Hitting the gym? These are the foods to avoid after a workout

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There are plenty of benefits when it comes to exercise – from improved heart health to a boost in your mood (thanks to all those endorphins). But, in order to get the very best out of those benefits, we need to make sure we’re fuelling our bodies with the right food after a sweat session – and no, that doesn’t always mean grab a protein shake.

Exercise is important, but one of the key pieces of advice you’ll get from personal trainers and nutritionists alike is to refuel after a gym or home workout session. That’s because activity depletes your body of energy, and your muscles take a hit, so it’s essential to repair and replenish with food within the hour.

With that in mind though, there’s no point eating or drinking the first snack or sugary drink you find at the supermarket, as some foods can do more harm than good after a workout. To help us navigate the good from the bad (when it comes to post-gym snacks), we spoke to Nutritionist, PT and Founder of FBF Collective, Flo Seabright, and Nutrition Health Coach, Amy Wright.

“Your post-workout nutrition can have a significant impact on your recovery and training adaptations,” explains Seabright. “When we exercise, our bodies use up some of our energy stores and begin to break down muscle protein so ensuring the right nutrition after you train can help reverse some of these effects, improve recovery and even your results.”

So, what are the foods we should be avoiding after a workout?

Foods to avoid after a workout: Sugary post-workout shakes

“A protein smoothie is one of my favourite post-workout meals because it can quickly nourish the body after an intense workout or weights session,” explains Wright. Butm she warns, “Watch out for sugar-laden protein powders or worse, artificially sweetened shakes which may also include fillers, chemicals and bulking agents.”

Foods to avoid after a workout: Processed energy bars

“While some energy bars can be a convenient option for those busy days, avoid ultra-processed energy bars with lengthy ingredients lists,” advises Wright.

In particular, the health coach suggests avoiding snack bars that contain artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame), refined sugar or high levels of natural sugar. “An equally convenient, but ideal alternative could be a banana or berries with a handful of nuts,” she says.

Foods to avoid after a workout: Low-carb meals

While protein is widely recognised as a post-workout essential, did you also know that carbohydrates are a vital part of post-workout recovery and nourishment? The reason being, Wright explains: “Your body taps into its glycogen stores during exercise and eating carbohydrates in your post-workout meal helps to restore them.”

You might not realise that fruits are an incredibly good source of carbohydrates too, with Wright revealing that strawberries, bananas, blueberries and kiwi are among some of her favourites for a post-workout refuel.

She also recommends opting for ‘smart carbohydrates’ such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables, rather than refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta or flour products. “This will ensure you have sustained energy throughout your day,” Wright advises.

Foods to avoid after a workout: Sports drinks

You might think you look the part, clutching a colourful sports drink while power walking in your leggings, but not all sports drinks are created equal.

“Although they [sports drinks] are marketed as the perfect hydration and electrolyte replenishment, drinks such as filtered water, raw coconut water or a healthy protein smoothie are superior options that don’t contain the syrupy ingredients that spike blood sugar and zap energy,” Wright explains.

Nevertheless, it’s still super important to grab a post-workout drink, as Seabright points out. “When we exercise we lose water and electrolytes through sweat, so rehydrating after a workout is key,” she says. “Water is, of course, a great option but if you’ve had a particularly intense or sweaty workout, it can be useful to opt for an electrolyte sports drink or to snack on a banana to help with this!”

Foods to avoid after a workout: Salty, processed food

“Craving salty food after exercise is common, as we often lose water and potassium through sweating,” Wright says. But instead of reaching for the crisps, Seabright recommends prioritising nutritionally dense foods over snacks.

“Since exercise depletes your glycogen stores, it can be useful to include some carbohydrates in your post-workout meal – especially if you train in the morning and have a full day of work ahead of you,” she points out. “Foods like whole wheat bread or pasta, oats or quinoa can be a great way to do this.”

Foods to avoid after a workout: Fried foods

Perhaps more obvious than other foods on this list, Wright recommends avoiding deep-fried fast foods because: “They contain little health benefits and can often contain harmful trans-fats.”

“I am especially mindful to avoid these foods after a workout, as the high-fat content can slow the digestion process and leave me feeling sluggish rather than enjoying my post-workout high,” Wright notes. “It’s important to remember that exercise is a stressor, so we should aim to eat a post-workout meal that includes micro-nutrients and nourishing ingredients that fuel and take care of our body.”

Instead of opting for fried foods, choose a baked or steamed protein such as fish or chicken, along with a complex carb such as boiled rice, baked sweet potato or grilled vegetables. This kind of meal, Wright says, “is a great way to refuel your body and provide you with long-lasting energy and strength.”

Foods to avoid after a workout: Caffeine

“Caffeinated beverages such as coffee can be a beneficial energy boost prior to a workout and may even enhance performance. While I don’t believe caffeine is harmful, I personally avoid coffee immediately after a workout,” says nutritional expert Wright. “I find caffeine can dehydrate my body, so I stick to water in order to rehydrate after exercise.”

Not only that, but “Caffeine also raises our body’s stress hormone, cortisol.”

As Wright explains: “Exercise is essential to health, but it is also a stressor on the body causing cortisol release. While vital for healthy bodily function, too much cortisol can increase inflammation, cardiovascular issues, immunity and hormonal imbalances. Therefore, I enjoy my energising coffee before exercise and avoid it afterwards.”

Foods to avoid after a workout: Not eating at all

You might not always feel particularly ravenous after exercising, but Wright urges you not to skip your post-workout meal. “It’s so important to nourish your body after exercise and it’s the ideal time to eat. Your body needs replenishment after all the hard work it has done, so it’s really important not to skip your meal after you work out,” she says.

More importantly, Seabright stresses how skipping food after a workout can create an “incredibly unhealthy relationship with both food and exercise.”

“Using exercise as a tool to ‘burn calories’ to facilitate weight loss is simply chasing your tail – exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as many people believe and if you are just using it as a tool to ‘burn calories’ and avoid ‘eating them back’ you are always going to be one step behind on your weight loss goal,” Seabright points out.

“If that is your priority, then focus on adapting your nutritional intake to create a healthy, sustainable energy deficit that still allows you to fuel and refuel around your training and also promotes a healthy relationship with food. Exercise is fantastic for so many reasons that have nothing to do with calories ‘burnt’ so focus on getting the most from your training by fuelling yourself properly.

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