Scheduling regular sweat sessions is great for the mind and body, as exercising supports your heart health and immune system, aids in weight management, and helps you build and define strong, lean muscles. Plus, working out can be a major stress release.
Yet, that’s just the first part—you still need to take note of recovery, which includes the right set of nutrients. So what should you eat after a workout, exactly?
“Fueling properly post-workout helps preserve lean body mass (i.e. muscle) and support the body as it recovers from the short-term stress of intense fitness,” says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, owner of Champagne Nutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.
Your Post-Workout Macros
After a workout, Hultin recommends getting a mix of protein, fiber or complex carbohydrates, and some unsaturated fats, which are filling and heart-healthy.
“While carbohydrates are generally the focus pre-workout, foods that contain protein are key after your fitness routine,” she explains, although some complex carbs and fiber is still important. And don't say no to fat: “Depending on your goals, I often recommend a low-fat, but not 'no-fat' product, so you get access to all three macros post-workout,” she adds.
How Much Fuel You Need
As a rule of thumb, Hultin recommends eating between 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 30 grams of protein, varying those numbers depending on the type of exercise you did. Ideally, according to Hultin, you'd get this nutrition in within 30 to 45 minutes post-workout.
When it comes to fat, go with a small portion to help with satiety and recovery, per Hultin. “The important thing to know is that many sources of protein are also natural sources of fat (think: nuts, seeds, dairy, soy, and animal products like eggs and meat) so if you focus on the protein, you'll generally get a little fat naturally along with it,” she says.
Here's how your ratios can vary based on your workout. But note that the exact amounts needed can also be impacted by your unique fitness goals, body size, and more. Meeting with a registered dietician can help you get a hyper-personalized approach.
Longer Cardio Or Short HIIT Workout:
“I’d recommend 30 grams of carbs and 15 to 20 grams of protein,” says Hultin. The longer the HIIT or cardio workout, the more grams you’d need of both macros.
Heavy Or Intense Lifting:
“If it's a heavy lifting day or a really intense workout, I'd want my clients to eat around 50 to 60 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein,” says Hultin.
For walking or those less intense activities like yoga, you may not need a snack. “For example, after a walk, it's important to drink water but this type of refueling isn't likely needed as the muscles aren't as stressed as they would be with weight lifting or a HIIT workout,” Hultin notes. If you do eat a snack, 10 to 20 grams of carbs and five to 10 grams of protein would help settle your belly if you’re feeling hungry or tired and in need of a bite.
Post-Workout Snack Ideas
These eats generally pack an ideal combo of nutrients to help you re-energize and recover after a sweat session.
Go with Greek, unsweetened yogurt for gut-health benefits and less sugar. Then add in those complex carbs, like berries, and more protein and fats on top with nuts and seeds.
Power Yogurt Smoothie
You can turn the yogurt bowl into a power smoothie and add electrolyte, fiber-dense, and fat-containing avocado along with leafy greens.
Open-Face PB&J Sandwich
This option not only fuels muscles adequately but also feels nostalgic and comforting. “Use whole wheat bread and no-sugar-added jam, as this offers slower-burning complex carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores,” says Hultin. “The peanut butter (or almond butter or another kind of nut butter) offers protein along with a little unsaturated fat, too,” she says.
Use one slice of bread and sprinkle nuts and seeds on top of the spread for even more of both macros. Eat a hard-boiled egg on the side to boost the total amount of protein.
DIY Trail Mix Or Granola Bars
“Make a trail mix or homemade granola bar with nuts and seeds, which provide a source of plant-based protein and heart-healthy fats along with high-fiber carbohydrates,” Hultin says.
Choose any nut (or a blend) as your base and then add in unsweetened dried fruit, dark chocolate chips, pumpkin seeds, whole grain oats, popcorn, or unsweetened shredded coconut, for example. For added protein, use the trail mix to top cottage cheese or yogurt.
“If you're aiming for a higher protein intake, it can be really convenient to use a plant-based protein powder (like hemp or pea) and there are a lot of blends on the market,” says Hultin.
Go with a high-quality brand with a clean, simple ingredient list and 15 to 20 grams of protein per scoop. “I advise looking for an unsweetened, unflavored variety and checking the label for added vitamins and minerals, as many of these products are heavily fortified and should be taken into account if you're on other supplements,” she says.
You can add ingredients to increase nutrient density, such as greens and a serving of fruit, nuts, seeds, nut butter, or avocado.
Plant-Based Protein Bowl With Ancient Grains
There's about 20 grams of protein in a cup of tofu and eight grams in a cup of quinoa (a complete plant protein), Hultin notes. Select colorful veggies, like bell peppers, broccoli or leafy greens, carrots or sweet potatoes, mushrooms and beets, for more fiber and antioxidants. “Be sure to add a fat source like olive oil, sesame oil, or avocado slices,” Hultin reiterates.
Foods To Avoid Post-Workout
Don’t pile on the full-fat dairy or choose anything fried, greasy and oily, as these foods are slow to digest and could cause stomach upset. And avoid highly-processed foods, Hultin suggests, along with sugar alcohols if you tend to have GI upset like gas, pain, or diarrhea after consumption, which can be a common side effect in certain individuals.
Don’t Forget Those Electrolytes
Hydration and replacing electrolytes after exercising is also super important. “If you hydrate appropriately during your workout, an additional eight to 16 ounces (one to two cups) of water within 30 minutes of finishing your activity can help your recovery,” per Hultin. However, this can shift greatly if, for example, you live in a dry or hot climate.
If your workout is longer than an hour you may benefit from electrolytes (calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium) mid- or post-workout. “I often recommend creating a blend of unsweetened coconut water with salt and a little fruit juice as a natural replacement,” she says.
You can also get electrolytes in food sources, such as in pickle juice, bananas, peanut butter, olives, yogurt, or cottage cheese.