Do you ever find yourself fantasizing about food near the end or your workout? Or maybe you finish training and feel like nothing less than an entire chicken and a pizza will quench your voracious appetite.
Although an increase in appetite is not a universal response to exercise, it is extremely common in certain situations. The good news is there are steps you can take to outsmart hunger and stop overeating after your workout. This article will give you a quick rundown on the science of how exercise affects appetite and finish with 10 tips to outsmart your post-workout hunger.
Exercise & Hunger
For years sports scientists have surmised that appetite is suppressed in response to intense exercise such as sprint interval training. A 1994 study that found that subjects who included sprint interval training in an aerobic training protocol lost nine times more body fat than subjects who did aerobic training alone. Researchers thought it was possible that a reduction in energy intake in the sprint group may have contributed to the substantial fat loss.
Over the short term, such as a single workout, other studies support this, at least in men. When male subjects did intense interval training they consumed fewer calories in a post-workout meal and had lower levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. They also had elevated levels of lactate and glucose in their bloodstream, which have been shown to suppress appetite.
Other studies have replicated these findings in men, but the evidence is not as clear cut in women. In one trial, when appetite-related hormones were tested after exercise, women experienced higher ghrelin levels and higher “hunger” ratings, whereas men had lower ghrelin and significantly lower ratings for both “hunger” and “desire to eat.” Scientists concluded that compared to men, the women had altered energy regulating hormones, which would be expected to stimulate energy intake, suggesting that mechanisms to maintain body fat are more effective in women.
On the other hand, at least three studies show interval training can produce significant body fat loss in women, possibly due to the appetite suppressing effect of intense training. Self-report food journals that were taken during these studies don't show any change in calorie intake, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything because, food journals are notorious for being unreliable.
The probable answer is that appetite responses to exercise are individual rather than inherently gender based. Some people appear to “compensate” for exercise by replacing any calories burned during their workouts and in some unfortunate cases, eating more than they burned off.
This is one reason exercise is now being dubbed “useless” for fat loss by media outlets. The catch is that not everyone responds with an increased appetite. Fat loss typically varies widely across subjects. For example, in one recent 12-week trial, 55 women were dubbed “compensators” who gained body fat (an average of about a pound), whereas 26 women were classified as “non-compensators” who lost fat (an average of about 5 pounds, but a few lost as much as 25 pounds) over the course of the study.
For some reason, whether it’s increased post-workout hunger or an inclination to “reward” oneself, people eradicate the energy they burned training and gain fat over time. When you think about it makes sense: Have you ever indulged in a brownie or had an extra glass of wine after a tough workout, telling yourself “I earned it!”?
No need to feel guilty about it—research actually shows that it’s possible that exercise can trigger the release of chemical messages in the body that are involved in a “hedonic” response—that is, these neurotransmitters increase our “liking” and “wanting” for tasty, indulgent food. Particularly, people prefer high-fat, sweet foods, making it all the more likely they will overshoot their calories and gain fat over time.
What follows are ten tips you can use to keep your hunger in check and stop overeating after workouts.
#1: Workout Before A Main Meal
If you’re always hungry after exercise, having a main meal post-workout allows you to refuel without guilt. It also keeps you on track with healthy eating rather than letting your hunger nag at you until you cave and snack on something unhealthy.
#2: Get Extra Protein
Eating protein post-workout helps muscles recover by triggering protein synthesis but it also helps keep your appetite in check. In response to high-quality protein, the GI tract releases hormones that send an appetite-suppressing message to the brain. For this reason, any time you feel a craving coming on, choose a complete protein like a slice of turkey or steak, some salmon, or Greek yogurt. If you’re a vegan, lentils or beans are a good choice.
#3: Eat Healthy Carbs Post-Workout
The best time to eat carbs is after a workout because your cells are automatically more sensitive to insulin, which means calories will be stored as an energy source in muscle instead of as fat. Additionally, because carbs raise blood sugar, they signal the brain that energy stores are sufficient, which helps minimize appetite and keep you satisfied. Healthy carbs include foods in whole, unprocessed form such as starch (boiled grains, sweet potatoes), all vegetables, and fruit.
#4: Plan Ahead
An all too common scenario is that after your workout you aren’t immediately hungry. You forego eating, a few hours pass, and your appetite sneaks up on you. All rationality escapes you and you end up mowing down a pizza or inhaling five “protein” bars. Instead, always have a plan for a healthy meal post-workout, whether you eat out or bring a salad with leafy greens, steak, cashews, and avocado with you.
#5: Make Your Workout Fun
Studies show that when people exercise in order to lose weight they are much more likely to compensate and eat back the calories they burned during their workout than if they exercise for health, fun, or athletic gains. Take the focus off calories and fat loss by setting performance-related goals and remember that there is a laundry list of physical and mental health benefits you get from exercise including increased brain function, stronger bones, and less cancer risk!
#6: Don’t Train Fasted
Are you going into your workout with an empty stomach due to the fear that eating pre-workout just negates the calories you’d eat in a pre-workout meal? This is a bad choice. Working out on an empty stomach can lead to greater post exercise hunger. It backfires because you end up more ravenous after exercise.
Plus, studies show that your body conserves energy during training when you exercise fasted, lowering the amount of calories you expend. Have a meal of protein and healthy fat about an hour before your workout to curtail appetite and minimize protein breakdown.
#7: Use Whey Protein
Whey protein has the highest concentration of the amino acid leucine of all protein powders. Leucine signals the brain to release transmitters that blunt hunger and maintain satiety longer term. Whey also improves insulin sensitivity and has a beneficial effect on stress hormones, which are often associated with increased appetite and poorer food choices when elevated.
#8: Don’t Rely On An Activity Tracker
Just like the calorie counts on cardio machines, activity trackers are surprisingly bad at estimating energy expenditure, misreporting calorie burn by as much as 25 percent. Relying on trackers sets you up to overshoot your calories and it fuels the unhealthy habit of exercising to eat. It also makes it more likely hunger will be dictated by numbers rather than physiological responses that help regulate energy levels in your body.
#9: Understand Your Hunger
If you’ve eaten a healthy post-workout meal and still feel hungry, take a moment to analyze your hunger. Have you supplied yourself with sufficient calories and a balanced array of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) to fulfill your needs? If so, are you inclined to reward yourself because after all, you got out there and got it done. You burned off these calories so you deserve a dietary break, right?
Or maybe you haven’t established a set eating schedule and you don’t know when your next meal will be coming. Dig deep and question your hunger. Take a brief meditation break to see if your appetite can settle, and if you’ve still got that gnawing need for food, have some more protein or healthy fat and monitor whether your actually hungry.
#10: Refuel During Extra Long Training Sessions
We don’t recommend long training sessions that last much more than an hour because training quality is reduced and stress hormones are elevated. But if you’re preparing for a long-distance endurance event or are practicing for a team sport, long workouts may be necessary. For workouts over 90 minutes, refueling with a mixture of protein and high-quality carbs can provide your body with the fuel it needs to avoid out-of-control hunger in the post-workout period.