What Happens When You Don’t Eat After Working Out? 

Woman eating a sandwich

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Supporting your training goals with nutrition is vital—the food you eat provides the fuel to power your workouts and the nutrients required to properly recover from them. Some people may be tempted to skip eating post-workout with the aim of increasing fat loss, but this can be counter-productive.

Diet mindsets that encourage restriction can be damaging, interfering with your ability to reach your potential in exercise performance and accomplishing your goals, no matter if those include weight loss, athletic performance, muscle building, or general health.

However, there are instances where avoiding eating post-workout might be best for you. If you are unsure, reach out to a dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition.

Why Post-Workout Fuel Is Important 

During a workout, your body uses up stores of energy, including glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates your body prefers for fuel. Glycogen is especially used for intense, shorter bursts of activity. During strength training, it is released from the muscles and liver.

Once glycogen is used, the body relies on stored fats for fuel, and eventually, protein. Although protein is less often used for energy production, it is still essential for post-workout tissue repair. Replenishing your stores of glycogen while also consuming enough protein to repair muscle is optimal to do post-workout.

Fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals are also important for post-workout recovery; they can quell post-exercise inflammation and soreness, and tissue repair.

What Happens If You Don’t Eat After a Workout

Not eating immediately after a workout is acceptable. Nothing harmful will occur due to missing a post-workout meal. However, chronically avoiding food after training, or limiting your food intake through the rest of the day can have increasingly adverse effects.

Poor Weight Management

If your goal is weight loss, you will likely begin to feel unable to perform, leading to decreased performance and overall calorie expenditure. This can result in weight loss plateaus and adverse side effects like fatigue, brain fog, and low mood.

For weight maintenance, you may also end up feeling fatigued and experiencing the effects of reduced metabolism. This could lead to weight re-gain if you've previously been on a weight loss diet.

Weight loss is not ideal for many people and losing weight is not an indicator of health. Health is much more complex than the number on the scale. Eating enough and ensuring nutrient density will support a healthy weight and other aspects of health better than a calorie deficit will.

Muscle Breakdown

Consuming a post-workout meal is ideal for repairing and building muscle mass, or for preserving muscle while in a calorie deficit. Not consuming a meal with protein and carbohydrates after your workout means you may miss out on some benefits only gleaned during the post-workout window.

After a workout, your body is primed to uptake protein, through your body's insulin response and available protein, your muscles can uptake amino acids especially effectively to repair and encourage muscle growth.

If you prefer not to eat soon after a workout, however, you can still obtain benefits from a full meal consumed sometime after your workout, even if it is a couple of hours later. If muscle building is especially important to you, however, a post-workout protein and carbohydrate shake or meal is best consumed within an hour after your workout.

Reduced Future Performance

If you fail to properly fuel after your workouts, it could affect your future athletic performance. For instance, if you experience muscle soreness and breakdown, with inflammation, it will likely take longer to feel recovered without proper post-workout fuel.

As well, after cardiovascular and endurance-based exercise, your body is depleted of glycogen stores and without fully replacing them, you may end up too fatigued to train optimally during your next training session.

Why People May Skip Eating After a Workout

Some people may skip eating after a workout because they aren't hungry. Exercise has been shown to blunt hunger for most people, leading to a lack of desire to consume foods post-workout.

Consider a post-workout shake if eating a hearty meal is too difficult after a workout. You can make one at home using whole foods or protein powder and other wholesome ingredients. Focus primarily on protein and carbohydrates. Fats and fiber can slow digestion, reducing the effectiveness of post-workout nutritional strategies.

If you rely on shakes to fuel your post-workout recovery, remember to fuel with a complete meal in a couple of hours. In this meal, include healthy fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates with plenty of fiber.

Easy Post-Workout Snacks

Focusing on simple carbohydrates and protein is best for fueling muscle recovery immediately post-workout.

  • White rice and chicken breast
  • Plain low-fat Greek yogurt with mangoes
  • Cereal with high-protein milk
  • Tuna mixed with Greek yogurt on toast
  • Whey protein powder mixed with milk and a banana

When you are ready for a complete meal, fuel up on complex carbs such as oatmeal, brown rice, or whole-grain bread. Pair carbs with proteins such as skin-on chicken breast, sirloin steak, tofu, or salmon, and plenty of veggies and healthy fats, including olive oil, walnuts, cheese, and full-fat dairy.

A Word From Verywell

Consuming a meal immediately post-workout is not necessary and for some, may be too difficult due to blunted hunger. However, there are instances such as during a muscle-building phase, where having carbohydrates and protein post-workout is vital for the best results.

If you do not eat after your workout, be sure to consume a complete meal within a couple of hours. Include complex carbs, lean proteins, and healthy fats in this meal, and be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables for recovery-boosting micronutrients.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is peanut butter good for building muscle?

    Peanut butter contains healthy fats, some protein, and some carbohydrates. It is a nutritious food that can help you build muscle by providing plenty of calories. Peanut butter is calorie-dense, which is ideal for a diet that required additional calories, such as with a muscle gaining diet.

  • What is the best thing to drink after a workout?

    After a workout, the best thing to drink is water. If you are adequately hydrated, then focus on a drink that contains simple carbohydrates and fast-digesting protein, such as a whey protein shake. This will help replenish glycogen and boost muscle protein synthesis.

  • How long should I wait after a workout to eat?

    You don't have to wait to eat after a workout, if you feel up to it. However, digestion may be slow and you may not feel hungry after a workout, due to your body's hormonal response to activity. In this case, wait until you begin to feel hungry, or about one hour before eating. If you feel up to it, though, you can eat right after exercise.

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9 Sources
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