Everyone is familiar with the idea of “working up an appetite”, but have you considered what this may mean in terms of fitness and weight loss? Will a hard morning workout cause you to eat more throughout the day and consume more calories than you burned? Does it even matter how much you eat as long as you get enough exercise? Let’s dive in and take a look.
When you exercise, you burn calories. Afterward, your body wants to replenish that energy by consuming more food and nutrients. This is essential for proper recovery, but it can easily be taken overboard. The motivation behind compensatory eating comes in two forms:
- The emotional response that you’re entitled to eat more because you just burned a bunch of calories while exercising.
- Actual physical hunger due to the calorie deficit and increased metabolism after your workout.
A highly-publicized 2009 article in TIME Magazine titled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” made the claim that exercise doesn’t really matter for weight loss because the subsequent hunger will cause you to eat back all the calories you burned during your workout. Some research has come to the same conclusion—showing insignificant weight loss differences between groups that did not exercise and those that did.
Other studies have shown results that go against this theory of excessive compensatory eating. A 2012 study at Brigham Young University looked at the brain activity of female volunteers and found decreased interest in food after exercise. Similarly, most long-term studies on weight loss have found that the people who are able to effectively lose weight and keep it off are the ones who exercise consistently.
Adding to the confusion, some research has shown that even thinking about physical exertion can cause people to eat more. At the same time, other studies have shown a great deal of individual variability when it comes to hunger after exercise.
Anecdotally, we’re all aware that exercise may make you hungry, but it’s still unclear how much of this is an unavoidable physiological response and how much is simply psychological and emotional. Given the conflicting evidence, what should we conclude about the relationship between exercise, hunger, and weight loss? Here are my takeaways and recommendations:
- Exercise will likely increase your appetite to some degree. This will vary from person to person and also depend on the type of exercise you do.
- Those who exercise consistently are more successful with long-term weight loss. Physical activity has a number of positive physical and emotional effects that go beyond short-term hunger.
- Exercise is not a free pass for unhealthy food choices. Regardless of how active you are, your eating habits are critical to your overall health and fitness.
- Work on establishing healthy eating habits before jumping into a rigorous exercise program. Proper nutrition is the foundation on which you can build your ideal body.
- Don’t reward yourself with food. It may take you an hour to burn 400 calories and 5 minutes to eat that back, so don’t waste a good workout by eating garbage afterward.
- Don’t drink your calories. Downing a Gatorade, smoothie, or sugary protein shake after your workout can quickly negate the calories you just burned.
- Be conscious of your meals. Planning your meals in advance or keeping a food journal will help to avoid overeating.
- Drink lots of water. Many food cravings are actually a result of thirst—not hunger—and this is especially common after a tough workout.
Have you had experiences with ravenous hunger after a hard workout? Have you found strategies to counteract this? Let us know about it in the comments section below!