By Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
Wondering about the best post-workout food? Want to know what to eat after a workout to lose weight, as well as the best post-workout meal for muscle gain? Get the scoop on top gym meals and gym food!
I'm going to share a secret with you. Before I went to school to become a registered dietitian nutritionist, I didn't know you were supposed to eat after a workout. But it totally makes sense that you should eat a recovery meal or snack.
You see, you need a high-protein after-workout meal or snack to help you build muscle, reduce muscle soreness, and even help you to lose weight if that's your goal.
Although there's no blanket rule for what to eat, I'm giving you guidelines that'll help with your fitness goals and even with reduced muscle soreness. What fitness goals will you accomplish today after you gobble up this advice?
Why Eat a Post-Workout Snack?
Nothing feels better than ending a tough workout with quivering muscles and drips of sweat all over. But no matter how hard you worked during your strength training or cardio sesh, you might not get *all* the health benefits if you don't nourish your body properly in the hours afterward.
What do I mean by this? In the minutes and hours after your hard workout, your muscles are thirsty for protein and
carbohydrates. These nutrients help both to repair your muscles and prevent them from getting injured and to help grow your muscles. Popeye benefits, anyone? So it's important to nourish
your body correctly.
I'm sharing the best beverages and foods to refuel your body after a grueling sweat sesh, plus the exact times you should dig into these eats.
How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of top gym meals and the best food for before a workout, let's talk about a main component of pre-workout food: protein.
You may not realize it, but the exact moment you consume your after-workout eats—especially the protein-packed ones—matters.
I'm going to be talking about protein recommendations that are part of a position paper released by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. Did you know that athletes need more protein than the average person?
That's right! Compared to the typical American, the paper states that athletes need about 0.54 to 0.91 grams protein per pound, daily. For a 150-pound athletic woman, that’s about 81 to 137 grams.
Now, you may be saying, “huh?” What does that actually mean? Well, the minimum protein requirement for the average person is 0.36 grams per pound per day, or about 54 grams for the 150-pound woman.
To put that in perspective, a 4-ounce grilled chicken breast contains about 35 grams of protein, while 6 ounces of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt has about 17 grams.
Because athletes—including runners and weight lifters—are constantly breaking down and building up muscle, they need extra protein to repair and make new (bigger!) muscles.
The paper also brings up an important point, that athletes should take in more protein, 0.11 to 0.14 grams per pound (17 to 21 grams for a 150-pound woman) right after they do a hard workout—so within a 30-minute to 2-hour window.
This will help athletes better recover. They should also eat carbs with that post-workout protein. An example snack: ½ cup cottage cheese with a banana and 1 Tablespoon almond butter.
Note: A hard workout means something like a longer run, interval training, or a weight-lifting session. If you run a few miles or do a fairly easy aerobics class, you can can have a smaller snack with about 10 grams protein, as well as some carbs.
What Dietitians Eat Pre- and Post-Workout
I like my snacks a lot. I eat one or two most days, and I time these around my workouts (these days, yoga and Pilates classes!).
I’ll usually have a snack either an hour before I get moving or 30 minutes to two hours after my workout. Because I plan it this way, I’m not adding extra snacks to my day. Of course, you can also plan out your meals for your post-workout eats, too.
Use these dietitian-approved ideas for after-workout breakfasts (hello, balanced meals!), protein-packed snacks, and beyond.
1. Banana + Steamed Milk
This is one of my favorite post-workout snacks. The steamed milk dresses up regular milk, and it provides both protein and carbs to fuel me. The banana provides additional filling fiber.
Try it: 1 banana + 1 cup steamed 1% milk
2. Greek Yogurt + Fruit + Nuts
“My favorite thing to eat after a workout is plain low-fat Greek yogurt with a cup of fresh fruit and a sprinkle of walnuts or almonds,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “This provides a good balance of protein and carbohydrates to help with muscle recovery and replenish glycogen stores, while the fat in the nuts helps keep me full longer.”
Try it: ½ cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ cup fruit + ½ Tbsp walnuts
“The protein and carbs in edamame help you through a workout or repair muscles after a workout,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, a sports dietitian in New York City.
Try it: ½ cup shelled edamame
4. Sweet Potato + Parmesan
“Roast a sweet potato and sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on it,” suggests Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, author of 25 Anti-Aging Smoothies for Revitalizing, Glowing Skin. “This snack provides a fabulous afternoon pick-me-up when you need some more energy to get you through the day. The sweet potato also has antioxidants and vitamin C and A for additional health benefits.”
Try it: 1 small baked sweet potato + ½ Tbsp grated Parmesan
More Post-Workout Eating Tips
Hungry for more post-workout snacking advice? Here you go!
Post-Workout Drinks to Fuel Your Body
We've all heard that protein shakes are the best drink to sip on after a workout. But are they really the *only* one that comes out on top? And are all protein drinks created equally? Not quite.
In my interview with Well+Good, I share the best drinks to help your muscles repair and grow stronger. Can you guess which one I reach for after a morning yoga class?
This blog post was updated in September 2020. A version of this content originally appeared on WeightWatchers.com.
- Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness
- Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, a sports dietitian in New York City
- Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, author of 25 Anti-Aging Smoothies for Revitalizing, Glowing Skin
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I'd love to hear from you! What are your favorite post-workout breakfasts, lunches, and dinners? What are your go-to post-workout meals?
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