Should You Eat Fat After a Workout?

There seems to be a general aversion to fat consumption post-workout for strength athletes.

Although post-workout fat avoidance is not as common as the recommendation to drink a protein shake immediately after training, it has definitely become more prevalent in the strength world.

Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of research that we can examine to determine whether fat avoidance is a sound recommendation for strength athletes. As with all nutrient timing research, most of it has no direct application to strength training because the studies look at endurance athletes exercising on a bike.

[Want to know WHEN you should eat for optimal strength? Check out our guide here!]

Any conclusions from such studies have to be extrapolated if they are to be applied to strength athletes. Therefore, the best we can do is to look at the limited research available that was done using resistance training protocols, and to turn to the wisdom of strength coaches who have decades of experience and a track record of optimizing their athletes’ performance.

Why Fat Might Hurt Recovery

First, let’s take a look at some of the reasons people are avoiding fat after lifting heavy. The rationale is that consuming fat:

  • Slows gastric emptying, therefore slows the rate at which carbohydrates (glucose) enters the bloodstream and is shuttled to muscles for glycogen repletion.
  • Blunts insulin spike of a meal or shake, slowing the shift of hormones from catabolic to anabolic.
  • Has no direct anabolic properties or recovery benefits.

Although dietary fat intake will not directly stimulate insulin, and will not contribute to glycogen repletion for muscle recovery, research shows that it neither blunts insulin, nor slows glycogen repletion.

In fact, one study shows that a post-workout mixed meal (pizza, actually) that contained a healthy helping of fat (17 grams) still led to an elevation in insulin levels high enough to reduce muscle protein breakdown by about 50%.

Additional studies also support that fat consumption post-workout, even at levels as high as 165g, will not hinder your recovery. The catch is that as a strength athlete, you must make sure that you are consuming enough total calories and carbohydrate, plus adequate protein throughout the day to recover from lifting heavy objects.

Evidence That Fat Has No Effect on Recovery

Roy and Tarnopolsky conducted a study that looked at the muscle glycogen resynthesis and plasma insulin levels of experienced, young, resistance trained athletes completing a full-body exercise routine and consuming either a 100% carbohydrate drink or mixed macronutrient drink post-workout (66% carb, 23% protein, 11% fat).

The subjects’ routine consisted of 3 sets of 10 reps at 80% of 1-rep max for 8 different exercises, plus 3 sets of 20 sit ups. They ate three pre-portioned meals throughout the day plus their experimental post-workout drink. The total calorie, carbohydrate, and fat intake was matched between groups throughout the day.

Insulin levels were significantly elevated for both the carbohydrate and the mixed-macronutrient groups after consuming their drinks. Both groups also experienced similar rates of glycogen resynthesis.

This study further reinforces that TOTAL daily calorie and macronutrient intake is the key to recovery from strength training, and that the addition of fat to a post-workout drink will neither blunt the insulin response, nor slow the rate of glycogen repletion.

Since the percent of fat (11%) in the post-workout drink in this study might seem like a small amount, I want to point to a study done by Fox and colleagues which looked at the effect of adding a massive 1,500 calories of fat to the three meals their subjects’ consumed after exercise. Both groups ate the same total carbohydrate during the day (5g/kg of bodyweight).

I will note, this study was not done on resistance trained athletes, but it’s observation that an addition of a massive quantity of fat to post-workout meals did not hinder glycogen resynthesis lends further credence to Roy & Tarnopolsky’s findings, and indicates that as long as carbohydrate intake is adequate throughout the day, some fat post-workout is not going to hurt your recovery.

When To Eat Fat Post-Workout

What we can take away from these studies is that fat is not going to hurt your recovery, as long as:

  • You consume adequate carbohydrate around your workout for optimal glycogen resynthesis.
  • Consume enough protein throughout the day to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
  • Consume a mixed macronutrient post-workout meal with enough protein and carbohydrate (in addition to it’s fat) to elevate insulin above baseline.

If you have a coach with a track record and decades of experience, you can also ask them what they’ve found to be the most effective post-workout meal for recovery.

Dan John, for example, touts high protein and fat plus berries instead of the normal high glycemic-index carbs post-workout.

Other coaches, like Charles Poliquin, recommend liquid post-workout but advocate eating lots of meat. Meat, naturally, contains quite a bit of fat. If eating meat after a workout is wrong because of it’s fat content, I don’t want to be right!

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.