Q: I'm famished after a workout. Am I taking in just as many—or more—calories than I burned?
A: It would make sense: Exercise burns calories and depletes your body of energy, and since our bodies are hard-wired for survival, our natural response should be to replenish our energy stories. Luckily exercise—the very thing we are supposed to do to lose weight—doesn't make us consume more food than we usually would. In fact, certain types of exercise can decrease your hunger after you work out.
Research shows that lower-intensity exercise (an effort of 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the most intense) can reduce hunger for a couple hours following exercise. [Tweet this fact!] And as you increase the intensity of a workout, whether it's cardio or strength training, this appetite suppression also increases. The only downside is that the appetite-quelling effects of exercise seem to be the most powerful in people who are inactive, so the fitter you are, the less you will experience the hunger-suppressing effect of exercise.
Recent studies have confirmed this phenomenon. A 2013 meta-analysis from the journal Appetite concluded that individuals tend not to compensate for the energy expended during exercise in the immediate hours after by altering food intake. [Tweet this fact!] And a study published in the January 2014 edition of PLoS ONE similarly concluded: "We found no consistent evidence that increased physical activity or exercise effects energy or macronutrient intake."
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If you're thinking, "Well, despite what 'research says' I'm still starving after spin class!" then I recommend that you do one of two things:
1. Have a (smart) post-workout snack. Since your muscles are carbohydrate sponges following a workout, it is a good time to eat. Just don't overcompensate and use your a.m. workout as an excuse to chow down on jelly donuts for breakfast. Instead have a meal or snack consisting of protein and carbs in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio.
2. Fuel up before exercise. A 2012 study published in Appetite found that eating before an hour of running lead to less eating after exercise. So if your post-workout hunger is too much to handle, have some carbs that are low in fiber and easy to digest to give your body something to burn.
In the end, research says you'll consume the same amount of calories when you do sit down to eat, regardless of exercise. So when 6 p.m. rolls around, you'll eat the same amount of calories for dinner whether or not you just ran six miles. But no matter what the time, focus on refueling your body with smart choices to continue to perform at your best.