Having a snack before and/or after a workout is touted as beneficial by many health professionals, supplement companies and media outlets alike. While there is some truth in the science of this, in reality, not everyone benefits from or needs this level of nuance in a nutrition plan. For some, it can even create more stress than the payoff is truly worth when it comes to imparting small biological changes. Still, some find benefit, and if you’re a competitive athlete, it can be a game changer.
Provides fuel for your workout
Helps you to workout more intensely
Increases your caloric burn
Increase muscle recovery and strength
Increase muscle mass gains
Must be taken within 30 minutes after your workout
If you are otherwise healthy, living in the United States and have adequate access to food you are likely getting adequate calories and protein already. For this reason, additional pre- and post-workout snacks are not recommended for most people. However, there are some instances where they may be indicated for short periods of time or specific goals.
If you have a weight loss goal:
Protein and fiber are two dietary components that are quite satiating and tend to keep you feeling full for longer durations than highly processed foods. If you have a goal of weight loss and are finding yourself continually hungry, you may need more protein and fiber throughout the day. While this may come in the form of larger meals, it may be helpful to include these through post-workout snacks. This could prevent you from going into your next meal feeling ravenous which often leads to overeating, especially on the higher fat, salt and sugary foods that contribute to excess calories and weight gain.
For performance, sport & muscle building:
As aforementioned, elite athletes may need more detailed training and feeding schedules that run like a well oiled Porsche. While this has historically meant gobs of whey protein shakes, egg whites and eating precisely within 30 minutes of training, more recent research is shedding light on alternatives. Several studies have found that soy protein shakes are equally as effective in promoting muscle hypertrophy (building) as whey protein. However, soy has the added benefit of providing more antioxidants and healthy fats (omega-3’s) which are both critically important in exercise recovery. Many other animal and plant based products show similar benefits. Whey is not the only way. Also, don’t forget real, whole foods (more on this later).
Additionally, research shows that humans can only absorb an average of 25-35 grams of protein at one time. Meaning, a shake of 75+ grams of protein, no matter the type, is not likely to impart the desired benefit and may only create gastrointestinal distress. Theoretically, with the GI tract being a critical organ, muscle recovery resources may be diverted to heal the GI tract from this inflammatory assault, making excess protein not only not beneficial but potentially harmful. Also, excess protein has been shown to decrease testosterone which can inhibit anabolic muscle synthesis, hormone regulated muscle growth. On the other hand, fat is needed to regulate these anabolic hormones so having some fat in an athletes post-workout snack and their meals throughout the day is advantageous.
For athletes needing higher total protein amounts, consuming smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day which include carbohydrates, proteins and fats is a superior strategy. Research supports that this strategy is more effective for muscle hypertrophy, gastrointestinal tolerance, cognitive performance and overall health of the athlete. This dispels the old adage to be sure to have your “recovery shake” within 30 minutes of a workout or your “anabolic window” will be lost.
The Apeiron Life perspective
Real, whole food options show exceptional benefit to the longevity and health of both life-long athletes and weekend warriors alike. This is due to the thousands of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and the complex web of protein, fat and carbohydrates that exist in whole foods, compared to a tiny handful of nutrients in their shake, bar or otherwise processed counterparts. These processed foods simply can’t compete.
Leucine is a prime example of a singular protein that is touted for its muscle building benefits. While this is true, it takes a coordinated navy of nutrients to send the right signals to get the right nutrients to the right place at the right time, all while keeping the rest of the battle ship afloat (i.e. your vital organs). Leucine needs it’s fellow comrades to accomplish the mission. Leucine is found in animal products such as chicken, beef, eggs, milk as well as plant foods such as hemp, chia and flax seeds, navy, adzuki, kidney, pinto, soy and mung beans, lentils and split peas. These animal and plant foods also contain B-vitamins, fat and other nutrients that are needed for muscle building, cognitive health, immune health and hundreds of other functions.
More research is constantly emerging about the dangers of regular consumption of highly refined carbohydrates (i.e. white bread, soda) and highly refined fats (i.e. oils). Some research stands regarding chronic consumption of refined protein in the form of shakes, supplements, bars and the like, but we expect more will follow the refined carbohydrate and refined fat suit in coming decades. We’ve been around this block enough times to know what’s coming so we’ll save you the suspense and the risk - skip the supplement hype, eat real foods.
Should you have a pre or post-workout snack?
Whether or not you need a pre-workout snack, post-workout snack, neither or both depends largely on your individual context:
Your overall eating plan
Your exercise schedule
How your body responds
What to consider
Are you even hungry? Whether it’s for a pre- or post-workout snack or for a regular meal, it’s always important to ask if you’re physically hungry. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being “hangry” or “starving” and 10 being “overfull” or “stuffed”, you should aim to go into a workout at a 5. Throughout the day, planning your meals appropriately and tuning in to your body’s physiological cues should help keep you between a 3 and 8 on this scale. Never so hungry you make poor decisions, never so full that you are pushing the healthy limits of your digestive and metabolic systems.
What’s your gut feeling? How does your digestive system typically feel with different scenarios? Are you somebody who feels nauseated while exercising if you ate too recently? Or nauseated if you eat too soon after a workout? Do you feel hunger pangs so strongly half-way through a workout that you find it hard to focus and challenge yourself? Digestive tolerance can be a major inhibitor for many athletes and every-day exercisers so knowing how your body uniquely reacts is key.
What’s your goal? Are you aiming for leaning out? Weight loss? Bulking up? General health and longevity? If you’re wanting to lose weight, you’re eating adequate and balanced meals, and you don’t feel hungry immediately before or after your workout, skip the snacks. They’ll add excess calories and impede your goal. Same goes for lean goals, general health and longevity. Although, if you’re getting very hungry or not feeling adequately fueled for your workouts, you may need to add a snack, increase your meal portions slightly or rearrange your workout and eating schedules to more logically align. Your Client Advocate can help you formulate a plan that best serves your goals and lifestyle.
In the meantime...
Pre-workout snack considerations:
If your last meal was more than 2 hours ago
If your last meal was less than 2 hours ago AND you feel physical hunger. Consider these snack examples:
½ cup berries + 1 cup plain, Greek Yogurt
1 piece fruit + 1 cup cottage cheese
1 slice whole grain bread/1 brown rice cake + 1 Tbsp unsweetened nut butter
½ cup berries + handful of plain nuts
½ whole grain bagel + 1 Tbsp nut butter
Apple + 2 Tbsp nut butter
½ cup dates + 7 almonds
Post-workout snack considerations:
If your next meal is more than 2 hours after your workout, see above for small snacks ideas.
If your next meal is less than 2 hours after your workout AND your goal is to bulk up, have a 3:1 carb:protein snack. Examples:
½ cup berries + 1 cup plain, Greek yogurt
1 piece fruit + 1 cup cottage cheese
1 slice whole grain bread/1 brown rice cake + 1 Tbsp unsweetened nut butter + banana
½ cup hummus + 10 whole grain crackers
½ whole grain bagel/english muffin + 3 oz salmon lox
Whole grain wrap with turkey and vegetables
Half turkey sandwich (whole grain bread, vegetables, turkey, hummus)
½ baked sweet potato + 2 hard boiled eggs
6-8 oz smoothie: plain Greek yogurt + fruit
Otherwise, have a balanced meal at your next planned meal-time. Savor your food and the bliss of forgetting that all of this minutia exists.