Paleo Chicken Sweet Potato Frittata is one of my favorite post-workout foods because it’s 1) packed with protein and 2) totally portable. In fact, it’s totally representative of the tasty post-workout bites in my upcoming cookbook, The Performance Paleo Cookbook! (It comes out in just a little over a month, and it’s still on pre-order for 25 off!)
My pal Jesse from Whitford Foundry came down to the house today to film a video teaser for the cookbook, and I needed to whip something up as my “prep at home, take to the gym” dish. This fit the bill perfectly.
Normally, I like to keep post-workout food pretty low in fat—which slows digestion—but eggs are a great tradeoff for busy folks. The lean chicken bumps up the protein content, and I added sweet potato for a good carb boost.
Serves 6 to 8
Ingredients for Paleo Chicken Sweet Potato Frittata
1 large roasted sweet potato, cooled and roughly chopped*
12 oz (340 g) lean ground chicken
1 medium onion, diced
1 small head broccoli, stem removed, chopped small
Directions for Paleo Chicken Sweet Potato Frittata
Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).
In a large bowl, beat the eggs together with the smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Mix in the chopped sweet potato. Set aside.
In a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, add the coconut oil. Then, sauté the chicken until it’s cooked through, about 4 minutes. Remove to a separate bowl.
In the same skillet, add the onion and broccoli and sauté on medium heat until they are softened and slightly tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Now, add the cooked chicken back to the pan.
Pour the egg mixture into the skillet. Turn off the heat and stir the ingredients to combine.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the eggs are set and not runny.
Serve directly from the skillet or slice and store for leftovers.
*My weekly big food prep involves roasting half a dozen sweet potatoes. I line a baking sheet with foil, place the washed and unpeeled sweet potatoes on it, and get that into a 400°F (204°C) oven for about 45 minutes. I cool them, then store them in the fridge. When it’s time to use them, I just peel them! (The peels loosen right up after they cool.)
Remember to check out my cookbook! It comes out on January 6th!
For the purpose of Adam’s question, I’m going to simplify this discussion. You can really go crazy with PubMed and Google Scholar, digging into the primary literature about pre-, intra-, and post-workout nutrition. My aim here is to provide a summary of the most salient points.
Eating protein and carbohydrate after training serves two main purposes. First, consuming protein means you’re supplying the necessary amino acids for repairing muscle (via a process called muscle protein synthesis). After muscle is worked in training, microtraumas must be repaired. Protein that is dense in the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) is preferred, and that looks like meat, seafood, eggs and for some people, whey protein. (Click here to read my stance on whey.) For a complete list of BCAA-rich proteins that are compatible with a Paleo approach, click here.
Second, eating carbohydrate in an insulin-sensitive state helps replenish your main glycogen (stored glucose) tank: muscle. A smaller amount of glycogen is also stored in the liver but is not the primary source tapped into when you train hard. Consuming a carbohydrate that is rich in glucose after training is important, especially when said training is intense and / or long. What does that type of carbohydrate look like? Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes (click here to read my stance on white potatoes), plantains and yuca provide the most nutrient bangfor the carbohydrate buck. For a complete list of carbohydrates that are compatible with a Paleo approach, click here.
It’s worth mentioning here that post-workout meals are best when they don’t contain fat (or contain very little). Why? Fat causes the stomach to empty slower which is counter to the point of the post-workout refuel. Save the fat for your three square meals a day.
How soon should you eat protein and carbs after your workout is over? That’ll be covered in the next section.
The Issue of Frequency
So, we’ve established that consuming protein and carbohydrate post-workout is important for recovery. But how soon after training do you need to eat it? Is there ever a time when you don’t need to eat post-workout?
When trying to help individuals determine if eating a post-workout meal is right for them, I always come back to this one factor: frequency. How often are you training and more critically, how much time do you have between training sessions?
Let’s compare two hypotheticals.
Adam trains 3 times a week (MWF) at CrossFit and hikes once a week, typically on Sunday. In Adam’s case, he has a full day to recover and refuel between each training session. Even though his intensity is high on MWF, he has time to replenish with regular meals. His Sunday hike, while it goes for a couple hours, is low on the intensity scale. Unless Adam is trying to aggressively gain mass, it’s unlikely that he will suffer from lack of a post-workout meal.
Contrast that to Lauren who trains 6 times a week (Tu-Sun). She’s a competitive cyclist who includes long rides on the weekends and interval training during the week. Also, two days a week she strength trains then goes for a ride, including intervals. On Fridays, she trains in the afternoon after work, and Saturday morning is a long ride with her club team. She takes Mondays off. Lauren is training far more frequently than Adam. She’s working out on back to back days, doing some double sessions, and including intensity in her training. Someone like Lauren would be wise to eat a post-workout meal not only from a caloric standpoint, but also to provide the substrate for recovery. Specifically, her Friday night post-workout refuel is really important because she’s got less than 12 hours between sessions.
It’s worth mentioning that Adam, while he trains, is not really interested in being a competitive athlete. Yes, he wants to improve his lifts and his benchmark workouts, but CrossFit for him is fun and a way to stay active. He’s not really driven by performance. Lauren, on the other hand, is training for some large national-level races and has specific performance goals. It’s an important distinction to make, because, as a performance-driven athlete, Lauren really needs to pay attention to her post-workout nutrition, sleep and recovery practices more than Adam.
To summarize, the more frequently you train (especially if those sessions include intensity and / or are back to back), the more important it is to eat a post-workout meal. And, when you’re training the next day, it’s generally best to eat a post-workout meal.
When and What to Eat Post-Workout?
If eating a post-workout meal (because you’re training frequently and performance is a priority), eat as soon as possible once training is over. If the workout was particularly intense and you’re drooling and sweating all over yourself, let your body relax a bit and get closer to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state before trying to shove some food in your mouth. For most folks, 15-30 minutes after the workout ends is a good window, though some sources will say 15-60 minutes.
I don’t think it’s worth arguing about 30 minutes, but I will caution you against the following: You’re training like Lauren and waiting a few hours to eat anything. Remember, her schedule includes a high frequency of training. Getting nutrients in as soon as possible is her best bet.
What to eat is relatively simple: something with protein and carbohydrate. The options here depend a LOT on your lifestyle, time demands, food tolerances and personal preferences. Some people like leftover meat and sweet potatoes. Some people lean toward protein shakes with added carbohydrate for convenience. (Remember, supplements are not nutritionally superior to real food.) If you are trying to lean out a bit, I recommend avoiding liquid foods like protein shakes and sticking to solid foods.
The best way to find what works for you is to test it out and make some notes in your training log about what you ate, when you ate it, and what your recovery and performance are like. Click here for a list of protein and here for a list of carbs to get started. Shameless plug: My ebook The Paleo Athlete goes into a lot more detail about how much to eat (and the theory behind all this), and my upcoming cookbook has 100 recipes specifically for performance-minded folks (and it’s on early bird sale pricing from Amazon and Barnes and Noble right now).
How much to eat varies a lot and depends largely on things like body size and activity level. Click here to see some fueling tables, but please know that you’ll need to test things out. There’s no way I can possibly give specific recommendations for as wide and varied a readership as I have because I don’t know the details of your training and life. My best advice is to start with a modest amount of protein and carbs and track your recovery and performance data. Write down how much you ate (roughly, don’t be a crazy person carrying around a food scale) and when. Write down how you felt in training, if you felt recovered, etc. If you notice that over time you’re not performing well, it may be time to bump up your post-workout protein and / or carbohydrate.
For example, I might eat a chicken breast and half a sweet potato about 30 minutes after I train. If I do this for a couple weeks and notice that I feel really sluggish, sore and generally not recovered, I might bump it to a whole sweet potato. Then, I’ll stick to that for a couple weeks and note any changes.
Hopefully this has given you the tools to evaluate whether or not a post-workout meal is necessary for you.
Plantain Protein Pancakes are a great way to get some more good carbs into your post-workout recovery window.
I created this recipe specifically for Breaking Muscle, so head on over there to check out the ingredients and the directions! (For 10% off my favorite brand of protein, Stronger Faster Healthier, use the code SEPaleo on check out!)
Gelatin is not a good protein choice for post-workout recovery.
Now, let me note, gelatin is great for some things (click here to read), but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: bloggers recommending gelatin as the sole source of post-workout protein. This is not only misguided, it’s just straight up wrong. Yes, gelatin has amino acids, but when you look closely, there are some reasons it can’t substitute as a proper protein source for post-workout recovery.
What’s the Issue?
Gelatin is a type of protein obtained from animal connective tissue and is rich in collagen. You know how when you cook a chicken and refrigerate it in the pan and there are jiggly meat juices at the bottom? That’s because of gelatin.
It’s got lots of two amino acids—protein building blocks—called proline and glycine. Keep those two names in mind for a moment. These amino acids are considered non-essential which means our bodies can manufacture their own supply. Adding gelatin to your diet—be it through bone broth or gelatin supplements—can certainly have benefit to the digestive system and to your joints (click here to read more), but it’s relatively useless at building muscle tissue because it’s so low in branched chain amino acids.
And that is a problem.
Building Muscle is the Name of the Game
When you train, you incur microscopic damage to muscle tissue, and the goal of protein intake in your post-workout nutrition (and frankly, the rest of your diet) is to provide substrate to begin the rebuilding it. If you want to be fancy, this process is called muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Here’s the rub: The high proline and glycine content found in gelatin are not helpful for MPS.
Rather, a special subcategory of amino acids called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the ones most important to MPS. Leucine, valine and isoleucine are the three BCAAs—so termed because of their non-linear structure, and they’re found in most abundance in animal protein sources. One other key: The BCAAs are essential which means they can’t be directly manufactured by the body, unlike proline and glycine.
Putting It All Together
To maximize muscle repair and growth—important processes for all athletes regardless of sport—adequate intake of nutrient-dense dietary protein from animal sources provides the best bank of the amino acids needed for these mechanisms.
Yes, you can get protein from plants but it’s far less dense and you’d have to eat far more food volume to get enough. Not to mention, plant sources of protein lack B vitamins and other critical nutrients that are readily available in animal sources.
Gelatin, while it is rich in amino acids, does not contain the ones needed to build and repair muscle, and athletes need to make wise choices in the post-workout window; eating gelatin instead of meat, eggs, seafood or even a supplement such as whey protein is not one of them.
Paleo Zucchini Frittata is one of my favorite make-ahead breakfasts, perfect for busy folks and athletes. You can make up a batch ahead of time, slice it when it cools and take it with you for post-workout or just along for the ride to work.
I created this recipe specifically for Breaking Muscle, so head on over there to check out the ingredients and get one of these beauties baking in your oven today!
When I competed on the team at the 2013 CrossFit SoCal Regionals, we had tubs full of mashed sweet potato with applesauce at the ready as one of our post-workout carb refeed options.
You can mix the sweet potato and applesauce in any ratio you want, but I’d do just a little bit of applesauce for flavor—a 4:1 ratio of potato to apple would be great—and to lighten the texture of what could otherwise be a very dense mash. For more awesome carb-dense recipes for athletes, check out my cookbook, The Performance Paleo Cookbook!
Ingredients for Sweet Potato Applesauce Mash
2 pounds (1000 grams) sweet potato
1/2 pound (225 grams) apples or 1 cup unsweetened store-bought applesauce
Roast the sweet potatoes for about an hour. Let them cool.
If you’re making the applesauce from scratch, do this while the sweet potatoes are roasting. Peel and dice the apples. Put into a small pot with a 2–3 tablespoons of water and cover with a lid. Cook over medium-low heat until the apples are very soft. Remove the lid and cook until most of the water has evaporated.
Peel the skins off the sweet potatoes. Combine with the applesauce in a large bowl and mash with a hand masher until it’s to your desired consistency, or use a food processor.
Kinda reminds me of these guys (I’ve just dated myself).
Perhaps one of the most common questions I get from athletes is whether or not they can use whey protein if they’re Paleo. It’s used by so many people for training and competition, and it’s heavily marketed to athletes for recovery. Why is it such a darling? It’s relatively cheap, digests fast and is convenient.
Let’s explore this question because the answer isn’t purely cut and dry.
The short answer: no.
The long answer: it totally depends on your context whether or not it could be part of YOUR Paleo.
First, we’ll deal with the arguments against and then, the arguments for.
Is Whey Protein Paleo? Argument #1:
Whey protein isn’t Paleo because it’s a dairy product.
If we want to be dogmatic about it then yes, whey protein isn’t Paleo because it’s an isolated fraction from cow’s milk.
Milk is a complex brew of protein, fat, sugars and growth factors. After all, milk exists in nature to make baby mammals grow…fast. The protein components are many, but the two most well known are casein and whey. Casein is slower digesting while whey protein is broken down faster in the gut (part of the reason it’s used by athletes for recovery nutrition).
Folks with lactose intolerance sometimes don’t react to whey protein like they would to something like milk. Why? Most whey protein supplements are isolates, meaning they’ve been separated out from the rest of the milk components.
Even so, if you are strict Paleo, whey protein may not pass your test simply because it’s a component of dairy (even though the casein, lactose and other components have been stripped away).
Is Whey Protein Paleo? Argument #2:
Whey protein isn’t Paleo because it’s processed.
If you’re doing your best to avoid processed foods, then whey protein is probably off the list.
As described above, milk must be processed and treated to obtain the isolated whey component. Then, it’s usually sweetened (even with “natural” sweeteners like stevia) and may have other stabilizers or preservatives added.
Is whey protein even food? I’d argue no. It’s a component of food. A macromolecule if you will, consumed in isolation and devoid of the rest of the package it naturally comes with.
You can’t get anything from whey protein isolates that you can’t get from real food (read: meat).
Is Whey Protein Paleo? Argument #3:
Whey protein isn’t Paleo because most brands are made from low quality milk.
If you define your Paleo on a food quality basis, it’s easy to get confused here.
Some companies, including the brand of whey I use (when I use it) advertise that the cows their whey comes from are grass-fed. Sounds great and appeals directly to the Paleo crowd, but let’s examine this for a second.
When cows are fed on grass, the real benefit is in the fat component of the dairy (or meat). Grass-fed cows produce more vitamin K2 in their milk, more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (reference) and a better ratio of anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids to pro-infammatory Omega-6 compared to their grain-fed counterparts (reference).
While that’s all well and good (and one reason I only eat grass-fed butter or ghee…go Kerrygold!) guess what? Whey protein is virtually fat free. That’s right. You get little direct nutritional benefit from buying a pricier grass-fed whey protein isolate.
Now, is there indirect benefit? I’d argue yes. If you are concerned about how the animals that produce your whey protein are raised or you want to invest your money in a smaller company that aligns to your personal philosophies, that’s perfectly fine. But grass-fed whey really holds no superiority from a protein perspective.
Is Whey Protein Paleo? Argument #4:
Whey protein is okay for Paleo athletes because nutrient timing matters.
Yes. Nutrient timing matters when you’re training hard. The demands some athletes place on ourselves is very high with back to back to back training sessions on consecutive days and (relatively) little rest. If your athletic goals are great and you’re asking superhuman things of yourself with the amount of beatdown you’re giving yourself, getting recovery started ASAP after your training session is critical.
This means a solid post-workout refeed of protein and carbs is critical for most athletes. You’ll also generally need more calories / energy than someone who is sedentary. Want to gain muscle mass? That’s right. You’ll need to take in more protein than someone just wanting to maintain theirs.
As a result, many athletes who are otherwise “Paleo” take whey protein because it’s faster digesting than a chunk of meat, releasing amino acids into the bloodstream quickly and making them available for muscle protein synthesis (reference). On the other hand, does spiking the concentration of amino acids quickly (which then falls quickly as it’s used for substrate), provide as much benefit as a slower-digesting protein (which then provides substrates for muscle protein synthesis for more hours to come)?
Drinking your protein (or calories for that matter) is also easier than physically chewing them so folks trying to mass gain or take down more calories may find whey protein shakes easier to handle. I regularly eat 1 gram protein per pound of bodyweight and even that is not an easy task for me. [Side note: this is why I often discourage people from taking in liquid foods if they’re trying to lose fat or improve body composition.]
Is Whey Protein Paleo? Argument #5: Using whey protein doesn’t make you “not Paleo.” It just means you’re using whey protein.
When you’re first starting out eating Paleo, you really need to do thirty days of strict eating to figure out what (if any) sensitivities you have to different foods (I recommend something like a Whole30). If not, you’ll never know. To this end, many Paleo books and websites advocate a hard-line, strict approach, even eschewing basic things like salt. Pretty extreme. Others are really liberal…cakes and cookies for days.
Why do strict Paleo advocates give whey protein a red light? It 1) isn’t a whole food; 2) isn’t as nutritious as whole food; and 3) may cause reactions in folks who are sensitive to dairy. It’s not because they want to be jerks or go against conventional wisdom.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what’s right for you based on your goals and context and if it fits into your version of Paleo or not. If you end up using whey protein, that’s your decision. You haven’t “failed at Paleo” or upset any imaginary Paleo gods. And as far as the Paleo police, you know how I feel about that.
If you’re trying to lose fat or not trying to gain muscle, my general advice is that you don’t need whey protein shakes. In fact, nobody needs whey protein. Period. It’s a factor of convenience, really.
What about me? Have I used whey protein?
Yes, at different points in my training I have used whey protein for convenience’s sake. When I was training for CrossFit Regionals, hitting demanding workouts 5 days a week, I routinely used it. I definitely had a bit more muscle mass (maybe the whey protein helped?) than I do now, but I’m also not in competition season now. The photo below is me competing in May 2013…my peak event for the year (admittedly, I look pretty jacked). I also knew full well that there isn’t anything in whey protein that food can’t supply.
Right now, I’ve switched gears to include more weightlifting and less CrossFit and while I continue to build strength, I don’t feel I need whey protein as my training demands aren’t the same as they were back then. In October, I wanted to see if I could PR my back squat while taking no protein supplements. On a three week Smolov Jr. program plus only whole foods, I put 4 kg on my all-time one-rep max, ending up with a 130 kg back squat.
You don’t need whey to get strong. You can get all your nutrition from real, whole foods. If you’re not an athlete, I strongly recommend against it.
If whey fits your athletic goals, you may decide to use it…even if you’re Paleo in all other aspects. Know why you’d use it. After all, knowledge is power.
Like what you’ve read? Sign up below to get a free chapter from my upcoming ebook, The Paleo Athlete.
If you’re a Paleo athlete, you need to replace carbs post-workout for good performance in the long run. And no, I’m not talking about a tray of coconut honey-caramel chocolate-drizzled Paleo pizookies after each workout.
If you’re already well-versed in carbology (I made that word up), feel free to skip down to the lip-smacking recipes below. If not, keep reading for a short primer on carbs.
[*Note, folks who are interested in fat loss or are more sedentary likely don’t need as many carbs those who are physically active people or athletes. However, you may need to play around with your carb intake to dial it in for your activity level.]
Athletes doing endurance-based or glycogen-depleting high-intensity workouts (like CrossFit, kettlebells, HIIT, etc), are prone to going too low carb because they forget to refuel with carbs post-workout (or they think Paleo is supposed to be no / low carb for everyone). If you’re a power athlete, you may want to play around with carb-cycling as another means of getting your glycogen refuel.
But how many carbs do I need? This will vary depending on many factors, so the best answer is to experiment. A very broad guideline for athletes is 50-100g in the post-workout window (ideally as soon as possible after the workout’s over).
The best source of carbs? Starchy veggies like sweet potato / yams, winter squash like butternut, root veggies like parsnips, etc are good options. This chart from Balanced Bites shows the carbohydrate content of several vegetables per 1 cup. The top 3 carb bang for the buck? Cassava (raw), plantain and sweet potato.
What about white potatoes? They tend to be vilified in Paleo, but when peeled (to avoid lectins and glycoalkaloids), they’re a great form of starch. If you have good body composition and are insulin-sensitive, you may want to try rotating them into your PWO refeed.
What about fruit? Starchy veggies contain, well, starch (chains of glucose) compared to fruit (the basic sugar of which is fructose). Glucose is more efficient at replacing the glycogen you’ve used up from your muscles during exercise. Fructose is preferentially broken used by the liver, not the muscles. Is this to say you can never, ever eat fruit? No, but it may be best to eat it post-workout, and it’s better to reach for a starchy veggie if you can.
What about safe starches like rice or tapioca? Rice is technically a grain (and therefore not “Paleo”) and while not perfect, for some folks is a decent alternative to rotate into their post-workout nutrition strategy. Tapioca is essentially starch (not a grain) so it would be Paleo and therefore acceptable. What’s not good about safe starches? They are pretty nutrient poor compared to equal volumes of their starchy veggie counterparts.
Notable comparisons (per 100 grams):
55 mg Sodium
337 mg Potassium
20 g Total Carbs
283% of daily value Vitamin A
4% of daily value Vitamin C
1 mg Sodium
35 mg Potassium
28 g Total Carbs
0% daily value Vitamin A
0% of daily value Vitamin C
I’ve collected 30 scrumptious recipes containing starchy veggie goodness into one place for you to browse and grouped them by the main veggie component.
You want to eat clean for maximum performance, but are you getting the right nutrition at the right time?
Figuring out when, what and how much to eat post-workout can get pretty confusing to say the least. Let’s talk timing first.
You should consume your post-workout (PWO) meal as soon as physically possible after you’ve finished training. Make sure you high five the rest of your workout crew and let your heart rate come down a bit first, but get your PWO nutrition going as soon as you can.
Bottom line: for best results, get your PWO meal in your belly no later than 15-30 minutes after your training’s done. Sure, you can lag and eat it later, but you won’t be taking advantage of that much talked about “window” when you’re most insulin-sensitive.
Now, what to eat.
Your PWO is best centered around protein and with carbs added in for high-intensity athletes (like CrossFitters) and endurance athletes. For power athletes, it may vary daily depending upon whether you’re cycling your carbs or not, and that’s something you’ll need to play with. Fat doesn’t belong in the PWO meal because it slows digestion which is counterproductive right after training.
Whole, lean sources of protein – think meat, fish and egg whites – are always better than protein supplements because they represent a more complete, nutrient-dense source. However, whey or egg white protein may be useful because of convenience. Test it out to see what you can tolerate or not.
For carbs, you’ll want to think about starchy veggies such as sweet potato or hard squash as your go-to source with fruit and other starches (think white rice, white potato or tapioca) as alternatives. Just a note: fruit contains the sugar fructose which preferentially replaces glycogen in the liver, NOT the muscles. Your muscle glycogen tank is empty after hard training. Fill it up! As far as other starches, my personal preference is to usually avoid them because they just aren’t as nutrient dense, but if you’ve got good body composition and are insulin-sensitive, they may be worth experimenting with.
And now how much. Quantities will vary depending on your size but a general recommendation is 50-100 grams of carbs and 30-60 grams of protein (~4-8 oz of lean meat).
Eat your PWO no later than 15-30 min after your training session.
PWO should contain protein and carbs (unless you’re a power athlete who is cycling carbs).
General guidelines are 50-100 grams of carbs; 30-60 grams of protein.
And one last thing, your post-workout meal is not a substitute for the next meal of the day!
NEW! Print out this handy PDF summary to hang on your fridge or post up in your gym.
One of my favorite things to do with leftover roasted sweet potato is to smash it and brown it in a pan with ghee. It gets all caramelly and crispy and drool-worthy. I wanted something different for breakfast today, so I smashed my sweet potato then loaded it with pan-fried eggs, leftover shredded kalua pork, buttery avocado and crispy homemade bacon bits. Get creative and use any leftover meat that you want! Is your mouth watering yet? [Hint: roast a bunch of sweet potatoes on a foil-lined sheet in a 400°F oven for about 45-60 min. Refrigerate. When cold, the skins come right off.]
Prep time: 5-10 min Cook time: 10 min Makes: 1 serving
Ingredients for Paleo Smashed & Loaded Sweet Potato
More on this to come soon, but here is a simple diagram to help you remember general fueling recommendations for pre- and post-workout nutrition.
In short, for a pre-workout meal, stick to protein and fat while the post-workout window – ideally within 15-30 min of finishing your training – should focus on protein and carbs. Both have protein in common. If you’re into performance, adequate protein is a must.