Post Exercise Eating

Exercise is one of the pillars of good health. What’s included in an exercise routine will differ from person to person but I don’t think you can truly be healthy without some form of regular exercise or movement. But exercise alone is not enough. To really reap the benefits of getting-your-sweat-on you need to be eating appropriately to match your chosen exercise. Food and exercise go hand in hand and getting your post-exercise meal right is just as important as your exercise routine.

Exercise is a stress on the body. While the word stress has many negative connotations, it only becomes a problem when it’s in excess. Stress is really just an adaption being asked of the body. With consistent exercise, it is the stress that encourages your body to change so you can run faster or lift more or stretch further.

As part of this stress response, the body releases a number of hormones. These hormones help your body to find more energy to enable you to do the exercise routine. This typically will turn on the body’s ‘fight and flight’ mode, the part of the nervous system that evolved so we could fight or run away from lions on the savannah.

The fight and flight response helps blood to flow from our digestive system and reproductive system to our bigger muscles, brain, lungs and heart. How much this response gets turned on will depend on the exercise. If you are doing gentle yoga there will be a more minimal shift, if you are doing circuits or lifting weights the change will be more significant.

These changes are all useful while exercising, but you want to shut them off when you are done. To get the benefits of exercise you need your body to repair and this doesn’t happen while you are still in the fight and flight mode. Eating is the best way to shut off this stress response and get the repair process started.

Stress is all about finding more energy. If you can bring in energy by eating, then you can do the job that your stress hormones are trying to do and these hormones will be shut off. Carbohydrates are your cells preferential energy source. By having a meal that is rich in carbohydrates, you cells can start to take in the energy they so desperately need after your workout.

When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested into simple sugars, make their way into the blood stream and then are shuttled into your cells to be turned into cellular energy. To help move the sugar from your blood into your cells, you release a hormone call insulin. After a workout your cells become more sensitive to insulin and it is much more effective at getting the sugar into your cells. This means after exercise you are able to get away with having more rapidly digested carbohydrates without it creating a roller coaster of ups and downs with your blood sugar.

My preference for carbohydrates is fruits (particularly tropical fruits) and root vegetables. After exercise things like dried fruit and fruit juice (particularly orange juice) can be incredibly useful due to their high amounts of easily digestible sugar, high amounts of vitamins (particularly vitamins C) and electrolytes (magnesium and potassium). Grains like oats can also be a great carbohydrate source, especially if it has been soaked to aid digestion and absorption.

Protein is equally important after exercise. Most people know of protein as ‘that thing for building muscles’ but it is actually more important than this. When you eat protein it is broken down into amino acids and these amino acids are used for basically every function, system and organ in the body. Protein is particularly important for your nervous system, and this is called on heavily with exercise, just like your muscoskeletal system.

This means getting in adequate protein after exercise is equally important as carbohydrates. My preference for protein is meat, fish, eggs and dairy (if people can tolerate it). I have nothing against vegetarianism but vegetarian sources of protein are predominantly a) lower in protein and b) more difficult to digest. This isn’t to say people can’t get an adequate amount of protein on a vegetarian diet, I am just stating my preference.

Eggs are one of my favourite forms of protein. Of all proteins, they have the highest bioavailability, which means you absorb more protein from eggs than you do from any other source. You have the added bonus that eggs also contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals. They are especially high in fat soluble vitamins, which are important for a lot of the structural components of the body (bones, teeth, muscles), for hormone production and nervous system function. It makes eggs truly a super food.

One benefit of taking in adequate amounts of carbohydrates is that carbohydrates are protein sparing. As I mentioned, protein is involved in every system and process in the body. If the body is lacking in energy, protein is broken down and used as an energy source. This is not the best use of its talents, and especially after exercise, you want to be making use of its ability to heal muscles, repair the nervous system, and other important functions. By taking in adequate carbohydrates you allow protein to do these other roles and not have to be used as an energy source. It means that carbohydrates are protein sparing and can lower your protein needs.

With post exercise eating, timing is really important. You want to be shutting off the stress response and getting food in as quickly as you can. Ideally this should be within 30 minutes of finishing exercise, but the quicker the better.

If you’ve been doing an intense workout you may not be hungry as soon as you finish exercising. You’ve massively activated the fight and flight system and this has pulled the blood away from your digestive system and geared you for getting away from danger. You don’t out run a lion and immediately think ‘hmm, I am really hungry’.

My suggestion here is to get something in straight away, even if it is just something small (this will kick start digestion and your hunger.) Take some orange juice that you can sip on immediately finishing exercise (I like to have this with some protein so normally add some gelatine to it ). Alternatively take some dried fruit like sultanas, figs, dates or prunes that you could have with some form of protein like yoghurt.

Once your hunger has picked up, you then want to have a more substantial meal. I often suggest that the meal following exercise should be your biggest of the day. Have it include some of the carbohydrates and proteins that I previously suggested and enjoy them liberally. Doing exercise without properly fueling yourself afterwards is futile and creates a stress on the body without the necessary means to repair and adapt from it. So enjoy a big meal of foods that will support and nourish your body as well as your taste buds.

Exercise can be either health promoting or health draining. The type of foods that you choose post exercise can be a big determinant on which way this goes. If you are going to put yourself through the stresses and strains of exercise, I suggest you eat appropriately to get a positive return on investment.

I have recently created some breakfast items for The Albion Cafe in London. They have been put together in conjunction with Frame and are focused on giving you good post exercise fuel. To find out more about them please click here.

This article originally appeared on the Frame blog here

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Chris Sandel is the founder of He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.


  1. Great post. Eggs are the best! I’m eating eggs and smoked salmon right now!
    Thanks for the post

    Hilary x

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