Junk food is always a topic of concern for my clients. Specifically, they want to know if it’s okay to enjoy junk food after exercising or if doing so will “cancel out” or ruin their workout.
So, can you eat junk food after a workout? Eating junk food after a workout is perfectly fine — your workout will not be ruined. In fact, high carbohydrate junk food may actually be beneficial after a workout as it can help your body recover quickly.
Where your calories come from matters less than your total calorie consumption, macronutrient breakdown, and the fiber and nutrients you eat each day. Once digested, your body doesn’t know the difference between 50 grams of glucose from sugary cereal and 50 grams of glucose from whole wheat bread.
In this article, I will discuss:
- What is considered junk food
- How to determine what junk food is best after a workout
- The 6 best junk foods to eat after a workout
- The 2 worst junk foods to eat after a workout
- The 3 circumstances where you should avoid junk food after a workout
What Is Considered Junk Food?
Food can be considered “junk food” when it is high in calories but low in nutritional value. Typically, these are foods that are heavily processed, have added fats and/or sugars, and contain few vitamins, minerals, fiber, and/or protein.
Donuts, potato chips, cakes, and cookies, for example, are all high in calories, highly processed, low in fiber and protein, high in added fats and sugars, and provide little of the vitamins or minerals our bodies require. This is why such foods are often referred to as empty calories – the calories are “empty” because they provide no nutritional value.
Conversely, foods like chicken breast, oranges, spinach, and other lean meats, fruits, and vegetables are low in calories, high in protein or fiber, and provide our bodies with an abundance of the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy.
So why is something like a cheeseburger from McDonald’s or Burger King often considered junk food if it contains meat and vegetables?
It’s because, generally speaking, the meat is far from lean (i.e. there’s also a lot of fat), the vegetables are minimal, the sauces are high in added sugars, and the bun is so heavily processed that most of the fiber and nutrients have been completely stripped from it.
A quick glance at the nutrition label, or nutritional information on a restaurant’s website, can be your best indicator as to whether or not a food is junk food. If a food is low in protein, fiber, and nutrients and high in calories and added sugar or fat, you should consider it junk food.
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Is It Bad to Eat Junk Food After a Workout?
Eating junk food after a workout is perfectly fine and will not ruin the workout. In fact, if a client wants to include some junk food in their diet, I recommend they do so after a workout as the added calories can help them recover.
Beyond the satisfaction of enjoying your favorite foods, there may be further benefits to indulging in a little junk food after a workout. By giving yourself the flexibility to enjoy these foods, you remove the stress of a rigid diet and make it much more likely you’ll stick to your program over the long-term.
A University of South Florida study randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: a flexible diet group or a rigid diet group.
Both groups adhered to a 20% calorie reduction. However, those in the flexible diet group were able to eat whatever foods they wanted (as long as they ate the assigned amount of calories), while the rigid group had to eat specific portions of specific foods.
After the 10-week study, both groups significantly reduced their body weight and there were no differences in weight loss or body fat percentage between the two groups. Those who ate whatever foods they wanted to lose just as much weight and body fat as those who followed a rigid diet.
However, when participants were checked 10 weeks later, those who followed a rigid diet had lost an average of 1.5 pounds of lean body mass, while those who were allowed flexibility in their diet actually increased their lean muscle mass by nearly 4 pounds.
The researchers suggested this increase in lean body mass could be because following a flexible diet causes less stress and allows for better adaptations to resistance training.
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In another study done by the University of Montana’s Health and Human Performance Department, researchers found that consuming fast food post-workout was equally as effective at replenishing glycogen (i.e., refueling muscles) as sports nutrition products.
After a 90-minute cycle, one group was given two meals from McDonald’s over a four-hour period, while the other group was provided sports nutrition products like protein bars and sports drinks throughout the same four-hour window.
Not only were there no differences in the rate of glycogen recovery between the groups, but there was no difference in a 20k cycle time trial completed two hours after eating.
What these studies suggest is that macronutrients are the same regardless of where they come from. The carbohydrates you get from whole wheat bread are used the same in your body as those that come from candy and soda.
As long as you are hitting your calorie and macronutrient goals and getting in the proper nutrients each day, the research suggests it really doesn’t matter where your calories come from. So go ahead and have a little junk food after your workout.
How To Determine What Kind of Junk Food is Best for After a Workout
Not all junk food is created equally – some junk foods are better to eat after a workout than others.
Junk foods that are high in carbohydrates can be beneficial after a workout, while high-fat, greasy junk foods should be avoided. If you’re trying to find something to eat after a workout and you’re limited to junk food options, choose the option that is highest in carbohydrates and, ideally, protein.
In the above-mentioned studies, calories and macronutrients were the same across the board. For example, even though some participants were fed fast food while others were given sports nutrition products, everyone consumed the same amount of calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
While the research suggests eating junk food after a workout may be just as effective as consuming sports nutrition products, it’s important to note that drinking a Gatorade is not the same as eating a plate of nachos.
Fat is less beneficial after a workout than carbohydrates and protein. When you exercise, you use the glycogen stored in your body as fuel and break down your muscle tissue. Eating carbohydrates after a workout replenishes your glycogen stores, while eating protein post-workout helps your muscles repair and grow.
This is why the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming a large serving of carbohydrates and protein post-exercise.
To determine if certain junk food makes for a good post-workout option, you need to look at the nutritional information. Review the label on your food product or the nutritional information on a restaurant’s website and see if it’s high in carbohydrates (which would make it a good option) or high in fat (which would make it less than ideal).
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6 Best Junk Foods to Eat After a Workout
As I mentioned earlier, the best junk foods to eat after a workout are those high in carbohydrates and, ideally, protein.
It’s okay to indulge in high-carbohydrate, low-protein food after a workout, but I highly recommend having a protein shake along with it. Consuming 20-40 grams of protein along with those carbohydrates will increase muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle).
With these criteria in mind, here are the 6 best options for indulging after a workout:
1. Sugary Cereal
Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Captain Crunch may not be the best breakfast option, but a bowl of these high-sugar cereals with milk (or, better yet, a protein shake) makes for a great post-workout meal.
Arnold Schwarzenegger claims he and the late bodybuilder Franco Columbu would each eat an entire pie after a workout and look better the next day.
While I don’t suggest binging on an entire 3,800-calorie cherry pie, the high carbohydrate content of a piece or two will certainly refuel your glycogen stores.
If you struggle to eat after a workout, soda may be your best friend. It’s almost pure sugar, which is quickly digested, absorbed, and transported into your blood, speeding up glycogen resynthesis.
Soda makes for an easy way to consume a lot of calories quickly after a workout.
4. Waffles and Pancakes
Go ahead and load up high-carb waffles and pancakes with syrup after a workout.
Enjoy them with a protein shake, eggs, or other high-protein food and you have a fantastic post-workout meal.
Pizza is great, but look for something with less fat and more protein. Choosing a pizza topped with chicken instead of pepperoni, for example, makes for a better post-workout meal.
- If you like pizza, be sure to check out our team’s recommendations for the best meal choices at Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Little Caesars.
The added sugars in your favorite chocolate can actually benefit you if you eat it after a workout.
The simple carbohydrates will be broken down and absorbed quickly, helping you recover from your workout fast.
2 Worst Junk Foods to Eat After a Workout
After exercising, eating greasy junk food that’s high in fat and low in carbohydrates is your worst option.
Because of their high-fat content, these foods should be avoided after a workout:
1. Deep Fried Foods
Mozzarella sticks, chicken wings loaded with hot sauce, and anything else that comes out of a deep fryer should generally be avoided after a workout.
When your body is starving for carbohydrates and protein, these greasy, high-fat foods will do little to help you recover and are likely to leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. You may want to reach for foods that are high in calories but low in fat instead.
- Related Article: Can You Eat Fried Food Before & After Workouts?
A plate of nachos loaded with cheese and doused in sour cream can have 1,500 – 3,000 calories and well over 100 grams of fat.
These numbers are difficult to fit into any macronutrient and calorie goal and won’t help you recover from your workout.
3 Reasons to Avoid Junk Food After a Workout
Though it’s perfectly fine for most people to have junk food after a workout once in a while, there are situations where doing so isn’t a good idea. If you find yourself in one of these three situations, it’s best to skip the junk food and find something else to eat.
1. You’re Trying to Get Really Lean
If you’re trying to drop your body fat percentage down to single digits, eating junk food after a workout is not a good idea. It’s best to avoid junk food in this scenario because reaching your calorie and macronutrient goals for the day becomes far too difficult.
For example, if you are on a 1,600-calorie diet with a macro split of 160 g of protein, 140 g of carbs, and 44 g of fat, eating a 1,500-calorie plate of nachos or a bacon double cheeseburger with 30 g of fat makes it near impossible to reach your macronutrient goals for the day.
You’ll have used up nearly 70% of your fat macros and would have to be very selective about what you eat for the rest of the day.
2. You Will Be Exerting Yourself Again Soon
Even if you just completed a tough workout or athletic event, it’s best to skip any kind of greasy, fatty junk food if you will be competing or training again soon.
I’ve had multiple race weekends, have done several weeks of two-a-day football practices, and have competed in countless weekend-long wrestling tournaments. Pizza, burgers, and nachos sound good when you’re working your tail off, but I’ve found it’s much better to save the celebratory greasy junk food until the final whistle has blown.
Even if you’re starving and need the calories after your first race, workout, practice, etc., eating these kinds of high-fat foods can hinder your ability to perform at your best in the coming hours. In these situations, avoid fatty and greasy foods and stick with something easier to digest like a protein bar or shake with fruit, a bagel, or a sports drink.
3. You Can’t Stop At A Little
Some foods seem to trigger an almost addiction and should just be avoided altogether. The biggest reason I avoid junk food most of the time is that I know through experience it is much easier for me to have none than to have just a little.
For example, while I have clients who can enjoy five or six potato chips and move on, if I eat five or six potato chips, I develop an insatiable craving for more. So I just avoid them entirely.
In other situations, I’ve seen a few slices of pizza after a midday workout turn into an all-day binge or a quick stop at a burger joint become a 2,000-calorie disaster.
Pizza, burgers, and chips aren’t inherently bad. But if they lead to an uncontrollable desire for more, it’s best not to use your workout as an excuse to enjoy a little junk food.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Okay to Eat Junk Food After a Workout?
It is okay to eat junk food after a workout. It makes little difference if you eat junk food after a workout or on a rest day. Your total calorie and macronutrient consumption matter more than when or what you eat.
Is It Better to Eat Junk Food Before or After a Workout?
It is better to eat junk food after a workout than before. Eating junk food before a workout can cause bloating and fatigue, which will affect your performance during the workout. Eating junk food after a workout will not affect your performance and may actually help your body recover.
About The Author
Riley Nadoroznick is a strength, conditioning, and nutrition coach and the owner of Conviction Fitness.