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The Best Post-Workout Foods to Fight Inflammation and Boost Recovery

Inflammation happens, but these foods can help keep excess inflammation at bay after your workouts.

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Inflammation is your body’s response to tissue damage. It’s a protective mechanism that occurs when trauma, bacteria, toxins, or other causes lead to damage. Certain signal molecules such as histamines and prostaglandins are released by damaged cells, causing blood vessels to excrete fluid into tissues, which induces swelling. And when you work out, inflammation can rev up, working hard to heal the tissues you’ve just put through their paces. 

Post-workout inflammation isn’t exactly a bad thing, though. It occurs when tissues are “injured” in ways that promote growth and adaptation, such as muscle tissue growth or new muscle fibers that can help power you through endurance workouts. Since you actively seek to damage your cells when you’re exercising, the resulting inflammation is inevitable. In fact, you’ve probably felt its effects – it’s often experienced as post-workout soreness.

Not All Inflammation is Bad

Generally, post-workout inflammation is a good thing, so long as it’s controlled and doesn’t outdo your ability to heal in time for your next workout. Inflammatory cells help heal damaged tissues, bringing fresh blood with oxygen and nutrients to your mending tissues while clearing out metabolic waste.

But if inflammation becomes too much for your body to handle due to poor recovery, you could be at risk of developing chronic inflammation, illness, soreness, and injuries. Chronic, low-grade inflammation can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Regular exercise actually decreases the level of inflammatory markers you have in your body, so consistently working out is an excellent way to help manage inflammation. But a smart, well-planned recovery practice should be in place to ensure you make the most of your exercise regimen to fight and not increase harmful inflammation in your body. 

Part of a preventative anti-inflammatory recovery plan is your nutrition. Your dietary choices can either increase or diminish inflammation in your body. 

Diets and Foods That Can Impact Inflammation

While there is no one particular diet you need to follow if you’re hoping to keep inflammation under control, there are some traditional and expert-developed eating patterns that have been shown to reduce or contain inflammation. These include the Mediterranean, Nordic, and Okinawan traditional diets, the DASH diet, flexitarian, and whole foods-based diets.

But following an exact diet plan for your post-workout recovery is unnecessary. Just focusing on whole, primarily plant-based foods with lean proteins will go a long way. These foods provide a range of vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats, phytochemicals, and antioxidants which all work together to reduce inflammation, combat oxidative stress, and heal tissues.

The Best Foods to Reduce Post-Workout Inflammation

You can’t go wrong with consuming a wide variety of colorful, whole foods. If you eat post-workout meals and a general diet packed with fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, you’ll be beating back inflammation already.

To maximize your post-workout recovery, you can focus on amplifying your intake of the following inflammation-busting powerhouses.

Dark leafy greens

Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, bok choy, and chard are packed with fiber and antioxidants like carotenoids. These naturally occurring compounds called lutein and zeaxanthin decrease C-reactive protein levels, which are indicators of inflammation. C-reactive protein increases after a strenuous workout, but munching on leafy greens after your HIIT session can help lower them and promote faster recovery.

Bright orange fruits and veggies

Orange fruits and vegetables also contain carotenoids, which differ from those found in leafy greens. Sweet potatoes, carrots, mango, winter squash, and apricots provide a dose of beta-carotene, and other compounds that lower inflammation and boost physical performance.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes contain lycopene and other bioactive compounds that have antioxidant properties. Research shows that athletes can successfully use tomatoes to counteract the inflammatory effects of exhaustive exercise. An exciting factor discovered by scientists is that whole tomato works better for recovery than taking a lycopene supplement alone.

Berries plus other purple and red fruits

Anthocyanins have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities shown to produce faster recovery from muscle soreness after resistance training and significantly speed up the healing of post-running muscle damage. Lycopene is also found in other red fruits, such as watermelon. Berries, plums, grapes, and cherries also provide anthocyanins.

Citrus

Citrus fruits contain powerful compounds that beat back inflammation in several ways. The antioxidant Vitamin C reigns in the body’s inflammatory response, while bioactive polyphenols called hesperidin, narirutin, and naringin protect against oxidative stress that leads to inflammation. Like others on this list, citrus fruits reduce levels of C-reactive proteins, indicators of inflammation.

Fiber-rich grains, beans, and legumes

Fiber is famous for fighting inflammation and heart disease. Those who eat more fiber tend to have the lowest markers of inflammation. Research also shows that diets high in fiber are associated with better physical performance, such as faster gait speed, longer 6-minute walk distance, faster time to get up and go, better overall performance scores, and higher hand grip strength.

Healthy fats in nuts, seafood, and oils

Healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids and other monounsaturated oils (avocado, olive) boost exercise recovery and are essential for helping your body return to normal after physical activity. Fatty acids help glucose be taken up into the muscles to replenish glycogen stores — which is a crucial aspect of exercise recovery. 

Fish oils have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and boost recovery from damaging forms of exercise. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the time and intensity of post-workout soreness so that you can get back to training faster.

Foods That Can Increase Inflammation

Some foods increase inflammation by promoting the production of free radicals that damage cells. Low fiber diets also cause inflammation by decreasing gut microbiome diversity that fights chronic inflammation. Also, consuming pro-inflammatory foods has been linked to lower levels of muscle mass and muscle wasting as you age. 

Start by reducing these types of foods post workout for best recovery results:

  • Margarine and refined vegetable oils
  • Highly processed foods
  • Fried foods
  • Processed meats
  • White refined flour products
  • Sugary sweets

How to Incorporate More Anti-Inflammatory Foods Post-Workout

Incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods in your overall diet will go a long way toward managing inflammation. Try switching up your regular post-workout snack or meal by adding a couple of anti-inflammatory foods.

Smoothies are an excellent vehicle for packing in a ton of soothing, reparative compounds after a training session. Throw together some frozen berries, cherries, oats, orange juice with pulp or whole orange, walnuts, and ice in a blender. Add some protein powder for increased healing power.

Make a post-workout brown rice bowl with wild salmon, wilted leafy greens, sesame seeds, and olive oil mayo. Try sprinkling walnuts and drizzling avocado oil on a salad packed with orange veggies and tomatoes.

Recipes to Try

Featured recipe: Mixed Berry Burrata Salad