What to Eat (and Whether You Should) after Exercise

By Kellyann Petrucci, Patrick Flynn

Post-workout nutrition is essential. Your muscles are desperately hungry for nutrients in a specific time-frame after your exercise. As a general rule, you should wait 30 minutes after your intense workout sessions before you ingest anything.

This time gives your body a chance to discover how to handle the stresses of exercise on its own (rather than always relying on the use of dietary supplementation), as it naturally increases antioxidant production to combat and reverse oxidative damage sustained through intense exercise. In turn, this strengthens your own natural antioxidant system.

This period also prolongs the amount of time your body will continue to burn off stored body fat. As soon as you eat post workout — particularly if you eat a carbohydrate-rich diet — you begin to shut off the fat-burning processes set forth by fasting and exercise.

Use this 30-minute waiting period to perform some low-intensity cardiovascular activity, such as hiking or brisk walking. Don’t just sit around and do nothing. Make sure you move.

After 30 minutes, make sure you consume a post-workout meal, which should be your largest of the day to give the muscles the materials they need to repair themselves. You can cram in a considerable amount of calories post workout (even carbohydrates) and not have to worry about any of it being stored as fat.

Even if you aren’t all that hungry, be sure to at least consume some protein 30 to 60 minutes post workout.

In this meal, include a high-quality protein source, because protein provides the building blocks for muscle (amino acids). Meat, poultry, and seafood are all great options.

And if you’re going to have some starchy carbohydrates, such as a sweet potato, post workout is the time to have it, because it will go directly toward replenishing muscle and liver glycogen (the stored carbohydrates) that are heavily depleted through intense exercise. For example, a perfect post-workout meal can include salmon, asparagus, and a sweet potato.

To control insulin and manage hunger, eat your food in a specific order. Start with the most nutrient-dense and fibrous vegetables (like a green salad). Then move to proteins and healthy fats (like salmon). Finally, move onto the denser, starchy carb sources (like sweet potatoes).

If whole foods aren’t an option for you post workout, then you may consider supplementation, such as branched chain amino acids or whey protein. Whey protein, so long as it comes from grass-fed cows and doesn’t contain any oils or artificial sweeteners, is a powerful muscle builder.