Nutrition / Vitamins & Supplements

A Simple Guide to Protein and Muscle Restoring Foods

We asked the experts about muscle restoring foods that make the best post-workout eats. Hint: It's all about protein.

You know that your muscles are starving for protein after an intense Aaptiv workout. But, is your go-to protein shake helping or hindering your recovery after an epic cardio burn? We spoke with fitness experts to discover the right recovery foods to fill up on. Follow these nutrition strategies to help you reach your fitness goals.

The Basics

According to sports nutritionist, Dana Ryan, Ph.D., food can be the most effective way to accelerate muscle recovery.

Ryan suggests fueling up 30 minutes post sweat session. As far as what to put on your plate, she recommends a combination of high-quality protein (at least 20g – this is our favorite flavor) and carbohydrates.

This combo keeps blood glucose levels steady. It also increases your stamina and energy and ensures your muscles fully recover after hitting the gym.

The Best Proteins

Proteins are the ideal food to eat after working out. Ryan explained that proteins repair damage caused to muscle fibers through amino acids.

These acids directly enter the muscles and begin to aid in rebuilding. And, Ryan isn’t the only one who gave us this advice.

NYC-based celeb personal trainer, Fredrick Hahn suggests that the best foods for “feeding” our muscles are proteins and specifically animal proteins.

Animal protein, including eggs and fish contain all the essential amino acids in in their proper ratio.

He goes on to say that another good source is whey protein which is especially good after a strengthening workout (this is our favorite brand).

Micronutrients in lean animal fats are a great source of protein that will restore your muscles. They’re also high in leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA).

Leucine is one of the most important tools for rebuilding muscle tissue. Eggs each have half a gram of leucine and are high in vitamin D which absorbs calcium to build strong muscles.

Fish for Lean Protein

Hahn’s number one pick for a source of lean protein is a grilled filet of salmon. Salmon contains essential omega-3 fatty acids that are a critical component to repairing muscles.

Fatty acids actually inhibit muscle breakdown. Scallops are another great seafood jammed with protein.

One 3.5-oz scallop has 15 grams of lean protein and less than half a gram of fat.

If you’re not one for the seafood diet, take a daily fish oil supplement (like this best seller) so you don’t miss out on these muscle restoring benefits.

Plant-Based Proteins

Vegan? No worries. You don’t need us to tell you that a high protein diet is possible without consuming animal products.

Whip up a dish that contains a healthy dose of whey protein (or vegan protein like this) post cardio. Whey is a complete bio-available protein.

It has essential and nonessential amino acids which prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue.

If you prefer to eat dairy-free, beans are another option. They’re low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in protein.

Chickpeas are also full of healthy carbohydrates which complement protein when working together to restore muscles. Lentils are another top legume.

One cooked cup has 18 grams of protein. The B complex found in legumes eases the breakdown of proteins in the body and boosts muscle repair.

Tempeh is another protein-rich option for vegetarians, the soy-based food provides nearly half of the daily recommended protein consumption.

Dark, leafy greens are also a healthy and surprising source of protein.

The Truth About Shakes

Ryan shares that protein powder shakes are only beneficial to the recovery process if they are made of a high-quality protein that contains all essential amino acids.

She recommends making a shake that has at least 20g of protein but no more than 40g. Make sure to drink this within 30 minutes after you finish your workout to get the most effective results.

A small spoon of coconut oil is a great addition to protein shakes as it contains medium chain fats, known as MCT’s. These are absorbed into the bloodstream like a carbohydrate which makes it a fantastic food for recovery.

Protein shakes can also be used as pre- workout fuel to set your body up for muscle growth.

If You Hate Protein Shakes

An alternative to protein shakes when you’re on the go or don’t have time to cook a meal is full-fat cottage cheese—ideally with live cultures.

Hahn tells us that dairy products that contain sufficient proteins can also be restorative for your growing muscles.

Cottage cheese boasts two different types of protein—whey and casein. Casein is a slow-release protein that aids your muscles in recovery for hours.

You can even have a portion of cottage cheese before you work out to soothe your muscles before they’re strained during exercise.

If you don’t love cottage cheese stock up on some high protein yogurt such as plain Greek yogurt to keep on hand for a snack after you exercise.

You Must Eat Carbs

Ryan explains that post exercise, the body activates satellite cells to help repair damaged fibers.

This process requires carbohydrates to spike insulin levels which in turn allows the amino acids to enter the muscles.

So, simply eating protein post workout isn’t enough to begin to restore your muscles. She explained that the more intense your workout is, the more healthy carbohydrates you should consume.

Healthy carbs have crucial levels of glycogen which Hahn says replace the glycogen stores that have been depleted during exercise.

In order to grow your muscles, you’ve got to replace the lost glycogen which can be accomplished by protein but also through the healthy carbs found in fruits and vegetables.

High-glycemic foods such as root veggies like sweet potatoes and yucca should be a staple in your diet when working on building muscle mass. Steam the sweet potatoes or roast them in the oven with coconut oil and your favorite mixture of spices.

For a hearty vegetarian meal boil yucca root, which is also a healthy carb for muscle building, and sauté with garlic, onion, and parsley.

Bananas are also a great high-glycemic plant-based food, keep one in your gym bag to eat immediately after your strengthening workout to replenish your glycogen levels.

Drink More Water

Hahn says that our muscles are 75 percent water. Didn’t fuel up on H2O during your cardio routine? Your muscles are thirsty!

When we’re dehydrated our muscles cannot begin to recover as they’re lacking the necessary nutrients to recuperate.

While there is no definitive answer for how much water we should drink while exercising, the more you sweat, the more water you need.

Water provides the body with electrolytes and without these, your workout won’t have long-lasting productive results on your physique. You can also hydrate with these foods.

Snack Smart, Fight Free Radicals

Help ease your muscles into healing by tossing some freshly cut banana slices into your protein-packed cottage cheese.

For extra flavor toss in fresh blueberries, blackberries, or cherries, which are high in antioxidants and can prevent free radical damage to muscles.

Ryan explains that free radicals are naturally produced during exercise and can damage cells which leads to inflammation and other issues. Antioxidants counteract this by binding to the free radicals and preventing further damage to your muscles.

Another fruit that can accelerate muscle recovery is pineapple. According to Ryan, pineapples have bromelain which is proven to be beneficial for the rebuilding of muscle tissues.

Eat the center stem as that is where the bromelain enzyme is found. Pineapples are also a great source of vitamin C which increases production of collagen—the connective tissue that repairs muscles.

How to Get Protein On the Go

Nuts can also aid in the acceleration of muscle repair. But, Hahn says it’s important to note that they do not contain the full gamut of essential amino acids and can’t replace the key proteins found in eggs, fish, and whey.

When you’re on the go, snack on powerhouse nuts that are high in essential omega-3 fatty acids and protein such as macadamia, almonds, cashews, and walnuts.

If you absolutely must consume your nuts in butter form, opt for almond butter which has more protein than fat, unlike peanut butter.

Don’t forget about seeds. They are a portable snack that you can toss into your purse or gym bag. Chia, hempseed, and flaxseed, take the cake with their abundance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and protein.

For extra power toss these into your post-workout shake. Quinoa is an excellent source of plant-based protein. And, yes, it’s a seed not a grain.

While quinoa isn’t as easily enjoyed raw as the aforementioned seeds it’s a great protein-rich replacement for grains. It boasts high levels of iron, magnesium, and B6 which all aid the body in building muscle.

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