Do I Need to Eat After Working Out?

Posted by FiscusFitness, LLC on September 11, 2016

There is a widely held belief that you need to eat within 30 to 60 minutes of weight training to stop catabolism.  Catabolism is the metabolic processes which causes the breakdown of tissues in your body; in this case, specifically muscle protein breakdown (MPB).  The post work out meal also enhances muscle protein synthesis (MPS).  Within the fitness community, this is called the anabolic window.  Anabolism is the metabolic process by which bodily tissues are maintained or new tissue (like muscle) is created.

There are five basic parts to the anabolic window that involve two macronutrients.

1.    Ingestion of fast acting high glycemic carbohydrates to refill glycogen stores as soon as possible so you have the ability to exercise with the same intensity. 

2.    The immediate ingestion of carbohydrates to stop MPB. 

3.    Choosing high glycemic carbs to raise insulin and counteract the effects of the catabolic hormone cortisol which is released during the stress of exercise.

4.    Ingestion of protein with the carbohydrates to encourage MPS.  The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle.   

5.    Combining protein and carbohydrates, which releases more insulin that just carbohydrates. Consuming protein alone does not illicit a high enough insulin response.   

While these rules hold some significance for an athlete, bodybuilder, or power lifter, it is not as urgent for the average sedentary adult or recreational exerciser.  Most people don’t have to eat right after a workout… or at least, they don’t have to obsess about it.  It takes a lot longer for your body to absorb food than you realize.   

In one study, participants ate a meal containing 75 grams of carbohydrates, 17 grams of fat, and 37 grams of protein.  The absorption of macronutrients was still incomplete after five hours of digestion.  Most people don’t go more than five hours without eating a meal.  So, if you eat a meal containing all three macronutrients a couple hours before your workout, that combination of food is still getting absorbed during and after your workout.

The carbohydrates in that meal are going to keep your insulin high enough to prevent MPB breakdown from cortisol.  And recent studies prove cortisol may not be such a bad thing. When looking at the post exercise hormonal response of young men who trained five days a week for 12 weeks, researchers were surprised it was the level of cortisol that positively related to the gain in muscle mass.  Levels of testosterone and growth hormone had no relationship to muscle growth.

Also, it’s not how much protein you eat immediately after exercise but how much you consume within 24 hours.  To illustrate this point, researchers randomly assigned previously trained men to consume a supplement containing 42 grams of a protein blend twice a day; either in the morning and night or immediately before and after exercise.  There was also a group who received a placebo drink.  At the end of ten weeks, the groups that ingested the protein increased their strength and power, but there was no difference between the two groups.  All groups remained in a positive nitrogen balance; thus showing it is the overall intake of protein that matters—not the timing.

In another study, researchers gave 20 grams of whey protein to subjects either one hour before or one hour after resistance exercise.  Both groups had an anabolic response with no differences between the two time points.

There are some groups that should be more concerned about post workout nutrition:

  • If you perform weight training in a fasted state, you want to consume a meal when you're done.
  •  If it has been more than four hours since your last meal, you should also eat something post workout. 
  • Competitive athletes, bodybuilders or anyone trying to maintain an elite level of leanness need to pay closer attention to what they eat after exercise. 

The overall message is: workout nutrition after weight training is important; but, there is no magic window that gives you better gains.  You don’t need to worry because you are eating 90 minutes after working out compared to slamming down a shake ten minutes after.

Instead, focus on the overall quality of your protein intake in a 24 hour period. Protein is just as important if not more important than carbohydrates post workout because it is the macronutrient responsible for muscle protein synthesis. 

Don’t fear carbohydrates. Pre workout, they allow you to exercise with greater intensity which means more caloric burn and the ability to lift heavier.  Post workout, they work synergistically with protein to stop muscle protein breakdown and allow protein to increase MPS. However, you don’t need a huge amount to accomplish this: 30 to 40 grams will probably do the job.  You do not need to refill your glycogen stores unless you are concerned about athletic performance or are planning to do a second workout that day.

There is not a lot of research surrounding how fat affects MPB and MPS. It has been said fat slows gastric emptying and food absorption.  Gastric emptying is inversely proportional to the energy content of a meal.  Since fat has the most energy per gram, it’s going to slow it down.  But, it’s not the fat... it’s the overall energy content.  All three macronutrients can be included post workout.

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