When it comes to working out, the most important meal you eat is the one you have after you exercise.
In case you missed the column on the five best foods to fuel your workout, let me review the reason the post-exercise meal is so important. You see, for about an hour after your workout, there's a window of opportunity when your muscles are literally starving for nutrients. We call this the golden hour. And the meal you eat at this time is the most important for building muscle and replenishing energy sources.
The first thing your body needs is a nice fresh supply of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are used by your body for making muscles, hormones, neurotransmitters, bones and all sorts of other important things. Exercise depletes critical amino acids such as glutamine, valine, isoleucine and leucine–and the way you replenish your body's supply is with protein. That means meat, chicken, eggs, fish or whey protein powder (even soy protein powder, though I don't like that as much as whey).
The second thing you need is some carbohydrates. Exercise draws upon your body's stores of glycogen, which is the storage form of sugar. Glycogen waits in the liver and the muscles for a signal that sugar is needed: "Hey, she's exercising, let's give her some fuel!" Your body can hold about 1,800 calories of sugar as glycogen, which is plenty to fuel any workout short of a marathon, but athletes do best when their glycogen stores are full, so unless you are on a carb-restricted diet, some slow-burning carbs after working out is a good idea. (Hint: The best carbs are oatmeal, brown rice, grains like quinoa or amaranth, and all vegetables and fruits).
Your muscles need protein for repair and growth, and your body needs some carbs to replenish its glycogen stores. Truth be told, after a hard workout your body is like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors: It's crying "Feed me!" and it won't take no for an answer. Remember, right before exercise you have to consider the time it takes to digest food, so you need to go light. But post-workout is the ideal time to have a full meal. So what's the best meal, or combination of foods, to have post-workout?
Here are five of my favorites:
Koo Koo Roo Delight: Chicken and Mixed Vegetables
Four ounces of skinless, boneless chicken breast contains almost 35 grams of high-quality protein as well as small amounts of calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron; 255 mg of phosphorus; 287 mg of heart-healthy potassium; and 75 percent of the recommended dietary intake for niacin, a B vitamin that's important in energy metabolism. One large (6-ounce) chicken breast is even more loaded: It contains more potassium than there is in a medium banana, plus a whopping 53 grams of protein.
The fat in boneless, skinless chicken is mostly monounsaturated. Only 1.1 grams of the 4 grams of fat in 4 ounces of chicken is saturated fat. The vegetables provide carbs and fiber. If you like, you can have half of a sweet potato with the meal and a spoonful of olive oil and/or almonds on the vegetables.
Breakfast Anytime: Egg Omelet with Avocado
Eggs are just about the best source of protein on the planet. I much prefer free-range, cage-free eggs, which tend to be higher in good omega-3 fats. I never, repeat never , throw out the yolks. Egg yolks, along with beef liver, are two of the richest dietary sources of phosphatidylcholine, which helps prevent fat and cholesterol from accumulating in the liver. Egg yolks are also a source of choline, which is essential for cardiovascular and brain function and for the health of your cell membranes. One large egg provides 300 micrograms of choline (all in the yolk) and 315 milligrams of phosphatidylcholine. Mix with as many vegetables as you like for a perfect meal. Hint: I also stir-fry a sliced apple into the mix. Serve with avocado for a nice dose of fiber and monounsaturated fat.
At the Gym: Whey Protein Shake
I consider whey protein powder the best protein powder available. You can mix whey powder with frozen berries (my favorite) and water, or with almost any combination of ingredients; I've thrown in a spoonful or two of peanut butter, oatmeal or sliced apple, or made it plain with water. All work. The whey provides the protein; the berries provide the carbs. (You can of course make the shake with milk or soymilk, but watch out for the calories. I don't recommend making shakes with juice.)
The Three S's: Salmon, Spinach and Sweet Potato
Here's the ideal balanced meal. Wild salmon for protein and omega-3s, spinach for the cornucopia of vitamins and minerals (including the superstar of eye nutrition, lutein), and a sweet potato for slow-burning carbohydrates. It's an almost perfect meal. You can add a little flaxseed oil (or olive oil or butter) to the sweet potato or even sprinkle it with almonds, but watch your portion size: While these additions are all brimming with health, they're also high-calorie items.
Bodybuilder's Delight: Tuna, Brown Rice and Vegetables
You can't go to a "hard core" gym without seeing a bodybuilder eating this old classic from a Tupperware container. A single can of light tuna canned in water and drained provides an astonishing 42 grams of high-quality protein for under 200 calories. That same can has more than 100 percent of the daily value for niacin, 29 percent of the daily value for vitamin B6 and 82 percent of the daily value for vitamin B12. And tuna is a superb source of the vitally important cancer-protective trace mineral selenium. Add some brown rice for fiber and carbs, load up with the vegetables and you're good to go.
You can't go wrong with any of those five, or variations thereof. They'll load up your body with the energy needed to refuel and the protein needed to rebuild and repair muscle. Couple them with hard, intense and frequent workouts, and you'll be on the way to the body of your dreams.
Reviewed by David Slotnick, M.D.