Protein is often the macronutrient that comes to mind when you're fueling for post-workout recovery after a HIIT, sprinting, or strength training session, especially a weight-bearing workout where the focus is on building lean, well-defined muscle mass.
“Protein is critical for many structural and metabolic functions in the body, but after a workout, muscles that have been stressed need to be repaired," Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says. "So, consuming a moderate dose of protein within two hours after training is critical if you want to optimize muscle protein repair and growth."
During this time, muscle cells are able to optimally absorb and utilize nutrients for a speedier, more effective recovery process that prioritizes repair and growth. Regardless of the type of activity, it's important to eat enough protein to provide for your overall volume of daily activity.
According to Jones, athletes with high activity levels exceeding those of the general population should consume between 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.55-0.9 grams per pound). Split that total into three to five evenly-spread doses throughout the day for optimized workout performance and fueling.
“Those with lighter training programs may require less protein after a training session, with needs closer to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.55 grams per pound,” Jones says.
Contrarily, those with higher mileage, more moderate-to-high intensity endurance workouts, or high-volume or heavy weight-bearing activity in their program will surpass those average needs and require more protein as recovery fuel, with needs of about 2 grams of protein per kilogram (0.9 grams per pound) of body weight.
The Classic Protein-Rich, Post-Workout Fueling Staples
Some classic protein-rich post-workout staples include eggs, turkey breast, grilled chicken, beef jerky, plain and unsweetened Greek yogurt, tofu, edamame (with soy being a terrific plant protein option), and even quinoa — a complete plant-based protein alternative that offers all nine essential amino acids to boost muscle recovery.
These foods — despite containing other vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients — are typically categorized as “protein” sources, as that’s what they are often most touted for relative to nutrition and recovery value.
As such, these staples are popular go-to picks for meal-prepping, where you can make several simple meals and snacks to stash in your gym bag and enjoy immediately after a tough training session.
Why Your Body Needs More Than Protein to Full Repair Muscles
A well-rounded recovery snack should combine protein with other ingredients to complement that “star” protein source. It should include some added protein (an easy way to boost protein further), fiber to help ease digestion, and healthy fats to improve satiety.
There should also be a source of electrolytes to replenish depleted mineral stores, which the body loses through sweat and must restore ASAP after training or racing to balance hydration levels. Of course, you'll also still need to be drinking ample fluids, especially water, in order to improve hydration for shrunken, shriveled muscle cells in need of liquids and a reboot.
There are a number of helpful post-workout recovery foods to include in a balanced meal plan, all of which offer a source of healthy fats, filling fiber, electrolytes and other essential vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. (Noteworthy examples include avocado, salmon, chia seeds, pistachios, and almonds.)
However, there is one pantry staple that has a long shelf life and is easy to store in your gym bag as a portable fuel source, making it one the best — if not the most effective — post-workout recovery foods to eat within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing a workout.
The Best Post-Workout Food — Besides Pure Protein — to Eat After a Workout Is...
Peanut butter happens to be pretty dense in protein on its own, but it is actually categorized as a “heart-healthy fat,” rather than a “protein."
This may be especially helpful for when you’re counting macros in your diet, as you must track your daily intake of fats, fiber, and protein, along with how many grams you’re getting each day for optimized performance, recovery, and health.
You’ll want to pair the peanut butter with another “protein-rich” staple and a bit of complex carbohydrates, too, so that your muscles regain energy and momentum.
“Carbohydrates are the body's primary energy source, both stored as glycogen for use by muscles during activity and as liver glycogen and blood glucose to fuel the brain and other cells,” Jones says.
Carbs are depleted during exercise, and when you replenish them post-workout through fuel, it allows your body to better utilize protein for muscle recovery instead of burning it as energy. This is how you can increase muscle mass and build strength to both repair damage and trigger regrowth.
What Makes Peanut Butter One of the Best Recovery Fuel Sources?
Peanut butter is most known for its high unsaturated, healthy fat content, which benefits your heart and decreases inflammation to speed muscle recovery. It also has 2 grams of fiber per serving to boost satiety, and while it’s also not technically a “protein source,” it’s still relatively dense in protein, with a full 2-tablespoon serving containing 8 grams of protein.
“The protein in peanut butter — while not considered a complete, high-quality source — is higher than most nuts," Jones says. "And when paired with another protein source, peanuts can help make it easier to get an adequate protein dose, especially when you're on the go."
What’s more, peanut butter also offers many electrolytes to replenish depleted stores and balance hydration levels. You'll also get a punch of sodium (when salted), potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
“Most Americans under-consume potassium, which is important for fluid balance,” Jones explains. “And while the average sedentary American does not need additional sodium for proper fluid balance and to maintain hydration, sodium needs are higher with activity, and a lack of sodium can cause fluid to leave the body more quickly than desired via urine and sweat."
What to Look for on a Peanut Butter Nutrition Label
You might want to keep two kinds of peanut butter at home: an unsalted option for rest days and a salted option for training days, as a bit of sodium is helpful post-workout to boost electrolyte stores (especially a sweaty workout such as with HIIT or sprinting, and even more so in the heat.)
You want to look for peanut butter brands that have minimal ingredients — with just raw or roasted peanuts and perhaps salt as the only ingredients — instead of those that are processed and contain other oils such as palm or hydrogenated oil, which you’ll commonly find on the label.
“When purchasing salted peanut butter, it can be an effective and affordable way to help replenish sodium lost during exercise through food,” Jones says.
How to Fuel With Peanut Butter Post-Workout to Maximize Recovery
If you're on the go, you can include a packet of peanut butter, a banana, and a bag of sprinkled hemp seeds to create a sandwich that’s portable and quick to assemble.
“Choose a bread with at least five grams of protein per slice, along with a full serving of peanut butter and at least a tablespoon of hemp heart seeds to make sure you reach that 20 grams of protein requirement,” Jones says.
You can also use peanut butter in a snack box or on a snack board and vary the sides. You might pair it with a serving of whole-grain or whole-wheat crackers, or a serving of unsweetened dried fruit such as mango or apricots, or even a freeze-dried option for some carbs, like berries.
For a sweet snack, grab a cup of plain Greek yogurt from the fridge and mix in a serving of peanut butter, and then top the bowl with fresh berries or sliced banana, and maybe some crumbled pistachios. Or, you can whip up your own recovery bars and protein cookies at home using a whey-based protein powder as the base and drizzle peanut butter on top, topping it all with crumbled granola.
For a larger meal, try making a peanut butter-based sauce, dressing, or dip to use with grilled chicken skewers, and feel free to add a slice of whole-grain bread or two to make a sandwich, based on how strenuous your workout was.
Lastly, use peanut butter as an ingredient for smoothies and blend with whey protein powder (for the highest protein source) or plant-based powder.