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The science of muscle recovery

Hitting the gym or putting in a home workout sesh using a YouTube video to guide you is just half the battle. What’s as important is what comes right after. The food and drink you consume post your sweat sesh can actually make all the difference when it comes to restoring energy, building muscle, burning fat, and basically not undoing the hard work you’ve done.

When you exercise, the proteins that make up your muscle fibres become damaged. These muscle fibres undergo microtears, leading to inflammation and soreness. This is a natural response as the body strives to adapt to the imposed stress. Recovery is the phase in which muscles repair and grow stronger. There are several things that can aid recovery – from a good night’s sleep to an ice bath to foam rolling to a massage. But at the core of it, adequate nutrition should be your top priority.

An important component of this post-workout recovery nutrition is protein. Research shows that consuming protein close to physical activity can stimulate muscle recovery. When you eat protein after exercise, it gives your muscles the amino acids necessary to repair and rebuild, and get you ready for your next workout.

High-quality food sources of protein include dairy, fish, meat, eggs, and soy. But sometimes, in our busy lives, we might not be able to get these natural sources of protein in adequate amounts at the right time. That’s where nutrition bars come to the rescue. They pack in the protein and other nutrition your body most likely needs, they’re potentially yummy, and they’re super easy to stash in your gym bag or office drawer. But don’t just go around picking the next nutrition bar you see. Here’s a guide to help you pick the right one:

But hang on for a moment, Why should I even be having a nutrition bar?

Because Indian diets largely revolve around grains and cereals, chances are, you too aren’t meeting your daily protein requirement as is. According to studies, 80 per cent of Indian diets are protein deficient whereas 90 per cent of the Indian population isn’t aware of their daily protein requirements. Ideally, you should be having approximately 1g of protein per kilo of your body weight. But if you’re into heavy workouts, these needs can increase too. Nutrition bars that explicitly promise a good percentage of protein can help you meet these goals in ways that are more sustainable. Other nutrition bars might have energy as their main offering (with high-energy ingredients) or promises of a bunch of good-for-you ingredients. Pick one that works for you based on your needs.

So, can I just pick up a nutrition bar?

Nuh-uh. If it’s the protein element you’re chasing after your workout because your diet might not get you enough of it, then go for those labelled as protein bars.

Watch out for those that might actually be sugar-loaded candies masquerading as healthy food. A good protein bar will be packed with a decent serving of protein (at least 10g), will be devoid of artificial or shady additives such as flavourings, sweeteners, and preservatives, and full of fibre. Look out for ones filled with ingredients like nuts or superfoods. They help you feel fuller for longer, and make the most of each bite.

When’s the best time to have them?

Research shows that eating a little protein before your workout helps but eating something right after (best combined with a carbohydrate) is a great idea too. Chomping on a protein bar within a 30-minute window is likely to help both replenish energy stores and rebuild muscle. A light protein snack before bed can be a great idea too. I always tell my clients that you should try to have small portions of protein in every meal and snack you consume instead of one big one.

But do I need one even if I don’t gym intensely?

Honestly, it’s a fallacy to think that protein or nutrition bars are only for the gym bros. We all need protein — they’re the building blocks of our body. What differs, however, is how much protein you need. A nutrition bar is not and should not step in for your meals, at least not often. That said, it’s great to have one handy when the snack attack comes raging, when you need a mid-morning/evening tidbit, something to round off your meal and if you’re working out, definitely to help you make the most of it.

(Gayatri Chona, is a Nutritionist and Wellness Coach, Co-founder of PHAB)

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