Everyone knows the feeling: You get home after an intense workout at the gym, a long hike full of steep inclines or an exhausting pickup basketball game at the park and you’re absolutely starving. And for good reason: Studies have shown that regular workouts, especially if they are intense and include strength training, can boost your metabolism and increase your hunger levels.
So how do you avoid eating everything in sight and instead make wise, healthy choices that will maximize your recovery from a tough workout? Stated simply, your focus should be on recovery, refueling and rehydration, while staying within reasonable calorie limits. Here’s how:
1. Stick to your plan.
Are you following an eating plan? Are you trying to take a mindful approach to your diet? Are you doing your best to avoid processed foods? Don’t allow your post-workout hunger distract you from your usual habits. If anything, use the high felt after a good workout as a reminder of why you’re working so hard to improve your health and fitness. Don’t sabotage your efforts by making poor food choices immediately following a successful bout of exercise.
2. Honestly assess your hunger level.
This strategy is always important, but particularly in those moments when feel yourself wanting to overeat or eat outside the bounds of your usual routine. Step back and take a minute to ask yourself, “Am I really this hungry?”
3. Rehydrate first.
Dehydration can often disguises itself as hunger, so drinking before eating may calm your hunger pangs. If you still want something to eat – which is perfectly reasonable, if not advised, after a tough workout – go ahead and eat something that fits within the parameters of your healthy eating plan.
4. Stop thinking about food as a reward.
Many people overestimate how many calories they burned during a workout and over-reward themselves afterward. (This is one reason why exercising so you can eat is not a great reason to begin a fitness program.) To overcome this tendency, eliminate the concept of rewarding yourself after a workout. Instead, think of it as refueling to maximize the benefits of your efforts.
5. Make your workouts and eating plan work together.
If you find yourself famished after each of your workouts, schedule them before a meal. This will prevent you from adding unplanned snacks into your day, which can quickly mean that extra calories will become part of your routine. The best post-workout meals are primarily carbohydrate (which will replenish your energy) with some protein (which will rebuild fatigued muscles). If you’re completing workouts that last an hour or more, consider eating along the way by packing a high-carb, high-protein snack. That way, you won’t be famished – and vulnerable to poor choices – when you’re done.
6. Eat more throughout the day.
If you consistently feel like you need to eat a lot after your workouts, you may be under-eating the rest of the day. If you’re not adequately fueled prior to your workouts, your performance will likely suffer and you’ll be craving extra calories once you’re done. Eat a healthy meal or snack (that’s accounted for in your eating plan) prior to your workout and see if that reduces your post-workout hunger.
7. Break the eating habit.
If you come home from the gym and eat the same high-calorie snack every time, you will likely fall into a routine of pairing that snack with the completion of a workout – whether you’re hungry or not. If weight loss or weight maintenance is among your goals, then it’s essential to eat mindfully, especially in those moments when doing so is most difficult.
8. Enjoy your workouts.
If you’re not enjoying your exercise experience, you may be more likely to want some kind of “reward” – like an unhealthy snack – for completing it. On the other hand, if you love a particular group fitness class, strength-training routine or recreational sport, participation can become its own reward. Of course, not everyone will ever reach the point of “enjoying” their workouts, but some may find that walking in the park on their lunch breaks may be more inherently pleasurable than spending a half-hour on the treadmill at the gym. And remember: Exercise doesn’t need to be structured to be effective. The key is to get moving in whatever way makes you happiest.