You eat well. You exercise regularly. You are trying to lose weight, get leaner or gain some muscle. Actually, you have just finished a grueling workout at the gym and you’re starving, but by the time you drive home, take a shower and prepare something to eat, at least another hour is going to go by. You think that since your goal is body fat loss, you shouldn’t eat too much, especially since you have just worked so hard to burn off all these unwanted calories. So you just wait until your next meal, right? WRONG!
So many exercisers are faced with this dilemma: should I eat something right after the workout? Should I have regular food or a shake? If yes, what kind of shake? When exactly should I have it? The supplement industry has been trying to sell us all sorts of various formulas for muscle growth, fat loss, weight loss, etc. for years. Is it just the money or are these potions actually backed up by solid scientific research?
I have been intrigued by this same question for years. I attended many lectures on the subject at various conferences, read pages and pages of research by scientists in the field as well as dieticians, talked to body builders and regular exercisers alike, and of course, most importantly, experimented on myself over the years. I have eventually come to my own conclusions and so here’s my take on a post-workout meal.
First and foremost, you have to ask yourself the question: what is the purpose of a post-workout meal?
It is to provide the best internal environment for fast and effective recovery, which involves:
1. Protein synthesis for tissue repair and muscle growth,
2. Delivering glucose to the muscles to replenish used glycogen,
3. Decreasing the levels of stress hormone cortisol, released during a strenuous workout,
4. Minimizing the suppression of the immune system – a common result of intense exercise,
5. Replenishing fluids lost,
6. Shifting the metabolism from the catabolic to the anabolic phase.
Let’s briefly review important exercise physiology. During the weight training workout you tear muscle fibers and use your muscle glucose (stored in the muscles as glycogen) for energy.
Recovery starts right after you finish the workout and continues during rest, and especially sleep. This is the time when muscles, stimulated by the workout, need amino acids for protein synthesis, and carbohydrates to replenish glucose used for energy. Muscles are the most sensitive and responsive to the uptake of protein and carbs within the first hour post workout. However, the ideal time, when the absorption is close to 100% occurs between 15-30 minutes after the workout. Fat is needed only in small enough amount to help with a proper processing and absorption of protein but not to slow digestion.
So, knowing the above facts, what would be the most appropriate type of food to have after the workout? Solid food or a protein shake? The opinions are divided but my own is that, with all the convincing evidence speaking for shakes, you should really experiment with your own body and see what feels right. Can you tolerate the shakes well? Do they make you bloated and give you gas? Do you have enough appetite after the workout so that you can even stomach any solid food? Is your stomach settled or irritated after an intense workout? What’s your schedule like? Are you able to have/prepare a meal within 30 minutes from the end of the workout? What kind of quality would the food likely be? When is your next, later meal likely to occur – an hour or 3 hours later?
All these questions are important to answer before you make your decision.
The truth is that as far as quality is concerned, solid food is just as good a source of, and often superior to, good healthy protein and carbohydrates as shakes. So if you prefer solid food to shakes, or simply don’t have an option of having a shake available immediately after your workout, don’t despair. You can still get your nutrients in, as long as you don’t wait too long. The only problem with solid food versus shakes is that the process of breakdown, digestion and absorption in the digestive system takes time, and it is almost impossible for it to be completed within an hour (that’s supposing you ate your meal immediately after finishing your workout).* Shakes, on the other hand, are absorbed almost immediately for a couple of reasons: first, the proteins in powders are pre-digested so your stomach doesn’t have to do the work; and second, you mix them with carbohydrates in a blender (or shaker cup) to end up with a food that’s liquid whose absorption is much faster than that of solid food. To speed up the absorption even more, high-glycemic fruit and fruit juices are recommended, with fairly high sugar content. A drink like this will stimulate the release of insulin, whose role it is to carry both the protein and carbohydrates into the muscle cells for recovery, tissue repair and protein synthesis. The faster the process occurs within an hour (and ideally the first 30 minutes) after the end of the workout, the higher the chance of absorbing close to 100% of nutrients the shake provides. Also, many people have digestion that’s far from perfect these days, and eating a certain amount of food does not guarantee they will absorb all of it. In case of shakes this process is somewhat simplified and nutrients are therefore easier to absorb.
*You could theoretically take your solid food and puree it in a food processor, adding a higher- glycemic juice, like carrot or beet, to it, but it probably wouldn’t be the most palatable meal you could imagine. The recipe would look something like this:
1 cup carrot juice, 4 oz poached skinless chicken breast, 2 cups steamed broccoli, 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil.
As far as I am concerned, I like my filet mignon as is, so I can enjoy the view of it on my plate, the taste, and especially the texture, it provides, and the fact that I can extend the enjoyment for as long as I like to. For anyone who just “eats to live” however, this is certainly an option if you want faster absorption. J
So, if getting really lean or gaining muscle is your goal, and you want to maximize your efforts, you should probably opt for a shake.
Now, with all that said, I have a few issues with shakes…… Most protein powders, available on the market commercially, are so highly processed, that they are, what I call a “dead food”. “Dead food” is a food whose nutrients have been denatured to such degree during various processes of production, that their nutritional value and quality are highly questionable. Remember that most protein powders available in stores are not organic, which means you are getting all the hormones, antibiotics, and residues of grain and other feed (and God only knows what else) in them. As if that wasn’t enough, most come from milk or eggs that were pasteurized and/or homogenized, which processes completely denature the proteins, and kill vital enzymes, contained in them. Most people have no idea whey is a product left over from cheese or butter production, which was considered unusable for human consumption just until recently, when the dairy industry figured out how to turn it into a profitable commodity.
As with any food that’s highly processed, convenience comes at a price. A large percentage of protein powder users have digestive problems caused by them (as had yours truly). These products are simply not tolerated well by our digestive system. Add to that milk/casein sensitivity, so common in people these days, and you have an explosive combination, causing bloating, gas, and serious discomfort. Some people are willing to tolerate it, thinking the benefits outweigh the side effects. (A few body builders I talked to admitted that outright.) So consider pros and cons and make the decision that’s right for you.
If you decide to opt for a shake, I would highly recommend doing your research and finding the best quality protein powder available. (By the way, a high quality whey protein that’s not very processed has many additional beneficial compounds that help to strengthen the immune system and help with the body’s natural detoxification.) A few great, reliable sources I have been able to find are:
1. Well Wisdom (www.wellwisdom.com) – for whey protein. The powder is produced in San Diego from organic raw milk from grass-fed cows in Southern Australia. It is minimally processed at very low temperatures, and of very high quality.
2. Living Fuel (www.livingfuel.com) – for vegetarian protein powder. Living Fuel is a highly reputable supplement company in Florida, producing many high quality products.
3. Great Lakes Gelatin (www.greatlakesgelatin.com) – for gelatin (more on the subject of gelatin later).
Be aware of claims advertising RAW whey powders which are untrue. They may be produced from RAW MILK, which is a huge plus, but CANNOT themselves be called RAW as selling powdered products that are not pasteurized is against the FDA rules in the US.
Don’t forget that shakes will have to count towards your total calories for the day, so adjust that number accordingly.
Also, make sure to eat some carbohydrate and protein AGAIN 2 hours after the workout. Actually, all your meals for the rest of the day also contribute to your recovery and growth in a meaningful way, so don’t neglect them.
Here are the basics about ingredients, remarks about quality and general proportions as well as some important guidelines.
The amount of CARBOHYDRATES to PROTEIN should be somewhere between 1.5:1 AND 4:1, depending on whether your goal is losing weight and getting leaner or growing muscle. If gaining muscle is your goal, it makes sense to put more carbohydrates into your shake (3:1-4:1 ratio) since you’re looking for weight gain (in a sense). If, on the other hand, you would like to drop a few pounds and decrease % of body fat, then the smaller percentage would be ideal (usually 1.5:1 – 2:1).
To maximize your anabolic phase even more, you can add the following nutrients in the amounts listed below: (1)
- Leucine (amino acid with a very positive effect on protein synthesis) - 1-2 grams,
- Glutamine (most abundant amino acid in muscle that also gets depleted the fastest during exercise) – 1-2 grams,
- Vitamin C (antioxidant vitamin) – 60-120 mg,
- Vitamin E (antioxidant vitamin) – 80-400 IU
Below are just general guidelines. You may have to adjust them to your body weight, current % of body fat, your goals, and sometimes the length and intensity of the workout itself (especially if you know you may not be eating for a while).
A) Fruit should be organic, and either fresh, or frozen for a creamier texture.
B) You can use any fruit you like or whatever you have on hand. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, ripe pears, bananas, peaches, nectarines and cherries are all great choices. Wild blueberries are at the top of my list because of their high antioxidant content. (You can get them frozen all year at Wholefoods). Sour cherries, though harder to find, are another great choice as they have been shown in research to speed up recovery, due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
C) Orange juice (easily available and absorbed fast into the bloodstream) should be organic and ideally freshly squeezed as the amount of available vitamins is highest right after juicing.
D) You can use any juice available (fresh if possible), especially the ones with higher sugar content and high amount of antioxidants (pomegranate, apple, etc.).
PROTEIN POWDERS:A) Whey protein (as long as it is organic and RAW, i.e. made from RAW milk, not the junk available in most stores that causes digestive issues in many people)
B) Egg white protein
C) Mixed vegetarian protein (usually rice and pea combined)
Make sure they are good quality and minimally processed. I recommend gelatin, because of its many beneficial qualities and high standards of production (from Great Lakes Gelatin Company). It can be purchased as collagen hydrolysate on their website: www.greatlakesgelatin.com. However, it contains 7 essential amino acids with the exception of tryptophan, so you might want to mix it with animal milk or some other complete protein powder for best results. If you decide to use gelatin as a sole source of protein, tryptophan can be mixed into the shake to provide a complete amino acid profile. (You will have to find a high quality, reliable source, however).
You generally need about 20-25 g of protein in your shake. The body cannot use much more than this amount at one time.
If using commercial protein powder you will need about 1 scoop that is provided inside (usually equivalent to 20-25 g). If using gelatin, 4 Tbsp provide 24g of pure protein.
SMALL amounts of fat are needed to facilitate protein absorption. This will depend on your body weight and total calories in a shake. Fat generally slows down absorption of food so make sure to add just a small amount, usually between 4-8 grams (1-2 tsps).FATS:
A) My first choice of good fat is organic virgin coconut oil. It is a medium-chain fatty acid and converts to energy rather than fat. It is also one of the best and healthiest sources of much needed (yes, needed!) saturated fat. The only problem is that if you are using frozen fruit it does not dissolve very well. You might want to put the jar in hot water for a few minutes until it melts.
B) Organic coconut milk is another alternative and comes canned in a thick liquid form, but the taste is stronger so if you don’t like coconut it might be an issue.
C) Organic flaxseed oil is great as it provides some anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids. Make sure you keep it in the refrigerator as it is highly perishable and goes rancid very fast.
D) Another easy option is a 1/5-1/4 avocado (depending on the size). Because of its mild taste, you won’t even be able to tell it’s there, but it will make the shake creamier in texture.
E) Organic avocado oil is just as good as avocado.
F) Raw organic almond butter or peanut butter is also a great option (2 tsp- 1 TBS).
G) Nut oils are OK but only if very fresh and kept in the refrigerator.
H) If you don’t have any of the above, a teaspoon or two of good quality olive oil will do the trick.
LIQUIDS TO MIX WITHA) Fruit juices, as listed above – these are pure carbohydrates
B) Organic, and ideally raw, cow, goat or sheep milk If you can tolerate them) – provide carbohydrates and protein (so remember to adjust the amount of protein and carbohydrates coming from other sources accordingly)
C) Nut or seed milks like almond, hazelnut, hemp, etc. – these are mostly fat (if unsweetened)
D) Soy milk (use organic as otherwise you are getting genetically modified soy!)
E) Grain milks like rice or oat milk – mostly carbohydrates
F) Kombucha – organic and raw - a naturally fermented beverage, rich in probiotics, antioxidants and B vitamins. (An 8 oz glass contains about 30-35 kcal and 7-9 g of carbohydrates.)
G) Coconut Water - a low calorie, low in natural sugars liquid with lots of potassium, great for replenishing electrolytes
H) Water – though the shake will probably not taste as great
If you’re using low fat milks (almond, cow, goat, sheep, or any other) you will need to adjust the amount of added fat accordingly. Depending on the amount of fat in the milk itself, you may not need any fat at all.
REMEMBER THAT THESE ARE POST-WORKOUT SHAKES ONLY. ALL HAVE A PRETTY HIGH GLYCEMIC INDEX, WHICH MEANS THEY WILL GET INTO YOUR BLOODSTREAM AND BE ABSORBED VERY FAST. THEIR GOAL IS TO STIMULATE THE SECRETION OF INSULIN FROM THE PANCREAS SO THAT IN TURN IT WILL DELIVER BOTH PROTEIN AND CARBOHYDRATES TO THE MUSCLES IN THE SHORTEST TIME POSSIBLE. THE PROTEIN (BROKEN INTO AMINO ACIDS) WILL BE USED TO STIMULATE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS AND MUSCLE TISSUE REPAIR, WHILE THE CARBOHYDRATES (BROKEN DOWN INTO SIMPLE SUGARS) WILL BE USED TO REPLENISH MUSCLE GLYCOGEN. IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE WORKOUT IS THE ONLY TIME YOU WANT TO STIMULATE HIGH LEVELS OF INSULIN IN ORDER TO CARRY MOLECULES OF PROTEIN AND GLUCOSE INTO YOUR MUSCLE CELLS, WHICH ARE MOST RESPONSIVE WITHIN THE FIRST 30 MINUTES POST-EXERCISE.
THEREFORE, THESE KINDS OF SHAKES SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A MEAL REPLACEMENT. THEY ENTER THE BLOODSTREAM TOO FAST AND WOULD MAKE YOU VERY HUNGRY IN A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME, CAUSING UNNECESSARY INSULIN SPIKES.
YOU MAY ALSO WANT TO REMEMBER THAT ALTHOUGH SHAKES MADE WITH FROZEN FRUIT MIGHT TASTE BETTER BECAUSE OF THEIR CREAMIER CONSISTENCY, THEY WILL NOT GET ABSORBED AS FAST, SINCE YOUR STOMACH HAS TO BRING THEM TO ROOM TEMPERATURE FIRST. ONE WAY TO GO AROUND THIS WOULD BE TO LEAVE THE BLENDER ON FOR A LITTLE LONGER UNTIL THE SHAKE HAS A CHANCE TO WARM UP A BIT.
So…..here’s my own conclusion based on years of experience and experimentation: if I have really good quality ingredients on hand to make my shake, my digestive system is OK with it, and I don’t have a meal planned in the first hour from finishing my workout, I will always choose to have a shake. It has helped me recover much better than any other food and my stomach tolerates it much better after intense exercise than, let’s say, a chicken leg eaten right in the locker room or in my car. Especially on a warm day, a shake can be very refreshing and will deliver all your essential amino acids, as well as carbohydrates, to help you recover, lose body fat and/or grow muscle. It’s also a good way to get your daily recommended fruit intake and, most importantly, if done right, it tastes great. The clue is to find what combination of ingredients works best for YOU, without giving you unnecessary side effects.
Look for my delicious shake recipes in the next blog post, coming soon.
1. Kravitz, Len, Ph.D., University of New Mexico - “Nutrient Timing: The Future of Peak Performance” – webinar.
Ivy, J. Ph.D., & Portman, R. Ph.D. - (2004) Nutrient Timing. Basic Health Publications, Inc.
Kleiner, S.M. Ph.D., RD - (2007) Power Eating (3rd Edition). Human Kinetics Publishers