This article has been Fact-Checked by Kendall Kennedy MS, RD, RYT
What you eat after a workout matters for weight loss and your health in general. Find out what food to eat and what foods not to eat.
Different workouts do different things to your body. To be able to repair from exercising your body needs the right nutrients at the right time.
By eating the right foods, you can avoid energy dips and bad muscle recovery which can in turn mean more weight loss and better health.
What kind of workout did you have and when?
What kind of workout you do matters in terms of what the workout does to your body and what you need to eat. Your goal with doing cardio / HIIT is different from weight lifting and these exercises do different things to your body.
If you’re looking for the most fat burning for the least amount of time weight lifting is the best choice.
Another important factor is when you work out. If you’ve had a late night workout the advantages of eating after a workout might not measure up against the disadvantages of eating right before bed.
That’s why both the two different kinds of workouts separately and the timing aspect for each will be discussed.
What should you eat before a workout to lose weight?
The first part of the workout process is the time period before your workout. Do you need to eat or drink something and if so what should you consume?
If you decide to eat something before your workout make sure: it’s light enough or, there is enough time between your meal and workout. This is to avoid stomach aches.
You need these 2 things to work out
Different kinds of workouts and different diet plans can use slightly different food advice. Nonetheless everyone needs sufficient stores of fluid and salt when working out.
You first of all need enough water in your body. Being dehydrated is no joke, certainly not when you’re working out.
One example you need water for is sweating. If you can’t sweat your body can’t cool down from exercise. This can have really bad consequences.
Salt is another important nutrient. When exercising you sweat out a lot of salt too. That’s why important to make sure you have enough in your body.
If you don’t sweat a lot and consume a lot of salt already you might not have to worry about this. On the other hand you can live in a hot climate and want to go for a long run in 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In this situation you almost certainly need to consume some salt before your workout.
Are you fat-adapted?
The next important factor for what you need to eat before a workout is whether or not you’re fat-adapted.
Being fat-adapted means that your body is comfortable using fat as its main fuel. This is not a yes or no question, more of a scale from not fat-adapted at all to extremely fat-adapted. There are gradations in between.
If your diet mainly consists of refined carbohydrates and you haven’t been in a calorie deficit for a while you are most likely not very fat-adapted. The fuel from carbohydrates is different.
If you’ve been on a ketogenic diet for months you (hopefully) are more fat-adapted.
If you are decently fat-adapted you don’t necessarily need to eat something before a workout if you’re looking to lose weight.
Body fat is basically a giant fuel tank you are carrying around with you. If you like to eat before doing your cardio workout you can still do that. You just don’t have to.
If you are not fat-adapted at all you might have to refill your fuel stores before working out. This depends on when you want to work out.
In the evening the energy from your food throughout the day is most likely still in your body. In the morning on the other hand your glycogen fuel stores might be empty.
So if you are not fat-adapted and want to do a cardio workout in the morning you might want to consume some healthy carbohydrates.
HIIT and weight lifting
The recommendations for high intensity interval training and weight lifting are slightly different.
Both very fat-adapted and non-fat-adapted people can see an increase in performance for these kinds of exercise by eating some healthy carbohydrates before working out.
The question is if this increase in performance will help your weight loss that much. Let’s say you usually fast until lunch. Is it worth breaking your fast if you’re looking to lose weight? That’s difficult to say.
If you are not fat-adapted and want to do HIIT or weight lifting you need to have some glycogen stores. If it’s morning, you probably need to eat some healthy carbohydrates. In the evening you likely still have some energy from the food you ate throughout the day.
What to eat after a workout to lose weight?
Now you’ve done the workout it’s time for the next time period. What kinds of food do you need to eat after a workout and does the timing matter?
Again, there are different guidelines for different kinds of workouts. How much you are fat-adapted is also once more a factor.
What to eat after a cardio and HIIT workout for weight loss?
On the one hand you have cardio and HIIT workouts, on the other, weight lifting. The difference is that weight lifting breaks down muscle a lot more. This makes it so these 2 groups need different nutrients to recover.
You will use your muscles to some extent with cardio and HIIT. That means you should still eat different compared to a day without exercising. To repair your muscles you will need a slightly higher protein and micronutrient intake.
Since you are trying to lose weight you don’t want to choose the most calorie heavy protein sources (if the rest of your diet already provides you with enough calories). This means leaner proteins like chicken and turkey.
Cardio and HIIT workouts usually also make you sweat more. That means you have to drink more water and consume more foods with salt.
List of foods to eat after a cardio workout
Some lean protein sources you can eat are:
- White fish
- Beans, peas and lentils
- Greek yogurt
You also still need the healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals present in a healthy day to day diet. Just not in that much bigger amounts than usual.
How long should you wait to eat after a cardio or HIIT workout to lose weight?
Drinking water right after your cardio and HIIT workouts is a good idea. Besides that, the question is how fat-adapted you are.
If you are not fat-adapted you want to refuel with healthy carbohydrates to avoid an energy crash.
If you are fat-adapted the timing of eating after cardio and HIIT workouts is not that important unless you are doing very big distances in which you deplete all your salt stores.
Your body can store nutrients like protein. So as long as you eat a healthy diet during the rest of the day you don’t need to eat extreme amounts right after your cardio and HIIT workouts in most cases.
If you work out at night you can make some adaptations for optimal weight loss. Eating too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Sleep is important for weight loss so keep your portions at night small or don’t eat anything altogether.
What to eat after a weight lifting workout for weight loss?
Weight lifting is a bit different because you break down so much muscle. If you can successfully repair and muscle you will burn more calories day in day out.
To be able to repair and grow muscle there are 3 main nutrient groups that can help you.
The first one is of course protein. Your body needs protein to repair and build muscle. And if you are doing weight lifting workouts there is a lot of repairing and building to be done.
If you often lift heavy weights you have a higher protein requirement than if you just did cardio.
If your goal is to lose weight at the same time you should opt for leaner protein sources. This way you can get an adequate amount of protein without adding too many calories to your diet.
Vitamins and minerals
The second group of nutrients consists of vitamins and minerals. Some bodybuilders forget this but protein isn’t the only nutrient required to repair and build muscle. A lot of micronutrients also play important roles in these processes.
Your body can again store these nutrients. That means it’s not absolutely required to eat right after weight lifting as long as you eat foods with enough vitamins and minerals on a regular basis.
The third group is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates put your body into growth mode. This can lead to a slight increase in the amount of muscle you build with the same amount of exercise.
As mentioned extra muscle mass is extremely helpful when trying to lose weight.
Do try to stick to healthy carbohydrates. It’s true that your body deals a bit better with bad foods right after weight lifting. However, that’s no excuse to overconsume on unhealthy foods.
List of foods to eat after a weight lifting workout
Some lean protein sources you can eat are:
- White fish
- Beans, peas and lentils
- Greek yogurt
There are a lot of different micronutrients that play a role in repairing and building muscle. Try to eat a wide variety of vegetables, meat, nuts,…
Complex (healthy) carbohydrate sources:
- Nuts, seeds and legumes
- Whole grains like oats, corn, brown rice, quinoa
- (Sweet) Potatoes
- Fruit and berries
How much of each of these groups you need to eat is very personal. There isn’t one quantity that’s right for all.
How long should you wait to eat after a weight lifting workout to lose weight?
It’s possible that eating right after your weight lifting workout leads to slightly more muscle growth. However, it’s not entirely clear just how much the difference would be (1).
If you don’t mind moving the timing of your meal to just after your workout you can certainly do that. Will it make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful weight loss journey? Probably not.
If you do your weight lifting workout in the evening it might be better to stock up on the important nutrients during the day instead of after your workout. Eating right before bed can mess with the quality of your sleep.
What should you not eat after a workout?
Some people get really hungry after exercising. Because you’ve just done some hard work it can be tempting to “reward yourself” with bad food choices.
This is not the way to go if you want to lose weight. You could be undoing all your hard work of the last few hours. Exercise doesn’t burn that many calories compared to the amounts in certain foods. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
One way to avoid this pitfall is to carefully prepare what you will eat after a workout. Having a plan can be a big help in those moments of hunger.
If you’re working out your diet should include more water, salt, protein, vitamins and minerals in quantities depending on your workout.
For the rest more or less the same weight loss diet guidelines apply. If you’re not fat adapted you might need to refuel right before and after workouts to avoid energy dips.
For people that are fat-adapted, the timing of eating will most likely not make that much of a difference when it comes to losing weight. As long as you eat healthily throughout the day you don’t have to eat that much different before and after workouts.