If you finish a workout and instantly think "cheeseburger," you're not alone.
It happens to the best of us. You finish a grueling workout, dripping in sweat, and the first thing that comes to mind: FOOD.
Of course, having a recovery snack of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats post-workout will restore energy and repair muscle. But just how much should you be eating, and just is it normal to be that hungry after workouts? If you can't even make it to the shower before digging in, it could be an even greater problem than you realize.
Luckily, experts chimed in to discuss exactly why you're so hungry after workouts as well as some tips for how to tame those hunger levels, avoid overeating, and chose the right kind of fuel.
After exercise, it makes sense to be ravenous—you're taxing your body and often pushing it to its limits. And while you might notice a decrease in appetite during the workout, you might start to feel famished shortly following the session, explains Partha Nandi, M.D., F.A.C.P., creator and host of the medical lifestyle television show Ask Dr. Nandi.
What's more, some studies show this appetite-suppressing effect may be slightly less pronounced in women than in men, explains Tom Schmicker, M.D. ,M.S., a resident of orthopedics and sports medicine at Marshall Sports Medicine Institute. Women will have a harder time resisting energy compensation (or refilling the depleted energy stores of food and calories), so that desire for a second dinner after a workout can be pretty common.
In another study (performed only on men), researchers found that working out for longer durations (an hour or so) at a more moderate speed will likely cause you to feel hungrier than if you were performing an intense bout of HIIT training, lasting a shorter 20 to 30 minutes. So, what's the deal?
Why You're So Hungry After Workouts
Firstly, logic comes into play: Exercise burns calories, food contains calories, and with energy stores depleted, the body naturally signals that it needs more food to replenish what that cardio kickboxing workout just eliminated. "After 45 minutes of exercise, stores of glycogen (your body's first available source of energy) in the muscles and liver are depleted. The body is hungry to refill these stores," says Caroline Cederquist, M.D., board-certified bariatric physician and founder of bistroMD.
Exercise has been shown to suppress acylated ghrelin, a hunger-inducing hormone, and stimulate the release of digestive hormones PYY and GLP-1, which work to limit appetite. "But the effect is short-term, usually lasting no more than an hour after exercise," explains Dr. Schmicker.
So once your workout ends, your body cries out: Feed me.
Plus, as there's more blood and fluid in your muscles, inflammation can occur, leading to an increased appetite due to a surge in cortisol. This makes that post-workout snack super important, says running coach, Susie Lemmer. And if you don't refuel after a workout, you will likely increase your risk of injury, she notes. (Related: The Best Foods to Eat Before and After Your Workout)
How to Stop Overeating Post-Workout
Drink fluids—before, during, and after a workout. "Ravenous hunger can actually be thirst," says Dr. Cederquist. (Here are three signs you're dehydrated in the middle of your workout.) "I think it is a great opportunity to drink 24 ounces of water over the course of a Spin class, brisk walk, run, or boot camp. Many women have a hard time drinking water throughout the day, so get your water in while you are rapidly losing it through sweat."
Similarly, grab that bottle after you've wiped off your sweat. It can be difficult during intense classes to stop between sets to drink water (plus, let's be honest; doing burpees with a stomach filled to the brim with water is probably not the best idea either), so rehydration post workout is key. If you chug an adequate amount of H2O after your workout and you're still hungry 30 minutes later, it's safe to say it's time to eat. But not just anything (or everything). "Reach for some quality nutrition made up of complex carbs and protein," says Christopher R. Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., Reebok ONE expert contributor.
What's more, after a tough session, the cool water will "regulate your body temperature, restore energy levels, fight fatigue and muscle cramps, and, if it's a sports drink, restore lost electrolytes," says Andy Stern, founding trainer of Rumble Boxing. But make sure to steer clear of drinks with artificial sweeteners—just look at what sugar can do to your body. These artificially sweetened drinks can actually make you hungrier, says nutritionist Isabel Smith, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Eat well before you exercise. Eating something satiating, but not too heavy on the stomach, before a workout can help limit hunger following exercise, says Mohr. He recommends Greek yogurt with a banana and peanut butter, or even a glass of chocolate milk. An energy bar—something with a little more staying power than a candy-coated granola bar masking itself as healthy—will also supply some much-need fuel before any long day or intense workout.
Don't wait too long to eat post-workout. Make sure to eat something small soon if you’re often hungry after workouts. This will help you avoid excess (read: uncontrollable) hunger when you get home. "You can wolf down large quantities of food when over-hungry and get way past the point of fullness," says Dr. Cederquist.
Grab some protein. Here's where protein is super important, as it builds and repairs muscles, explains Ilyse Schapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. She suggests Greek yogurt and berries or a piece of grilled chicken and veggies, plus a small sweet potato. Another option? A healthy, slow-digesting carb such as quinoa, brown rice, or hummus. A goal of 15 to 25 grams of protein is smart, says Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S., R.D., a sports dietitian at Abbott.
Think before you inhale. Simply slowing down the eating process can make you rethink whether or not to eat an entire meal of snacks before your actual dinner. So take a minute, take a shower, unpack your gym bag and then decide what to eat. It takes about 15 minutes for your stomach to register fullness, says Mohr, so enjoy your food and wait before grabbing seconds.
Consider your workout. Really think about how many calories you've burned during your workout, and what that means for your next meal. "I have many clients who think if they exercise, they can reward themselves by eating whatever they want," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet. That approach can backfire.
"My advice is to eat back no more than half the calories you burn off during a workout. So if you burn 300 calories jogging, you have 150 calories to play with afterward." The trick is to maximize your nutritional intake in minimal calories. Rather than use those 150 calories on a vitamin drink—the wrong move, because liquid calories won't satisfy your hunger—a better option would be to "spend those calories on healthy, filling foods, such as a sliced apple with peanut butter, to maximize satiety," says Blatner.
Always Hungry After Workouts? Try This All-Day Diet Plan
The biggest piece of the hunger puzzle is knowing what, when, and how much to eat to stoke your body's engine. It's the peaks and dips in energy levels, set off by inconsistent eating habits, that send cravings into overdrive. To keep things on track, follow this around-the-clock advice. (If you feel hungry 24/7 and not just after your workouts, read: Why Do I Feel Hungry All the Time?)
In the morning...
Make your digestive system work. "If you put sugary cereal in your mouth, it literally dissolves. With shredded wheat, you have to work to chew it," says Kendrin Sonneville, R.D., a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The same thing happens in your stomach; it has to churn away to digest high-fiber foods, making you feel fuller longer." Aim for 25 grams of fiber a day. (Related: Is it Possible to Have Too Much Fiber In Your Diet?)
Be a meal splitter. If your good intentions in attending that noontime boot-camp class are regularly squandered because you're too hungry to push yourself through it, give your efforts an extra edge by eating lunch twice—half at 11 a.m., the other half when you get back from the gym. Look for a mix of three carbs to one protein; banana and peanut butter on whole wheat is a good option. Have half the sandwich an hour before you exercise, the other half immediately after your workout. You'll be amazed at how much more energy you have during your session, without the hunger pangs afterward. (See: The Best Foods to Eat Before and After a Workout)
For a snack...
Do the apple test. "Ask yourself, 'Does eating an apple sound good right now?'" says Blatner. An apple is a stomach-filling food, so if it's appealing, you probably are hungry and should break for a healthy snack. If an apple isn't calling your name, you may be turning to food for other reasons, like boredom or stress. Drink water instead.
Turn in earlier. A study found that participants ate significantly more calories from sugary carbs after five and a half hours of slumber than they did after eight and a half hours. Experts aren't sure why, but some suspect that less sleep causes ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone, to spike. You already know that more sleep equals a better workout, so hit the sack an hour earlier tonight.
Ultimately you've got to approach hunger the way you do your workout: methodically and consistently. "People who manage hunger well are those who eat mindfully," Sonneville says. "You do yourself a disservice if you just count calories. You've got to pay attention to how you feel and how your workout is being affected, too."