Even when you are on a low carbohydrate diet, there are times when eating high carb foods can be beneficial. When you are sedentary, i.e. most of the time, you have very little need for high carb foods, but immediately after exercise, consuming carbs will help replenish your glycogen stores – the carbs that are stored in your muscles – and help you recover faster. As an added benefit, this will mean you will have more energy for your next workout too.
After exercise, your body is very sensitive to the action of insulin, and this means that the carbs you eat after your workout are preferentially driven into your muscle and liver cells, and away from your fat cells. This phenomenon lasts between 15 minutes and 1-2 hours depending on how hard you exercised. Because of this, and even on a low carb diet, you can eat a reasonable amount of carbs after your workout and still lose weight.
They key to making the most of this is choosing the right types of carbs and the right quantities. I’ve done some reading and research and, for a carb food to be suitable for post-exercise recovery, it needs to meet the following criteria:
You need to eat your carb as soon after exercise as possible. The longer you wait, the less carb-sensitive you are. This means lengthy recipes are out, and convenient, portable snacks are in. Make sure you can carry your snack with you so that, as soon as your workout is done, you can eat or drink it straight away.
2) High glycemic index
The glycemic index is a scale that rates how quickly a carb turns into glucose and is ready for digestion. Because you want to make the most of your increased sensitivity to carbs, the best type of carb is the one that will be digested quickest. This means fast high GI carbs are best. These tend to be simple carbs and refined carbs. Avoid eating fat at the same time as your carb snack because fat lowers the GI of the food you eat.
3) Tasty and concentrated
For many people, exercise is an effective appetite suppressant. I know it is for me! After exercise, the last thing I want to do is sit down to a big meal. For that reason, your post-exercise high carb snack should be something you enjoy and want to eat even if you aren’t hungry, and also be concentrated so you don’t need to eat a lot. I’ve provided a list of suitable foods later in this article but, in many cases, you’ll need to find ways to make those foods tastier e.g. putting cinnamon on oatmeal.
How many grams of carbs?
To maximize recovery, you should aim to consume around 50-100 grams of carbs immediately after exercise when on a low carb diet. This means that you’ll eat most of your day’s carb allocation after exercise.
The harder you have exercised, the more carbs you have “earned” so adjust your intake accordingly. If you went for a short, light run, aim for the lower end of the scale but, if you ran a long way, lifted weights, or otherwise exercised hard or long, aim for the higher end of the scale. You may need to experiment a bit to see how many grabs of carbs you need. My advice is to start low and increase gradually until you find the amount that leaves you feeling energized and recovered. Also, the more fat you have to lose, the lower I’d keep your carb intake.
List of post-exercise high carb snacks
The following foods contain around 50 grams of fast-acting carbs, and are ideal for after exercise. If you need more carbs per snack, just multiply the quantities listed below.
- 2 cups breakfast cereal
- 5 cups muesli
- 1 cup dry oatmeal
- 3 slices of bread
- 2 medium bread rolls
- 2 Greek or Lebanese pita bread
- 2 English muffins
- 5 rice cakes
- 1 cup boiled rice
- 1 ¼ cups cooked quinoa
- 1 ¼ cups cooked pasta or noodles
- 2 medium bananas
- 2 cups grapes
- ½ cup sultanas or raisins
- ½ cup dried apricots
- 2 medium white or sweet potatoes, cooked
- 2 cups cooked lentils
- 1 pint flavoured milk
- 2 cups non-fat yoghurt
- 3 tablespoons jam/jelly/honey
- 3 ounces candy
- 1 pint fruit juice
Many of these foods are off the menu most of the time when you are on a low carb diet but, after exercise, they can actually do you good. If you find you really can’t live without carbs, but still want to follow a low carb diet, you can eat your carbs immediately after exercise and still continue to lose weight. However, those carbs must be “earned”, so make sure you stick to your workout plan! Needless to say, on the days you don’t exercise, you should not eat so many carbs.
Starting any new diet can be hard but you’ll make the entire process easier if you start it right! Use these tried-and-tested tips to make sure you get off on the right foot with your new low carb diet. That way, you will enjoy an easier transition, are more likely to stick to your new diet and you’ll get much better results too.