Fitness Files: What to Eat After a Workout

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.

workout food

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:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • 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)
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • 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.

Snack Ideas:

  • 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

Meal Ideas:

  • 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.


20 Responses to Fitness Files: What to Eat After a Workout

  1. I always struggle with knowing what to eat after working out…and often I end up at Starbucks getting a breakfast sandwich and coffee (I know, not the right choice!). I’m definitely going to bookmark this post!

  2. Shane says:

    Love these ideas! Now I just need to find my workout rythm 🙂

  3. Alessandra says:

    I always wonder about this! I think my post-workout meals fit this profile, but always feel like I get my pre-workout nutrition wrong. The snacks I eat always make me feel tired! Any quick examples for pre-workout snacks?
    Thank you 🙂

    Alessandra | The PumpUp Blog

  4. Nicole says:

    Chocolate milk after a workout helps prevent muscle soreness and is always my favorite drink!

    Nicole // Chronicling Home

  5. Love this! I never know what to eat before or after a workout, I usually just grab a granola bar. Definitely picking something from this list next time! 🙂

  6. Jordyn says:

    For some reason it really bothers me when people try to completely cut out carbs in order to loose weight…I’m like read an article on nutrition that isn’t the way you do it! I don’t know why it is such a pet peeve but it drives me crazy! Your tips are great though, I love oatmeal every single morning!

  7. Ashley says:

    Phew! I’m glad that eating carbs after a workout is okay! I’m a total carb girl!

    xo Ashley

  8. Courtney says:

    This is so great! I’m glad I have ideas to branch out now from my basic chocolate milk 😛

    Courtney//As We Stumble Along

  9. Jenny says:

    Definitely helpful considering I usually treat myself to something a little unhealthy after a workout when I shouldn’t.
    All of these options sound wonderful and I need to get into the habit of eating better after a workout.

    xoxo, Jenny || Breakfast at Lillys

  10. This post is such a great idea – I know that you should eat healthy after a workout, but I know a lot of people who don’t really understand what that is!
    xx, Mikkaela

  11. Lauren says:

    This is great! I needed this! I always eat anything in my way when I’m hungry after a workout.. haha! Defeats the purpose.

    The Fashionista’s Diary

  12. Alicia says:

    I’m so trying to get back into a regular workout routine this fall and this list was amazing. Note to self, stock up on protein after working out. Thank you!

    xo, Alicia | Alicia Tenise

  13. Great guide for post-workout nutrition! I never seem to be able to get it right (always go straight for the sugar), so this was really helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    Diary of a Debutante

  14. I love this, I love getting new ideas for post- workout meals! I love variety thanks for sharing so many ideas!

  15. Marie H. says:

    This is such a great guide to refer to post work out! I will definitely be refueling with some of the these healthier carb meals!

    Marie H.
    Progression By Design

  16. Ally Gagliardo says:

    I always struggle with what to snack on (or eat as a meal) after a workout! I want to eat, but I can’t imagine the thought of eating something unhealthy after I just worked out! Thanks so much for this list!

  17. I’m getting back into a workout routine so this list couldn’t have come at a more perfect time!

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