Many people eat rich foods and larger portions after working out, either because they are truly hungry or just feel like they earned the reward. They end up eating back all, or more than the calories they have just worked so hard to burn! There’s nothing wrong with small snack or a filling dinner after exercising, but before you dig in, you must understand your body’s true nutrition needs so you don’t end up gaining weight despite all your hard work.
Work out right before a meal – If you’re always hungry after you exercise—regardless of whether you ate beforehand or how many calories you burned—try to schedule your workouts before one of your main meals. That way, you can refuel with calories you would have consumed anyway, without having to add extra snacks into your day.
Make your workout fun – Thinking about exercise less as a chore and more as something you do because you enjoy it can help you eat less afterward, according to a 2014 Cornell University study. Researchers led volunteers on a 1.4—mile walk, telling half of them that it was for exercise and half that it was a scenic stroll. The “exercise” group ate 35% more chocolate pudding for dessert than the “scenic” group. In another experiment, volunteers were given post-walk snacks, and the “exercisers” ate 124% more calories than those who were told it was just for fun.
Pair protein and carbs – When you do need a snack to recover from a tough sweat session, try a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. This will allow you to begin to replenish your energy levels and repair muscle damage resulting from the workout. For workouts less than an hour, keep your snack to 150 to 200 calories total—an open-faced peanut butter and honey sandwich, a slice of turkey or chicken and cheese on crackers, or a handful of trail mix.
Low-fat dairy is another great recovery food with plenty of protein to help tide you over until your next meal. Studies have shown that refuelling with dairy—low-fat chocolate milk, specifically—helps improve subsequent athletic performances better than traditional sports drinks.
Sometimes, overeating after exercise is more a consequence of routine than anything else. When you consistently consume a 500-calorie smoothie after you finish up at the gym, you start to get into that habit of consuming a smoothie no matter how long or intense your exercise was. Choose different snacks for different workouts—the shorter the duration, the fewer calories you need to replenish. It’s important for weight loss and weight maintenance to get in tune with your body and learn to eat in response to hunger, versus eating in response to boredom, stress, or the idea of rewarding yourself for exercising.
Activity trackers like the Fitbit and Jawbone have become a trendy way to estimate physical activity expenditure throughout the day. But a 2014 Iowa State University study found that not all devices are accurate in estimating calorie burn during workouts. The least accurate device, the Basis Band, had an error rate of 23.5%. Even the most accurate trackers can still only provide an estimate of true calorie burn and it’s not smart to base your refuelling strategy entirely on their calculations.
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating more throughout the day may be your ticket to consuming fewer calories overall, especially if you tend to pig out post-workout. Incorporating two to three healthy snacks throughout the day will help regulate hunger between meals, increase energy, and keep metabolism bumped up.
You may feel like you burned a million calories during your Spin class, but research shows that we tend to overestimate our energy expenditure during exercise—by as much as four-fold, according to a study from the University of Ottawa. When volunteers were then asked to eat back all the calories they’d just burned, they tended to consume two to three times more than what they’d expended. If you are trying to lose weight, you will need to consume fewer calories than you expend.
Replacing the fluids, you lost during a workout should be priority number one. Having a lot of water in the belly also reduces appetite. Drink water as soon as you finish training, but not too much, taking in too much water (or any fluid) can cause water intoxication due to excessively low levels of salt in the body.
Ask yourself if you really need to eat. You’re going to eat those calories eventually, so why not save them for your next meal when you’re hungry?
For workouts lasting longer than two hours—like a long bike ride or a marathon training run—sucking down a gel or sipping a sports drink will keep you from feeling ravenous afterward. Try to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs—that’s 120 to 240 calories—every hour after your first hour. Avoid anything with protein, since it takes longer to for the stomach to digest.
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