What to Eat After a Workout

What you eat after you work out may be the most important meal of your day.  That's because muscles that have been exercised are thirsty, hungry, and stressed.  Making the right food choices may make all the difference in avoiding muscle soreness and fatigue. They may also power up your next workout.

Your body demands water, carbohydrates, and protein after a workout.  Its primary goals during the immediate post-workout period (two hours after exercise) are rehydration, muscle recovery and repair, and blood sugar/electrolyte stabilization.  If you don't feed it, your body will feed itself by dipping into valuable glycogen, protein, and electrolyte stores.  

Some people make the mistake of avoiding eating after exercise because they think they'll burn fat and lose more weight this way. That's not how it works.  Fat is one of the last nutrient resources your body will turn to for its immediate needs.  That's why it's important to give it a healthy meal within two hours of exercise.  Proper nutrition helps your muscles heal from the stress of exercise and metabolize energy more efficiently.  Figuring out what to eat after a workout is simple science.

What should you eat?  Carbs and protein. As its main energy source, your body burns glycogen (sugar) derived from carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored in the muscles.  By replacing carbs soon after exercise, you replenish your glycogen stores and avoid muscle breakdown.  If you don't replace those carbs, your body will break down muscle cells to help itself to the sugar. The result?  Fatigue and muscle loss.  

Protein is the building block for muscle fiber.  While it won't release the instant energy your body needs immediately, it will help provide the nutrients needed to help tired muscles recover and rebuild the tiny tears that come with exercise. Protein helps you build the stronger muscles that will metabolize energy and help you lose weight.  It also helps you avoid sugar highs and lows from burning carbs quickly.

Choose foods that combine healthy carbohydrates with some protein like a cup of pasta and a glass of milk, or a peanut butter sandwich.  Beans and rice, a banana and string cheese, or half a whole grain bagel with hummus are all good choices.  Be careful that you don't undo all the weight loss benefits of a good workout with a bad food choice.  Donuts and chocolate ice cream don't count as a healthy carb/protein combination.  Milk however, is a great choice (yes, even chocolate) because it contains a perfect combination of carbs and protein.  

Don't forget the water.  Proper hydration before, during, and after exercise is essential to keeping your muscles working at maximum capacity.