Thinking about rewarding yourself for a good workout with a bucket of fries and a bacon cheeseburger? Think again. What you eat after hitting the gym may just be the most important food you eat all day. See, muscles store excess energy in the form of glycogen and protein and, when you work out, the body burns fuel from your pre-workout meal, then it breaks down glycogen stored in muscles. Within a few hours of working out, muscle protein drops and muscles begin to break down. However, within a 45-minute window, your body is the most responsive with absorbing carbohydrates and protein. Here are the best foods to fuel and reload the depleted muscles.
Greek Yogurt Greek yogurt has double the amount of protein compared to regular yogurt and is a great source of carbohydrates. “Mix it with cereal or fruit,” recommends Dr. Louise Burke, head of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport and coauthor of The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance: Peak Nutrition for Your Sport. Fresh berries pack micronutrients, which have been proven to help fight muscle soreness.
Sandwich wraps “Wholegrain wraps are loaded with wholesome carbohydrates,” says Burke. Make yourself a turkey or chicken sandwich and add a bowl of soup on the side. This is a particularly great meal if you work out during your lunch break. “Wraps are portable so you can eat them on the way back to your office!” she adds. If you’d rather have a salad after the gym, make sure you add some grains. “You need at least 1/2 cup of whole grains, so add some quinoa, brown rice, beans or pasta,” says Manuel Villacorta, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and founder of Eating Free.
Fruit salad Fruits are not only loaded with carbohydrates, they also contain enzymes to help your body break down nutrients so they can be delivered to your tired muscles. Pineapple is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties to help your muscles recover. Kiwi aids with digestion and helps break down amino acids. “Plus, fruit offers a rainbow of anti-oxidants,” Burke adds.
Wholegrain breakfast cereal Cereal is good any time of day: In the morning for breakfast or later in the day as a snack. Select a high protein, high fiber cereal, like Kashi Golean, which offers 30 grams of carbohydrates, 13 gram of protein and 10 grams of fiber. It’s perfect for reloading the muscle energy stores. Make it more of a substantial snack and add dairy—milk or yogurt—suggests Burke.
Rule of thumb “It all comes down to the carbohydrates and protein,” sums up Villacorta. “They’re the two key things your body needs—and right after you work out is when your blood circulates best.” If you’re main goal is to build muscle, eat at least 30 grams of protein and 30 to 35 grams of carbs within 15 minutes of your workout. If you’re just trying to stay in shape or shed a few pounds, you can take your time and eat within 45 minutes or an hour after your workout.