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Athletes Need Sugar to Recover

The carbohydrate has a well-earned place in post-workout nutrition.

It's easy to view sugar as a nutritional villain, but people should think twice before cutting all carbs out of their diets. “We shouldn't make one food or nutrient a scapegoat for all of our health problems,” says Melina Jampolis, MD, author of The Doctor on Demand Diet. “Nutrition is not all or nothing.”

Sugar is particularly important for athletes, whose muscles run on it, she adds. In fact, the body needs a certain amount of it post-workout to replenish glycogen, the stored form of glucose that the body uses for energy. While you'll find heaps of sugar in indulgent desserts, it's also found naturally in produce, dairy, and foods packed with complex carbs like whole wheat bread. 

The key is determining the right amount to eat and from which sources, since the body stores excess sugar as fat.

The best way to aid the body's post-workout healing process is to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Combine them with amino-acid-rich protein sources like meat, fish, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese, which also encourage recovery, Jampolis says. Aim for a four-to-one ratio of carbs to protein, she notes. 

Outside of the workout context, adding fats can help curb blood sugar spikes, says Cassie Bjork, RD, a registered dietician based in Minneapolis and San Diego. Try a spinach omelette topped with avocado slices, or a salad of leafy greens and salmon dressed with olive oil vinaigrette.