The sports nutrition industry is certainly booming. So it's no surprise that television commercials, magazine ads, and websites, too are loaded with ads for foods and drinks that help you "refuel" and "recharge" after a workout.
While there's a time and place for these products - more on them in a minute - not every workout demands an immediate snack or meal, says Rob Danoff, DO, a Philadelphia-based physician with a subspecialty in sports medicine.
"People ask me all the time, 'Do I have to refuel after exercise?' " Danoff says. "The answer I usually give them is no." Especially if you've only engaged in a light workout—say, a gentle yoga class, or a short run—your body doesn't need to replace much, Danoff says.
"If you exercised first thing in the morning before breakfast, then of course you need to eat something," he says. "But if you've eaten a meal during the last four to six hours, you really don't need food right after a light or moderate workout."
And when it comes to those calorie-dense sports drinks and bars, you're more likely sabotaging your workout gains than aiding them. "They can be helpful if you've done an hour or more of vigorous exercise," Danoff says. But for most of us, a few celery sticks or a banana and some water will get the job done, he says. (Never diet again and still lose weight with this cutting-edge plan that naturally retrains your fat cells! Here's how.)
What other post-exercise eating mistakes are you making? Keep reading.
There's a persistent myth that exercisers need to pound a lot of protein after a workout in order to maximize their strength gains. Not true. As long as your daily diet includes adequate protein intake - that's 46g for adult women, according to the National Academy of Medicine - there's no need to eat a lot of protein right after a workout, concludes a study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Knocking back a few glasses of wine after a workout may mess with your muscles' ability to effectively recover and rebuild, shows a study in PLOS One. The good news: A single glass of wine or beer probably won't cause issues, the study team says.
Many of us tell ourselves that, because we exercised, we can eat whatever we want. This mindset can even bleed into our non-workout days, says Jenna Braddock, RDN. "I ran five miles two days ago, so it's OK to go all out tonight at dinner," she says, giving an example of the kind of unhelpful mindset she's been guilty of herself. But most research shows what you eat matters a lot more than how much you exercise when it comes to your waistline. It's OK to indulge a little from time to time. But don't let the fact that you got in a workout steer you toward a massive or unhealthy meal, Braddock says.
After an hour or more of high-intensity exercise - think running or swimming - your muscles require lots of glycogen to bounce back and grow stronger, says Nancy Cohen, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Healthy carbs - stuff like fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains - are the best dietary sources of glycogen. Cohen says you'll want to consume roughly 1g of healthy carbs per kilogram of body weight within 60 minutes of finishing your workout. A fruit-rich smoothie will get you there.
Runners underestimate the amount of water they sweat away by fully 50%, according to research from the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Even a light workout—one where you don't feel like you were sweating hard—can lead to mild dehydration. Weigh yourself before and after your workout, Cohen advises. For every pound of body weight you lose, you want to drink roughly that amount of water. (One pound equals 16 ounces.)
If you've busted your butt during your workout, you're going to feel some serious hunger pangs. And that's the worst time to decide what to eat. Our brains are wired to crave high-calorie, energy-rich foods when we're hungry, suggests research from Cornell University. And those calorie cravings drive us to select unhealthy foods. The Cornell team found that hungry shoppers bought 46% more high-calorie items than their less-famished counterparts. The hungry shoppers also bought fewer healthy foods. You're better off planning your post-workout snack or meal before you get your sweat on.