Starting an exercise program means plenty of amazing benefits for the body—it can help you lose fat, increase your cardiovascular endurance, and help you manage stress.
At the same time, it can also lead to some pretty intense hunger. If you’ve ever come home from a fitness class or a long run ready to devour everything in the kitchen, you know what I mean. But this hunger that often follows an intense workout can lead to overeating, sabotaging your fat loss efforts if you’re not careful.
Why Post-Workout Hunger Happens
Although it doesn’t always feel like it, hunger is actually a good thing. Hunger sends signals to the brain that the body needs energy through the “hunger hormones” ghrelin and leptin.
Although it has a number of uses, ghrelin is the hormone produced by the stomach to stimulate appetite and increase food intake. Leptin has the opposite effect, decreasing the appetite when you eat.
While some studies show that appetite may be suppressed immediately after intense exercise, eventually the body releases ghrelin in order to replenish energy levels and provide the nutrients needed to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. This is especially true if you exercise at a high intensity and burn more energy.
Newbies vs Veterans
The intensity of your hunger also depends on whether you’re a beginning exerciser or you’ve been working out for a while. If you’re just starting an exercise program, the body isn’t sure what to expect and the hunger will probably be more noticeable.
That doesn’t mean that seasoned exercisers are off the hunger hook. If you start increasing the intensity of your workouts (say, training for a marathon or triathlon), the same principle applies.
Fortunately, the hunger pangs will decrease in intensity if you stay the course.
But What If I Want to Lose Weight?
If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, exercise can actually present a challenge. Oftentimes, we give ourselves permission to eat more because we overestimate the number of calories we burned. This is often the culprit for many people who complain they aren’t losing weight from exercise.
How Much More Should You Eat After Working Out?
Unless you’re exercising vigorously for more than an hour, you likely won’t need to eat more to compensate. When it comes to replenishing energy after working out, a little goes a long way.
If you’re a beginning jogger and you run a mile, for example, you’ll burn an average of 100 calories—the equivalent of 14 almonds. Or, 30 minutes on a stationary bike at a moderate pace burns a little over 200 calories—the amount in an apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Post Workout Fuel
That doesn’t mean you need to go hungry after a workout. The key is to make wiser decisions and eat better foods. Rather than stopping for fast food or making a quick processed meal like mac n cheese, opt for whole foods that include complex carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables.
How to Manage Hunger After Exercise
Exercising doesn’t have to mean you have to go hungry, even when fat loss is the goal.
Don’t work out on an empty stomach
This is especially true if you’re a beginner. Remember, beginners are prone to more intense hunger post-exercise. Not only that, but your performance may suffer as a result of insufficient energy (i.e., food).
If you’ll be doing a light exercise, like walking or jogging at an easy pace for a short distance, drink some water beforehand and keep a water bottle handy as you exercise. It will keep you hydrated (also very important!) while helping ward off hunger.
Skip the shakes
Post workout shakes may be all the rage, but if you’re trying to squelch hunger, it’s better to chew your post-workout meal. When you chew your food, it takes you longer to eat and also takes longer to digest than a smoothie or shake. Liquids like these may leave you hungry shortly after which can lead to overeating.
“But wait!” you might be thinking. “Don’t I need to get protein in me immediately after I work out?” Unless you’re already an advanced exerciser and want to take your training to the next level, or you’re on a muscle-building program, the amount of protein you consume post-workout (ideally at least 25-30 grams) is more important than when you consume it.
Keep high protein/ high fiber snacks on hand
Have you ever noticed the hungrier you are, the more you eat? By keeping snacks high in protein and fiber on hand, you’re less likely to overeat or make unhealthy choices.
Some good examples of post-workout snacks are whole foods like almonds, Greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, or an apple with almond butter. Better yet, you can make your own healthy snacks like these Muscle Bites.
Avoid snacks that are high in sugar and refined carbs, like granola bars with added sugar, chips, and high calorie smoothies. These foods aren’t filling and may even make you hungrier thanks to blood sugar spikes.
Eat enough protein throughout the day.
You can fight hunger before and after your workout by making sure you’re eating enough protein throughout the day. Remember the ghrelin we talked about earlier? Protein has been shown in studies to reduce the production of ghrelin, so you don’t feel as hungry.
Lean protein such as egg whites and rice protein powder, also increase satiety, helping you feel full throughout the day. In one study of overweight women, those who increased their protein intake to 30% of their calories actually ate 441 fewer calories each day.
While you should aim for at least 25-30 grams of lean protein at each meal, this calculator will help you estimate how much total protein you need each day, especially if you’re just starting an exercise program.
Eat high quality foods.
Protein is important, but it’s important to make it a part of healthy, balanced meals. These meals should include complex carbs like sweet potatoes or whole grains; healthy fats from avocado, nut butters, or olive oil; and fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are particularly important, especially if weight loss is the goal. They’re low-calorie dense foods that are filled with water and fiber, to keep you full.
“Eat to run,” don’t “run to eat”
You may need to change your thinking when it comes to why you exercise. Using food as a “reward” for exercising makes you more likely to overeat or choose higher-calorie meals. By thinking of your food as fuel for a healthy body, it helps develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
Work out during the day
If possible, exercise during the day rather than before bed, especially if your workouts are intense. This allows you to replenish your energy throughout the day rather than before bed. If you do exercise at night, try eating a balanced meal at least an hour before your workout, and save a high-protein snack for after your workout.
Don’t mistake hunger for thirst
If you’re not drinking enough water, you’re at risk for dehydration, which the body can misinterpret for hunger. If you feel hungry, drink a glass of water first. If you’re still hungry 15 minutes later, go ahead and eat a healthy snack.
If your new exercise program leaves you feeling famished, don’t give up. Keep hunger at bay and stay on track by planning healthy meals throughout the day and limiting post-workout foods to healthy, low calorie snacks.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Fact-checked and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian and Erik Bustillo, RD, CISSN, CPT