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.
Some quick gym science: Your body stores excess energy in the form of glycogen and protein. When you work out, your body burns fuel from anything you've eaten recently, and then it breaks down stored glycogen. Your muscles start to use available protein to rebuild within a few hours of working out, but your body is especially good at absorbing carbs and protein within 45 minutes after your workout—the post-workout window you've probably heard about.
“It all comes down to the carbohydrates and protein,” says Manuel Villacorta, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “They’re the two key things your body needs—and right after you work out is when your blood circulates best.” If your main goal is to build muscle, try to eat at least 30 grams of protein and 30 to 35 grams of carbs within about 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.
Here are the best foods to fuel and reload those depleted muscles after a tough workout:
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.
“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 work,” 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 Villacorta.
Fruits are loaded with healthy, easily digestible carbohydrates, as well as enzymes to help your body break down nutrients so they can be delivered to your tired muscles. Pineapple, for example, is 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 antioxidants," vitamins, and minerals, Burke says.
If you want some protein fast, you can't go wrong with a simple, straightforward protein shake. Whether you opt for whey protein or vegetarian/vegan powder, you can combine the big boost of protein with any number of add-ins, like fruit, peanut butter, and the milk of your choice.
Wholegrain Breakfast Cereal
Cereal is good any time of day: In the morning for breakfast, or later in the day as a snack. Opt for a high-protein, high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, like Kashi Golean, which offers 30 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of protein, and 10 grams of fiber. It’s perfect for reloading your muscles' energy stores. Make it more of a substantial snack and add dairy like milk or yogurt, suggests Burke. Another alternative? Oatmeal, which packs plenty of carbs and fiber and can easily be topped with a high-protein ingredient like almond butter or a dash of protein powder.
Serve 'em up any way you like—scrambled, over easy, poached, sunny side up, or even just hard-boiled—eggs are packed with protein and nutrients. (Contrary to what nutritionists believed in the the 1990s and early 2000s, the yolks of eggs are perfectly good for you.) Plus, they're a versatile food at any time of the day—serve them with a slice of toast, some peppers and onions, a good-fat-rich avocado, or even some lean turkey for an added dash of protein.