Post-workout hunger is totally normal, but should be taken seriously. There's nothing worse than killing it at the gym, just to go home and give in to the temptation of a box of cookies in the cupboard and negating everything you just worked for.
Some [crazy] people will actually recommend you avoid workout out because it has been said to increase your appetite and can therefore cause you to put on weight. Even if it does increase your appetite, should you stop working out? Hell no. You just need to understand what's going on with your bod and how to handle it. So, that being said - what's up with post-workout hunger?
The science behind your post-workout starvation
According to Blundell et al. (2003), what actually happens is that working out stimulates appetite by altering your satiety signalling system - aka. your ability to feel full. Blundell et al. (2003) says there's no evidence for immediate or automatic response of appetite to working out, and instead that men and women are able to survive the slight calorie deficit that working out puts us into (about 4 MJ of energy per day). Even if we are able to 'survive', its still said that for every 10 calories we burn, we're expected to crave 3. And of course that makes sense - your body is doing work, its going to need to refuel.
Unfortunately, its more common amongst newbies.
This is the worst part, considering those new to fitness are more likely to be discouraged if they put in all the work at the gym and instead start seeing the numbers on the scale going up. As a newbie here are things that are important to consider:
Be aware of the psychological 'Food Reward'
The simplest explanation for post-workout hunger is simple: people think to themselves 'you worked hard at the gym, now you deserve a treat'. Wrong.
Instead you should be thinking, 'you worked hard at the gym, now you need to refuel.'
But this common among new gym-goers. Hell, we even see it popular diet programs such as Weight Watchers - if you perform 30 minutes of exercise, you earn a few reward points to use on other food. Except, if your long-term goal is to lose weight, you want to ensure you're still cutting back on calories (cutting 2,500 calories per week = losing 1 lb of fat) and eating the right foods as a reward (aka protein).
Therefore, burning 500 calories at the gym doesn't mean you can go home and reward yourself with a 500 calorie snack with zero nutritional content. Instead, follow this simple rule:
To make sure you don't eat away your workout success, limit yourself to approximately one third the calories you burned during the workout and a 1:1 or 1:2 carb to protein ratio.
For example: If you burned 300 calories on the treadmill, a protein shake with 110 calories, 24 g of protein, 2 g of carbohydrates and 1 g of fat would be perfect. And of course, avoid sugar.
For those who are more accustomed to the fitness life, post-workout hunger apparently decreases with time, so those might not feel as affected by this phenomenon. According to Evero et al. (1985), exercise might actually reduce motivation to eat and decrease appetite for those who are slightly more fit. So its important to remember to stick it out, and adapt to body's changes when beginning a new exercise regime.
Tips to avoid the post-workout binge
The run down is simple: Your body expends energy, so it wants to replenish it, making it hungry. Because eating around your workout can be tricky, its important to eat according to your goals. Keeping that in mind...
1. Pre and Post-Workout Meals
If you're aiming to increase endurance or build muscle, you can take in some of your energy prior to your workout so that you're not in a complete caloric deficit afterwards. If this is the case, take in some easily digestible carbohydrates like a banana or a piece of toast with all natural peanut butter within an hour of your workout.
Conversely, if you have major weight loss goals and are aiming for fasted workouts, your goal will be to burn through fat throughout your workout. Therefore, you'll want to take in those carbohydrates post-workout.
You can also consider a post-workout BCAA drink which will help to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that tends to rise during a workout. If cortisol levels stay too high post-workout this can increase hunger, internal stress and also promote fat storage.
2. Hydration Station:
Staying hydrated can be a key to avoid overeating and wasting the hard work you put in at the gym. Make sure you don't mistake thirst for hunger and drink 1L of water for every 30 minute of exercise - and remember, this doesn't go towards your daily water intake.
3. Know Thyself - and do what you gotta do.
For me personally, this means going to the gym without my wallet so I'm not physically able to stop for a donut on the way home. I also avoid having sugary treats so I won't binge once I get home. To ensure I eat the right thing, I do best when I have my post-workout meal prepared and waiting for me when I get home. This may sound extreme, but I really like donuts and its really easy to convince myself I earned that delightful sugar treat after a hard workout.
So remember to be prepared, know your body, stick with it, and look forward to your progress!
Blundell, J.E., Stubbs, R.G., Hughes, D.A., Whybrow, S., King, N.A. 2003. Cross talk between physical activity and appetite control: does physical activity stimulate appetite? Proc Nutr Soc 62(3):651-661.
Evero, N., Hackett, L.C., Clark, R.D., Phelan, S., Hagobian, T.A. 1985. Aerobic exercise reduces neuronal responses in food reward brain regions. J Appl Physiol 112(9):161201619