Your workouts prime your body for muscle growth. Whether that growth actually takes place, however, depends upon the nutrients that go into your muscle cells after the workout. Many people are confused about the best post-workout foods to take to promote muscle gain and fat loss.
In this article, we’ll identify the best way to eat in the hours after your workout. We’ll also explore the concept of the anabolic window and provide a couple of great post-workout meals to try.
You can also check out our article on the best foods to eat both before and after your workout if you want to learn even more.
- Anabolic Window
- Ideal Post-Workout Macro Ratio
- Ideal Ratio and Protein Shakes
- Healthy Snack Ideas
For a long time, fitness “experts” have promoted the “anabolic window.” The idea is that, in order to get maximum workout benefit, you must get your post-workout nutrients into your system within 20–30 of completing your last set. If you wait longer than that, the story goes, you would have diminished results in terms of strength and muscle growth.
Belief in the anabolic window is based on the anabolic state theory. Strength training pushes your body into an anabolic state. In this state, the body is primed for muscle growth. The addition of protein and carbs will enhance this process.
The anabolic window advocates believe that this prime anabolic situation only lasts for 20–30 minutes. Recent research, however, indicates that the anabolic window is not as short as that. A meta-analysis of 43 studies showed that there is no significant difference in muscle and strength response whether protein is taken immediately after or even an hour or more after a workout.
Another study found that delaying carbohydrate intake until two hours after the workout did not affect glycogen synthesis.
The bottom line on the anabolic window is that you don’t have to rush to get in your post-workout meal. So long as you eat within a couple of hours, you will still be getting the maximum benefit from your training.
Ideal Post-Workout Macro Ratio
The main nutrient your body needs after a workout is carbohydrates. That’s because your training has depleted your glycogen levels. Carbs will replace them. This is the one time when you can get away with fast-acting carbs, as they will go straight into the muscle cells to replenish glycogen levels.
Your body also needs protein after the workout. This will promote protein synthesis as amino acids are used to repair the damage that has been caused to the muscle fibers.
Here are some great muscle recovery foods based on their main macronutrient content:
- Sweet potatoes
- Chocolate milk
- Fruits (pineapple, berries, banana, kiwi)
- Rice cakes
- Dark, leafy green vegetables
- Animal- or plant-based protein powder
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Protein bar
Because fats slow down digestion, and you want to get carbs and proteins to the muscle cells as fast as possible, you should generally avoid fats in your post-workout meal.
Ideal Ratio and Protein Shakes:
The ideal carbohydrate/protein ratio is 3:1 in favor of carbs. Some people also find it easier to tolerate liquids than whole foods after their workout.
If you choose to make use of a post-workout protein shake, you will want it to contain that 3:1 ratio in favor of carbs. Look for a product that uses fast-acting, quick-digesting whey protein isolate or hydrolysate. This will provide you with a rich source of branch chain amino acids while also boosting the immune system. Whey isolates contain 90–96% protein with virtually no lactose. This is great for people who are lactose intolerant.
By taking your nutrients in liquid form, you will be able to absorb your protein and carbs more quickly than from whole food sources.
When it comes to carbs in your post-workout drink, you should look for either of these ingredients on the label:
Dextrose is the name that is given to glucose that comes from corn. Glucose is the energy source that is used up when you exercise and that you are in need of replacing. In order to create glycogen, carbs must first be converted to glucose.
A huge benefit of dextrose is that it can be absorbed directly through the gut into the bloodstream. In addition, it is already in the form that the body needs, so it is immediately available to be used to restore the body’s glycogen levels.
Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate. It, too, is absorbed directly into the gut. However, before it can be utilized, it needs to first pass through the liver so that the bonds between the glucose molecules can be broken down. That means that it will take more time to be used for muscle glycogen replacement.
Healthy Snack Ideas
Here are a couple of healthy post-workout snack ideas:
Steamed Green Beans and Tofu Salad
200g green beans
200g tofu, cubed
1 fennel bulb, cubed
150g green cabbage, cubed
6–8 cherry tomatoes, sliced
½ cup green peas, fresh or frozen
Handful of parsley
1. In a steaming tool, steam the green beans, tofu, fennel, and cabbage.
2. Transfer to a bowl. Add the cherry tomatoes, peas, and parsley. Mix everything together.
Sweet Potato Pie Smoothie Bowl
¹⁄2 cup shelled walnuts
2 cups unsweetened almond milk
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 large peeled, cubed, and baked sweet potato
¹⁄2 small avocado, peeled and pitted
1 cup ice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. In a large blender, combine walnuts and almond milk and blend on high until nuts are completely broken down (about 1–2 minutes).
2. Add cinnamon, ginger, and syrup and blend on High until all ingredients are combined—about 1 minute.
3. Add sweet potato and avocado and blend on high until all ingredients are thoroughly combined—about 1 minute.
4. Add ice gradually while blending on High; blend until smooth—about 1 minute.
5. Pour the smoothie mixture equally into each of two small bowls. Then top each bowl with ¹⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg.
6. Serve immediately to prevent the avocado from oxidizing. If you’re looking for a ready-made meal plan, check out our review of the Trifecta Meal Plan.
Healthy, targeted post-workout nutrition is essential to get the full benefit from your hard work in the gym. Try out the suggestions provided to keep your muscles well fueled to maximize the anabolic environment your training has created.