Don't write off all so-called junk foods just yet. Turns out, some of them are actually perfect for eating right before or after a workout
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Diving into a plate full of waffles every Saturday is not such a great idea, but after a workout, go for it. "Exercise changes the dynamic of the absorption of food," says Robert Silverman, a certified nutritionist in New York. "Pre-, during, and post-exercise nutrition is a key component of performance and recovery." It's all about timing. You should eat carbohydrates within a half hour after exercise, Silverman explains. That window is when your body will absorb glucose and restore lost glycogen. If you wait two hours, the rate of restoring glycogen is reduced by 50 percent, he says. (Want more? We've got 10 New Foods That Power Up Your Workout.)
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Eat three slices of bacon, and you'll score nearly 10 grams of protein. "Protein helps with building the muscles up," says Silverman. Your muscles go through some serious trauma when you're lifting weights or training for a long race, and protein helps them recover. Better yet, choose uncured turkey bacon—you'll tap into the protein benefits without the preservatives.
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"People are afraid of carbohydrates," he says. "But carbs before a workout are the quick gas." Bagels are rich in starch—each one has 34 grams—and that helps you fuel up, says Robert Ferguson, a certified nutritionist and CEO of DietFreeLife. Post-workout, they're just as good and help you rebuild what was lost.
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Top that bagel with butter—ideally a grass-fed option, says Jessica Dogert, R.D. and nutritionist at Chicago's Hi-Vibe Superfood Juicery. Eaten before a workout, it'll boost your energy levels and help you burn fat. Afterward, it fights inflammation. "Our society still fears fat," says Dogert. "But fat is the ultimate brain food." Butter can help you get your head in the game and ready to focus on your long run ahead. (People are even putting butter in coffee for the health benefits.)
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"Chocolate milk is a perfect combination of protein and carbs and enables repair to the muscle tissue and prepares your body for the next workout," says Silverman. One study found that drinking chocolate milk within 30 minutes of exercising and again two hours later helps reduce muscle damage. In another, researchers asked 10 climbers to drink chocolate milk 20 minutes after a climb and again in the evening, and found that the milk reduced their muscle soreness.
Peanut Butter and Jelly
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The ideal carb-to-protein ratio to take in after exercising is 2:1 or 3:1 (which is what a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich delivers), says Silverman. "Getting carbohydrates when you're consuming protein will shuttle the protein to allow recovery and growth of muscles," he says.
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Yes, you read that right. It's OK to scoop your favorite ice cream into a small bowl shortly after finishing your workout. One study found that the cold treat creates an insulin surge that slows the process of protein breakdown post-exercise. Need another nudge? "One of the best times to indulge would be after a workout," says Ferguson. (Try these 12 Homemade Alternatives to the Ice Cream Truck.)
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The snack is literally made of fried pig skin, which doesn't sound healthy in the slightest, but consider this: A one-cup serving has nearly 20 grams of protein. "All studies point to the fact that a quality amount of protein absorption allows you to keep good body composition," says Silverman.
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Low in calories and refreshing after a sweaty gym session, the gelatin dessert is actually a healthy snack that keeps your body working how you want it to. "Gelatin has a positive healing effect on the joints of athletes," says Dogert. Researchers from Ball State determined gelatin can counter the effects of joint pain and stiffness.
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A recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found the body treats nutrients the same way whether they come from fast food or sports supplements like Gatorade and Clif Bars. Researchers looked at 11 athletes who cycled for 90 minutes and ate either a fast-food or a sports-supplement meal containing the same breakdown of nutrients and calories within two hours. There was no difference between the glycogen recovery or the athletes' next performances. Don't take that as a free pass to hit the drive-through on your way home every day, but your body's glycogen resynthesis can come from food that's not traditionally considered optimal for sports nutrition. (These 9 chain restaurants are offering new healthy fast food options.)