Between bars, shakes, and jerky, it definitely seems like we’ve reached peak protein positivity. It’s a far cry from the days when women shied away from the nutrient, convinced it was only for bodybuilders who wanted to bulk up. Now, you’ll find a high-protein snack or food in virtually everyone’s gym bag or snack drawer at work. A good thing? Totally. But just how much protein do you really need after a gym sesh or fitness class?
“Post workout replenishment is necessary for our muscles to recover, rebuild and to decrease muscle protein breakdown,” explains Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. This isn’t just a protein thing—it’s important to eat a well-rounded snack after making your body work hard in order to optimize your recovery (and avoid hanger, of course!)
So what exactly is the right kind of post-workout snack, and how much protein should be in it? Here’s what you need to know, according to a registered dietitian.
How much protein do you need after a workout?
Protein has a few key benefits that make it crucial to eat after a workout. For one thing, it contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of our muscles and are necessary for energy and proper bodily function, Michalczyk says.
“Protein also helps to keep us fuller for longer, so it can help stave off that ravenous feeling that we sometimes can get after a tough workout,” she adds. “This is good when you need that snack to hold you over to your next meal.”
However, not all proteins are created equal. “Some foods are complete sources of protein and some are incomplete, meaning they don’t contain all of the amino acids your body needs for all of these processes,” Michalczyk says. So, if you don’t eat traditional complete proteins—aka meat, dairy, fish, and eggs—and tend to opt for more plant-based foods, you’ll need to combine where you can to get in that requirement.
“You can definitely mix both plant-based and animal protein after a workout, just make sure it is a complete source of protein meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs,” Michalczyk says. “The famous rice and beans example shows how plant-based foods can be combined to make a complete protein that gives you all of the amino acids you need,” she says. There are also a few plant-based items that do offer complete proteins, such as soy (including tofu and tempeh), quinoa, and spirulina.
As for how much protein after a workout is necessary, the answer depends on what kind of workout you were doing. If you just finished a HIIT class, or have run several miles outside to prep for a 10K, you’ll likely need a bit more than if you just did a yoga class.
In general, getting about 20 grams of protein after a strenuous workout is ideal, says Michalczyk. Research suggests that you can go up to 0.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight in one meal, which would be about 25 grams of protein for a 135-pound person. (You can also eat a bit less protein if you haven’t been sweating as hard.)
No matter what kind of exercise, you’ll want to eat something within 30 minutes to an hour of leaving the gym, as that’s when your body needs recovery the most.
Don’t forget about carbs and fat, though!
Here’s the thing: Workout snacks often emphasize protein (as they should.) But you actually need a mix of carbs and fats in any post-workout snack in order to optimize recovery and restore your energy levels. While protein is pivotal, it cannot act alone. “Carbs are needed post-workout too because they help to replenish our energy stores that are used up during exercise,” Michalczyk says.
“Consuming a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein post-workout is a good rule of thumb to increase recovery, muscle repair, and refuel after endurance or HIIT type workouts,” she says. This can vary a little depending on your needs and goals, though.
As with protein, not all carbs are best suited for fueling you up after a long strength-training session. “Carbs should also contain fiber, which helps with digestion and helps to keep us fuller for longer,” Michalczyk says. Think oatmeal, whole grain toast, sweet potatoes, and other complex carbohydrates that take longer for your body to break down (and won’t totally mess with your blood sugar).
Don’t forget about a dose of healthy fats, either. “Fat also helps with satiety and we know that the good fat from things like avocado, nuts and seeds gives us vitamins and other nutrients,” Michalczyk adds. Fat does take longer to digest and can be harder on the stomach post-workout, so don’t make it a main focus of the post-workout meal, but rather a garnish or additive for that boost.
A few post-workout protein-packed snack ideas
Need some inspo? Here are Michalcyzk’s go-to post-workout snacks:
- Two to three hard boiled eggs with a handful of blueberries.
- Beef jerky (Michalcyzk likes Chomps Grass-Fed Original Beef Jerky Stick, $49 for 24-pack) with an apple or some berries.
- Avocado toast. “This brunch staple actually is a good post workout snack/meal. Smashed avocado on a piece of whole-grain bread with an egg on top gives you good carbs, protein from the egg and healthy fat from the avocado,” she says.
- Greek yogurt, which comes with carbs and protein in one package. “Just be sure to look for one that is made with simple ingredients and not a lot of sugar,” advises Michalcyzk. Ten grams of sugar or less is the magic ticket.
- A high-protein smoothie. “Smoothies are another great option that allow you to get in a good amount of protein.” She likes blending together a banana, a handful of spinach, a serving of your go-to protein powder, and hemp seeds or avocado (plus water or almond milk) to get the perfect ratio of protein to carbs to fats.
Looking for other healthy, high-protein snack ideas? Here’s a dietitian’s ranking of the best protein bars:
This story was originally published on July 27, 2018 with reporting by Emily Laurence. It was updated on March 17, 2020.