By Cyrus Khambatta — FitStar Contributor

In my last article What Happens to Muscles After Exercise? I wrote about what happens to your body in the post-exercise state.  In that article, I explained how tissues across your body are affected by exercise, and how your muscle acts like a nutrient sponge immediately following exercise.  Having a post-workout nutrition strategy is one of the most important things you can do for your athletic program, and having a solid post-workout nutrition plan can take your FitStar workouts to the next level.

Metabolically, exercise is an incredibly demanding job, and that’s exactly why your post-workout meal is in my opinion the most important meal of the day.

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In this article, I will focus specifically on carbohydrate nutrition, and explain why the popular anti-carbohydrate wisdom can lead you astray.  Carb-restricted diets like the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the Zone diet, and the Paleo diet have taken center stage, resulting in a plethora of meal options high in both fat and protein.  But a careful look at carb-restricted diets shows that carbohydrates are not only intelligent but absolutely required for optimal athletic recovery.

Sufficient Glycogen is Critical For Athletic Recovery

During a single exercise session, actively exercised muscle tissue can deplete up to 60-70% of it’s stored glycogen.  In the absence of sufficient glycogen, the muscle tissue will act very lethargically.  This is one of the reasons you may feel tired after exercise – because the glycogen fuel tanks are running low.  And it’s important to understand that your muscle tissue is as good as useless when it’s fuel tanks are close to empty.

Only a limited amount of carbohydrates can be stored in the human body.  In the same way that the fuel tank in your car can only hold 10-15 gallons of fuel before it overflows, your muscle and liver can store on average 500g of carbohydrate, or the energy equivalent of about 2,000 kcal.  That’s just about enough energy to power a typical adult for 24 hours.

Refilling muscle glycogen stores immediately following exercise with easily digestible unrefined carbohydrates is a critical step for optimal athletic recovery. 

Glycogen attracts water in a 3:1 ratio, which means that recovering muscle is three times as hungry for water as it is for glucose.  Eating carbohydrate-rich foods with high water content accelerates the refueling process, allowing you to exercise frequently.  Hydrated muscle tissue is also less likely to develop cramps, which are not only painful but can significantly slow down the recovery process.

Simply stated, more glycogen means more hydration.

 Choosing the Right Type of Carbohydrates – Refined and Unrefined Carbohydrates are Not Created Equal

So if carbohydrates aid in athletic recovery, then what types of foods should you be eating?  I like to think of carbohydrates as falling into one of two categories – refined or unrefined.  A carbohydrate-rich food is either refined or unrefined, but never both.

Refined Carbohydrates Explained

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Refined carbohydrates are carbohydrate-rich foods that require a manufacturing process in order to become edible, and cannot be eaten in their natural, unprocessed state.  These foods include grains, cereals, pastas, bread and artificial sweeteners, and include foods like wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, rye and millet.  Thousands of scientific articles are uncovering the damaging effects of refined carbohydrates on the human body, including:

-Damage to the lining of the small and large intestines

-Leaky gut syndrome (intestinal permeability)

-Celiac disease (gluten intolerance)

-Insulin resistance in the muscle and liver

-Excessive fat accumulation in the liver

-Increased fat accumulation (weight gain, obesity)

-Impaired cognitive function in the brain

-Increased prevalence of autoimmune conditions

It is exactly these types of carbohydrates which give ALL carbohydrates a bad name.  Clearly, the research shows that eating refined carbohydrates has severe metabolic consequences, and can result in excessive weight gain, autoimmunity, impaired cognition, insulin resistance, intestinal permeability and fatty liver.

But what about unrefined carbohydrates?  Do they pose the same threat? 

Unrefined Carbohydrates Explained

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Unrefined carbohydrates are derived from plant sources, and include fruits, vegetables, starchy tubers and legumes.  They are considered unrefined because they can be eaten in their natural state, and require minimal processing, if any at all.

Unrefined carbohydrates are powerful additions to your diet for many reasons, and much of their superior nutrition stems from the fact that they contain not only carbohydrates, but water, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.  The presence of these non-caloric nutrients drastically affects the speed at which they are digested and absorbed, resulting in a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream.  In addition, foods that are “starchy” contain long chain carbohydrates that require more time to break down than do short chain carbohydrates.  This is exactly why they are recommended for sustained energy throughout the day.

Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of both simple and complex carbohydrates, and provide ample glucose to aid restoring glycogen content.  Fruits and vegetables have a direct impact on muscle health, including:

-A high water content, to aid in glycogen resynthesis

-Bioavailable antioxidants, to aid in the clearance of free radicals formed in the mitochondria during aerobic exercise

-Essential vitamins and minerals, to aid in protein and DNA synthesis

-Small quantities of essential fatty acids (EFAs) with potent anti-inflammatory effects

Take Home Message

Simply stated, more glycogen means more energy throughout the day and more energy for exercise.  I’m always amazed at the tangible difference that eating more fresh fruits and vegetables can produce in as little as 1-2 weeks.  The difference is quite noticeable, and most people report that their energy levels are larger and more sustained.  If you’re a low-carb dieter and are looking for even more energy, try increasing your intake of unrefined carbohydrates and see the difference it makes.

FitStar Contributor Profile

Cyrus Khambatta

Cyrus is an avid athlete, personal trainer, nutrition coach and mango addict.  He holds a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from UC Berkeley, and is a nutrition and fitness coach for diabetics and the founder of Mangoman Nutrition and Fitness

Image Credits: Apple Bread / Potatoes


  • Matheus Felipe

    Hi Cyrus, what’s on your opinion on whole wheat breads for sustained carb ingestion throughout the day?

    It’s processed when you think it really came from an industry and whatnot, but supposedly it contains unrefined carbs such as the whole grains and wheat in the bread.


    • Jack

      No whole wheat bread also falls in category of refined carbs as the wheat dough is fermented and then baked

  • mjp240

    Hi Cyrus, I just came across your article, with my mom passing this along to me. I have been Paleo for a little bit over 4 years and have been in the best shape of my life. Blood work has been off the chart good, along with the highest HDL levels I have ever had in my life, with a level last year of close to 100mg/dL. You mention how diets like this are carb-restricted, when in fact Paleo is not. A crucial huge part of Paleo is to eat much more vegetables and fruits than before, since you are missing the high amount of calories you get from refined products like breads, cereals, sugary processed food, etc. Part of some of my post workout meals have been super carb high veggies, like sweet potatoes drizzled with grade B maple syrup or carrot banana almond flour muffins, which are also high in unrefined carbs. I understand the importance of carbs in your diet. And there is even varying degrees of agreement, even within the Paleo community, on what and how much carbs you should have. Some purists say little to no carbs, even saying to not eat fruit or very little. Others allow the other end of the spectrum, with fruit and veggies being a huge part of the meals. I don’t think a blanket statement of yours, labeling Paleo as carb restricted is an accurate statement. It is definitely not Atikins or South Beach. Removing all labels of “diets”, when you look at Paleo, to me when you say “Let’s eat lean proteins like fish, chicken, turkey, with the occasional red meat thrown in, load up big time on veggies, along with fruit and only use healthy oils, like avocado, coconut, and olive oil”, what’s not healthy about that? Thanks, Matt

  • Pj

    I’m sorry, but I disagree with a lot of this. If it were as simple as refined carbs cause weight gain, then why does South east asia and the Mediterranean diet consumers have the lowest rate of obesity, even though their diets are based on refined carbs?

    There’s nothing wrong with eating refined complex carbs (rice, doughs, pastas and oats etc), they’re good for you, especially if you are exercising a lot.

    The problem is with simple carbs, that’s carbs that comes from mainly sweet, processed foods like cakes, biscuits/cookies, soda etc. it’s these types of carbs that cause weight gain, becuase the body can break them down so quickly, you soon become hungry again.

  • Aric Qii

    Was your PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry? Because your disagreeing on what format? A LIVE STRONG article? Your personal experience? Comment warriors always crack me up.

  • Aric Qii

    Great article Doc!