We’ve all been there—you step off the treadmill or power through a particularly tough training session and you feel invincible! Perhaps you even feel like you deserve a prize for all that hard work: An edible one. With extra cheese.
But check yourself before you wreck yourself. You need food post-workout to restore your energy, build muscle, and boost your metabolism, but the wrong kind can undo the hard work you just put in. Meals that are hard to digest, full of sugar, or loaded with saturated fat can do serious damage, right at the moment when your body needs to repair itself most.
With that in mind, we set out to uncover the worst foods to eat after a workout, and we asked the nation’s most trusted nutrition experts exactly which foods to avoid.
Smoothies From Pre-Made Mixes
They made be wildly convenient—especially if you are low on time and are whipping something up after an at-home workout—but they usually contain a lot of added sugars. “Your body burns through complex carbs and then fat. Drinking sugary drinks or snacks stops the fat burning process,” explains Susan Albers, Psy.D of the Cleveland Clinic. “Make your own smoothies from scratch with a protein base. Drink slowly and mindfully!” Get inspired with the fat-blasting smoothie recipes in the best-selling book, Zero Belly Smoothies!
Spicy foods—anything with salsa, sriracha or hot sauce—are hard to digest, and you’ll want to stay away from these choices. “Your body just accomplished a major effort and is a state of repair,” says Michelle Neverusky, Fitness Manager of Carillon Miami Beach. “It needs things that are easy to digest, a little protein, a little sugar to bring your sugar levels back to an even keel, and mostly carbohydrates to replenish your energy levels.”
Maybe you want the caffeine, maybe you want the bubbles, or maybe you just find it refreshing but repeat after us: Never ever drink soda after a workout. “Your body needs to hydrate, and soda won’t do that for you,” says Stephanie Mansour, a weight-loss and lifestyle coach for women. “Plus, soda may make you bloated!”
Heavy Proteins Like Steak
Just like spicy foods, Neverusky recommends skipping anything that is hard to digest—like a thick, juicy steak. “If you’re bulking up, you want to add a high carb ratio like tuna and rice; but if you are leaning out, you want to avoid carbs and drink a protein shake to retain the muscles.”
Skip the oils, seeds, anything fried, and even nuts after your workout. “Fat acts to slow the digestion process in the gut and will, therefore, delay the delivery of much-needed nutrients into the muscles,” explains Paul Roller, coach at CrossFit Outbreak.
Sigh. Are we really going to tell you that you can’t have chocolate after all your hard work? Yep! At least not immediately after.
“Avoid chocolate bars if you’re trying to lean down,” explains Lola Berry, author of The Happy Cookbook. “Remember that training will have sped up your metabolism; use that to your advantage by keeping your diet super clean with whole foods.” But if you really can’t kick that craving, Berry says to melt two tablespoons of coconut oil with one teaspoon of raw cacao powder, a pinch of cinnamon, and a smidge of Stevia to make a sugar-free chocolate sauce that you can pour over a bowl of fresh berries!
Maybe there’s a Burger King next to your gym that taunts you and your craving every time you pass by it—but do whatever you can to stay away! “While you may crave salt after working out, fast food options won’t be good at replenishing your body,” explains Mansour, “You’ll be consuming trans fats and basically undoing your workout.”
Taylor Gainor and Justin Norris, co-founders of LIT Method sum up eating white bread or pastries in a simple word: “NO!” Why not? “All that fat slows down digestion, which will do the exact opposite of what you want to happen after working up a sweat,” they explain. “Consuming high amounts of sugars also will work against you if you are trying to lose weight because it slows down your metabolism.”
Say what? Wouldn’t an energy bar make sense, thanks to the fact that they are supposed to give you, well, energy? Not so much. “These might have a lot of protein, which is seemingly great for repairing and building your muscles post-workout,” explains Annie Lawless, health/wellness expert and founder of Blawnde.com. “But in reality, most of the bars on the market are mostly sugar and no more nutritionally-sound than a candy bar. And I’m not talking about natural sugar, either; many bars contain refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, making them a nightmare for your blood sugar.” Get your protein from a whole food source like eggs and pass on the processed packaged bars.
These are classically marketed as the perfect hydration replenishment post-workout because of their electrolytes—so what could be so bad? “The high sugar content in sports drinks make them unnecessary post-workout when your body doesn’t need the extra glucose running through your bloodstream,” explains Lawless. “If you feel drained and in need of glucose replacement, reach for coconut water or a healthy smoothie. A syrupy sports drink will just cause your blood sugar to spike violently when you don’t need it.”
Skipping raw veggies after a workout may seem confusing since they usually are a great choice. But it’s not the nutritional value that is the problem. “The problem is how filling raw veggies can be when your body needs serious replenishment,” says Lawless. “After a tough workout, you need calories, high-quality carbohydrates, and protein. If you fill up on raw veggies that take a lot of volume in the stomach and make you feel full very quickly, you won’t be getting the amount nutrients or calories you need post workout.”
High Fiber Foods
“Avoid high fiber foods—especially salads with flax seeds or kale,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, CDN, CDE, CEDRD. “They may cause cramping and bloating. Instead, find what works with your body, which may be different on different days.”
This healthy drink actually serves as a laxative—something you don’t need post-workout. “Running and other exercises can already have this effect on your body, so these foods would only exacerbate this undesirable situation,” explains Cipullo. Noted!
A big no-no after working out is eating anything that will spike your energy and cause a crash. “This means you should be avoiding refined sugars found in candy,” say Karena Dawn and Katrina Hodgson of Tone It Up. “Candy lacks important nutrients that give your body the sustained energy you need in order to recover and still get through your day. Instead, it’s best to make a protein-packed smoothie post-workout! This will not only keep you satisfied until your next meal, it’ll also give you everything you need to repair your muscles and decrease recovery time.”
Stay away from black beans in any form—solo, in soups or stews, or even in burger form. “They have a high fiber count of 15 grams, which slows down the digestive process,” says Albers. But worst of all? “It’s likely that eating beans post-workout will just make you gassy.” No thanks!
Juices—especially fruit punch—should be avoided at all costs because it contains high levels of fructose. “It’s slow to digest,” says Natasha Forrest, a personal trainer at Crunch gyms. “And it reduces the fat burning effects of a high intensity or fat-burning workout as it adversely promotes fat storage.”
Eggs are a wonderful way to get your protein after a workout—as long as you eat them raw or hard-boiled. If you hit a diner or greasy spoon after your workout, don’t order your eggs over-easy or sunny-side-up. You’re guaranteed to get them drenched in saturated fats—something you want to keep out of your diet right after a big sweat session.
Do your friends try to tempt you to go spinning on a Sunday morning with the promise of bottomless mimosas afterward at brunch? “Sorry to be a buzzkill, but booze should never be at the finish line,” says FITFUSION trainer Andrea Orbeck. “Drinking after training dehydrates you, reduces protein synthesis, and packs on empty calories. Instead, clink your fork and knife together as you celebrate with a lean chicken breast and side of sweet potato.”
Meal-Replacement or Protein Shakes
“Many meal replacement drinks on the market are filled with junk that will actually hinder your post-workout success,” says Orbeck. “Avoid labels with chemical sugars like aspartame, artificial flavors, and colors. If real food can’t be an option, go for ones with basic ingredients.” The Eat This, Not That! team recently analyzed pounds of different protein powders to determine what’s alright and what’s on the no-fly list; check back soon for our exclusive list of best and worst protein shakes!
Nothing With a Side of Water
“At all costs, avoid having ‘nothing but water,’” explains Neverusky. “Your body wants to recharge. If you don’t eat, your body will eat the muscle you just put on during the workout. Be sure to feed your body correctly.” Not sure what to chow down on? Get some inspiration from our report, what personal trainers eat after a workout.