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Wait, Is Cottage Cheese the Ideal Post-Workout Food?

If you're looking for a post-workout protein boost, it could be time to add cottage cheese to your snack rotation.

By Michele RossOctober 6, 2023

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Of all things that could be trending on social media, cottage cheese—a popular food of yesteryear—is making the rounds as the latest dietary darling. Yet as is the case with any viral health trends, you should take all claims with a proverbial grain of salt and do the requisite fact-checking before diving in full speed ahead.

To discover if cottage cheese is actually as good for you as it’s cracked up to be—including if it’s worth prioritizing as a post-workout snack or meal—we tapped Brooklyn-based dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RD, for answers.

What Is Cottage Cheese & Is It Good for You?

Cottage cheese is a milky, rich, and soft white cheese made from cow milk curds. It’s also well-known for its texture, which the USDA lists should be “smooth and velvety” (and not “mealy, crumbly, pasty, sticky, mushy, watery, or slimy”) to be suitable for sale and consumption. (Good to know!)  Compared to many other types of cheese, it’s unique in that it’s sold fresh, rather than aged or pasteurized, and is relatively mild in flavor. But is cottage cheese good for you?

“Cottage cheese can be a very nutritious addition to your diet from both a macro- and micronutrient standpoint,” says Pasquariello. Keep reading to see why.

Benefits of Cottage Cheese

According to Pasquariello, a half-cup serving of full-fat cottage cheese packs around:

  • 110 calories

  • 14 grams of protein

  • 4.5 grams of total fat (about 3 grams of which are saturated fat)

  • 3 grams of carbohydrates

“If you opt for a low-fat version, you'll consume about 80 calories and 2.5 grams of total fat per half-cup serving (1.5 grams of which are saturated fat), still with 14 grams of protein and 3 grams of carbs,” Pasquariello notes. Either way, cottage cheese is a protein-rich food that's great for many people. “It provides a lot of bang for your buck in terms of the ratio of protein to total calories, without being a high source of fat or carbohydrates,” she adds.

The high protein content in cottage cheese is one of the main reasons it’s garnered such popularity.

For a quick recap, protein is crucial because:

  • It’s a building block of muscles, bones, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails

  • It helps build and repair tissue

  • It oxygenates red blood cells to nourish your body with nutrients

  • It helps regulate hormones

  • It supports the production of enzymes used to digest food and create new cells

Protein is also famed for its ability to complement workouts and fitness goals by:

  • Enhancing post-workout recovery

  • Building and maintaining lean muscle mass

  • Boosting endurance, anaerobic, and strength exercise

As far as micronutrients go, calcium is the star of the show: Each serving contains approximately 80 percent of the recommended daily value of the mineral. “Dietary calcium helps prevent calcium loss from bone and also plays a role in maintaining the health of the nervous, cardiovascular, and muscular systems, as well as in hormone health,” explains Pasquariello. In addition, cottage cheese offers around 180 milligrams of phosphorus per serving. It makes a solid dent in the 700-milligram recommended daily allowance of the mineral that’s needed to grow, maintain, and repair tissues and cells; to help produce DNA and RNA; as well as reduce post-workout muscle soreness.

While not a top source of iron, cottage cheese also contains some of this key mineral. “It's a fairly good source of iron (about 8 percent of your recommended daily value), which plays many roles in maintaining the health of the cardiovascular and immune systems; enhancing cognitive function; supporting skin, hair, and nail health; and more,” Pasquariello explains.

Among other micronutrients, cottage cheese is also a source of vitamin A (important for good vision, immune health, and more) and B vitamins (important in assisting enzymes to release energy from carbs and fat, breaking down amino acids, and moving oxygen and nutrients throughout the body).

Additional benefits of cottage cheese include:

  • Gut-friendly perks, courtesy of active probiotic cultures

  • Its ability to promote satiety (similar in scope to eggs), thus helping to curb cravings

Adding Cottage Cheese Into Your Diet

Cottage cheese can very well be a healthy addition to your diet, so long as it fits a few criteria. To start, the USDA advises maintaining cottage cheese at a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Eat it only when it’s creamy and white, in addition to having uniformly sized curds and minimum excess cream (which should be thick and not watery).

How Much Cottage Cheese Should You Eat a Day?

Whether as a pre- or post-workout snack or meal, a single serving of cottage cheese usually equates to a half-cup. “This is the amount I'd recommend folks stick to in order to get optimal benefits, especially if you're introducing this food for the first time,” Pasquariello shares. (Stay tuned, as we’ll soon explain why it’s best to not exceed this amount)

To include cottage cheese as part of a larger, balanced meal, Pasquariello recommends pairing it alongside:

  • A starch

  • A fruit or vegetable (ideally one offering vitamin C, which research shows can help improve iron absorption)

  • An additional source of healthy fat, such as avocado or olive oil

  • An additional source of protein

On this last point, although cottage cheese is a good source of protein on its own, many individuals—especially those who are physically active—will want to hit up to 25 grams of protein per meal. (Research suggests that muscle protein synthesis maxes out at 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. In other words, you won’t “cheat the system” for muscle gains by going well beyond that in one sitting.) Moreover, the recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of the macro per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound, each day. An additional protein source for a meal with cottage cheese will be ideal to ensure you hit these targets.

Cottage Cheese as a Post-Workout Snack

If you’re looking for the perfect post-workout snack, Pasquariello gives the cottage cheese the green light to add to your lineup. “When recovering from a workout, research suggests the importance of replenishing your nutrient stores with a source of protein and carbohydrates,” she shares. “Cottage cheese can be a great addition to your post-workout meal, helping enhance muscle repair thanks to its protein content.”

With that said, cottage cheese is pretty low on the carb count, so you’ll likely want to pair it with another food to boost your intake of that macro. “If consuming cottage cheese as a post-workout snack, I'd recommend pairing it with a piece of fruit and some toast to add some extra carbs and micronutrients, keeping you satiated for longer,” she continues.

Pasquariello is careful to share another caveat. While the aforementioned serving size and sample menu of cottage cheese comprise a loose guideline, a range of personal factors will impact how well you recover from a workout and what foods (and amounts) will be best for your needs. (For instance, the dietary needs of pro athletes will differ from individuals who prefer Pilates, yoga, or cycling to stay active—all of which, by the way, you can enjoy with the Peloton App.) Pasquariello says that these factors include but aren’t limited to:

  • The type and length of your workout

  • Your overall diet

  • What you ate before your workout

Speaking of what you eat before a workout, the dietitian says that cottage cheese can also be a worthy option. “Generally speaking, a pre-workout snack or meal should also include some form of protein as well as easily digestible carbohydrates, making cottage cheese—perhaps paired with some fruit or a piece of toast for extra carbs—a great choice.”

Moreover, she suggests opting for this snack about an hour before kicking off your sweat sesh. If you’re integrating cottage cheese into a larger meal, however, it’s better to wait 2 to 3 hours before working out. This extra buffer room will ensure that your body has enough time to start the digestive process (and fuel your muscles), as well as sidestep potential discomfort like cramps or sluggishness.

Potential Drawbacks and Considerations

As with many foods, nothing is perfect, and cottage cheese is no different. Pasquariello explains that cottage cheese is relatively low in lactose (about 2.5 grams per serving), so it’s on the “safer” end of cheese if you have mild difficulty digesting lactose. As much as 70 percent of adults globally have some degree of lactose sensitivity, yet a 2017 meta-analysis shows that most people may be able to tolerate up to 12 grams in one sitting or 18 grams daily. “Of course, those with a high sensitivity or allergy to dairy will still want to avoid it,” she cautions.

In addition, it’s important to be aware of the sodium content. “Store-bought cottage cheese can be somewhat high in sodium (around 400 to 500 milligrams per serving), so this is something to be mindful of if you double the serving size.” As a reminder, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans caps sodium intake at 2,300 milligrams (or 1 teaspoon) per day… and most people in the United States adhere to a diet that far exceeds this upper limit. Individuals with certain health issues—including high blood pressure, heart problems, and kidney problems—should stick to a low-sodium diet and thus be extra cautious of how much cottage cheese they eat daily.

Finally, although the dated myth that “all fat is bad” has fortunately been debunked since its heyday a few decades back, it’s still essential to keep tabs on your intake. Since saturated fat—which cottage cheese packs at 3 grams per serving—can increase total cholesterol and more harmful LDL cholesterol, experts suggest keeping your dietary intake of saturated fat to under 10 percent of your calories per day. If your cholesterol or heart health is a concern, you may want to eat cottage cheese in a smaller serving size or on occasion. As an alternative, you can also consider opting for low-fat versions of the trending post-workout food.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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