What to eat after workout is a big concern for many individuals. If you’ve ever read bodybuilding literature, you’ve heard that the requirement for post workout nutrition is to have protein and carbs as soon as possible after you finish lifting. Why? So that you can take advantage of an optimal time in which your body turns everything into muscle. As usual, bodybuilding literature doesn’t exactly tell the whole story.
Before going into more details, I’ll cut right to the chase. Having protein and carbs after lifting is somewhat important, but it’s not absolutely critical immediately after exercising or even within one hour of exercising. The studies that bodybuilding literature reference to justify this are full of holes. The bottom line advice is that you should probably have a healthy mix of carbs and protein 1-2 hours after a workout, but it doesn’t have to be some fancy protein shake or energy drink. Chocolate milk is just as good as anything on the market.
Post Workout Nutrition: The Most Important Meal of the Day?
Bodybuilding literature would have you believe that your body is in an anabolic state after exercising in which your muscles absorb nutrients at a higher rate than normal. The argument is that you eat, or preferably drink protein to help rebuild the muscles. Just as important, you need high glycemic carbs to replenish glycogen levels. According to some bodybuilding “experts,” if you don’t do this within 30-60 minutes, you’ll lose energy and muscle and your metabolism will slow down.
Eating Immediately After A Workout
During my days of utilizing the bodybuilder approach, I was adamant about following the above advice on post workout nutrition. Immediately after lifting, I would have Gatorade with Any Whey. It wasn’t just regular Gatorade either, it was dextrose-based. I thought using this type of sugar would cause my body to absorb nutrients even faster than a regular carb drink due to a greater insulin spike. To top it off, 1-2 hours later I would have Muscle Milk which provided a lighter load of carbs and slow digesting casein protein. I can tell you that I certainly gained muscle but just as much, if not more, fat as well.
If you’re confused by high glycemic carbs, insulin levls, and whey vs. casein protein, don’t bother looking into them any more. I wasted enough time with nutrients to know that there are only marginal effects associated with these different carbs and protein types on post workout nutrition. More importantly, what to eat after a workout is built around a “mythical” study. The famous study showed there was an optimal “window” of eating after exercising that would help you build muscle.
The Telephone Game
Do you remember when you were younger and you’d play the telephone game in school? Everyone would sit in a circle and a phrase would be whispered from person to person. When the game ended, you had a completely different phrase than the one you started with. Welcome to the post workout nutrition “window” myth. The word myth is really an exaggeration since there was an actual study done on the effects of protein post workout. However, the study was done on 70 year old men! If you really think 70 year old men are representative of the rest of the population, then keep drinking your post workout shakes 5 minutes after exercising.
A full evaluation of research studies was done by Brad Pilon in his book, How Much Protein. I’d highly recommend reading it since it will change your outlook on post workout nutrition and the amount of protein you really need on a daily basis. The bottom line is that Brad analyzed a lot of studies and found that creatine was the only real difference maker when it came to post workout nutrition and muscle growth.
More importantly, when you exercise intensely, you release HGH which helps burn fat while preserving muscle. When you eat after a workout (and generate an insulin spike), the HGH release stops. Why not keep those HGH levels elevated for a longer period of time? You won’t have to worry about losing muscle since HGH helps preserve muscle. This makes the case to wait 1-2 hours before eating.
Not Eating At All After A Workout
I hope I’ve convinced you to think twice about before you immediate eat after a workout. However, do you have to eat at all after exercising? My answer is a resounding yes. Because my weight skyrocketed from bulking like a bodybuilder, I aggressively tried to cut weight. I would workout at night and not eat anything after. I would perform cardio first thing the next morning as well. I skipped breakfast and didn’t eat until lunch. I did lose fat, but a lot of muscle mass as well.
This is an extreme approach, but your body does eventually need nutrients to prevent muscle loss (especially if you exercise daily or multiple times daily). There’s just no proof that getting those nutrients 2, 24, or even 48 hours later causes you to gain more or less muscle mass. In fact, one study showed that as long as you replenished nutrients within 24 hours, you received a muscle building benefit. Another showed that there was still some benefit, albeit lesser, even after 48 hours. You just need to replenish the nutrients at some point in time. For my body, 2 hours feels like the right amount of time for my muscles.
What To Eat After Workout
Now that you know the benefits associated with not eating immediately and not waiting forever to ingest a post workout meal, the obvious question is what you should eat. Your body is primed to quickly digest what you give it, so you should try to avoid fat as it slows down the digestion process. A nice mix of carbs and protein is ideal. If you’re looking for specifics, bodybuilders will tell you a carb/protein ratio between 2:1 and 4:1 is ideal with protein equal to 0.15-0.25 grams per pound of bodyweight (weighing 136lbs, I would have approximately 27g of protein and 54g of carbs for a post workout meal).
If you enjoy spending money on post workout shakes, that’s fine, but you can get the ratio you need from a simple glass of fat free chocolate milk. One glass of Over the Moon chocolate milk contains 150 calories, 11g protein, 25g sugar, and of course 0g fat. If you believe bodybuilding literature, 2 glasses would be ideal. I usually settle for just one glass. Alternatively, exercise a couple hours before breakfast, lunch, or dinner and replenish your nutrients with a healthy meal made up of solid foods, rather than liquids. Yes, whole foods won’t be absorbed as fast, but that may or may not be important.
I think the key takeaway from all this is that you have to question the research about post workout nutrition. No study has unequivocally proven that you need a certain carb/protein ratio within a certain amount of time after exercising. My best advice on what to eat after workout is that you should drink a glass of chocolate milk about 2 hours after exercising.
Not Your Average Fitness Tips
- Question what you’ve read or heard about post workout nutrition. How Much Protein reveals a lot of misconceptions about the studies.
- There’s no rush to immediately eat after workout.
- Avoid eating for 1-2 hours after exercising to maximize HGH release which helps to preserve muscle and burn fat.
- Don’t overwork your body and deprive it of nutrients for an extended period of time after intensely exercising.
- Fat free chocolate milk is an optimal post workout nutrition drink 2 hours after exercising.