A bowl with chicken, avocado, quinoa, and leafy greens is a great recovery meal. Westend61/Getty Images
- The best foods to eat after a workout include fish or chicken, quinoa, avocado, dark leafy greens, and protein shake or chocolate milk.
- Quinoa is a great post-workout food because it has both protein and carbohydrates, two food groups that are essential for recovery.
- Leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and arugula contain both calcium and iron, which can help with metabolism and bone strength.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
When your workout is finished, you might think that the important work is behind you. But what you eat after your exercise can have a real impact on your fitness. Here’s why what you eat matters and some of the best foods for the job.
Why it’s important to eat after a workout
“The one concept I try to get athletes to understand is that the benefits from the workout don’t occur until the workout is over, and your body is recovering and trying to get stronger or faster,” says John M. Martinez, MD, a sports medicine physician who has worked with the USA Triathlon team. “Therefore, post-workout meals are crucial to help the body properly recover.”
Martinez recommends that people — especially those training at a high level — eat a meal rich in protein and carbohydrates within an hour of finishing their workout. The protein will help repair and build muscle, while carbohydrates will stabilize blood sugar and prevent the body from breaking muscle down for fuel.
Your post-workout meal or snack will provide you energy and get your body healing the tiny muscle tears that happen during a workout — which is how muscles grow. In fact, a 2017 paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that eating protein after a workout can increase muscle protein synthesis, the process by which muscles repair themselves after exercise.
Specifically, a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients concluded that whole foods — like fruits, vegetables, eggs, and lean meats — are ideal for post-workout recovery needs. In a pinch, however, protein supplements, such as shakes, can also be beneficial.
Here are some of the best food choices, packed with protein, for a post-workout snack or meal.
1. Fish or chicken
Fish and chicken provide lean protein, which should be the cornerstone of any post-workout meal or snack, says Martinez.
Lean proteins — which include fish, beans, and boneless, skinless poultry — allow you to get all the health and muscle-recovery benefits of protein, with fewer calories and less saturated fat than proteins like beef or pork.
“Fish and chicken have all the essential proteins — leucine, isoleucine and valine — and promote muscle repair and muscle growth,” Martinez says.
Preparing protein ahead of time can make it easier to replenish post-workout. Steamed or baked fish, or grilled poultry, can easily be prepared the night before and eaten after a workout.
Quinoa is a complex whole grain that has the two post-workout essentials: carbohydrates and proteins.
“If you like grains, quinoa is probably your best choice,” says Stacie Stephenson, DC, functional medicine specialist and founder of VibrantDoc, a wellness platform.
In addition, quinoa is gluten free, Stephenson says. Since many people are gluten-sensitive, this is a grain that can work well for most people.
You can eat quinoa with fish or chicken for a protein-packed post-workout meal, or add the following fruits and vegetables if you’re vegetarian.
Avocados can be part of a filling post-workout meal that helps satisfy your hunger while still staying healthy, improving your comfort post-workout.
“Avocado has a high healthy fat content and is a good choice, especially for athletes on a low-carb or ketogenic diet,” Martinez says.
For an added protein boost, avocados can be paired with a hard-boiled egg or chickpeas.
4. Dark leafy greens
“Leafy vegetables are packed with micronutrients and vitamins, so they are a healthy part of a balanced diet for athletes,” Martinez says.
Specifically, dark leafy vegetables provide important nutrients like calcium and iron, which can help you perform. Calcium helps muscles repair and contributes to bone strength, while iron helps regulate metabolism and energy consumption.
The best examples of these dark, leafy greens include:
- Bok choy
A post-workout meal is the perfect time to sneak an additional serving of vegetables into your day. If you’re making a protein smoothie, add spinach, or saute some kale to go with your quinoa.
5. Protein shakes or chocolate milk
Protein shakes are popular because they’re a quick and easy way to get protein after a workout. However, it’s important to make sure that you’re drinking a high-quality protein shake that isn’t filled with sugar. Rather than just following ads, Martinez says it’s important to do your homework on your shakes.
“The protein supplement industry is a huge, multi-billion dollar market with great marketing departments,” says Martinez. “That said, protein shakes are convenient and easy to mix up and drink after a workout. The high-quality protein shakes usually supply about 30 grams of protein including 3 to 4 grams of the amino acid leucine, which helps promote muscle growth.”
If you’re interested in purchasing protein powder or other supplements, our colleagues at Insider Reviews have put together a buying guide for what to eat after a workout.
If you don’t have protein powder, some people claim that chocolate milk is a great post-workout drink — though Martinez says it has no special benefits. “It does work as a recovery drink because it has carbohydrates and protein, but it’s really no different than having any other meal with those macronutrients,” he says.
The best time to eat after a workout
A 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine recommended that the pre- and post-workout meals be separated by no more than four hours. If you space them further than that, you might feel fatigued, and not replenish the energy necessary to exercise and repair your muscles.
Stephenson says most people like to wait for their heart-rate to come down before eating, which normally happens within 10 to 20 minutes of ending a workout. Taking a shower then eating is a common and effective approach, she says.
Overall, it’s most important to eat protein after a workout in order to help your muscles repair. “After a workout, it’s all about providing your body with the building blocks it needs to repair and strengthen your muscles,” Stephenson says.
There are many ways to get this protein, and depending on your preferences and the time you have, you may opt for different types of foods. This is reflected in Stephenson’s own post-workout routine.
“Seafood, eggs, and yogurt are my go-tos, but sometimes I find it’s faster and easier to make a high-quality, nutrient-dense protein shake that has everything in it,” she says. “I have to ‘grab and go’ a lot, so this makes sense for my schedule.”