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Make (or Break) Your Workout: The Best Post-Gym Foods

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I’m the first to admit that I’m a gym rat. To me, it’s relatively easy to sweat for about an hour while watching the Today Show, and then sail on through my day filled with those happy workout-given endorphins. 


The hard part for me, on the other hand, is deciding what to eat after my workout. I don’t always fit in the time to eat between the gym and the office, and sometimes I grab a greasy croissant on the way. Good post-workout food choices don’t come naturally to me. But I put a lot of effort into those grueling boot-camp classes and morning runs, so why not maximize that effort by filling up the right way? With all the hype out there—low-carb, low-calorie, high-protein, detox—what’s really the best, trend-free choice? What should the goal be (other than channeling Jessica Biel’s physique) when building a meal immediately after a workout? 


Fueling Up Right Matters
According to Pam Shawver, a Denver-based nutritionist, “You need to eat right immediately after … and that meal should contain specific elements.” When it comes to maximizing all that hard work we put in, whether it’s a spinning class, weightlifting, or a yoga session, the most important meal we eat is the one we gobble right after we exercise. Giving muscles the right food—at the right time—helps them build that tone that we all lust after. And this doesn’t mean egg whites and protein shakes (so keep reading!). 


After a strenuous workout of any kind, we’ve sweated out fluid, depleted our energy stores, and created small tears in our muscles that need repairing. Sounds wrong, but those micro-tears are actually good for us; it’s how working out makes our bodies stronger. When the muscles repair themselves, they rebuild stronger. This is known as the catabolic state, and an optimal post-workout meal will bring us back to our pre-workout, or anabolic, stage where energy stores are refilled and broken-down tissue is repaired. 


We make up for the lost fluid by drinking water. But we’re still left with depleted energy levels—technically referred to as our glycogen stores—and muscles that need repairing. How do we best address these needs? Our glycogen stores are sort of like a car’s gas tank—we need to refill it properly so the body’s ready to go next time we hop behind the wheel. “The best way to do this is to eat carb-rich foods within thirty minutes of working out,” says Kim Geisel, a Los Angeles–based personal trainer. “The body is starving for nutrients during this window of time.” 




The Right Carbs and Proteins
Which carb-rich foods will do the trick? Ideally, says Geisel, we should take in a serving of carbs to replenish glycogen stores in that half-hour window, then take in another serving two to three hours later. (Carb lovers rejoice!) We should aim for slow-burning carbs, technically called complex carbohydrates, because they stick with us longest, allowing us to get more energy out of less food. Plus, they keep our blood sugar from spiking and crashing—a process that makes that 500-calorie pumpkin scone look less irresistible on a late-afternoon coffee run. Outsmart the scone with lasting choices like oatmeal, sprouted wheat toast, and brown rice. 


It’s not just about carbs, though. Adding some protein into the mix, around ten to eighteen grams or the equivalent of a serving of almond butter, a small piece of chicken, or a glass of milk, is important, too. This not only helps us replenish energy levels even quicker, but it stimulates muscle repair with amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Adding a little protein also keep us fuller longer, building up extra defenses against those late-afternoon candy crashes. 


Foods That Fit the Bill
Now that our post-workout meal IQ has been bumped way up, we know that we can concoct pretty much any combination of complex carbs and lean protein to fit the bill. For those of us lacking the time and creativity to come up with our own, I found some nutritionist-approved standbys. 


An Anytime Breakfast
Even though eggs and toast take about five minutes to whip up, they pack nutritional power that meets all our refueling needs. Eggs are one of the healthiest, lowest calorie sources of protein out there. I always go organic and cage-free because I think they taste better. (And after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma I can’t help but shudder when I think of chicken cages.) Plus, (rejoice again!) the yolks are just fine in moderation. My go-to brekky is a full egg with an additional white and some toasted sprouted wheat bread with jam spread on it. Toss in a little cheese and some fresh veggies and you’ve got a gourmet breakfast. 


A Powerful Sandwich
It’s easy to go wrong with a sandwich (melts, mayonnaise, calorie-laden bread), but it’s also super simple to do it right. Plus, we can eat it on the go and even buy a good one from the nearest deli. Building blocks that would make any personal trainer proud include lean protein like turkey and chicken breast, ham, or fish, plus wholesome bread, and smart add-ons. “Wholesome bread means as close to 100 percent whole wheat as you can get,” says Shawver. The only way to tell is to read labels at the store. If I’m at a deli that serves a whole-wheat roll the size of my head? “Rip half off and throw it away. Roll the sandwich with what’s left,” Shawver says. “No one needs that much bread!” That’ll leave room for extras like avocado, veggies, and even a slice or two of cheese. 




 A DIY Milkshake
Got a blender handy? Toss in some fruit, milk, or yogurt, and some almond or peanut butter. Blend it all together, and you’ve got a drink-on-the-go recovery shake that tastes a whole lot better and costs a whole lot less than those pre-made sports drinks from the store. Plus, it’s probably healthier—no added sugar or indecipherable ingredients. Not a milk drinker? I like to use almond milk in place of regular. Soy would work, too. 


A Fill-in-the-Blank Dinner
Any fish + any complex carb + any veggies = one heck of a post-workout meal. Of course, this takes a little more time, so it’s more of a dinner or weekend lunch option, but preparing a big meal like this on Sunday leaves leftovers ready to zap throughout the workweek. Whether it’s tuna, brown rice, and sautéed spinach or halibut stuffed into a corn tortilla with tomatoes and avocado, there are tons of ways to fill in the fish, complex carb, and veggie blanks. Plus, they’ll keep us satisfied past that late-night munching hour. 


Plant-Based Proteins
There are tons of options for those of us who are working with meat-free, lactose-free, and vegan diets. Beans are an easy and versatile standby (just rinse them off first thing when you take them out of the can) that contain both protein and complex carbs. Nuts and nut butter with toast also checks off all the requirements. And certain grains like bulgur, quinoa, and sprouted wheat toast also have higher protein contents than many traditional carbs. 


Common Errors: Easy to Make, Easy to Avoid
When we’re aware of common post-workout pitfalls, it’s easier to avoid negating all that hard work with uninformed food choices. “The most common mistakes I see are not eating enough and choosing high-sugar, high-calorie protein bars and shakes,” says Geisel. 


If we don’t eat enough, we’re not only denying our bodies the fuel it needs to rebuild, get stronger, and power us through our day, but we’re setting ourselves up for extreme hunger and unhealthy food choices later in the day. 


Store-bought protein bars and shake mixes seem smart (they look so healthy in that health-food section, right?), but many have extremely high levels of fat and refined sugar. These “health snacks” are tasty because they’re basically a candy bar and a milkshake in different clothing. Fixated on a bar? Read labels and avoid any added sugar and ingredient lists longer than six or seven items. And if you’re really looking for some shake mix to have on hand, the Jay Robb line is a tasty, natural alternative. 


No matter what time of day we exercise, or what type of exercise it is, the key is to follow the workout with foods that help us recover without packing on a bunch of calories that negate all our hard work. Whether it’s a snack, a drink, or a real meal, a few well-spent minutes in the kitchen can mean just as much as the hour we spend working up a sweat.


Updated August 31, 2010

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