Post-workout foods have been something of fairly hot debate lately. That has been a problem for a while. Fad diets have gone to ridiculous extremes, forbidding things like carbohydrates, meat, or other foods. The truth is that none of this kind of exclusionary thinking is constructive. We’re machines; we need raw materials, fuel, and various chemicals to regulate our complex biological systems.
Now we’re coming back around to the issue of post-workout dietary habits here. For some, this is a non-issue, depending on when you exercise, and whether or not you eat at a decent point in time before it.
In my experience, most people who eat after a workout either do their workout first thing in the morning or late enough in the day that they haven’t eaten in quite a while. This brings up another issue, too, for morning exercisers, which I’ll also touch on.
The main thing is, it’s okay to eat after a workout if you feel hungry. It’s all about what you eat, and we’ll be looking at some suggestions (and why such things are suggested) in due time here. First, let’s make sure we understand human metabolism, respiration, and basic biology.
Understanding the Body
I said that the human body is a machine, and that wasn’t hyperbole. We may not be made of nuts, bolts, and wires, but we’re still machines, albeit electrochemical ones made of meat. Regardless, there’s only one way to power small, self-sufficient machines, and that’s through electricity.
Electricity in our bodies is produced through a couple of coordinated processes. One is the fuel driving individual cells – carbohydrates and sugars. We metabolize these as energy to drive our cells. Some of these cells perform more complex actions when exposed to electricity; others use electrolytes to produce those electric signals through chemical processes.
Thus, we need a lot of magnesium, salt, potassium, and water, and we also need to eat starchy or naturally sweet things like fruits, vegetables, and grains. Mercifully, if we stay hydrated, and eat these fruits and grains and vegetables in proper balance, we get both the fuel and the electrolytes readily.
Protein is somewhat different. We can burn protein like we do carbs, but it’s not very healthy and produces nasty byproducts like lactic acid. Protein’s primary responsibility is to give us more material to regenerate. Like a brick wall needing new bricks from time to time, or more mortar, as our cells die and we shed them, we need to grow new ones to replace them. This requires raw materials. Healing works this process even harder, and a workout is intended to trigger healing to build muscle and strengthen joints and bones.
You may be asking what this has to do with choosing your post-workout foods. The purposes of food groups alongside the effects of a workout very much mean this understanding shapes wise choices.
Why Am I Hungry?
You may be wondering why you’re hungry in the first place. This is because you didn’t eat a little while before your workout, and your on-hand reserves are depleted. Your body is having to burn fat reserves for energy and protein construction. This can be moderately helpful (less than you’d think) in losing fat, but if you’ve already slimmed down, this might be quite unpleasant. You might even experience aches, pains, and headaches associated with more extreme hunger.
Should I Eat Before?
I prefer to eat about 45 minutes before a workout, and honestly, the same foods apply. When I’m done working out, all I can think about is a shower and perhaps a nice hot cup of coffee. And yes, coffee is healthy in moderation.
However, if you’re an early morning exerciser, you may want to get the workout over with before you eat. Still, maybe you’re like me, and you’re not much of a breakfast person anyhow? I’ve found ways to make myself eat a little bit of breakfast, but a workout beforehand can definitely help.
What Should I Eat?
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We come now to the real question, which is what foods are best? Well, I’m going to break this down into three categories – carbohydrates, protein, and good fats. You should have a mix of all three in balance.
For the vegetarian, vegan, and other dietary disciplines, I’ll leave it to your good sense to figure out which of these fit your diet.
If you’re about to lie down at night after a workout, refrain from carbs. You’ll want to eat these early and burn them throughout the rest of your day. But popular favorites include chia seed pudding, crackers, fruit, oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potatoes, bread, cereal, and rice cakes.
It’s okay to cheat and eat white bread if you hate whole grain, just make sure you get your fiber from somewhere else.
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Protein should be part of your post-workout meal no matter when you’re doing the exercise. Your body needs to replace the proteins you’ve killed and to grow muscle during recovery. Chocolate milk is a favorite, but also turkey/chicken, or salmon/tuna if you want some meat. Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are other good dairy foods, or you can have scrambled eggs, peanut butter, or a protein shake. Some enjoy tofu scrambles too, though it’s okay if these aren’t for you.
So, fats are essential too, as they help with neural functions and various cellular processes. They also impact skin, hair, and eye health significantly as well. Nuts, avocado, oily seeds, and coconut oil are popular sources of these.
A small meal after your workout, with a bit of something from each of these lists, will leave you satisfied, healthy, and help make your workout potentially more effective. These aren’t all-inclusive lists either, so follow us on Facebook for more healthy eating tips!