By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
Diet and exercise go hand in when it comes to enjoying a healthy life. Whether you’re training for a race, working on a fitness goal, or just taking out your stress on a set of weights, refueling after a vigorous workout is important. A mix of carbs and protein will help your muscles recover and repair so you can reap the benefits of all your hard work.
A few common mistakes:
Cutting out carbs completely:
I know, I know. Carbs are scary, but they’re actually your friend—I swear! The key is choosing carbs that do your body favors and promote post-workout recovery. Focus on minimally processed whole grains, beans, and other complex carbs like starchy veggies (corn, sweet potato) and fruit. Milk is another great source of carbohydrate that the body can use easily to get to work repairing the muscles.
Overeating: Yes, it’s important to eat after working out, but it’s not license to go crazy. And no, you did not “earn” that venti whatever-the-heck sugar bomb. Say thanks to your body for a job well done by feeding it something nourishing and tasty.
So what should you eat after a workout?
During a sporting event or workout, your body uses its glycogen stores in the muscles for energy, so you need to replenish afterwards. The exact recommended timing depends on the type and duration of activity, and whom you ask. In general, though, you want to eat a post-workout snack or meal that provides a mix of carbohydrates and protein.
Some experts recommend eating within twenty minutes, while others say it’s okay within one or two hours. Depending on your goals and needs a carb-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 2:1 may be appropriate. In everyday math, that could look like 30 grams of carbs and 10 grams of protein in a peanut butter sandwich.
That said, you don’t have to make yourself crazy obsessing over exact timing or counting grams of carbs and protein. The most important thing is that you eat something to give your body fuel to work with. Prioritize what makes you feel good and fits well into the context of your day. If you’re a morning exerciser who finds it most convenient to eat breakfast at your desk, for example, you could have a glass of milk or a simple smoothie or protein shake right after your workout and then have your “real” breakfast when you get to work a few hours later.
Some good sources of protein include:
- Seeds (hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, etc)
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, kefir, cheese
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Tofu, tempeh
- Protein powders (whey, pea, hemp, brown rice, egg-based powders, etc)
Sources of carbs:
- Whole grains (oats, quinoa, whole wheat bread and pasta, millet, brown rice, etc)
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Starchy vegetables (corn, sweet potato)
- Yogurt, kefir
Note that some foods such as milk and beans provide both carbs and protein, making them great post-workout options. Also, though it’s generally a good idea to avoid high-fiber and high-fat foods pre-workout, afterwards is a great time to enjoy some healthy sources. Here are a few ideas for how to combine these foods into meals and snacks.
- A piece of fruit and a hard-boiled egg or piece of cheese
- A slice of toast with peanut butter
- 8 ounces chocolate milk (1%)
- Whole grain cereal with milk
- 6 ounces yogurt with half a banana or ¼ cup berries
- Oatmeal with ground flax, fruit, and 2 tablespoon nuts or 1 tablespoon nut butter
- A veggie omelet and whole wheat toast
- A small whole wheat wrap with egg or egg whites and veggies
- Greek yogurt with fruit and honey and almond slivers
- A smoothie with fruit, milk (maybe protein powder if using a low-protein milk) and add-ins like kale or spinach, chia seeds, or nuts
- 1/2 cup brown rice, quinoa, or beans with veggies and a serving of meat, fish, or an egg, plus 1/4 of an avocado or a teaspoon of tahini
- A sandwich made with whole wheat bread and lean protein such as turkey, ham, or chicken
Over time, you’ll find options that work for you. Listen to your body. It does so much to take care of you, so show some respect by returning the favor.
By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and writer in NYC. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food.