Q: Is it okay to indulge after an intense workout? Are there disadvantages?
A: If you are going to indulge, right after an intense workout is the best time to do it. I've written a previous Ask the Diet Doctor column on cheat or splurge meals in which I explain how you should use them—only if they're planned and you've stuck to the nutrition plan that you laid out for yourself that week. If possible, indulging in your splurge meal following a rigorous training session is best because your body is primed to take all the sugars from your forbidden snack and preferentially shuttle them towards you muscles (instead of storing them in fat cells).
One of the hardest things about controlling your weight is getting your body to take the food that you eat and put it to good use. When carbohydrates hit your bloodstream, they may go to your fat cells for storage or to your muscles for fuel. We know which route you would prefer your body to pick, but controlling the fate of food you eat is more complicated than just hoping—except right after you exercise.
After you exercise your muscles preferentially soak up more carbohydrates and sugars than other areas of your body do (like fat cells). They do this because muscles need the extra fuel to recharge and recover from your workout. So, if you are going to indulge, after an intense workout is the time to do it.
Is there a downside? The downside comes with overindulgence. Following an intense workout, you want to help refuel and recharge your body as quickly as possible.
Research shows that many aspects of post-exercise recovery are time sensitive. If you overindulge you can slow your recovery process in two different ways. The first is slowed digestion. Eating a lot of food, especially high-fat foods, can take a long time to digest. This delays the speed in which your body will be able to get nutrients to your hungry muscles. The second is priority. Your body only has a set amount of blood and energy that it can use to carry out the processes it needs to in your system. If you over burden your system with food immediately after exercise, it will need to shift its focus to digestion, and not recovery.
If you want to occasionally indulge following an intense workout, that is the best time. Just be careful to not overdo it and you’ll be fine.
Meet the Diet Doctor: Mike Roussell, PhD
Author, speaker, and nutritional consultant Mike Roussell, PhD holds a bachelor degree in biochemistry from Hobart College and a doctorate in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University. Mike is the founder of Naked Nutrition, LLC, a multimedia nutrition company that provides health and nutrition solutions directly to consumers and industry professionals via DVDs, books, ebooks, audio programs, monthly newsletters, live events, and white papers. To learn more, check out Dr. Roussell's popular diet and nutrition blog, MikeRoussell.com.