You know the feeling. The high of endorphins from a great workout, the relief that it’s over and the content feeling that you put in WORK. And then there is the hunger.
This isn’t regular hunger. This is that ‘suddenly my stomach is eating my back’ hunger. You need to eat, NOW. But what can you have for a post workout meal that won’t ruin the hard work you just put in?
Before choosing your post workout meal, there are two important questions to ask yourself:
1. What are your goals (to gain weight, to lose weight)? and
2. What type of workout did you just complete (weight training, cardio)?
If you want to gain weight (add muscle), it is important that you eat enough not only to sustain yourself, but to aid in muscle growth. This means a high carb and protein meal composed of a simple carbohydrates and low-fat proteins, all while meeting your calorie goals for the day. On designated “cheat days” you may also use the post-workout window to enjoy your favorite high carb meals with minimal fat gain.
Note: even while bulking it is advisable to maintain a proper diet with no more than 1 or 2 cheat meals a week to create a calorie surplus for your body to gain muscle. In other words, you are eating to grow lean muscle, and you want to make sure what you eat supports that. Also keep in mind that even though you may be looking to gain weight, directly after your workout is still not the time to eat high-fat foods, more on that below.
If you want to lose weight the post workout meal is conceptually the same in terms of proteins and carbs. However, it is important to eat a more moderate level of protein and carbs that is enough to prevent muscle breakdown and not cause fat gain. In addition, if you are tracking your macro nutrients it is advisable to save the majority of you daily allowance of carbs for your post workout meal. You want to keep track of your macros to ensure you’ve divided your nutrients to give you exactly what you need without going overboard. Basically, you are eating to maintain lean muscle and lose fat, and you want to make sure that what you eat isn’t hindering that.
No matter what your goals are though, your highest carb meal of the day should be your post workout meal.
Yes, you need some carbs.
In an article on the benefits of post workout nutrition, Bodybuilding.com explains that after a workout, glucose (usable energy) and glycogen (stored energy) levels in your body are depleted. These levels are restored by eating (GASP!) carbohydrates. Rice, potatoes and quinoa are great sources of carbs to replenish these levels. You will need to replenish them if you want to grow or even maintain muscle mass. Even those looking to lose weight (presumably fat), should not fear post-workout carbs. Growing or maintaining lean muscle will help you burn fat, even when your body is at rest.
However, this is where question #2. comes in. What type of workout did you do? You won’t need as many carbs to replenish after a cardio workout as you would a heavy lifting session. Keeping your portions and macros in check is important. Working out your best portions for your goals and body type is key.
Protein, protein, protein.
Most people know that they need protein post workout, but many are unsure of the best places to get it. Lean meats such as chicken or turkey and fish are among your best options, as well as protein shakes. There are other good sources of protein such as peanut butter or beans, but these also can be higher in fats, which is not the best option AFTER a workout. Precisionnutrition.com also explains, protein is needed “to enhance the role of insulin in transporting nutrients into cells.”
Avoid high fats after a workout.
Adding fat to your meal in addition to the carbs is where things can get tricky. Adding too much fat to your post-workout meal can slow down the metabolization (digestion) of your much-needed proteins and carbs.
In his BodyBuilding.com article “The Importance Of Post Workout Nutrition!“, top nutrition expert John M Berardi, PhD, CSCS explains,
“While your post-workout feeding should be rich protein and carbohydrate, this meal should be fat free. The consumption of essential fats is one of the most overlooked areas of daily nutritional intake but during the post workout period, eating fat can actually decrease the effectiveness of your post-workout beverage. Since fat slows down transit through the stomach, eating fat during the post workout period may slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and proteins.
As your post workout feeding should be designed to promote the most rapid delivery of carbohydrates and protein to your depleted muscles, fats should be avoided during this time.”
This means, that if your goal is fat loss (even with muscle gain), it’s important to avoid too much fat immediately after your workout.
Pay attention to time of day.
Another (slightly less important) factor is the time you are looking to eat. Remember that while time of day isn’t necessarily affecting the way you metabolize, it does affect how long you have to metabolize it before you head off to sleep.
Great post-workout meal options
1. A protein shake and a half banana.
This quick simple meal is great if you are in a rush to provide protein and carbs in a grab-and-go package. A whey protein shake is a great option, and there are also shakes made from soy and other proteins if you have allergies or aversions to dairy. If you have a bit more time, it’s always fun to experiment with flavors and textures in your shake, such as adding spinach or a few blueberries for a kick. Of course real, whole foods are always best, if you’re in a hurry, this is great to refuel until the next meal.
2. Broiled fish (cod, tilapia, orange roughy) mixed vegetables & quinoa
Fish meals are especially good for when you are in a rush. Broiled tilapia cooks in less than half the time of most chicken breast, due to it’s thinner cut. These white fish work well with a variety of prep styles (lemon garlic, sundried tomato, curry) and also pack well for leftovers. Note that salmon is great too, but the white fish generally have a lower fat content, which is better for directly after a workout, when you want to keep burning your body’s own fat.
3. Lean ground turkey, spinach and rice
The lean ground turkey tastes great with almost any seasoning too, to give things variety if you eat it often. This meal is great to make ahead, and pack up in some tupperware to take with you for the day (Meal Prep 101).
4. An omelette or egg scramble with mixed veggies and Ezekiel toast
Who says eggs are only for breakfast? An omelette or egg scramble delivers much-needed protein with tons of flavor. Sprinkle a teaspoon of fat-free feta or goat cheese on top for a kick of flavor. Your healthy carbs are satisfied with a nice piece of toast on the side. Ezekiel bread is a great lower-carb option, with healthy fiber. You could also have a 1/2 cup of grits instead of the bread if you prefer.
5. Grilled chicken, salad & sweet potatoes
As you recover from your workout, you need a nutrient dense dish. Lean protein such as chicken breasts helps you replenish without feeling overly bloated. Vegetables add back vitamins and the carbs from the sweet potatoes replace the needed glycogen we discussed earlier. There’s a reason you see so many bodybuilders eating some variation of this meal–it works.
Now that you’ve got some ideas to get started, there’s no excuse for pigging out on junk after a workout. What are some of your favorite post workout meals? Please share and leave a comment below!
**This post was originally published September 2014. Updated July 12, 2016.
Contributing writer: Winston Grey. Please consult your physician before beginning any new diet or workout regimen.