Q: What is the worst thing to eat after a workout? I’d like to splurge but am not sure what would do the least damage?
A: Immediately after your exercise, I recommend that you limit or avoid high-fat foods—not because they are necessarily bad, but because you can do so much better. You just sweat it out for 30 or 40 minutes, so you might as well reap the rewards of the unique biochemical opportunity exercise provides you.
After a workout, you want to prioritize protein and carbohydrates to best facilitate the recovery process and capitalize on your muscle’s preference to take up carbs at that time. When you exercise, your body will use carbohydrates known as glycogen that it has stored up in your muscles. Low muscle glycogen has been associated with decreased immune function and decreased performance during a subsequent bout of exercise. These are both signs that your body prioritizes keeping your muscle energy stores topped off, and this may be one of the reasons why following exercise is one of the times that your body preferentially shuttles carbs to your muscles. Not taking advantage of this would be a crime!
Although meals of primarily carbs and protein with minimal fat are best right after exercise, as time passes, your muscles no longer have a greater affinity for carbohydrates. Four to five hours a sweat sesh ends, I will have people reduce the type and amount of carbohydrates in their meals while increasing the total amount of fat. An example of this would be:
Post-exercise: Grilled shrimp with brown rice and pineapple chunks
Four to five hours post-exercise: Pan-seared boneless chicken thighs with roasted broccoli with goat cheese
Circling back to your question, there is nothing wrong with high-fat foods after a workout, but they become a problem when they displace the nutrients that your body needs at that time. If you were looking to splurge a little with your diet while still maximizing recovery, then post-gym would be the time to have some tortilla chips, pretzels, or unbuttered popcorn over your favorite dark chocolate.
How could these carbohydrate-dense, fast-digesting foods be okay following exercise? Excess carbs can be ill-fated to be converted by your liver to fat, but after a workout the carbohydrates aren’t considered to be excess. Your body needs them for replenishing what was used up during exercise. In fact, one study showed that during this time, muscle glycogen was replenished at a rate three times faster than normal and fat synthesis from the liver was decreased by 40 percent. Use this data as support to splurge on that whole-wheat pasta, not guacamole.