Should you eat after a workout? The answer is always yes! Regardless of if you are trying to lose weight, eating post-workout is a must.
But what you eat is important, and also depends on the type of exercise you perform, as well as the duration and intensity. The right nutrients provide your body with what it needs to recover optimally after exercise, restoring energy reserves and helping to build and repair muscles.
Despite the extra calories, eating post-workout can help you achieve a more toned and defined body. In this article, we explain why you need to eat after exercise and provide advice on what exactly you should be putting on your plate.
Why Should You Eat After a Workout?
What you eat after a workout is just as important as what you eat before. To help you decide what is best to eat, first, it's important to understand how exercise affects your body.1
Exercise uses up large amounts of energy, measured in calories, to fuel your muscles. The type of exercise you perform and the duration will affect what energy sources your body uses.
Anaerobic exercises include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprinting, weight lifting, and other forms of exercise that require short high-intensity muscle contractions. These types of exercise need energy that is immediately available in the form of glycogen, ATP, and glucose.
Aerobic exercises include cardio and endurance activities, like walking and cycling. These exercises typically use the larger muscle groups and elevate breathing and heart rate. Initially, aerobic exercise is fuelled by the same readily available energy, but once this is used up, the muscles switch to fat as an additional source of energy.
As well as draining energy reserves, exercise also causes muscle proteins to break down and become damaged. For muscles to grow and become stronger, these muscle proteins must be repaired and regrown.
Eating after a workout can provide the right nutrients to ensure your muscles recover properly and replenish your energy stores. This doesn’t mean it’s time to head straight for the biscuits (sorry!). Making sure you eat the right foods after exercise is important for optimal recovery and maintaining weight loss.
What to Eat After a Workout
It is often believed that you shouldn't eat after a workout if you are trying to lose weight. But you’ll be glad to know that this isn’t true! As long as you are burning more calories than you are consuming, you will still lose weight. This is known as a calorie deficit.
The idea behind this is that once your body has used up all the available calories, it will turn to burning fat for energy, resulting in weight loss.
Whilst you may be eating fewer calories by skipping a snack post-workout, you won’t develop the muscles needed for a toned, slim look. As muscle is also more metabolically active than fat, it helps burn extra calories at rest and promotes further weight loss.
It might seem counterintuitive, but getting adequate amounts of the major macronutrients after a workout (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) helps your body recover optimally and helps builds muscle.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscles. During a workout, your muscle tissue becomes damaged and breaks down (this is normal!).
New muscles cannot grow on damaged muscles, so if your muscles don't recover properly after a workout, you are likely to lose lean mass. And without lean mass, you cannot achieve a muscular and toned appearance.2
Eating a protein-rich meal after a workout provides the body with the essential amino acids it needs to repair damaged muscle proteins and supports new muscle growth. Hence why you rarely see a bodybuilder without a protein shake in hand.
Studies suggest that 20-40g is the optimal amount of protein to consume post-workout to maximize recovery.3
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap and many people avoid them entirely when trying to lose weight. But they are actually the body’s primary source of energy and play a major role in fuelling physical activity.
During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which provides fuel for the body to function. Excess glucose that isn't required immediately is converted to glycogen and is stored in muscles and the liver to provide energy when needed.
Different types of exercise use up more glycogen stores, as mentioned earlier. If you participate in high-intensity exercise, you will be burning through your glycogen stores at a more rapid rate.
Eating carbohydrates after a workout can help replenish your depleted glycogen stores to prevent tiredness and fatigue, and enhance athletic performance.
Though, it's important to understand the key differences between simple and complex carbs to ensure you are consuming the best sources at the right times.
If you require a fast-digesting source of carbs before your workout to provide you with quick fuel, simple carbs are a great option. For example, cereal bars, white bread, jam, honey, yogurt, and bananas.
This also stands when you need to quickly replenish your glycogen stores before a second workout, or even during a long endurance workout lasting over an hour. Though, do limit your intake of highly processed simple carbs, such as cakes and sweets, as these foods won't provide you with much nutritional value.
After a workout, complex carbs would typically be your go-to. Foods such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, whole grains, and starchy foods. These foods will also help keep you fuller for longer while providing you with a variety of nutrients to help support healthy weight loss.
Like carbohydrates, fats provide a major source of energy for the body, especially during low-intensity exercise such as walking. We often think of fats as being unhealthy and bad for us. But the truth is, fats are an essential part of our diet!
A small amount of unsaturated fats after exercise, such as olive oil and avocados, won’t impact your weight loss goals. However, it is recommended that you reduce your overall intake of saturated fats, as they are often linked to several chronic health issues and may make it difficult to lose weight.
Fats can also slow down the absorption of other nutrients, so it is best to try and limit your intake of fat in your post-workout meal and mainly focus on carbs and protein.
Following exercise, your muscles are more sensitive to nutrients and are better able to reap the benefits of what you eat. As such, it is recommended to eat fairly soon after exercise, ideally within 0-2 hours.
If you’re looking to slim down, it is best to consume a post-workout meal that is high in protein and contains lots of vegetables and complex carbohydrates.
Vegetables are high in fiber, so keep you feeling full for longer, helping you avoid those cravings. They’re also low in calories, so won’t contribute too much to your daily calorie intake, ensuring you remain in a deficit. A ratio of 3:1 of carbohydrates and protein is the general rule of thumb to follow.
Here are a few examples to give you an idea of what to eat after your workout.
- Greek yogurt, granola, and berries
- Salmon with sweet potato
- Hummus and pitta bread
- Omelet with avocado and whole-grain toast
- Banana and peanut butter
- Quinoa with sweet potato, berries, and nuts
- Chicken with vegetables and rice
- Tuna salad with potatoes
- Cottage cheese with vegetable sticks
- Baked sweet potato and egg
Proper nutrition post-workout is important for optimal recovery. Yes, even when your goal is to lose weight!
Eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates replenishes your vital glycogen reserves, whilst protein provides the necessary amino acids to build and repair muscle.
As long as you eat a healthy post-workout meal and remain in an overall calorie deficit, you will still shed those pounds, whilst building muscle definition and a toned body.
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- “Postexercise Recovery - Proper Nutrition Is Key to Refuel, Rehydrate, and Rebuild after Strenuous Workouts.” Today's Dietitian, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/110413p18.shtml.
- Atherton, P. J., and K. Smith. "Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise." The Journal of physiology 590.5 (2012): 1049-1057.
- Tipton, Kevin D., et al. "Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids." American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism 276.4 (1999): E628-E634.
- Extended Learning Institute (ELI) at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). “Lifetime Fitness and Wellness.” Lumen, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/fitness/chapter/effect-of-exercise-on-muscles/.