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Enhance Muscle Recovery with Whole Foods

You work hard at the gym to gain strength; or perhaps you run, walk, bike or swim regularly; or you enjoy aerobics classes or Cross-Fit; or maybe you play sports like tennis, basketball or soccer. Whatever type of exercise you prefer, the foods you choose after exercise play an important role in helping your muscles recover and grow stronger. Carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals are crucial nutrients for optimum exercise recovery.1

Role of carbohydrate in muscle recovery

Carbohydrate is an important energy source during aerobic exercise such as walking, running, biking, or swimming. Carbohydrate is stored in our muscles as glycogen, and after exercise it’s important to replace the glycogen so that your muscles are ready for exercise the next day. Choose whole, less processed foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and milk that are good sources of carbohydrate as well as several important vitamins and minerals.2

Role of protein in muscle recovery

Protein in foods helps our muscles recover and grow stronger after exercise and can even help decrease muscle soreness.  High quality protein foods like milk, yogurt, lean meat and eggs provide the essential amino acids muscles need after exercise. The current research shows that milk and yogurt are especially high in the amino acid leucine and branched chain amino acids that provide additional muscle recovery benefits.2 Choose a post-exercise meal or snack that includes 10-20 grams of protein to optimally increase muscle recovery.1 Examples of protein-containing foods include:3

  • 1 cup milk contains 8 grams protein (1 cup soy milk also contains 8 grams of protein; other non-dairy milks like almond, rice, or coconut milk typically contain 1-2 grams protein per cup)
  • 6 oz Greek yogurt contains 18 grams protein
  • 1 cup non-Greek yogurt contains 11 grams protein
  • 1 large egg contains 6 grams protein
  • 3 ounces cooked chicken, turkey, and red meat contain 25 grams protein
  • 3 ounces cooked salmon or tuna contain 22 grams protein
  • ½ cup prepared legumes (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, etc.) contain 8 grams protein
  • 1 tablespoon nut butter contains 7 grams protein

Role of vitamins and minerals in muscle recovery

Exercise stresses the body, increasing the amount of vitamins and minerals needed both for optimal health as well as muscle recovery. Eating a variety of whole, less processed foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, healthy sources of fats and lean protein sources provides a significant amount of vitamins and minerals. Three to focus on:

  • Iron deficiency can impair muscle function and exercise capacity.2 Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, including the muscles, and then takes carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it is exhaled.4 Iron requirements for women may be increased by up to 70% due to blood losses during menstruation. People who are at greatest risk of iron deficiency, such as distance runners, vegetarians, or regular blood donors, should be screened regularly and aim for an iron intake greater than their RDA (>18 mg for women and >8 mg for men).2 Foods that are high in iron include lean beef, dark meat chicken, oysters and turkey. Plant sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereal, tofu, legumes, and enriched whole grain breads. We absorb 2-3 times more iron from animal sources than from plant sources. Increase iron absorption by including a food high in vitamin C in the meal with iron, for example drink a glass of orange juice with breakfast cereal, include a salad with red bell peppers with a steak meal, or enjoy a spinach salad with orange or grapefruit slices.4
  • Vitamin D, well-known for its role in maintaining bone health, also is important for muscle recovery after exercise. Recent research shows a relationship between vitamin D status and neuromuscular function, injury prevention, muscle fiber size, and reduced inflammation. We primarily obtain vitamin D from the sun’s ultraviolet rays on our skin, which means that people who exercise indoors, early in the morning or late in the evening; or who wear sunscreen or clothing with sunscreen may be at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency.2 Salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel are especially high in vitamin D, with smaller amounts in fortified foods such as milk, yogurt and some types of orange juice.5
  • Calcium is important for bone density, and also plays a role in muscle contraction. The RDA for calcium for adult men and women is 1000 mg per day, with 1500-2000 mg possibly necessary for some people who exercise regularly.2 Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese; and non-dairy alternatives that are fortified with calcium are excellent sources. While some vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and spinach contain calcium, it’s not as well absorbed from plants as from dairy products.6

Maximize exercise recovery by planning a meal or snack as soon as possible after finishing exercise so that your muscles can take advantage of the nutrients to promote growth and repair.2 Instead of grabbing an energy bar or sports drink, choose nutrient-dense, whole foods for optimum nutrition:

  • Make a smoothie using 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, ½ cup berries, ½ banana, 1 cup spinach, ¼ cup orange juice
  • Enjoy a tuna sandwich on 2 slices of whole grain bread, 1 cup non-fat milk, and an orange
  • Layer ½ cup quinoa, 3 scrambled eggs, and 2 cups chopped vegetables in a bowl; season with sriracha or your favorite hot salsa
  • Stir ½ cup mixed fruit and ½ cup granola into 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • If you’re in a hurry or don’t feel like eating, chocolate milk has the perfect ratio of protein to carbohydrate to refuel your body.7
  • Roll up slices of turkey and cheese with fresh spinach in a tortilla
  • Enjoy lentil soup with a spinach salad


  1. Beck KL, Thomson JS, Swift RJ, von Hurst PR. Role of nutrition in performance enhancement and postexercise recovery. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;6:259-267. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S33605.
  2. Thomas DT, Erdman, KA, Burke, LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine:  Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:501-528.
  3. Today’s Dietitian. Protein Content of Foods. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/pdf/webinars/ProteinContentofFoods.pdf published 2013, accessed 5-28-18.
  4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Foods to Fight Iron Deficiency. Carolyn Kaufmann, MS, RDN. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/iron-deficiency  Published 1-5-18; accessed 5-23-18
  5. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/  last updated 3-2-18; accessed 5-23-18
  6. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/  last updated 3-2-17; accessed 5-23-18
  7. Pritchett K, Pritchett R. Chocolate milk: a post-exercise recovery beverage for endurance sports. Med Sport Sci. 2012;59:127-34. doi: 10.1159/000341954.