What you fuel your body with before you hit the gym, lift weights,or practice yoga directly impacts your exercise performance, but a pre-workout meal isn’t the most important part of your nutrition and exercise program. Actually, your post-workout meal is.
Individuals who eat a meal that contains protein and carbs within one hour of working out recover more quickly than those who eat a large amount of fat, sugar, or skip a post-workout meal altogether.
What to Focus on for Your Post-Workout Meal:
The most important thing to remember when you want to recover more quickly after workouts is to restore glycogen within the muscles while also reducing inflammation.
Glycogen helps preserve lean muscle mass which is what you need post-workout the most, but you also want to nourish the muscle cells by eating anti-inflammatory foods.
Since carbohydrates can help deliver insulin into the cells more efficiently, they also replenish glucose which helps restore glycogen levels. When you eat protein with those carbohydrates, protein reaches the muscle cells more efficiently since the carbs act as a gateway/delivery system for protein synthesis and repair.
Depending on how many calories you burned in your workout and what your athletic goals are will determine the kinds of foods you want to select for your post-workout meal. Generally speaking, if you’re looking to eat for health, reduce inflammation, and still preserve lean muscle mass, you’ll want to avoid inflammatory sources of carbs and protein such as high-fat meat and dairy, white starches, and all sources of refined sugar. While they might “get the job done” for taking in protein and carbs, they’re not the most health-promoting foods you can choose.
5 Healthy Food Choices for Post-Workout Recovery
Here are 5 foods you can eat that will help you recover more quickly after your workouts that will also help reduce inflammation and preserve lean muscle mass. In short, these are the gains we should all be going for!
1. Sweet potatoes
These bright and colorful tubers aren’t just delicious and perfect for making healthy versions of fries; they’re also incredibly nutrient-dense and one of the best types of carbs you can choose to eat post workout.
Sweet potatoes can help you recover more quickly after a workout because they’re rich in compounds and antioxidants that reduce inflammation within the cells. Many of the nutrients found in sweet potatoes are also essential to restoring electrolytes in the body. These are potassium, magnesium, manganese, and Vitamin C. Sweet potatoes also contain Vitamin B6 which helps restore energy and improve brain health.
How to Use:
Add ½ cup or 1 small sweet potato to your post-workout meal with some lean protein. Many people enjoy blending cooled and cooked (or canned) sweet potatoes into a protein shake/smoothie for a creamy treat as a quick way to get those healthy carbs into muscle cells, or you can prepare a post-workout meal ahead of time such as some sweet potato with some fish or chicken. Other options include roasted sweet potatoes with egg whites, sweet potatoes stuffed with black beans and salsa, or if you’re on the go, just keep some cooled, cooked sweet potato halves on hand, and eat them alongside your post-workout protein shake.
Oats are another type of carbohydrate that is great to consume post-workout. Most people digest oats fairly well and they also taste good. Digestion is vital to the nutrient delivery system in the body and overall energy levels, so oats make a good choice for a grain-based cab versus wheat or other gluten sources that people tend to be more sensitive to.
Oats help boost post-workout recovery for a few reasons. First, they’re low-glycemic so they won’t trigger high insulin levels that can lead to inflammation and diabetes. Second, they’re rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium that your muscles need for optimal function and preserving your bones.
Oats are also a good source of protein and fiber which can satisfy your post-workout hunger. The fiber found in oats, known as beta-glucan fiber, is also specifically helpful for reducing high cholesterol and improving body weight over time.
How to Use:
You can eat oats any way that you enjoy post-workout. Overnight oats, cooked oats, blended oats, or homemade oat bars are all popular ways many people enjoy using them. Oat bran, steel cut oats, rolled oats, and even plain quick oats all make great types of oats to choose from, so select whichever one you enjoy the most and aim to eat ½ cup each day.
3. Nonfat, Plain Yogurt
Protein powders are popular foods many people enjoy consuming post-workout, however, if you’re not a fan or prefer not to use a powder for whatever reason, consider some non-fat, plain Greek yogurt or regular yogurt if you tolerate dairy. Yogurt is rich in protein along with slow-digesting carbs. The probiotics in yogurt also “eat up” the lactose (milk sugar) found in yogurt which makes it easier to digest.
Yogurt is rich in enzymes, protein, calcium, magnesium, and Vitamins D and B12 which makes it an incredibly nutrient-dense food, specifically for post-workout recovery and bone health. Avoid varieties with lots of added sugars or fat, and go with plain, nonfat Greek yogurt as the best option.
How to Use:
You can blend yogurt into a smoothie, post-workout shake, freeze it before your workout ahead of time and enjoy it as frozen yogurt after your workout, or even add it to some oatmeal mentioned above for a more filling meal!
4. Chia Seeds or Flax Seeds
These two types of seeds are nutrient-dense powerhouses for your muscles, brain, and your digestion. They’re specifically helpful for post-workout recovery due to their plant-based omega-3 fatty acid profile.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in chia and flax have been shown to boost post-workout recovery and also aid in preserving lean muscle mass. Chia and flax are also rich in fiber and antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation by reducing cholesterol levels and improving heart health. Chia seeds are also great sources of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese which helps keep your bones in optimal health.
How to Use:
You can blend these into a shake or smoothie, add them to oatmeal or yogurt, sprinkle them on a salad or some fish, put them in homemade oat or protein bars, or you can mix them with some water and your favorite protein powder. Since they’re high in fiber and contain fat, be sure you just use a tablespoon or two at a time until your body is used to consuming them regularly.
Zucchini? Yes, zucchini! Zucchini is one of the most overlooked healthy vegetables out there, and it’s such a versatile veggie you can use post-workout for a variety of reasons.
Zucchini is rich in Vitamin C, potassium, water, and fiber. It’s an excellent food to restore glycogen to the body without spiking insulin levels, but it is also easy to digest and hydrating as well. Zucchini is also a great food to consume post-workout if you’re looking to avoid starchy carbs, and it’s also filling so it can help you if you’re looking to lose weight and have a lot of cravings post-workout.
How to Use:
Many people enjoy shredding zucchini into oatmeal (also called zoats) before cooking, but you can also chop it and freeze it and just blend it into your next protein shake—you can’t even taste it! Zucchini can also be roasted, eaten raw with some hummus or yogurt, and it’s also tasty with salt-free seasoning and some fish as a healthy, lean post-workout meal too.
Final Post-Workout Recovery Tips:
Keep in mind that it’s important to consume some lean protein, healthy carbs, and just enough fiber and fat so you digest it comfortably. Choose foods that work best for you, but keep in mind that generally any type of produce and lean protein makes a great choice. From there you can also select whole grains or other sources of carbohydrates according to your liking.
Also aim to eat within an hour after you workout and don’t wait more than 2 hours at the most. Depending on your body, physical goals and schedules, you can select foods and meals that work best for you. Finally, don’t forget to rest and get enough sleep. While that might sound boring and obvious, it’s one of the most important parts of post-workout recovery and a healthy body too!
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