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What Should You Eat After a Workout?

A person holds a bowl of food over their legs while wearing leggings and tennis shoes.
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POV: you just completed an awesome workout and you’re ready for your refuel. What do you go for? A protein bar, a fruit smoothie, a sandwich, or an avocado toast? And does it really matter? Here’s all you need to know about post-workout meals.

What Happens During a Workout?

Woman doing a yoga pose outdoors.
Karla Tafra

Depending on what kind of workout you’re doing and your pre-workout meal, your body is utilizing glucose or ketones. Glucose, or simple sugars, come from carbohydrates you’ve had in your muscle and liver storage, and ketones come as byproducts of fat once your body has no glucose to work with.

Some people say they can’t perform in a fasted state so their workouts get fueled by whatever meal they had prior to sweating it up, while others prefer to skip breakfast and make their bodies utilize whatever they have in storage to boost their performance.

While there is no consensus over which one is better, it does seem like every person needs to figure it out for themselves and choose to time their diet and workouts so it best fits their fitness and performance goals.

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The Role of Protein Post-Workout

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Protein shakes, protein bars, meals rich in eggs and animal protein – these have all been the standards of a so-called “bro diet” that defines a body builder’s diet regimen. For those who want to build muscle and burn fat, high-protein diets have proven to be the most efficient, and studies show the best results when eaten within an hour or two, preferably from whole food sources.

Exercise, especially resistance training, causes microscopic muscle tears and stress which stimulates growth and improves strength. Once broken down into amino acids, protein helps repair those damaged muscle fibers and strengthens their bonds, helping them grow in size. These amino acids also help with muscle recovery and allow you to train stronger and more powerfully every time you grab a set of dumbbells.

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Every person has different protein needs and as one of the most important macronutrients in our diet, it’s crucial to hit our daily recommendations. How much protein you need per day depends on a variety of factors, and the current recommended dietary guidelines mention just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which experts agree isn’t even close to being enough, especially if you’re working out.

This is why a high-protein meal is a popular post-workout choice, especially if your goal is to grow muscle and burn fat. Good sources of protein include fish, meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, beans, and protein-focused products like protein powders, bars, cookies, and more.

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What’s the Deal With Carbs?

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High-carb or low-carb post-workout? What is better? After a tough workout, especially if it was endurance-focused, you’ve most likely burned through your glycogen storage. This means there is no more glucose left in the tank and if you were to increase your strain, your body will have to either create more glucose by breaking down the protein in your body or by activating ketones and burning stored fat.

The latter is preferred, for obvious reasons, and that’s why many people choose the low-carb diet in order to stimulate their bodies to start using fat for fuel. This works well for anyone who is trying to lose weight, burn fat, or lower carbohydrate intake for health reasons.

On the other hand, there are people whose bodies need a larger amount of carbs in order to boost their performance and daily strain. That’s why a high-carb post-workout meal is usually the most popular with endurance athletes so they replenish their glycogen storages and have enough energy in the tank to run another 15 miles the following day.

Great carbohydrate options include whole grain bread and pasta, oats, rice, quinoa, and a variety of fruit and vegetables. What will work for you and your digestion depends on your gut health and your ability to break down certain types of carbohydrates. If you’re someone who really needs carbs to thrive, do a little experiment on yourself and see what works best for you to feel and perform at your best.

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Are Fats the Way to Go?

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The last important macronutrient group are healthy fats. When talking about post-workout meals, they usually seem to be forgotten, even though their role in the human body is extremely important. From helping balance your hormones and improve nutrient uptake to promoting efficient cell signaling and improving your cognition, healthy fats shouldn’t be neglected, not even after a workout.

Some studies show how including healthy fats in your post-workout meal, especially if coupled with protein, can aid in muscle growth and repair. Additionally, some important vitamins and minerals like vitamins D, A, E, and K are fat soluble, meaning they need fats in order to be properly absorbed into your body. Exercise depletes you of some important micronutrients and it’s important to replenish them to prevent deficiencies.

Some of the best sources of healthy fats include olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish.

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The Verdict

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The best post-workout meal for you and your fitness goals will depend on a variety of things. For most people, having a balanced meal of slightly higher protein and equal amounts of carbohydrates and fats will probably be a good choice. Still, if you’re trying to lose fat and grow muscle, you’ll probably want to go higher on protein and lower on carbs, and if you’re training for a marathon, you might want to add an extra slice of bread to your next post-workout meal.

At the end of the day, there is no perfect post-workout meal that will work for everyone. It’s all about trial and error and finding out what works for you best.

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If you like to sweat it out in the morning, here are some great ideas for your next post-workout breakfast.

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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