The good news is that, theoretically at least, you can combat those cravings with a smart snack attack if you understand what your body really needs after exercise — and provide it in a timely fashion. The key, according to Shira Lenchewski, registered dietitian and resident nutrition expert for LaurenConrad.com, is to replace exactly what your body lost during exercise — nothing more, nothing less.
“After a workout, you want to make sure you’re eating foods that will help repair muscle fibers and replenish glycogen (your muscles’ energy source), which are depleted after strenuous activity,” she says. Take note: Carbs play an important role in this process. “This means ample, high-quality protein, combined with a carbohydrate source that the body converts quickly into energy,” Lenchewski continues. “For best results, the snack should be eaten [roughly] 15-30 minutes after your workout, so ideally it’s portable and not too complicated.”
We’ve already demonstrated that, for those who can afford it, breast milk can provide a serious post-workout boost (assuming you can stand the taste). But, in case human-grown protein shakes just aren’t your thing, we tried out five of the most popular post-workout snacks — and got the scoop on the nutritional science behind each. Read on to see what works, what doesn’t, and why.
For a good post-workout option, it’s hard to beat anything in bar form (at least in theory). Those of us scrambling from workout to work, or vice versa, know that portability is of utmost importance when choosing a snack — and it’s hard to get more convenient than something pre-packaged. Of course, a big issue with most energy/granola/nut bar options is that they're also packed with sugar and preservatives, canceling out any potential energy gains with an epic sugar crash. The best of these options, I’ve found, is the Kind bar. With relatively little sugar and a short list of ingredients (mostly nuts, which are full of fiber and healthy fats), they’ve become a reliable go-to when I catch myself in the midst of a hangry spell.
For testing, I did a 45-minute outdoor run, followed by a 30-minute full-body weightlifting session, then snacked away. While the Kind bar has delivered in a pinch to tide me over until lunch, it didn’t really go the distance as a post-workout recovery snack. In fact, within 15 minutes of consumption, I actually felt even hungrier than I did before — which can potentially be attributed to the bar’s sugar content.
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For a less processed, heavier-hitting alternative that is almost as portable, Lenchewski suggests combining hard-boiled eggs with a few dates. The well-rounded combo delivers both protein and natural fruit sugars. “Eggs are one of the richest sources of leucine, which is responsible for triggering protein synthesis in muscle, while the healthy sugars from the date deliver a speedy energy boost,” explains Lenchewski.
An oldie but a goodie, this simple combo seems to be a no-brainer. We all know that peanut butter provides a dose of protein, along with antioxidants and healthy fats; apples, of course, are chock-full of vitamins, fiber, and natural sugars, making for a long-lasting boost of energy in a package that couldn’t be healthier. But, is this two-pronged approach enough to fight the post-workout hunger demons and boost muscle recovery?
I tried refueling with one medium-sized green apple and a quarter-cup of peanut butter from Peanut Butter and Co., and I found that this old favorite went a long way. Sure, it does lose a few points for portability (unless you happen to have cute, little, quarter-cup Tupperware containers lying around). Still, the snack neutralized my cravings; the peanut butter gave me the expected energy boost, and the fiber in the apple really did help keep me full for the next few hours. And, as Lenchewski points out, “Vitamin C-rich apples help support the healthy cartilage needed for joint shock-absorption during strenuous activity, while fructose helps restore glycogen stores.” Be sure to look for a brand that’s as natural as possible; the only things that peanut butter really needs to make great post-workout fuel are peanuts. (Hint: You might want to think about making your own nut butter to minimize sugar content.)
If you’re at all familiar with R29 Living, you know that there’s nothing we like more around here than a good avocado toast. And, besides being delicious, portable, and super-simple, it seems like this old standby would be a great post-workout option. Avocados, after all, are full of (good) fat and dietary fiber; the former gives you a quick energy boost, while both help keep you full for longer. And, a bit of bread after exercise would theoretically provide that all-important carb boost your body needs to replace the fuel it used during exercise.
I tested the avo-toast hypothesis after my run-weightlifting workout, using half an avocado and a slice of Udi’s gluten-free bread. Of the five snacks I tried out for this article, I found that the avocado toast provided the most immediate and long-lasting energy hit. Then, I got fancy and put an egg on it, which made for an even more effective snack strategy. I used a poached egg, but, as noted previously, hard-boiled would be a more portable and equally nutritious option.
Lenchewski suggests using whole-grain raisin bread to turbocharge your snack game. “This combo provides the perfect mix of complex carbs (whole grain bread), simple carbs (raisins), and healthy fats (the avocado), to keep blood sugar in check after an intense workout. And, the avocados are antioxidant-rich.”
You’ve all heard the buzz around coconut water. According to ubiquitous marketing efforts, the humble coconut is touted as nature’s version of Gatorade — providing electrolytes such as potassium and sodium (which help rehydrate the body after activity) as well as a small amount of carbohydrate to help replenish the energy sources depleted during exercise. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, these types of nutrients have been shown to make a demonstrable difference in the length and extent of recovery. The organization recommends that athletes rehydrate with sports drinks, rather than water, for tough workouts that last more than an hour. (However, it should be noted that a recent study — funded, in fact, by Vita Coco — found that neither sports drinks nor coconut water were better than good ol’ water, at least in terms of fighting post-workout dehydration.) Since it provides the electrolyte benefits of a sports drink with significantly lower sugar content, coconut water has established itself as a popular choice for high-sweat situations like Bikram yoga, theoretically helping your body bounce back more quickly than water alone.
I’ve been known to indulge in a hot yoga class in the past. However, in the interest of consistency, I wanted to test out coconut water after the same workouts I used to test the other snacks. I tried a pineapple-flavored VitaCoco, and I found it to be a refreshing treat after my workout; it definitely helped to quench my thirst and provided a bit of an energy boost (probably due to the sugar). But, it did little to alleviate the gnawing emptiness I felt in my stomach about 15 minutes later. It’s possible that coconut water would give you an energy boost to take you through to lunch after a morning Bikram class — but after my workout, I needed something that took care of my hunger, too.
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To fight post-workout hunger and dehydration, Lenchewski suggests replacing your coconut water with a one-two punch of maple water and salted pistachios. ”With half the sugar of coconut water (4g), and nutrients like manganese, iron and calcium, maple water makes for an A+ option for replenishing fluids after a sweaty yoga session.” And, she says, “The protein and sodium from the salted pistachios help restore fluid balance and assist muscle repair.” That, and they help keep those desperate donut cravings at bay.
Okay, so it’s not breast milk, but still, this is a weird one. While it’s not quite a “trend” at this point, there has been growing talk in fitness and nutrition circles about the potential for using beer for workout recovery. And, it makes a certain amount of sense: Beer does contain carbs, which would theoretically help replenish the energy stores your body burns during a workout. Lenchewski adds, “Beer contains electrolytes, carbs from malted grains such as barley, as well as polyphenols — antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and anti-pathogenic properties.”
But, as we all know, alcohol is a diuretic; it causes the body to lose water faster than usual while the liver works overtime to remove it from the bloodstream. And, other than the heavy fullness we tend to feel after a few cold ones, there’s no fiber or fat to keep hunger at bay. Even worse, some studies have shown that alcohol can impair your body’s ability to build muscle after a workout as well as interfere with next-day performance. And, of course, its lack of protein makes it a particularly bad choice for strength trainers. But, despite all these indications that beer is completely useless as a post-workout option, I decided I had to at least give it a shot — in the interest of a thorough investigation, of course.
Being a California boy, I chose to chase my workout with a Corona. In my dehydrated and calorie-depleted state, I found that the one beer was enough to get a pretty good buzz on — which was fun while it lasted. Of course, in the absence of any other food or drink, I soon found myself thirstier than ever. I didn’t feel particularly hungry (though this may have been because of my state of slightly delirious inebriation). Even worse, though not surprisingly, the tipsiness quickly degenerated into sleepiness — essentially the opposite of what I’m looking for in a post-workout snack. While the beer got points for portability (and, no, I did not pop the bottle at the gym, although I considered it), it was pretty disappointing for overall recovery.
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Lenchewski points out that all beers are not created equal. A good non-alcoholic beer would provide the same benefits, without the buzz. “Unfortunately for traditional ale-loving athletes, the main drawback is the alcohol, which dehydrates the body and could certainly disrupt muscle recovery. However, non-alcoholic beer appears to be a great alternative, with all of the polyphenol upsides.” There's also the forthcoming Lean Machine “recovery ale,” a low-alcohol brew with added electrolytes; we'll have to wait until it hits the market to test-drive, though.
Your Smarter Snack Attack
While every snack option had its strengths and weaknesses, I found that for my fitness routine — a mix of heavy cardio with moderate resistance training — the best snacks were the ones that gave me a healthy dose of carbs, at least a bit (6-8 grams) of protein, plus a significant amount of (good) fats. Of course, for many of us trying to maximize our exercise time by avoiding carbs and fat like the plague, this can seem counterintuitive. But, I can honestly say that the snacks that packed a balanced dose of all three micronutrients (avocado toast, and apples with peanut butter), worked best for making my body feel better — and that's exactly what I want after exercising.
Your results, obviously, will vary depending on your activity level, eating habits, body type, and a variety of other factors — and what worked for me may very well end up being completely useless to you. The point, though, is to focus on giving your body exactly what it needs in order to perform at its best. Ultimately, this is what makes the difference between a productive post-workout you and, well, an exceptionally grumpy Gus with low blood sugar and a hankering for pizza. The choice, as always, is yours.