What to eat after exercise, according to a nutritionist
Everyone knows that exercise has all kinds of health benefits. It’s also common knowledge that a healthy diet helps keep you in tip-top shape.
But what should you eat after a workout? As with so much in the world of nutrition, many myths and mysteries surround this question.
To navigate this tricky topic, we recruited the help of Alex Platts, one of ZOE’s senior nutrition coaches. He has an MSc in nutrition and a bachelor’s degree in sports and exercise.
After exercise, you need to focus on the three Rs: refuel, rehydrate, and repair. So, we’ll tackle each of these below.
Before we get down to specifics, Alex has an important note of caution:
“Exercise and recovery from exercise are very different physiological states from being at rest. Some of the foods that might be great after exercise may not be the best for you at rest.”
We should also note that if you have a good-quality, varied, plant-based diet, and you're only doing gentle to moderate exercise, you don’t need to eat anything different after a workout.
If, however, you’re exercising fairly intensely on a regular basis, some of the tips below will be useful.
Importantly, Alex explains that most of the relevant research was conducted in males. So, the findings may not be applicable to female athletes.
OK. The first R we'll cover today is: rebuilding.
Currently, the international recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein intake is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight daily.
So, if you weigh about 154 pounds (70 kg), that’s 56 g of protein per day.
To help put that into real terms:
1 large egg contains around 6 g of protein.
100 g of peanuts has around 23 g.
100 g of chicken breast contains around 32 g.
If you’re regularly doing high-intensity resistance training, you might need 1.6 to 1.8 g of protein per kg of body weight. So, roughly double the RDA.
On average, though, most people in the United States and United Kingdom already eat more than the RDA of protein. Getting enough protein isn’t a major concern for most people in these countries.
Protein straight after a workout?
You might have heard people say that you need protein right after a workout to ensure that you build muscle.
This theory suggests that if you don’t eat protein immediately, your workout was for nothing. However, the latest evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.
“Total protein intake throughout the day appears to be more important for recovery than timing,” explains Alex. “But consuming a protein-rich meal pre- or post-training can be a good habit to get into to help reach daily goals.”
Another long-standing debate is whether animal or plant sources of protein are best for muscle building. The truth is, they can be equally effective.
“However,” Alex explains, “you may need to eat a larger amount of plant sources to get quite the same level of total protein intake.”
Proteins are created with amino acid building blocks. Your body needs 20 amino acids to function, and it can make most of them.
But there are nine “essential” amino acids that your body can’t build.
One of these essential amino acids is leucine, and plants have relatively low levels. It’s one reason why you might need more plants to hit your target protein intake.
Other essential amino acids that are less abundant in plants are lysine and methionine.
Good sources of protein
Here are some of Alex’s favorite protein sources:
eggs or egg whites
lentils, which are a plant source of leucine
peas, which also contain leucine
soy, though it may not be as effective as whey at stimulating muscle growth
Or, you might opt for a blend of plant sources. “This could be in the form of a shake — powders that are a blend of rice, pea, and soy protein are popular,” explains Alex.
It’s worth noting that many of these products are ultra-processed. But there are other options.
“Whole foods can be just as good,” he continues, “like a brown rice bowl with edamame and tofu. Often, plant foods will be high in leucine, lysine, or methionine, but not all three.”
“So, combining a food high in leucine with one high in lysine and one high in methionine can help mimic the amino acid profile of animal foods — however, it’s debatable whether this is necessary.”
As we mentioned, protein intake isn’t something to worry about unless you're exercising hard.
Some other people may also need to up their intake. For instance, people with a reduced-calorie diet may not be getting be enough protein.
A quick note on booze
It might be a good idea to skip alcohol after a workout if you’re hoping for gains. Evidence suggests that alcohol impairs your muscles' ability to build new muscle tissue.
The next R we'll look at is: refueling.
In your muscles, energy is stored as glycogen. And after a full-on workout, these energy stores are depleted.
However, Alex points out, “As long as you're reaching your recommended daily energy intake, there’s no need to immediately eat a carb source.”
“But if you’re planning to exercise again within 24 hours, try to consume some form of carbs as soon after as possible — within 2 hours if you’re planning to train again the same day,” Alex notes.
“This is because during and immediately after exercise, your muscles are more efficient at transporting glucose out of the blood and into your muscles.”
Good sources of carbs
Some carb-rich options include:
fruits that the body breaks down fast to release sugar, such as watermelon, mango, pineapple, dried fruit, and bananas
lower-fiber whole grains, like wholewheat pasta
Just to reiterate, the foods listed above can be a good choice after a punishing workout. But if you haven’t been slogging it out at the gym, they might cause large blood sugar responses.
So, ZOE would normally recommend eating them less frequently or pairing them with other foods, like those rich in fiber.
If you'd like to know how your blood sugar responds to different foods, start by taking our free quiz.
Combining carbs and protein
Some evidence suggests that after an intense gym session, combining carbs with a bit of protein can help your muscles rebuild their glycogen stores more quickly than carbs would alone.
Specifically, try for a 4:1 ratio. For carbs, aim for round 1.0 to 1.5 g per kg of body weight. And for protein, try for 0.2 to 0.4 g per kg of body weight.
Remember, though, if you’re only working out a couple of times a week, there’s no need to focus on this detail.
Here are some carb- and protein-heavy foods if you plan to exercise soon after your last workout:
soy or dairy yogurt with fruit
bean and sweet potato chili
sweet or savory oats
wholewheat pasta with white fish and roasted vegetables
Now, we’ll tackle the third R: rehydrate.
Fluids and electrolytes
As you sweat, your body loses water. It also loses salts and minerals, like sodium, magnesium, and potassium. Collectively, these are called electrolytes.
Electrolytes are important for the healthy functioning of many systems in your body, including your nervous system and muscles.
As you eat and drink normally following exercise, your electrolytes are naturally replaced.
But if your workout was long and intense, you were exercising somewhere hot, or you plan to exercise again shortly, you might need to make more of an effort to rehydrate and replace your electrolytes.
In these cases, a carbohydrate and electrolyte solution, a sports drink, can be useful.
A note on sports drinks
“Sports drinks are very simple, and any attempt to dress them up or make them taste amazing will likely come from these sources.”
Alternately, “Making homemade fruit or veg smoothies (potentially with a little added salt if you've had a very long, intense, or hot exercise session) might be a good option,” Alex tells us.
“You'll get the benefit of polyphenols if you choose to juice and polyphenols and fiber if you choose a smoothie — which aren’t in commercial products.”
Also, there’s evidence that many commercial sports drinks don’t contain enough sodium. “So, you're essentially paying for sugar, water, and convenience,” he says.
Coconut water is also popular for rehydration, but it’s typically expensive and low in sodium.
“This means you have to drink a lot to get the same amount of electrolytes as if you were to just add 1/8 teaspoon of salt (0.3 g of sodium) to any carb-rich drink.”
Good sources of electrolytes
For replacing your body’s fluids, water will do the trick nicely. And here are some options for replacing electrolytes without a sports drink:
sodium: vegetable juices, cheese, fermented foods, and pickles
potassium: avocado, bananas, and sweet potato
magnesium: dark chocolate, whole grains, nuts, and seeds
chloride: prawns, seaweed, and any sodium-rich foods
calcium: okra, kale, dairy foods, almonds, and fortified plant milk
So, now we’ve gotten the three Rs out of the way, is there anything else?
Alex explains that “Exercise induces an inflammatory response, particularly strength training with a focus on eccentric contractions.”
Eccentric contractions include lowering weights and the downward part of push-ups and pull-ups.
Inflammation during exercise is partly due to the release of free radicals. Your cells make these highly reactive compounds.
Free radicals are produced in greater amounts during exercise. And if they build up, it can damage your cells and cause inflammation.
Antioxidant foods may help reduce this inflammation.
However, whether you want to limit this response depends on the purpose of your exercise.
For instance, if you’re trying to get faster or stronger, inflammation is important for muscle regeneration. So, you might want to leave it to do its job.
On the other hand, if you need to maintain your performance, for instance, during a competition, reducing inflammation might help.
Good sources of antioxidants
Some options include:
Scientists are still fleshing out the links between antioxidants, inflammation, and exercise recovery. The relationship likely depends on many factors, including exercise intensity and your overall diet.
That was a lot of information. So, let’s have a little recap, courtesy of Alex.
“As long as you’re getting enough total energy and not planning to train again in the next 24 hours, there’s no need to rush to consume protein and carbs,” he explains.
And remember, these tips are for people who are exercising fairly intensely and regularly. Most of us in the U.K. and U.S. are already eating way more protein than we need each day.
“If you’re planning to exercise again within the next 24 hours,” Alex continues, “aim to have a meal that contains carbs and protein with a ratio of 4:1, ideally eaten 30–120 minutes post-exercise.”
Beyond food, Alex also suggests that you “consider other factors that may be hampering your recovery. Try to maximize sleep and minimize stress where possible.”
And remember, always keep hydrated!
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