Recently, I was asked about the importance of recovery snacks after a workout and if they help with weight loss. Refueling after a workout is important regardless of your exercise or fitness goals and in some cases, it may be the difference between making huge gains in the gym or not. Whether your focus for working out is on weight loss, muscle building or even improved body composition, a post-workout snack can complement all of these goals.
Why is it important to eat after a workout?
While we know how important exercise is for fitness, many of us are unaware of how significant the recovery process is for health and weight loss. It is important to re-nourish your muscles and metabolism following a workout as this will allow you to
A) refuel your engines and repair muscle tissue and
B) obtain the capability to exercise just as hard for your next workout.
Think of your body and muscles in terms of how you treat your car. Eating frequently throughout day is equivalent to making pit stops and refueling your gas tank. Just like your vehicle, constant refueling keeps your metabolism going. You wouldn’t run your car out of gas, so why would you run your body out of fuel? When you exercise, you are revving up your metabolic engine and this can cause your body to burn up gas even faster. Missing that opportunity to refuel post-workout puts you at risk of draining your metabolic gas tank. Remember, it doesn’t matter how expensive, how brand new or how many options your car has. A car without gas is useless to you. Unfortunately, the same can be said about our metabolisms. Lack of fuel and drained metabolic gas tanks can lead to decreased functioning and performance.
If you’re a science nerd like me, you’ll want a more in-depth explanation. Having a greater understanding on what happens to our bodies on a physiological-biochemical level can help motivate positive dietary behaviors. When you work out, tiny microscopic tears occur in the muscle tissues as a result from repeated muscle contraction. Exercised muscle tissue is constantly adapting, meaning it is breaking down and rebuilding itself. Having a post-workout shake or snack can help initiate the repairing process. Ideally, this snack should be consumed within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, when your “metabolic window” is at its peak. During this time, one experiences increased blood flow to muscles, creating a faster delivery of nutrients. Insulin sensitivity and enzyme activity required for rebuilding and refueling tissue are also heightened after exercise. Consuming your post-workout snack during this increased hormone and enzyme-activity time frame will ensure you are properly refueling your body.
What makes a perfect post-workout snack if you’re trying to lose weight?
Regardless of your goal, the best type of snack to have post-workout is a lean protein source with quick digesting carbohydrates. The combination of the two preps your muscles to act like a sponge so they more properly absorb amino acids (proteins) and glucose (carbs). Amino acids will help rebuild and repair your muscles and glucose will refuel them with energy. Protein shakes make great post workout snacks for this reason. One could also focus on whole foods such as egg whites, lean meats or other desired lean protein source coupled with fruit, sweet potatoes or preferred starchy food. While fat is incredibly important in the diet, your post-workout snack is not the time to take a lot of it in merely because of the fact that it slows down digestion and can hinder the rapid absorption process needed to initiate protein synthesis after a workout.
Should you modify your next meal because of the post-workout snack?
Yes and no. Your first actual meal after your workout should contain a higher amount of healthy carbohydrates as compared to your other meals throughout the day. This is when I would recommend eating items such as rice, sweet potatoes and squash or whatever your favorite starch is with your protein and veggie sources. Save the salads and lower carb menu items for meals that are farther away from your workouts. In terms of calories, there is no reason to cut nutrients away from your meals to save up calories for your post-workout snack. I know it sounds counter-productive to eat what you technically just burned off, but properly re-nourishing your muscles and body will help keep your metabolism lit up all day long. Remember, a healthy metabolism is one that burns more calories overall than one that is being underfed.