You know you need to fuel your body for exercise. Yet what about after you exercise? Many trainers like to push post-workouts shakes and snacks, but do you really have to eat after you exercise? There’s no cookie-cutter answer to that question, and nutrition pros explain when you should–and shouldn’t–eat after exercising.
Should you eat before a workout or not?
By taking in a post-workout snack or meal, you can aid the body during recovery. “The goal is to replenish nutrients used during the training session and deliver nutrients that serve as building blocks to heal the wear and tear exercise puts on the body,” says Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., C.S.S.D., plant-based sports and performance nutritionist. Yet whether you need a recovery snack or meal will depend on a few variables.
Start with the intensity and duration of your workout. Simply put, the longer or more intense that workout is, the more important a recovery meal becomes. “If your workout lasts an hour or more, involves strength training, or is strenuous, eating a meal that checks certain boxes from a nutrition standpoint is ideal,” Sass says, adding that if you’re just going for a casual walk, a post-walk meal probably isn’t necessary.
Your goals also matter. “If you are trying to build muscle, eating soon after an intense workout is important so that you don’t break down too much muscle,” says Natasha Arkley, personal trainer, and plant-based nutrition adviser in Reading, UK. However, if you’re trying to burn fat, you might want to put that snack on hold. “Not eating allows your body to keep burning fat stores for longer, especially after something like a high-intensity interval workout.”
One more variable? When your next meal will be. If you’ll be eating your next meal (think breakfast, lunch, or dinner) within about an hour after a longer or more strenuous workout, that can become your recovery meal. In other words, “you don’t need to eat right away and then eat again within an hour,” Sass says.
How to choose a post-workout meal or snack
Fueling your body after a workout requires some careful planning, starting with knowing what you should be eating. Three things are key: Protein, carbohydrates, and fats. But how much protein? Sass recommends 15 to 30 grams. Aim for the higher end if your workout involves strength training and your goal is to build muscle mass. Just be sure to include a plant-based source of leucine. “This amino acid triggers muscle protein synthesis,” Sass says. Leucine is found in pea protein powder, soy, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and navy beans.
You should also include some antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense vegetables, whole-food carbohydrates, and anti-inflammatory fat, herbs, and spices, which is something plant-based fitness enthusiasts often forget. “Some plant-based athletes I’ve worked with focus only on protein and may drink just a plain protein powder mixed with water that lacks carbs, veggies, and healthy fats,” Sass says. Click here for a guide to the top sources of protein on a vegan diet.
While protein is important for recovery, it’s not the only nutrient your body needs. “Eating an adequate amount of carbs along with protein helps ensure that the protein is used for the maintenance and healing of protein tissues in the body, rather than being burned for fuel,” Sass says.
Good examples of recovery snacks or meals according to Sass include:
- Smoothie made with pea protein powder, greens, banana, berries, oat milk, almond butter, and ginger
- Grain bowl made with lentils, greens and other veggies, quinoa and vegan pesto
- Stir fry made with tofu (soy or pumpkin seed-based), colorful veggies, brown rice, and nuts in a ginger sauce
Eat this meal or snack within an hour or two of working out, Arkley says. Just don’t look at a recovery meal as a reward for a tough workout, Sass says. Instead, view it as a way to maximize the benefits of your workout so that you can keep improving.