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 how hungry is normal? If you can’t even make it to the shower before digging in, it could be an even greater problem than you realize.
Luckily, these experts chimed in to discuss exactly why you’re so ravenous after exercise (FYI: It’s totally normal) as well as some tips for taming those hunger levels and grabbing the right kind of fuel.
After a workout, it makes sense to be hungry—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 orthopaedics 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 Starving
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 also 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.
How to Manage Your Hunger and Avoid Bingeing
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 throughout the day. 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. (Here are more expert-backed foods to eat before a workout.) 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.
Make sure to eat something small shortly following the workout. 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.
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. Another trick? Really think about how many calories you’ve burned during your workout, and what that means for your next meal.
“People tend to overestimate the calories burned during a workout, or underestimate the calories in their post-workout food,” says Katharina Kaiser, nutrition specialist at Freeletics. “Being aware of how much energy is expended during a particular workout can give you a more realistic picture of the appropriate number of calories to put back into your body, rather than just eating a snack which might actually be much higher in calories than what you just burned.”