- What’s the Best Time to Eat — Before or After Working Out?
- Is It Better to Eat Before or After a Workout?
- What to eat after a workout
- Why does what you eat after a workout matter?
- What are macronutrients?
- How macronutrients affect the body
- Good post-workout foods
- Good post-workout meals and snacks
- What to eat after cardio
- What to eat after resistance training
- How long should you wait to eat after a workout?
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
- Go for snacks or meals that have both carbs and protein.
- After particularly sweaty or long workouts, you might need to replenish electrolytes, too.
- Never overlook good ol’ fashioned hydration.
- 20 Foods You Should Never Eat After a Workout
- Smoothies From Pre-Made Mixes
- Spicy Foods
- Heavy Proteins Like Steak
- Fatty Foods
- Fast Food
- Simple Carbs
- Energy Bars
- Sports Drinks
- Raw Veggies
- High Fiber Foods
- Prune Juice
- Black Beans
- Sugary Drinks
- Fried Eggs
- Meal-Replacement or Protein Shakes
- Nothing With a Side of Water
- You Asked: Should I Eat Before or After a Workout?
- Thank you!
- 1. You don’t eat at all
- 2. You beat yourself up
- 3. You snack on leftovers
- 4. You hit your gym—hard
- 5. You try to “detox” your body
- 6. You sleep it off
- 7. You start hard-core dieting
What’s the Best Time to Eat — Before or After Working Out?
We’ve always been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet when it comes to exercise and weight loss, this advice might not be right for everyone.
Though weight loss should simply be the result of fewer calories consumed than expended, intriguing new research from Belgium shows there might be more to this simple math equation.
Researchers wanted to determine if exercising on an empty stomach could be more effective at regulating insulin in people eating a diet high in fat than exercising after a meal. Twenty-seven young men were fed a high-calorie, high-fat diet over a period of six weeks and divided into three groups. One group did not exercise. A second group ate a large high-carb breakfast before working out and then also consumed carbs while running or cycling. The third group did not eat before working out and drank only water; after exercising, they ate an equivalent breakfast to the second group.
The Stress-Busting Benefits of Exercise
Not surprisingly, the non-exercising group gained the most weight. Interestingly, however, the breakfast-before-exercise group also put on pounds while the breakfast-after-exercise group had almost no increase in weight despite eating a daily diet that was both high in calories and fat.
Eating Before Working Out: The Pros and Cons
Although this is only one study, the research does seem to indicate that not eating before working out may, at the very least, prevent weight gain — even if you’re eating a lot of calories throughout the day. The study opens the door to the possibility that you might boost weight loss if you break a sweat before breakfast. In addition, it might be more comfortable for some people to exercise on an empty stomach. “If you eat too much right before a workout, blood shifts from your periphery to your mid-section for digestion,” says Manuel Villacorta, R.D., a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and creator of the Eating Free weight management program in San Francisco, Calif. “If you have eaten too much, this could make you sick.”
However, exercising on an empty stomach may not be for everyone. Food is our body’s source of fuel, and if our tank is empty we may struggle. “Some think it’s best to exercise on an empty stomach to maximize fat burning, but if you’re low on energy you may not have a good enough workout to help weight loss,” says Sarah Currie, a registered dietitian at Physical Equilibrium, a provider of personal training and nutrition management services in New York City. “If you eat something that provides energy, you’ll feel good and will be able to work harder, burning more calories.”
What to Eat and When
If you choose to eat before working out first thing in the morning, aim for an easily digestible type of carbohydrate and a small amount of protein about 30 to 60 minutes before exercising. Good choices include an English muffin with peanut butter, a bowl of cereal, or low-fat yogurt or string cheese and a piece of fruit.
When choosing packaged foods, be sure to read the labels. “Many yogurts are too high in sugar,” says Jessica Kupetz, a certified fitness trainer at Active Center for Health & Wellness in Hackensack, N.J. “The same holds true for granola bars. Every ingredient should be one you recognize. If you can’t pronounce it, there’s a really good chance it’s not ‘real,’ so don’t waste your calories.”
Why Morning Workouts Are Best
Keep in mind that finding what works best for you in terms of timing, quantity, and type of food may take some trial and error. Also, what may work for you before going cycling may not be good before running, warns Currie.
Whether or not you choose to eat before working out, make some wise foods choices after exercising. Protein is necessary to rebuild muscles, while carbs will re-stock glycogen, or energy stores, in your muscles. Eating within 15 to 30 minutes post-workout is ideal, but if this isn’t possible, aim for within 60 minutes. A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread or a banana and plain yogurt are good, easy options.
Ultimately, when it comes to exercise and weight loss, remember that everyone is different so it’s important to do what feels right for you. “Also, it’s best to look at the big picture,” says Currie. “Calories eaten versus calories burned are what matter for weight loss and maintenance.”
Is It Better to Eat Before or After a Workout?
Figuring out what to eat, whether you’re looking to lose weight or maximize performance, is only one part of the equation. First, you’ve got to tackle the when. Throw exercise into the mix, and the when-to-eat conundrum gets even trickier. Let’s break it down.
There are two camps here: those who don’t eat or drink before morning exercise (save for a cup of coffee because, hello, caffeine) and those who prefer breakfast before a workout. Many in the first group don’t eat to avoid being sidelined with cramps, while the eaters argue their bodies can’t get going without any fuel in the tank. Both are legitimate points.
But there’s more to it than personal preference. Research suggests the breakfast skippers are onto something. In a recently published study, researchers recruited men who were overweight but otherwise healthy. The men completed a one-hour workout walking at a moderate pace, once without eating before and another time after eating breakfast two hours earlier. The guys burned more fat when they skipped breakfast, and the researchers found exercising in that fasted state also had a positive effect on their metabolism. This was a very small study, and more research is needed, but the findings suggest not eating before a workout of 60 minutes or less—or exercising in a fasted state—may be the way to go for fat loss.
If you can handle it, that is. The working-out-on-an-empty-stomach thing is only helpful if you’re able to successfully perform during your workout, rather than phoning it in or tapping out halfway because you feel like you might faint. In general, most of us have enough energy stored in our bodies to complete a moderate-intensity workout of up to 45 minutes first thing in the morning, says Darin Hulslander, a personal trainer, nutritionist, and CEO of DNS Performance & Fitness, though how long and how hard you’re able to go is affected by what and when you last ate the day before.
And it’s worth noting that most people will wake up slightly dehydrated from an overnight fast, so drinking a glass of water (at the very least) is a good idea for all in the morning.
But Doesn’t the Type of Workout Matter?
Yes, it definitely does. You might be able to make it through an hour of yoga without stomach growls interrupting your savasana, but you’d be crazy to set off on a 10-mile run without fueling up before.
“Meal timing and whether or not you should eat definitely depends on the type of training being done,” Hulslander says. “If you’re just walking or getting two or three low- to moderate-intensity miles in, you probably have a reasonable benefit if you don’t eat before.” Anything more than that—resistance training, a tough HIIT session, or a grueling endurance workout—and you’re better off fueling up beforehand, Hulslander says.
OK, So What Should I Eat?
The body taps its fat storage to fuel your empty-stomach workouts (hence the fat burn), but it’s also possible to eat for fat loss. Hulslander suggests fueling up with protein (to help prevent muscle damage) and some carbs (for energy) about two or three hours before exercise. Try something like Greek yogurt with fruit or two eggs with one slice of whole-grain toast in the morning.
Or, if you’re a roll-out-of-bed-and-go person and don’t have that kind of time, try a make-ahead protein shake with half a banana within an hour before exercising, Hulslander says. Aim for 15 to 20 grams of protein—that’ll be a bit easier on the stomach but still give you the energy you need. Even a banana with 3 tablespoons of peanut butter would work.
That rec changes if you’re more concerned about performance than fat loss. When prepping for an endurance session, for instance, your carb intake should go up. A study from the University of Sydney in Australia found taking in between 30 and 80 grams of carbohydrates, or about what’s in a cup of oatmeal and a banana, before working out helps you go longer.
What You Eat After Matters Too
Regardless of whether you eat before, you’ll want to take advantage of the window of recovery, which research has shown to be within 30 to 120 minutes after your cool-down. Aim to take in 16 to 25 grams of protein to refuel the muscles, plus minimally processed carbs such as fruit or starches, Hulslander says.
Don’t worry about eating a plateful of bacon and eggs if you can’t stomach a full meal after exercising. Any protein that contains the nine essential amino acids will do. “There’s no evidence that powders versus whole foods are better after training as long as protein is available,” Hulslander says. And recovery continues 24 to 48 hours after a hard workout, so keep that in mind for your meals throughout the day.
The Bottom Line
The latest research tips in favor of exercising on an empty stomach, so long as your workout is low to medium intensity and your goal is fat loss or maintenance. Just be on the lookout for signs your body isn’t feeling it: feeling dizzy or lightheaded, slowing down significantly in the middle of the workout, a decline in the quality of your movements and form, and/or rapid breathing even if the movements don’t call for it, Hulslander says.
If you’re gearing up for a more rigorous workout, eat some protein and carbs beforehand, because feeling dizzy during a set of burpees is not a great start to the day. Give your body enough time to digest, especially for endurance activities like running, as undigested food in the stomach can lead to gastrointestinal issues (a.k.a. runner’s stomach or sprinting to the bathroom instead of your planned run).
After a workout, replace lost fluids with water and replenish with a ratio of 3:1 carbs and protein to ensure adequate muscle recovery and repair.
At the end of the day, everyone is different, and it’s up to you to experiment with different pre- and post-workout foods to find what works best for you.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what to eat after a workout — and what to eat in general — when on a fitness program. All the carbs! Absolutely NO carbs! No fat, low-fat, put-tablespoons-of-butter-in-your-coffee amounts of fat. Some say sugar is out, others recommend snacking on gummy bears post-gym.
So what gives?
Plenty of science, pseudo-science, and straight up falsities about what to eat after working out are floating around the internet in staggering quantities. We took a look at the actual science to determine what foods are best for fueling up after a trip to the gym — so you know what to eat to recover faster, feel better, and get stronger.
What to eat after a workout
Why does what you eat after a workout matter?
Before you can really understand why you need to eat certain foods after a workout, you need to understand what said workout does to your body.
When you do any sort of strenuous physical activity, you deplete your glycogen — AKA carbohydrates that live in our muscles to give us energy — stores. If you’re doing any sort of resistance training, you’re also creating tiny micro-tears in your muscles and damaging muscle proteins. That’s a good thing — your muscles get stronger during the healing and repairing process.
Enter, nutrition. After a workout, you might be “resting,” but your body is hard at work restocking glycogen and repairing muscle fibers. Without the proper nutrients, you can seriously slow down the recovery process because you’re denying your body the fuel it needs to do the work.
In a nutshell: You gotta eat right if you want your body to heal and get stronger.
What are macronutrients?
Think of macronutrients as the building blocks of your diet: Protein, carbs, and fat. All three are part of a balanced, healthy diet that keeps your body running at peak performance.
On the other side of the spectrum, micronutrients are those other vitamins and minerals our bodies need to keep our immune systems, brain function, metabolism, and more working as they should. You’ll find them in fruits, veggies, and of course your daily multivitamin.
How macronutrients affect the body
Carbohydrates after a workout
Carbs help replenish the glycogen stores you burn through while working out. Intense cardio like cycling or running will burn through more glycogen than resistance training like weightlifting.
For people who exercise daily or in big amounts (i.e. long runs), eating plenty of carbs post-workout is crucial — not only for recovery, but also for energy levels and mood. Studies show you can restore your glycogen levels to normal by eating 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight right after working out — AKA 80 grams of carbs for a 160-pound person.
Protein after a workout
There’s a reason you see bodybuilders chugging protein shakes post-workout. Since resistance training breaks down muscle protein, eating protein helps you repair and rebuild the muscle fibers you damage while working out by giving your body the amino acids it needs to get it done.
This study recommends eating 0.14-0.23g protein, per pound of body weight, in order to quickly recover from your workout. That’s about 22 to 37 grams of protein for a 160-pound person, which supports several studies that claim 20 to 40 grams of protein are ideal for post-workout recovery.
Fat after a workout
Fat used to be demonized. Now, it’s glorified. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, according to current studies, which claim healthy fats are great for you in moderate amounts.
While fats are good for you and you should definitely eat them, studies show they don’t much affect glycogen stores or muscle recovery. So, while you can totally eat them post-workout if you want, you’ll still need protein and carbs.
Source: Jar of Lemons
Good post-workout foods
Enough science, already. What ACTUAL foods can you eat after a workout? Here are some options that are great for you:
Carbs: Brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, oatmeal, and quinoa
Fats: Nuts, nut butters, or avocado
Good post-workout meals and snacks
You can build the perfect post-workout meal by combining one thing from each of the three elements above. Here are some examples of what to eat after a workout:
- Two eggs, half an avocado, and two pieces of whole grain toast
- Oatmeal with whey protein
- Grilled chicken with brown rice and leafy greens
- Cottage cheese with berries and toast
What to eat after cardio
Cardio depletes your glycogen stores more than it tears muscle fibers (though it does do both). Those who are doing heavy cardio like running, swimming, or cycling should be eating a higher quantity of carbs and a moderate amount of protein — like a bowl of rice or pasta with meat or tofu.
What to eat after resistance training
Resistance training doesn’t deplete glycogen stores as much as cardio, so a weightlifter is going to need, in general, fewer carbs than a long-distance runner to stay healthy. If you’re doing regular resistance training, aim to get that 20-40 grams of protein in post workout, then supplement with carbs and fat.
How long should you wait to eat after a workout?
It’s recommended to eat your post-workout meal within 30 to 45 minutes of working out. This is because your body really wants to rebuild glycogen stores after a workout, enhancing your ability to do so.
Studies suggest you could half your amount of glycogen recovery if you wait two hours after a workout to eat — unless you ate before a workout, since your body will still benefit from that food after exercise.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
I honestly should have led with this. YOUR. BODY. NEEDS. WATER.
Especially if you’re exercising regularly, since you sweat more when you work out (duh) and deplete your electrolytes. Proper hydration — 80+ ounces a day, more if you work out hard! — will speed up recovery and help you work out better and harder. It will also improve just about every other aspect of your life, because water is straight magic.
Go for snacks or meals that have both carbs and protein.
Sweet potatoes with Greek yogurt, toast with almond butter, and veggie omelets are all great for post-workout snacks (and work for fueling up pre-workout, too!) This roundup is a great place to start. A piece of fruit or crackers for carbs with Greek yogurt, turkey, or nut butter for protein are all great ideas, too (and you find more here).
After particularly sweaty or long workouts, you might need to replenish electrolytes, too.
Food also contains electrolytes, minerals our bodies need to keep the muscles and nerves firing correctly. “If you had a very sweaty workout, replacing calcium, salt, and potassium, all part of standard food consumption, is also very important,” says Beck. If you tend to get super sweaty, or you’re working out on a hot day or going for a long training run, you’ll lose some of these things in your sweat. If you’re not able to immediately replace them, it can make you feel terrible and can even be dangerous. Dehydration and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can both set in quickly and make you feel disoriented or even pass out. In rare cases, lack of electrolytes can throw off the electrical impulses that keep the heart beating properly, leading to cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.
Never overlook good ol’ fashioned hydration.
If you’re going to remember one thing, though, make it water. “Water is the most important building block you need after a workout,” Beck says. And during, for that matter. While extra long or hard workouts will require replenishing those electrolytes, recovering from just about any kind of workout goes way better if you’ve been staying hydrated.
Skipping a post-workout meal every once in a while isn’t a huge deal, but try not to make it a habit, especially after intense workouts. “You want to set yourself up for good patterns,” Beck says, because developing healthy habits is the easiest way to prevent burnout and injury. Exercise should be fun and bring you positive health benefits, not end in muscle tears or stress fractures. “Both hydration and nutrition are important parts of having healthy exercise habits.”
20 Foods You Should Never Eat After a Workout
We’ve all been there—you step off the treadmill or power through a particularly tough training session and you feel invincible! Perhaps you even feel like you deserve a prize for all that hard work: An edible one. With extra cheese.
But check yourself before you wreck yourself. You need food post-workout to restore your energy, build muscle, and boost your metabolism, but the wrong kind can undo the hard work you just put in. Meals that are hard to digest, full of sugar, or loaded with saturated fat can do serious damage, right at the moment when your body needs to repair itself most.
With that in mind, we set out to uncover the worst foods to eat after a workout, and we asked the nation’s most trusted nutrition experts exactly which foods to avoid.
Smoothies From Pre-Made Mixes
They made be wildly convenient—especially if you are low on time and are whipping something up after an at-home workout—but they usually contain a lot of added sugars. “Your body burns through complex carbs and then fat. Drinking sugary drinks or snacks stops the fat burning process,” explains Susan Albers, Psy.D of the Cleveland Clinic. “Make your own smoothies from scratch with a protein base. Drink slowly and mindfully!” Get inspired with the fat-blasting smoothie recipes in the best-selling book, Zero Belly Smoothies!
Spicy foods—anything with salsa, sriracha or hot sauce—are hard to digest, and you’ll want to stay away from these choices. “Your body just accomplished a major effort and is a state of repair,” says Michelle Neverusky, Fitness Manager of Carillon Miami Beach. “It needs things that are easy to digest, a little protein, a little sugar to bring your sugar levels back to an even keel, and mostly carbohydrates to replenish your energy levels.”
Maybe you want the caffeine, maybe you want the bubbles, or maybe you just find it refreshing but repeat after us: Never ever drink soda after a workout. “Your body needs to hydrate, and soda won’t do that for you,” says Stephanie Mansour, a weight-loss and lifestyle coach for women. “Plus, soda may make you bloated!”
Heavy Proteins Like Steak
Just like spicy foods, Neverusky recommends skipping anything that is hard to digest—like a thick, juicy steak. “If you’re bulking up, you want to add a high carb ratio like tuna and rice; but if you are leaning out, you want to avoid carbs and drink a protein shake to retain the muscles.”
Skip the oils, seeds, anything fried, and even nuts after your workout. “Fat acts to slow the digestion process in the gut and will, therefore, delay the delivery of much-needed nutrients into the muscles,” explains Paul Roller, coach at CrossFit Outbreak.
Sigh. Are we really going to tell you that you can’t have chocolate after all your hard work? Yep! At least not immediately after.
“Avoid chocolate bars if you’re trying to lean down,” explains Lola Berry, author of The Happy Cookbook. “Remember that training will have sped up your metabolism; use that to your advantage by keeping your diet super clean with whole foods.” But if you really can’t kick that craving, Berry says to melt two tablespoons of coconut oil with one teaspoon of raw cacao powder, a pinch of cinnamon, and a smidge of Stevia to make a sugar-free chocolate sauce that you can pour over a bowl of fresh berries!
Maybe there’s a Burger King next to your gym that taunts you and your craving every time you pass by it—but do whatever you can to stay away! “While you may crave salt after working out, fast food options won’t be good at replenishing your body,” explains Mansour, “You’ll be consuming trans fats and basically undoing your workout.”
Taylor Gainor and Justin Norris, co-founders of LIT Method sum up eating white bread or pastries in a simple word: “NO!” Why not? “All that fat slows down digestion, which will do the exact opposite of what you want to happen after working up a sweat,” they explain. “Consuming high amounts of sugars also will work against you if you are trying to lose weight because it slows down your metabolism.”
Say what? Wouldn’t an energy bar make sense, thanks to the fact that they are supposed to give you, well, energy? Not so much. “These might have a lot of protein, which is seemingly great for repairing and building your muscles post-workout,” explains Annie Lawless, health/wellness expert and founder of Blawnde.com. “But in reality, most of the bars on the market are mostly sugar and no more nutritionally-sound than a candy bar. And I’m not talking about natural sugar, either; many bars contain refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, making them a nightmare for your blood sugar.” Get your protein from a whole food source like eggs and pass on the processed packaged bars.
These are classically marketed as the perfect hydration replenishment post-workout because of their electrolytes—so what could be so bad? “The high sugar content in sports drinks make them unnecessary post-workout when your body doesn’t need the extra glucose running through your bloodstream,” explains Lawless. “If you feel drained and in need of glucose replacement, reach for coconut water or a healthy smoothie. A syrupy sports drink will just cause your blood sugar to spike violently when you don’t need it.”
Skipping raw veggies after a workout may seem confusing since they usually are a great choice. But it’s not the nutritional value that is the problem. “The problem is how filling raw veggies can be when your body needs serious replenishment,” says Lawless. “After a tough workout, you need calories, high-quality carbohydrates, and protein. If you fill up on raw veggies that take a lot of volume in the stomach and make you feel full very quickly, you won’t be getting the amount nutrients or calories you need post workout.”
High Fiber Foods
“Avoid high fiber foods—especially salads with flax seeds or kale,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, CDN, CDE, CEDRD. “They may cause cramping and bloating. Instead, find what works with your body, which may be different on different days.”
This healthy drink actually serves as a laxative—something you don’t need post-workout. “Running and other exercises can already have this effect on your body, so these foods would only exacerbate this undesirable situation,” explains Cipullo. Noted!
A big no-no after working out is eating anything that will spike your energy and cause a crash. “This means you should be avoiding refined sugars found in candy,” say Karena Dawn and Katrina Hodgson of Tone It Up. “Candy lacks important nutrients that give your body the sustained energy you need in order to recover and still get through your day. Instead, it’s best to make a protein-packed smoothie post-workout! This will not only keep you satisfied until your next meal, it’ll also give you everything you need to repair your muscles and decrease recovery time.”
Stay away from black beans in any form—solo, in soups or stews, or even in burger form. “They have a high fiber count of 15 grams, which slows down the digestive process,” says Albers. But worst of all? “It’s likely that eating beans post-workout will just make you gassy.” No thanks!
Juices—especially fruit punch—should be avoided at all costs because it contains high levels of fructose. “It’s slow to digest,” says Natasha Forrest, a personal trainer at Crunch gyms. “And it reduces the fat burning effects of a high intensity or fat-burning workout as it adversely promotes fat storage.”
Eggs are a wonderful way to get your protein after a workout—as long as you eat them raw or hard-boiled. If you hit a diner or greasy spoon after your workout, don’t order your eggs over-easy or sunny-side-up. You’re guaranteed to get them drenched in saturated fats—something you want to keep out of your diet right after a big sweat session.
Do your friends try to tempt you to go spinning on a Sunday morning with the promise of bottomless mimosas afterward at brunch? “Sorry to be a buzzkill, but booze should never be at the finish line,” says FITFUSION trainer Andrea Orbeck. “Drinking after training dehydrates you, reduces protein synthesis, and packs on empty calories. Instead, clink your fork and knife together as you celebrate with a lean chicken breast and side of sweet potato.”
Meal-Replacement or Protein Shakes
“Many meal replacement drinks on the market are filled with junk that will actually hinder your post-workout success,” says Orbeck. “Avoid labels with chemical sugars like aspartame, artificial flavors, and colors. If real food can’t be an option, go for ones with basic ingredients.” The Eat This, Not That! team recently analyzed pounds of different protein powders to determine what’s alright and what’s on the no-fly list; check back soon for our exclusive list of best and worst protein shakes!
Nothing With a Side of Water
“At all costs, avoid having ‘nothing but water,'” explains Neverusky. “Your body wants to recharge. If you don’t eat, your body will eat the muscle you just put on during the workout. Be sure to feed your body correctly.” Not sure what to chow down on? Get some inspiration from our report, what personal trainers eat after a workout.
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Want to lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds—all without dieting?! Get your copy of Eat This, Not That: The Best (& Worst) Foods in America!, and learn how to indulge smarter and lose weight fast!
You Asked: Should I Eat Before or After a Workout?
Short answer: Both.
Long answer: How and when to fuel your body is the same for all exercisers to some extent, but your routine may warrant a few nutritional tweaks, says Dr. Nancy Cohen, head of the department of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts.
“In general, you’ll want to eat a meal high in carbs and protein and low in fat roughly three to four hours before you exercise,” Cohen says, whether you’re trying to shed pounds or build muscle. Carbohydrates supply your body with the glycogen it needs for your yoga session, gym visit, or jog. Skimp on carbs, and your muscles will sputter when called on to perform, she says.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it may seem weird and counterproductive to eat a carb-heavy meal before you hit the gym. But complex carbohydrates like beans, lentils, whole grains and starchy vegetables will provide exercise fuel plus nutrients and fiber. Unlike refined carbohydrates—things like white bread, cookies, soft drinks, or many pre-packaged foods—complex carbs won’t expand your personal equator or supercharge your appetite, research shows.
Cohen recommends avoiding fat in your pre-workout meal because it slows down your digestion. But eating protein supports your muscles. “During and after exercise, your muscle cells break down and rebuild,” Cohen explains. The right proteins contain the amino acids your muscles need to complete that cellular rebuilding process.
Complete protein packages include animal sources like chicken or lean beef, since they have all those amino acids, Cohen says. Grains like quinoa and bulgur as well as beans and some vegetables also contain protein, though probably not the “complete” kind. But if you eat a variety of those food sources, you can skip the meat and still get all the amino acids you need, she adds.
As for post-workout food, Cohen suggests eating or drinking more protein an hour or two after lifting weights for bodybuilders and athletes. But despite what you’ve heard, it’s not necessary (or healthy) to pound a massive protein shake the second you stop pumping iron.
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According to Dr. Rob Danoff, an Aria Health System physician with a focus on sports medicine and nutrition, your body—and especially your kidneys—can only synthesize so much protein. Research suggests roughly one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is plenty to maximize muscle growth. By that measure, for a person who weighs 175 pounds, 80 grams of protein all day is enough.
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One large chicken breast or cut of red meat can contain 60 grams of protein or more, so slamming a huge protein shake after a workout will only inundate your kidneys with protein it can’t handle and your muscles don’t need, Danoff says. Apart from the risk of kidney damage, there’s evidence that overloading your body with protein can contribute to an imbalance in the acidity of your blood, which in the long run could lead to bone weakening. “It’s a myth that we need all this protein,” Danoff says. “More isn’t always better.”
In your workout-food focus, don’t forget water. If you exercise first thing in the morning, Cohen says dehydration is a big concern because you’ve probably passed much of the night without a sip of H2O. “Your whole cellular metabolism is dependent on fluid,” she says. And everything from your workout performance to your mood and mental acuity will suffer if you’re parched.
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We’re going to go ahead and guess that there’s a 99.99999 percent chance you’ve been in this situation before: You finish a workout, you’re starving, and somehow before you know it you end up eating two bagels. After all, you tell yourself, you earned it—you just worked out! But au contraire. “Many people rationalize pigging out on unhealthy food after a workout by telling themselves that they deserve it,” says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. But while refueling after you sweat is a good idea, it’s easy to undo all of your hard work if you overdo it. Luckily, Gans says there are ways to prevent these binges:
If you know you’re meeting your friends for brunch after your workout, pick out what you’re going to have ahead of time, says Gans. That way, you won’t be choosing with your exercise goggles on—and you’ll be more likely to order healthy food for yourself. “If you psych yourself up for what can be a delicious and healthy meal before you even start working out, you’re more likely to stick to your plan afterward because you’ve already committed to it,” says Gans.
Have a Snack Before You Sweat
If you go to the gym or on a run when you’re already hungry, then you’ll be even hungrier once you finish. That, coupled with your potential to rationalize a double-bagel situation, will make you way more likely to binge. Gans’ suggestion: Have a snack with healthy fat, protein, and carbs to keep you satisfied post-sweat session. “I tell my patients to have either a piece of fruit and a handful of almonds or a KIND dark chocolate nuts and sea salt bar,” she says. “You can also try baked black bean chips and a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese for a healthy combo of protein and fiber.”
MORE: 9 Healthy Foods That Are Super-Portable
Talk Yourself Out of It
This one is fairly simple: All you have to do is think back to your time at the gym and remember how hard you worked. “Then, ask yourself: ‘Why would I want to blow all of that hard work?'” suggests Gans. “You just spent time doing something good for your body. Why sabotage it?” Sounds almost too easy, but sometimes, all it takes is a bit of self-talk to conquer your inner over-snacker.
Choose Healthier Versions of Whatever You’re Craving
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to house a bagel or a piece of pizza after your workout. And if you just can’t not indulge, order wisely, suggests Gans. Ask for your bagel scooped out if you really, really, really want one, and add smoked salmon or reduced-fat cream cheese for a healthy filler. Or if you want fries, get sweet potato fries to pack in more fiber and decrease your serving size. Craving pizza? Order a whole-wheat slice with veggies to make it worth your while. You get the idea.
MORE: 10 Healthy Foods That Boost Energy AND Weight Loss
Annie Daly Annie Daly is an NYC-based freelance travel and wellness journalist, and the author of the forthcoming book Destination Wellness, about various healthy living philosophies from around the world.
With Thanksgiving behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the (many) food and fitness lessons learned. If you’re like us, you learned the hard way that you didn’t need a third serving of sweet potato casserole, afterall. But the schooling probably carried over to the hours and days post-holiday. If you woke up and practically starved yourself the next day or went way, way too hard at the gym, you now know that’s not the best way to recover from a food binge. But for those of you who are lucky enough to not have to learn these things the hard way, here’s a list of what not to do the next time you overdo it.
And let’s be real here: Most of us we are going to slip into at least one more food coma between Thanksgiving and New Years. A slip-up, however, doesn’t point to an inevitable downfall. That is, unless you make one of these common post-binge mistakes.
1. You don’t eat at all
A lot of guys think that if they eat two days’ worth of calories one day, they can eat zero the next and it will be just like they never binged in the first place. Unfortunately, calorie math isn’t that straight forward, says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. When you cut your calories to zero (or really to anything under about 1,400 calories a day) your body switches into starvation mode, slowing down your metabolism and promoting even more weight gain, he says. Plus, once your body mows through your liver’s stored carbohydrates, it could make you so ravenous that you end up binging yet again. And, honestly, who feels like hitting the gym when they haven’t eaten in nearly 24 hours?
2. You beat yourself up
Kicking yourself over your eating mistakes backfires big time. It makes you feel crappy about yourself, which has a way of manifesting itself in second, third, and fourth binge sessions, he says. In fact, 2011 research published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology shows that perfectionists, by obsessing over their mistakes, are actually at an increased risk of suffering from a binge-eating disorder.
3. You snack on leftovers
The more days you spend eating that stuffing, pie, and mac and cheese, the more days you’re likely to gain, not lose, weight. “These simple carb-rich foods cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to shoot way up and down, so that you store your calories as fat,” Delbridge says. “When you snack on these leftovers, it’s basically like you’re following your one big binge with a bunch of smaller ones.” And, once your Tupperware containers finally do hit empty, it’ll be more difficult than ever to switch back to healthy eating, he says. “Your body adjusts to whatever you’ve been eating, so when you start eating smaller, healthier meals again, your body will think you’re starving.” Expect cravings, crazy-loud stomach growls, and the need for a lot of willpower.
4. You hit your gym—hard
The day of a binge, any high-intensity workouts—especially those that involve a good bit of stomach jostling—may not be your best bet. After all, throwing up your mashed potatoes on the treadmill does no one, least of all your gym’s cleaning crew, any favors. Plus, right after a session of overeating, a surge of insulin hits your bloodstream to lower your crazy high blood sugar levels, he says. A couple of hours later (about the time your stomach no longer feels like it’s playing host to the predator), your blood sugar levels are likely pretty low, meaning that high-intensity workouts could give you a case of the spins.
5. You try to “detox” your body
“This annoys me more than anything else,” Delbridge says. “Biologically, no cleanse can actually ‘detox’ your body. Your body detoxes itself on its own. But, since cleanses are extremely low-calorie and typically low in actual food, they do send your body into starvation mode and slow your metabolism.”
6. You sleep it off
Even if you aren’t logging a max-effort workout session, after a binge, you still need to move. If you just nap on the couch or follow your food binge with a Netflix marathon, the vast majority of the sugar coursing through your blood stream will end up being stored in your fat cells, he says. However, if you get in a light workout, or even just walk around the block immediately after your meal, you’ll use at least some of that sugar for energy.
7. You start hard-core dieting
Going straight from a binge into a full-fledged diet is like cannonballing, butt-naked, into a 33-degree pool. It sucks. “Psychologically, you resent the fact that you’re dieting and get angry about the foods you ‘can’ eat and the ones you ‘can’t,” Delbridge says. Hence why about a third of New Year resolution-makers have given up on their weight-loss efforts by February, according to research from the University of Scranton.
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We’ve all been there. The last bite is barely down your throat when the shock and horror hit: What have I done? It occurs to you that you’re the fat Greek party god whose name you can’t remember because the 800 grams of carbs you just plowed through are making you drowsy. Your next thought is usually along the lines of: I just wasted the last three months of working out.
Binges are like the weather. For the most part, you can predict and outthink them, and you don’t get caught without an umbrella. But sometimes, the perfect storm of hunger, emotion and, let’s be honest, alcohol come together in a swirling vortex that smashes your discipline and turns you into a calorie-eating machine with absolutely zero self-control.
Here’s the good news about binging: No matter how disgusting and bloated you feel immediately afterward, the damage can be undone. In fact, it can be erased pretty easily. Just like eating 500 grams of quality protein in one sitting won’t make muscles suddenly sprout all over your body, demolishing a box of donuts doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to 12 months of fatness. “A party is just one meal in time,” agrees Shelby Starnes, a nutrition consultant and amateur bodybuilder who has counseled hundreds of physique athletes about putting on muscle and stripping away fat. “Your physique wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be destroyed in one either.”
However, that’s not to say that the mental hurdles you’ll have to leap while recovering from a binge won’t be more difficult than the physical ones. That’s why we came up with these tips to get you back on the fitness track as soon as possible. When all that’s left are crumbs and guilt, here’s what you need to do.
Anatomy of a Binge
There are two kinds of binges: the planned binge and the surprise binge. The planned binge is when you and your buddy decide that the Friday after next you’re going to meet at that high-end Brazilian steakhouse and find out whether the two of you actually can eat a whole cow. The surprise binge is when you show up hungry to a corporate event to find that they hired Mario Batali to toss pizzas all night. You weren’t planning on eating five whole pies yourself, but, seriously, when is Batali going to serve you in person again? The post-binge strategy is the same for both, but if you have a gustatory bacchanalian in your calendar, there are a few pre-emptive moves you can make.
BEFORE THE BINGE
Do an HIIT workout
High-intensity interval training — interspacing repeated short bouts of extremely intense work with easier recovery efforts — can help burn calories even as you are shoveling them down your gullet. The process of restoring the body to its rested state after a bout of HIIT can boost metabolism for hours.
In a study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the energy expenditure of subjects was measured for 24 hours after either a bout of low-intensity exercise or high-intensity intervals. The subjects in the low-intensity group cycled at 50 percent of their max effort for 60 minutes. The high-intensity subjects performed two-minute intervals, shifting between 100 percent effort and a less-strenuous recovery spin. Scientists found that the high-intensity group expended more energy during exercise, during recovery and even while sleeping over the next 24 hours.
Eat some fiber and protein
Three to four hours before the scheduled calorie tsunami, eat a low-glycemic meal that is loaded with dietary fiber and resistant starch. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that subjects who ate a low-glycemic meal that contained resistant starch and fiber demonstrated lower glucose and insulin response at their next meal. Having less insulin circulating during a binge can help keep a Defcon-Three binge from escalating to Defcon One. And it will also mean decreased fat storage. Try a bowl of lentil soup with chopped chicken breast tossed in (not only do you need protein at every meal, but the protein also will help lower the overall glycemic load of a meal.) A whey protein shake blended with berries and a banana (the less ripe the better) is also a good choice.
DURING THE BINGE
Hit the protein first
If there is a safe time to go completely Scooby-Doo on your food, it’s when you’re standing in front of a guy carving a turkey. “Fill up on protein,” Starnes says. “If there is chicken or ham or beef at the party, eat that first. That does a couple things. One, it makes sure you get your protein in for the meal. And two, it helps fill you up before you get into the junk stuff.”
Asking someone not to drink at a party is like telling a guy at the gym not to touch the weights. What’s the point of being there? But the sobering fact is, alcohol has no real upside when it comes to training. Go ahead and sputter something about the French and red wine; we’re telling the truth.
“Clients always ask me this question, and I always have to say that alcohol is not included in their diet,” Starnes says. “One drink might be OK, but if you want to progress, then stay away from the booze.”
Of course, drinking is an important part of our culture, and a couple of stiff ones can go a long way in fighting off the feelings of deprivation that come with a training diet. Go ahead and have a couple if it keeps you sane, but just stay away from sugar-bomb girlie drinks.
“I’ll sometimes do a vodka on the rocks with a squeeze of lime,” suggests Sara Polston, MA, RD, NSCA-CPT, a nutritionist and NPC figure competitor who practices in Norman, Okla. “Or lean toward light beer or red wine. Those are better than high-sugar daiquiri-type drinks, and you’ll feel a lot better the next day, too.”
AFTER THE BINGE
Work out immediately, if possible
Unless you’ve been drinking — beer and treadmills really don’t mix — try to get some exercise after your binge. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology examined the thermic effect of food in meals as related to exercise. That’s the increase in metabolic rate you experience from eating, digesting and storing the food you consume, and it can last up to six hours after a meal. In the experiment, researchers had subjects exercise at various times before or after a large meal. The thermic effect of food was significantly greater in those who trained after a feeding.
“I feel 100 times better if I can take a walk after a huge meal,” Polston says. “If you have a huge meal, get up and move around a little bit. Hopefully, that will get the food digested that much faster. It doesn’t have to be a full-on run or sprint. Just get up and move.”
How you look and feel the day after a binge is going to influence whether you come back like a champion or drown your depression in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Drinking water can help make the difference. A bad case of “hot dog fingers” — when your rings feel tight because your fingers are bloated from all the sodium you ate — go a long way to making you feel hopeless. That is why you need to start drinking water immediately after a binge.
“Increasing water intake will help you flush out your system, especially if you have been binging on soda or alcohol, which will dehydrate you,” Polston says. “Keep drinking water, and try to lay off the high-sodium foods for a little while.”
Don’t make up for it all at once
“The problem comes when people start skipping meals the next day in order to offset the excessive caloric intake from the binge,” Polston says. “Inevitably, they fall back into another binge because they are depriving themselves.”
Over the next few days, simply replace some of your regular starchy carbs (rice, oats, potatoes) with an extra serving of green vegetables. Let the carbs bear the brunt of the calorie restriction. Do not cut back on your fat grams or protein intake because that will only hinder your fat-burning efforts.
Add a little more cardio
Think of working off those calories the way you would a large credit card debt. You can’t pay it off all at once. Patiently chip away at it regularly until it becomes smaller and smaller and then pretty soon you have a zero balance. Polston recommends adding an extra 10 to 15 minutes of cardio a day for the next week and increasing the intensity a few degrees in the weight room.
Train legs the next day
The one good thing you can say about a binge is that it sure tops off your fuel tank. Take advantage of that high-octane fill-up by getting in a killer workout. “A lot of people like to have a cheat meal after they train, but I prefer to do it before a big bodypart,” Starnes says. “Legs are pretty much the most taxing bodypart to train. So I like to take a cheat meal the night before I train legs so I ensure that I am maximally glycogen-loaded and maximally bloated with sodium to support a good training session.”
Don’t forget your supplements
“When you are eating junk, you can easily think, Why take my fish oil?Why take my creatine? But you need to get your supplementation back on track just like your diet,” says Polston, who takes fish oil and creatine as well as a multivitamin, vitamin C, calcium, glutamine and branched-chain amino acids.
The Binge vs. The Cheat Meal
The classic fallacy most people employ after a binge, in order to rationalize their vacuum-like behavior, is to chalk up the food orgy to being a cheat meal. But a cheat meal is a very different and more civilized animal than the binge.
First, only those on seriously restrictive diets are allowed cheat meals. If you are eating to gain mass or to maintain your current size, then you really shouldn’t be using them. “Cheat meals are a strategic tool to periodically rev metabolism up, refill glycogen stores and stave off catabolism,” nutrition consultant Shelby Starnes says. “If you’re not dieting for fat loss, then you’re already getting ample calories and glycogen.”
Second, cheat meals are not no-holds-barred face-stuffing sessions. Cheat meals are designed to give the person something to look forward to and a way to fend off feelings of deprivation. But they still need to be within reason. “Something needs to give,” nutritionist Sara Polston says. “Have a burger and fries, but don’t have a pitcher of beer and dessert on top of that. Or have a steak and a baked potato, then you can have a glass of wine and some dessert.”
For a complete guide on how to cheat, see our April 2012 issue.