I thought that since we're still barely into the new year, this week I would feature a fitness-related issue that I think is often overlooked or rife with misunderstanding: post-gym nutrition. I recently began to focus on what to eat after the gym when my decision to not eat gluten during the month of January ruled out my standard post-gym snack (more on the no gluten thing in a few weeks). By snacking intelligently after your workout you can help your body reap the maximum amount of benefit from the exercises you just completed. Here's what I know about finding snacks that hit the proper protein/carbs balance, as well as some common pitfalls to avoid.
Before I cut gluten out of my (January) diet, I always had a single serving of plain Greek yogurt with half a cup of Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal after my workouts. I still think that combination is one of the best after-gym snacks around, and I plan on returning to eating it as soon as January is over. As I will say multiple other times in this post, in this snack as well as all the others, portion control is key. I love Kashi cereal, but that love can translate into Kashi binges where I eat half a box of it. Even one cup of Kashi has too much sugar/carbs for my liking, so I control how much I eat after the gym by measuring out half a cup and bringing it to work with me in a plastic baggie. Similarly, flavored Greek yogurt almost universally has a ton of sugar in it, so although it tastes better than the plain kind, I avoid it. The sweetness of the cereal masks the tang of the yogurt, for me at least. What I end up with is a great balance between the protein in the yogurt and the carbs in the Kashi that helps rebuild my muscles and feel full at the same time.
When I cut out gluten, the easiest substitute for Kashi was gluten-free granola. Granola, although it has the reputation of being healthy, is often one of the most caloric snacks you can pick up, so you have to be very careful with portions when you decide to eat it. Between high-fat nuts and sugary dried fruits, it's easy to eat 300, 400, or 800 calories worth of granola in a very short amount of time. Like I do with Kashi cereal, I measure granola out into a plastic bag in order to make sure that I don't eat too much of it. Once this gluten-free month is over, though, I will probably not buy it again, because having it in my pantry is too much of a snacking temptation!
Almonds are another great post-workout snack, and can be combined with a little dried fruit in order to obtain that all-important protein/carbs balance needed to help your body recover and build lean muscle. Once again, take the few extra minutes the night before to measure out your snack and control your portion, rather than having a can of almonds and a can of raisins on your desk and eating them until you're full. It's almost impossible to control how much you eat when you're hungry after a workout, so set yourself up for success beforehand.
Finally, the one prepackaged bar that I think is a great post-workout snack is KIND Bars. They taste great, they're made with very basic ingredients, and they are individually wrapped, meaning built-in portion control! I am generally not in favor of any other "protein" or "granola" bars (they have WAY too many carbs) but these have a relatively low amount of calories/carbs and plenty of protein-rich nuts in them to make for a great snack.
All in all, what you want to aim for is a snack that has ~20 grams of protein and ~10 grams of carbs after you go to the gym. Great protein sources include nuts, Greek yogurt, peanut/almond butter, and eggs. Carbs are abundant and shouldn't be hard to come by - grains or fruit should get you there.
Finally, there are a few things that I think should be avoided at all times, and especially after a workout. Here are a few of them:
1) Doughnuts and any other kind of pastry. Chances are you did not burn enough calories during your workout to merit a calorie-rich snack. You, at best, will be breaking even on the calorie front if you eat a pastry. Avoid them at all costs!
2) Bagels. Bagels are not healthy. They are carb bombs that give you tons of calories and no protein. Stay away!
3) Sports drinks - Gatorade, Vitamin Water, etc. No one, except for maybe Olympic swimmers and marathoners, needs that much sugar during or after a workout. If you don't like how water tastes, put non-caloric flavoring or a squeeze of lemon in your water bottle. Don't undo your workout by drinking sugar!
4) Cliff Bars/Luna Bars/Other supposedly "healthy" bars. Check the labels on those bars. Pay special attention to the serving size. And pay special attention to the number of carbs. If the carb number is in the double-digits, and especially if it's above 30, you should probably find a different snack.
I hope this has been helpful! I am by no means a nutrition expert, but I have tried to pay special attention to credible research over the years on what is good for our bodies. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a healthy Wednesday!