Why You Shouldn’t Have Protein Right After Your Workout
Debunking the ‘post-workout’ shake myth (…and what to do instead)
We’ve all heard the mythical tale of refuelling your body post workout.
Almost every website, nutrition article, supplement company, and just about every resource imaginable has some recommendation on eating after a workout.
It goes something like this:
You have a 15–30 minute window to refeed your muscles. The glycogen stores you have been using are all gone, and you need to your poor cells rebuild.
NOW PEOPLE NOW!
In this nutritional fairytale, the post workout meal should be mainly a combination of carbohydrates and proteins.
Oh, and liquid trumps solids.
For “faster absorption”
How can I say this politely…
Now, for total transparency, I used to believe and practiced this, too.
In addition to being a doctor of chiropractic who loves to geek out on brain optimization, nutrition, and functional neurology, I also used to compete in figure competitions.
Workouts were my life. I would train hard, and long, and what I put in my body was crucial to fuel the next days workout.
But not everybody trains like this.
When we look at metabolism, energetic expenditure, and some cellular reactions, however, I have come to conclusion that you are already enough.
You have everything you already need.
Chuck the whey protein shake (actually, edit that, just chuck whey protein permanently — it is garbage) and learn why this fantasy workout myth doesn’t hold up.
The Glycogen Refuel Myth
The biggest issue by far is that carbohydrates are absolutely at the cornerstone of all of our major degenerative conditions. — Dr. David Perlmutter
Most of us, irrespective of when you work out (first thing in the morning, afternoon or otherwise) are not working out to point where we are fully depleting our glycogen stores, that require a refeed.
Glycogen stores in the body are around 500g, which equates to about 2000 (or so) calories.
Unless you are in a fasted state (meaning you have not eaten for several hours) and go hard for 90 minutes (or more), you will still have glycogen stores.
Let us assume however, for the sake of this argument, that during your workout, you do, in fact, deplete all glycogen stores.
We must assume a few metabolic truths :
- You are in a fasted state.
- You will work out so hard and so long that you have no more stored glycogen in your liver, muscles, or otherwise.
So. You get on the treadmill and destroy it.
All out. Balls to wall. You own that piece of equipment.
Even if you DID deplete your glycogen stores, the incredible machine that is your body has a secondary fuel source after glycogen runs out.
As I’ve discussed here, in a fasted state and with glycogen depletion, we will begin to use excess adiposity (fat stores) as a fuel source through the process of beta oxidation.
Meaning, we will begin, via the adipose tissue, to break down fat into fatty acids and glycerin for fuel.
The fatty acids are converted to ketone bodies for fuel, and the glycerin molecule will, through the process of gluconeogenesis, produce the glucose that the body needs.
When we look at metabolic expenditure, whether the exercise is aerobic or anaerobic, there is a phenomenon called EPOC (excess post oxygen consumption) that will continue to burn fuel at an accelerated rate.
When there is no external food source (ie a post workout shake), there is a preferential breakdown of fat stores into ketone bodies.
In other words, you are more ketogenic immediately following a workout.
For those of us who are wanting to lose weight, improve insulin resistance, and balance hormones, there is no justifiable reason to drink or eat anything following a workout.
Your body is beautifully equipped to deal with its energetic needs all by itself.
Your Sexy Little Ditty Called The Electron Transport Chain
The body maintains balance in only a handful of ways. At the end of the day, disease occurs when these basic systems are out of whack. — Dr. Mark Hyman
Post meal shakes also have important consequences on a cellular level.
When we look at how energy is produced, we need to examine this wonderful thoroughfare called the Electron Transport Chain.
This is a chain of reactions, using electrons that transport food (either from external sources or internal) to drive ATP formation.
ATP is the thing that gives us energy.
ATP is the energy that you need to drive your workout.
When we are working out, with increased energetic demands we will need to ramp up our need for energy.
In other words, the demand for ATP increases with increased activity.
We need this energy resource (ATP) for our muscles to contract, the brain to focus on the task at hand, and the heart and lungs to pump more blood through our body.
ATP allows for the physiological magic to happen that exercising affords.
This energy production happens in our cellular powerhouse — the mitochondria.
The mitochondria will use either 1 molecule of glucose or 1 molecule of fat to drive this process.
This increased physical demand (exercise) will accelerate the need for our mitochondria to produce ATP, to fuel the energetic demand of the workout.
Because we are not eating during the workout, our body will pull the food from the reserves in the body — from stored glycogen or, once that is exhausted, our fat stores.
It will continue to pull from stored fuel sources at an accelerated rate for the duration of the workout.
Or, as long as the demand is there.
Now when you stop working out, the demand to produce energy also drops.
Makes sense right?
The stimulus is not there anymore.
It is a classic game of supply and demand.
If we do the right thing and refrain from eating immediately post workout, you will continue to fuel the energetic demands of your metabolism from your own energetic stores.
Either using up your glycogen or it will start tapping into your fat stores.
In contrast, if you fuel your body immediately following a workout, insulting the body with excess carbs and proteins, you will flood the body with food — the precursors for the Electron Transport Chain — but the demand is not there anymore.
What they found was, even with all the brakes and check points the Electron Transport Chain has, in the presence of increased glucose, the whole process went a bit haywire and broke down.
The mitochondria fragmented and mutated, and there was increased oxidation (think aging) in the form of Reactive Oxygen Species…even though the demand for energy was not there anymore.
In other words, your protein shake will flood the Electron Transport Chain with food it does not need, overriding the brake system the ETC has in place.
The net effect here is that this food consumption will continue to drive the Electron Transport Chain and mitochondrial production of ATP, in the absence of demand for it.
With the Electron Transport Chain running in overdrive, we begin to produce more oxidative damage, in the form of Reactive Oxygen Species.
We begin to mutate and fragment our mitochondria, cause inflammation, and a path of oxidative destruction.
Aging is the end result.
A Better Strategy
I always have water, tons of water. It’s even in my bathroom because I used to be so bad at drinking water, and I want to stay hydrated. — Selena Gomez
A better strategy post workout is to allow the body to continue to draw from its own reserves, using fat for fuel and maintain the balance of electrons.
Make sure you are hydrated post workout (as signals for being dehydrated often mimic hunger signals), and, if after downing water, waiting 20 minutes and you are STILL hungry, then AND ONLY THEN refuel your body.
Contrary to popular belief you do NOT need to have a high protein meal, and in fact, in some cases may be more insulinergic than carbohydrates are.
A general rule of thumb is somewhere between 20–30g of protein per meal is ideal.
So, unless you have worked out hard for 90 or minutes in a fasted state, or are planning another workout within the next 8 hours, you do not need a post workout shake or protein bar, or any other nonsense you have been told you “need”.
You have everything you already need.
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