and sea salt, or a smoothie with fruit, vegetables, nut butter, and seeds.
Glassman also endorses Greek yogurt and suggests adding a scoop of pea protein powder and some raspberries. If you're a pre-dinner exerciser, whip up some baked or grilled salmon after to eat alongside a spinach salad and a small portion of farro.
To sum up, the major take-aways are:
- Eat a meal or snack that has both protein and complex carbohydrates.
- Drink a lot of water, and eat water-filled foods.
- Make sure to eat foods that can refill your electrolytes and nutrient stores.
Simple, factual, and delicious—our favorite kind of advice!
If you're just so excited about post-workout nutrition that you're already headed to the gym and thinking about your next snack, allow us to provide some inspiration. Here's how to up your plant-based protein intake and a love letter to my favorite post-workout snack.
Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.