It's all about the balance of carbs and protein

There is a lot of conflicting nutrition, health and fitness advice around. 

Whilst some people swear by cutting out carbs and smashing cardio, others preach about going high-fat and resistance training, and some believe yoga and a vegan diet is the route to perfect health.

Take a step back from all that though, and the one thing most experts agree on is keeping active and following a balanced diet.

And to maximise your results - whatever they may be - it’s crucial to refuel after working out: “I can’t stress enough how consuming the right nutrients after you exercise is just as important as what you eat before,” leading Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert told The Independent.

Why post-workout meals are crucial

When you exercise - regardless of what type - your muscles use their glycogen stores for fuel. According to Lambert, this process may result in your muscles being partially depleted of glycogen and some of the proteins in your muscles will be broken down. 

“After any exercise, your body will immediately try to rebuild its glycogen stores as well as repairing and regrowing those broken down muscle proteins,” she explains. So by eating the right nutrients after exercising, you can speed up this process.

Whilst you don't want to undo the hard work you've done in the gym, Lambert says that on workout days, you should definitely eat more than on sedentary days, and the type of foods should be dictated by the type of exercise you've done. “Post-workout meals can of course be timed at meals times though,” she adds.

What to eat

It’s particularly important to eat both carbs and protein after working out: “This combination will help you rebuild your muscle proteins and glycogen stores in addition to stimulating the growth of new muscle,” says Lambert, author of Re-Nourish: The Definitive Guide to Optimum Nutrition.

Consuming protein post-workout gives your body the amino acids you need to repair and rebuild muscle proteins. Aim to eat at least one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight over the course of any active day, Lambert says. (Official UK guidelines recommend 50g a day.)

Eating carbs is important too: “Your body’s glycogen stores are used as fuel during exercise, and consuming carbs after your workout will help to replenish them,” Lambert explains.

But this is where the type of exercise you do has an effect: endurance sports require your body to use more glycogen than resistance training, so runners or swimmers tend to need more carbs than bodybuilders.

And even when you’re trying to burn fat, eating fat after working out can genuinely help: “A whole body of research suggests that the likes of whole milk is more effective at promoting muscle growth after a workout than skimmed milk,” Lambert says.

She points out, however, that it’s important not to over-consume fat after exercise, as with every food type.

Which foods will help your recovery

Lambert advises focusing on easily-digested foods to promote faster nutrient absorption. These could be:

  • Carbs: Sweet or traditional potatoes, quinoa, fruits (berries or banana), oats, potatoes, wholegrain pasta and rice, or dark, leafy green vegetables
  • Protein: Eggs, Greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, salmon, chicken or tuna
  • Fats: Avocado or nuts

Drinking plenty of water before and after exercise is also crucial to replenish the fluids and electrolytes you sweat out.

Simple post-workout meal ideas

According to Lambert, these are the best things you could eat after working out:

  • Grilled chicken with roasted vegetables
  • Egg omelette with avocado spread on wholegrain toast
  • Salmon with sweet potato
  • Tuna salad sandwich on wholegrain bread
  • Pita and hummus
  • Greek yogurt, berries and granola
  • Protein shake and banana
  • Wholegrain bread with nut butter spread

When to eat

The timing of your post-workout meal matters. Ideally, you should eat within 45 minutes of finishing your exercise because your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after you workout.

“It’s often suggested that the delay of carb consumption by as little as two hours after a workout may lead to as much as 50 per cent lower rates of glycogen synthesis,” Lambert says. But she adds that if you consumed a meal just before exercising, it’s likely that the benefits from that meal will still apply after training.

If you can’t eat within 45 minutes of working out, try not to go much longer than two hours before eating a meal to avoid minimising any effects.

The bottom line

It’s essential to consume a combination of protein and carbs after working out. “It will stimulate muscle protein growth, improve your recovery and enhance your performance,” Lambert says.

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