10 Whole Foods That Are Better for Workout Recovery Than Supplements
Whole Foods vs. Sports Drinks
These days, there are tons of post-workout supplements to choose from—but do you really need a fancy sports drink? A study published earlier this year in PLOS One suggests that you don't: Researchers compared the effects of bananas, a sugary sports drink, and plain old water as workout recovery nutrition. Bananas—a whole food—came out on top.
To the nutrition community, this wasn't a huge surprise: "Whole foods are often overlooked since many sports supplements are convenient and specifically formulated for recovery after exercise, but many people don't require specialized supplements. They can get the nutrients they need from whole foods alone," explains Allison Knott, R.D., a registered dietitian based in NYC, who specializes in sports nutrition. (Related: I Gave Up Processed Foods for a Year and This Is What Happened)
Plus, real food provides extra value: "Whole foods have the added benefit of providing additional nutrients like antioxidants and other essential vitamins and minerals," says Knott. "They're often less expensive and are likely more satisfying too." (Also: Did you know you can change your diet to speed up injury recovery?)
In short, whole foods are the way to go. Here are Knott's top 10 foods for workout recovery.
You've likely heard this one before, but it bears repeating: "Greek yogurt is an ideal post-workout snack because it contains a mix of carbohydrates and protein," says Knott. "Ingesting 20 to 25g of protein after a workout will aid in muscle protein synthesis, and consuming carbohydrate in combination with protein can further aid in this process."
Yep, really. This dinnertime side is actually a great post-workout snack.
"Two of the major minerals lost in sweat are sodium and potassium," says Knott. "Most people don't need a sports drink to replenish these minerals, as many can get adequate amounts from food. The baked potato is one example of a food that can aid in replenishing lost potassium after a workout. Plus, it's carbohydrate-rich—a must for recovery." (Related: 5 Minerals That Seriously Supercharge Your Workouts)
Knott suggests topping it with a lean animal protein (like shredded chicken or ground turkey) or beans for a vegetarian option. "Add additional anti-inflammatory nutrients from leafy greens and give protein a boost with a scoop of Greek yogurt instead of sour cream." (Grab the new squeezable Chobani yogurt tubes to add a dollop super easily.)
Whole-Grain Cereal with Milk
You might think of cereal as a breakfast-only item, but it can actually work any time of day—provided you choose the right kind.
"Choose a whole-grain cereal that's low in added sugar," says Knott. While cereal is technically processed, it can be a great way to get whole grains (aka healthy carbs) into your diet. "Dairy or soy milk will work here. Whole-grain cereals plus protein from milk provides a protein and carbohydrate combination that enhances muscle repair after a workout."
A Handful of Berries
"Berries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory properties and may help in the recovery process after an intense exercise bout," explains Knott. "Berries are also a natural source of carbohydrates, making them ideal for a post-workout snack when paired with protein." Add them to your Greek yogurt for a perfect mix of protein and carbs.
Those little drinkable yogurt bottles in the dairy aisle shouldn't go ignored. "Not only is kefir convenient, but it's also a good source of protein and probiotics," Knott says. (P.S. You also need to know about Yakult, the probiotic drink people are now obsessed with.)
"Probiotics support gastrointestinal function by promoting a balance in gut bacteria," she says. "A healthy gut microbiome is also supportive of a healthy immune system, which is especially important during intense training." (Heads up: Here's how to control your ravenous hunger after a tough workout.)
"Cherries are a good source of antioxidants, which play a role in recovery after exercise by reducing oxidative stress," notes Knott. "Cherries are also a source of fiber, potassium, and vitamins A and C." Combine with the protein of your choice for a complete post-workout meal.
"Carrots are a source of beta-carotene, which is known to play a role in immune function," explains Knott. That being said, it's not generally recommended to supplement with it because of potential side effects. That means whole food sources are ideal, and carrots are one of the best.
Simple and easy to transport, hard-boiled eggs are the ultimate workout recovery snack. "Eggs are a good source of protein and contain vitamin D," says Knott. "Vitamin D plays a role in managing inflammation in the body. Remember to pair with a source of carbohydrates!" (BTW, here's how a vitamin D deficiency can harm your health.)
Baked Sweet Potato
Sweet potatoes are also a great source of beta-carotene, says Knott. "Bake and serve as a side with maple syrup or brown sugar, cut into fries and bake with savory spices, or cube, steam, and add to a smoothie for a creamy carbohydrate boost. Sweet potatoes are rich in carbohydrates and fiber which can help to fill you up post-workout while also replacing glycogen stores."