You May Not Need the Post-Workout Carbs After All

Turns out you may not need those post-workout carbs. New research shows no difference in protein absorption between those who consumed protein and those who combined carbs and protein.

One thing we hear about from supplement companies and people at the gym is the ratio of carbohydrates to protein you need to take after a workout. If you don’t get that insulin spike you won’t be absorbing and using the protein in your meal to build muscle, right?

As a fan of paleo eating I always found this point to be a curious one. Did primitive man get just the right balance of carbs to protein after a hunt, which was his workout? Probably not. So why would we have evolved in a way that building optimal muscle and strength is dependent on a big insulin boost while we consume protein? That’s not to say that doing what is “natural” is the best for muscle building and athletics, but rather, if I want to be healthy and strong at the same time, maybe reason casts doubt on the hypothesis that spiking our insulin with carbs is necessary. A study published by Nutrition and Metabolism casts doubt on this hypothesis being important at all.

The study looked at older men specifically. Why older men? Because losing muscle as you age is one critical aspect to a decrease in overall health. So the researchers took our commonplace wisdom and compared two groups, one that consumed carbs and protein in a 2 to 1 ratio and the other that consumed only protein. The latter group consumed exactly the same amount of protein as the former.

After taking blood samples and muscle biopsies, the researchers discovered something that contradicts our present views on how we should eat post-workout. At first, the individuals who consumed the carbohydrates with their protein had an insulin spike along with their hyperglycemia (increase in blood sugar), which should be a surprise to no one. They also had a greater portion of the protein ingested incorporated into their muscle. However, just a few hours later, the differences between the two groups were gone. Those eating protein alone had just as much of it in their muscle as those who used the golden 2:1 ratio.

This has very interesting ramifications, particularly for those who want to avoid consuming high glycemic carbs in high quantities. Diabetics, health conscious athletes, and those losing weight can all breath a sign of relief. While experiencing no insulin spike, the protein only group absorbed and utilized just as much as the carb and protein group. Another important thing to note is that the latter group had taken in three times the calories that the protein only group had. Big difference right? And yet there was no difference in the potential for muscle building.

It’s possible that for athletes doing more than one workout in a day the extra speed of absorption featured by taking in a 2 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein post-workout is a good idea. For everyone else, focusing on protein and total calories is just as good for your muscles, and probably better for your health.


1. Henrike Hamer, et. al., “Carbohydrate co-ingestion with protein does not further augment post-prandial muscle protein accretion in older men,” Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:15

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