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Science of hunger: To eat or not to eat after exercise
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Science of hunger: To eat or not to eat after exercise

Understanding whether it is hunger or just a craving to eat something after exercise can help you make the right choice when it comes to post-workout meals
The hunger-regulating hormones send signals to indicate a feeling of hunger or a feeling of satiety.
The link between physical activity and appetite and whether exercise increases or decreases appetite is not clear cut.

Strenuous exercises or workout sessions drain you of energy. Though it is common to feel hungry after exercise and to want to eat a snack or a meal after workouts to compensate for the energy expenditure, not everyone feels hungry or gets the urge or necessity to eat immediately after training. Though the popular notion is that you will feel the urge to eat post exercise, experts say there is nothing unnatural to not feel it also. And this urge is dependent on various factors that govern hunger and appetite (yes, they are connected to food intake, yet not the same). Modern exercise and dietary approaches have made post-workout meals a complex necessity. That need not be the case, if you go by the science of hunger and appetite, insist experts, prescribing a more holistic approach of listening to one’s body when it comes to eating.

The hunger-regulating hormones send signals to indicate a feeling of hunger or a feeling of satiety. Appetite, on the other hand, is the volume of food that you can possibly consume and is also related to a desire or craving to eat something. It can be influenced by hunger-regulating hormones too. But other factors are also at play.

How exercise affects appetite

The link between physical activity and appetite and whether exercise increases or decreases appetite is not clear cut.

According to a review article,  the type of workout, workout volume and intensity, increase in the heart rate, changes in the direction of blood flow, sympathetic nervous system activity, gut hormone activity and absorption of nutrients, all have an impact on how exercise influences appetite.

“The effect of exercise on appetite is similar in both the men and women, though menstrual changes can cause some variations,” says Ansa Saju, a sports and preventive nutritionist from Kochi, Kerala.

Why appetite changes with exercise

“When you are training or exercising, the appetite gets temporarily suppressed to a small extent,” says Shivani Ranjit, a sports and exercise scientist from Chennai. “But once the training is over, the appetite starts increasing and so does hunger. Thus, exercising increases appetite, but over-exercising or strenuous exercising can bring down your appetite too.”

The intensity of the exercise/workout done, and its influence on the hunger regulating hormones, has a major impact on whether people feel hungry or not after exercise.

“Exercises influence appetite through hormonal regulation,” says Saju. “Working out can cause some changes in the hormones that regulate appetite (ghrelin and leptin). Doing low intensity exercises can make you feel more hungry by raising the appetite increasing hormone levels. During high intensity workouts, exercise causes a suppression of appetite by elevating the satiety hormones and downregulating the hunger causing hormones. The appetite suppression usually lasts for 30 to 60 minutes. The appetite is again restored after that.”

Workout meals and appetite

Consuming or skipping a pre-workout meal can influence your appetite and make you feel hungry after exercise.

“Doing high intensity workouts, without having consumed a pre-workout meal, can result in a tendency to consume a higher quantity of food post workout. Even if not immediately after the workout, once the appetite suppression is reduced, there are chances for high calorie consumption. Thus, a proper pre-workout meal before the workout along with appetite suppression can help control food intake,” says Saju.

Since exercise and appetite are related, ensuring an appropriate post workout meal is essential for the body to recover.

“Exercise utilizes the muscles and tissues, keeping them activated and in function, during which wear and tear of the muscle can happen too. Thus, there is a higher nutrient requirement for the muscles to recover, build and grow,” says Ranjit.

Exercise and food choices

After a workout that is energy draining, the idea of eating something tasty and sugary is enticing.

“Workouts can cause a drop in the blood glucose levels, which will make you want to eat some carbohydrates,” says Saju. “Skipping a pre-workout meal will increase appetite post workout, thereby increasing the tendency to want to eat something that is sweet or starchy. But protein intake will also be higher among people who make conscious choices, by keeping their workout goals in mind.”

Goals and motivation apart, the simple understanding whether you are feeling hungry, or it is just a craving to eat something post workout (a matter of habit for many), can make you make wise food choices.

“Not a lot of people stop and think about it. But doing it and practising mindful eating would be, properly beneficial,” says Ranjit. “Normally, while training you get into a proper healthy lifestyle. You make that choice of switching to a healthier food, or a healthier snack. So, it is not about controlling the quantity of food, but it’s being a little mindful about what you eat.”

Takeaways

  • It is widely believed that exercise/workouts have a positive impact on appetite/hunger.
  • Low intensity workouts increase appetite and make you feel hungry after exercise, but over exercising or strenuous exercises suppress appetite and decrease hunger.
  • Skipping a pre-workout meal also raises the appetite after exercising and increases the chances of overeating post workout.
  • Irrespective of whether there is an increased appetite or not, it’s important to keep our fitness goals in mind and make healthy food choices.

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