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What's the best thing to eat after a workout?

A smart combination of protein and carbs will help replenish energy and promote recovery and muscle growth.
Senior man making protein shake before exercising
10'000 Hours / Getty Images

You just finished a jog, HIIT session or sweaty yoga class. You open the fridge and reach for ... what?

Your post-workout meal can make all the difference in muscle building and recovery. The hard part tends to be knowing what foods to grab after exercise that will complement the work you've done, not counteract the progress you’ve made.

Here’s an easy guide to post-workout refueling, plus some tasty meal ideas that will help you recover and re-energize.

Why eating the right foods after a workout is important

When you exercise, your muscles use up their glycogen stores for fuel, giving you the energy you need to get through the workout. After the workout, your body tries hard to repair, rebuild and regrow your glycogen stores.

“I teach our athletes to focus on the 3 R’s: refuel, repair, rehydrate!” Jordan Brown, registered dietitian for the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball team, told TODAY. “Aim to replace energy lost during training with carbohydrates, repair and rebuild muscles with protein, and rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes lost during the workout!”

(It's important to note that a high-intensity workout is different than a brisk walk around the block, which doesn't use up those same glycogen stores. So be careful about adding too many additional calories to your diet if you're not expending that energy during your workout.)

What you drink is just as important

Water should be your best friend before, during and after your workout. Hydration can impact your overall energy levels and performance just as much as food. While exercising, you can lose a lot of electrolytes through sweating, so making sure you replenish your fluids can help you recover more quickly.

It’s sometimes okay to substitute water with some coconut water if you really feel that you have lost tons of electrolytes (like if you exercised outdoors on a hot day for an extended period). But most of the time plain old water is the way to go — sports drinks contain way more more sugar than is necessary after a normal workout.

What makes a healthy post-workout meal?

Don’t overthink your post workout fuel. It should be easy-to-make and not too caloric (far too many people feel they’ve earned a big meal after a workout and then wonder why they aren’t losing weight or seeing progress). In order to ensure you’re choosing a snack or meal that helps replenish energy and promote recovery, aim for a combination of protein and carbs.

The amount you need to consume will depend on the duration and intensity of the exercise itself, said Brown. But as a general rule of thumb, she recommended a 3:1 carb to protein ratio following a workout. “Therefore, if consuming 20 grams of protein following a workout, then aim for 60 grams of carbohydrates,” said Brown.

Why do you need to eat protein after exercise?

“Eating protein after a workout repairs the damaged muscle tissue and prevents further breakdown that occurs during exercise, allowing muscles to become stronger and more dense. This promotes faster recovery, so you are ready for your next workout!” Julia Long, a registered dietitian and Head of Sports Nutrition & Dietetic Services for the Chicago Cubs, told TODAY. “Aim to eat 20-35 grams of protein after exercise. This range provides the protein boost necessary to repair damaged muscle after a workout. In fact, our bodies cannot process much more than this amount in one sitting.”

Brown recommended foods such as meats, dairy products, eggs, nuts and beans to help repair and rebuild muscle after a workout. “Some of our players’ favorite protein snacks are Greek yogurt, jerky and a nut-based trail mix," she added.

Here are smart protein-rich foods to enjoy post-workout:

  • Animal or plant-based protein powder you can add to a smoothie
  • Eggs (egg whites are amazing clean protein)
  • Greek yogurt topped with granola
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tofu
  • Fish like salmon or tuna (in water)
  • Chicken or turkey breast
  • Nuts or nut butter (choose an unsalted and unsweetened version)

Why do you need to eat carbs after exercise?

“During exercise you use the carbs stored from previous meals for energy. Eating carbohydrates after your workout replaces what you used,” said Long. “If you do not replace the used energy with carbs, you risk tapping into muscle stores for energy. This could decrease muscle tone and strength.” In fact, research shows that eating carbs along with a protein source can actually help you maximize your glycogen restoration.

Here are some healthy carbs to enjoy post-workout:

  • Fruit smoothie
  • Whole fruits (apple, pear, berries, bananas, kiwi)
  • Dark leafy greens and vegetables
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Quinoa
  • Potatoes (especially sweet potatoes)
  • Squash (butternut, acorn)
  • Brown rice

10 protein + carb combos to reach for after a workout

“At the Cubs, one of our favorite ways to combine the 3R’s is through post-workout smoothies,” said Brown. Along with protein-rich foods and healthy carbohydrates, she also recommended antioxidants to promote healing and recovery. “Antioxidants help defend your cells from damage,” said Brown. ”Great sources of antioxidants are berries, beets and leafy greens.”

Here are some other quick meal ideas that contain a combo of healthy carbs and lean protein:

  • Tuna salad on whole wheat bread or whole wheat crackers
  • Egg white omelette with handfuls of veggies (¼ avocado)
  • Oatmeal with berries and unsalted nuts and seeds
  • Grilled chicken and roasted vegetables (cooked with olive oil)
  • Whole-wheat toast with unsalted nut butter and sliced banana
  • Salmon with sweet potato (or squash)
  • Hummus with veggies and whole wheat crackers
  • Whole-wheat pasta with shrimp and veggies
  • Greek yogurt with granola and berries