Helping people understand what they should and should not eat not just before a workout, but after, has long since been a favorite point of discussion with my clients. The truth is, what you eat after a yoga class is completely different from what someone should eat after an eight-mile run...that's pretty obvious. All that said, people make common and frequent mistakes in this area, so I want to give you all an idea of some of the best and worst post-workout foods you should (and should not) be eating.
Let's get started.
The Best and Worst Post-Workout Foods
Let's say you eat three meals a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. And let's say at some point in the day, you find time to pepper in a workout, too. An hour of yoga, a quick run, or a HIIT workout in your living room. Your workouts may even be more adventurous. You could be training for a marathon or some other performance sport.
Regardless of what it is, at some point, you've got to eat. What you eat after a workout can make or break your body's ability to develop muscle, burn fat, maintain good energy levels, and feel good the next time you exercise.
For as many great choices we have in the area of post-workout foods, there is an equal amount of poor choices that don't do our bodies' very many favors.
Millions have been made on garbage foods, touting incredible benefits that often times are no better than a candy bar or can of soda. On the other hand, there are some really good brands out there that come in handy after a hard workout.
The 90-Minute Golden Rule of Post-Workout Eating
Before I dive into the lists of good and bad foods, yield to my golden rule of post-workout nutrition.
Your liver is like a gas tank that holds energy (calories) for our body to use for all activities, including exercise! It's truly an amazing organ.
Golden Rule, Part 1: Generally speaking, when you wake up in the morning, you have about 90 minutes left in the tank. In other words, if you workout in the early morning hours, there is no need to eat beforehand.
Golden Rule, Part 2: Regardless of the time of day you workout, there is usually very little need for a post-workout snack unless you exercise for 90 minutes or more.
Translation: you don't need a banana before your 6:00 am spin class, and you don't necessarily need an energy bar after you finish a five-mile run later in the day.
Of course, there are a couple of caveats:
- If you have a metabolic concern, like diabetes, your needs will be unique - so eat as necessary.
- If you finish your five-mile run a few hours after you had lunch, and you won't be eating dinner for a couple more hours, you'll probably be hungry...so eat just as you would any other late-afternoon snack!
Make sense? What I'm saying is don't make the mistake of feeling entitled to additional food throughout the day because you exercised. It won't necessarily help you. And if your goal is weight loss, you might not see the progress you'd expect...regardless of how much time you spend in the gym.
Now that that's out fo the way, here's my top-down view of the best and worst post-workout foods.
The Best Post-Workout Foods
I'll start with the good stuff! All of these are great snack ideas, between 150'ish - 300 calories that will give your body the energy it needs to feel good after a workout.
Great after an easy to moderate workout that's 90 minutes or less. These are great options if it's been at least three (3) hours since you last at, and won't be eating a meal for quite a while.
- Sliced Apple + 1 - 2 tbsp Nut Butter
- Banana + 1 - 2 tbsp Nut Butter
- 1 Slice Whole Grain or Sprouted Bread + 1 tbsp Nut Butter
- 1 Slice Whole Grain or Sprouted Bread + 1 Quarter Avocado, mashed w/ sea salt
- 1 Slice Whole Grain or Sprouted Bread + 2 tbsp Hummus
- 2 Hard-Boiled Eggs
- 1/2 Avocado + 1/2 c Cottage Cheese
- 2 c Fresh Vegetables (carrots, celery, etc) + 2 tbsp Hummus
- 1 c Plain Yogurt + 1/2 c Fresh Berries or 1/2 Sliced Apple
- 1/4 c Almond or Walnuts + 4 - 5 Dates
- 1/4 c Oatmeal + 1 tbsp Nut Butter + 1/2 c Milk (including non-dairy)
- 2 - 3 Squares Dark Chocolate + Nut Butter
- 1 Banana Oatmeal Chip Muffin
- 1 Kind, LARA Bar or RXbar
- 2 Scoops Orgain Protein Powder + 1 c Non-Dairy Milk + 1/2 c Frozen Berries + Handful of Ice Cubes
These are all really good options.
All of these foods are good on their own, too. So if you just want a healthy snack that isn't going to trash your body, start here.
If you're working harder...let's say you're training long for a marathon or triathlon, or have a gut-wrenching Crossfit workout that leaves your body utterly exhausted, you'll want to add some more protein to help support your muscles. This can be easily done by adding in a little extra:
- Nut butter
- Protein powder (I prefer Orgain)
- Cottage cheese
- Greek yogurt
- Rice + beans
- Protein Bar (I prefer Vega)
Moving along, it's time to get to the foods you should avoid after your workout.
The Worst Post-Workout Foods
You've worked up a sweat, you feel great...so do let it all go down the drain by eating foods that are going to throw things in reverse. Here's my list of the worst post-workout foods you could eat. Steer clear!
High Protein Bars
You don't need this. I promise. It's not the best option for your body. Sure, your body needs protein, but if you're working out less than 90 minutes and your workout isn't too strenuous, then it's not going to help you. Your body needs some good, healthy, carbohydrates balanced with a little bit of protein and some fat. Often times, these bars contain artificial sweeteners that actually promote weight gain.
Big Fruit Smoothies
A homemade smoothie with a reasonable amount of fruit is one thing, but a run to the smoothie shop to pound down a 16+ ounce sugar-laden smoothie is just as bad as a milkshake after a workout. It's always possible to get too much of a good thing.
Most Energy Bars
Buyer beware. While I'm all for picking up something quick and easy, it's important to read your ingredient labels. A lot of energy bards are a hotbed of excessive sugar and unpronounceable ingredients. Don't be duped. Most energy bars that have very little added sugar, almost always contain artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, etc.).
Soda (including diet)
A post-workout soda only fills your body with what is very likely high fructose corn syrup...and not much else. Avoid diet sodas, too. All the work you've done to make your body healthier by working out shouldn't be undone by drinking useless sugar-filled calories.
Just Eating Too Much
This one is sort of all-encompassing, and often times the biggest problem with my clients who want to lose weight. Very often, people eat all the right things, they just eat too much. Eating excessively, or eating too often - even of the healthiest foods - can contribute to weight gain. Snacking on a half of a peanut butter sandwich after a workout is one thing, but eating a peanut butter sandwich, followed by a banana, followed by a smoothie is another.
Remember the old belly-brain time delay you learned as a kid? It takes 20 minutes for our brain to realize we're full after we've eaten. While this time gap may be up for debate, the idea of eating slowly and not excessively is helpful.
What about drinks like Gatorade?
If you're training a lot, sweating profusely, or tend to get lightheaded when you workout, then electrolyte drinks might come in handy. But I'm not a fan of Gatorade - for anyone. Gatorade is a hotbed of artificial colors and non-nutritive sweeteners, like acesulfame potassium and sucralose.
Better options for electrolyte drinks include coconut water (I looooooove Harmless), watermelon water, or even a DIY-type. Make your own electrolyte drink by adding a 1/2 c orange juice + 1/2 c water + a pinch of sea salt. So easy.
What's Your Goal? It matters.
Remember, not everyone needs to eat right after a workout - even a long, hard hour or more of sweating it up. Before we dig into who absolutely should eat something and who can probably wait until their next meal, it's helpful to understand your goal.
If your goal is to tone up or lose weight, the most important thing you can do is to focus on the quality of the foods you're eating. You know the saying, "you're not cheap and easy, so your food shouldn't be either"? There's a lot of truth to it.
High-quality foods don't necessarily need to be expensive, but they're usually unprocessed. Your post-workout food is just as important as what you eat at any other time of the day.