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Why am I so HANGRY?!! Understanding the post-workout pig out

Why am I so HANGRY?!! Understanding the post-workout pig out - Sage Institute of FitnessWooha! You’re getting back in shape. You’re hitting the gym, pounding the pavement, feeling pumped and life’s looking awesome. But boy, are you hungry – starving. You’re downing some serious calories, and for reasons that feel beyond your control, you’re hoovering it back like it’s the Last Supper.

So what in the name of Nike is going on?

A few things are going on – with your body – and your brain. So don’t panic. But also, don’t pig out. Here’s the drill on why this is happening and what you can do about it. The difference could mean staying sharp and svelte or sliding into the calorie-burdened Land of No Idea.

First, the pigging out bit

If you’re making a return to exercise after a period of inactivity, your body may need time to adjust. Initially, your body freaks out a little. So much going on! I need protein! I need carbs! Refuel me! Recent studies show that for certain people, challenging workouts can trigger strong neural activity in the brain regions responsible for food reward and craving.

But there’s no need to panic. Luckily, these studies also show that the leaner you become and the more accustomed to regular exercise you become, the less demanding these messages will be. In other words, the messages won’t be as loud or bothersome.

Bottom line: if you’re new to exercise and this eating thing is freaking you out, hang in there. Breathe. This will pass.

“Because I exercised” – the three words that ruin weight loss

According to Dr Yoni Freedhoff, obesity researcher in Ottawa, Ontario, the three most ruinous words for weight loss uttered at mealtimes are “because I exercised”.

Because you exercised, burning just 300 calories, you think you are entitled to that 550 calorie piece of cake.

Um, no. Sorry, but those numbers don’t add up. (Isn’t it crazy-stupid the way we fool ourselves?) Essentially, there are two gross exercise misconceptions that people fall for:

  1. Overestimation: Because I exercised, I need to refuel. (No, you don’t need to refuel on chocolate but yes, you could refuel on something healthy, providing you don’t need a shovel to get it all in!)
  1. Reward: Because I exercised, I deserve it. (No, there are better things you deserve, like feeling great, being healthy, or fitting into your clothes again, just for example.)

Instead, choose post-workout foods that satisfy nutritional requirements – and don’t think of working out purely as a calorie burning exercise. Think of calorie burning as a bonus, with exercise providing you with far greater benefits.

Regular exercise will help you sleep better, feel more energised, tone up, improve muscle strength, flexibility, cognitive abilities and mood, making you less likely to binge or eat junk food.

Bottom line: if you think of exercise purely as something to fry the fat, your exercise regime may be a lot of hard work – and not much fun.

Next, let’s have a closer look at these two gross misconceptions about exercise and diet.

The reward mentality

Endurance trainer Matt Fitzgerald says the reward mentality is more prevalent amongst newbies that aren’t quite in love with their exercise program. They’re not committed yet. They’re not sold. Exercise for them is something they have to endure, and consequently, they feel they can reward themselves from that itchy, sweaty, uncomfortable 15-minute jog with a large bottle of self-congratulation and a chocolate brownie.

The solution: find an exercise activity that you love. It may take a bit of time to shop around, but find it. Join a gym and explore different exercise classes, try different activities with friends – do whatever you can. There are plenty of options, just be persistent and give yourself a little time.

Overestimating calorie expenditure

Whether you call it wishful thinking or simply being downright naive, some people wrongly assume they can dive into a burger, fries and two pieces of apple pie because they went to the gym that morning. Uh huh.

Now, sometimes people can overeat while their bodies are adapting to a new workout, as we’ve mentioned earlier. However, many people just snap their calorie-blind glasses on and CHOW DOWN.

If that’s you, my friend, check yourself. The numbers don’t add up. You’re kidding yourself. Work out how many calories you’ve burned. Get someone to help you, or find an app or a chart. Analyse the number of calories you are eating and do the sums.

But make sure you eat

If your stomach is rumbling, your body is sending you messages that you need to refuel. So eat well.

Post-workout nutrition plays a role for the following reasons:

  • replenish glycogen (in other words, replenish your energy stores)
  • decrease protein breakdown (which facilitates muscle-building)
  • increase protein synthesis (repair any damage incurred in the workout)

Just remember, if you find yourself slipping into over-estimating your calorific expenditure, take a reality check and make sure your maths is correct.

(Read: energy in = energy out; or if you’re trying to lose weight, energy in = slightly less than energy out)

If your reward mentality is taking over, try a different type of exercise. Once you find the type of exercise you love, you’ll be likely to spend far more time doing it, leaving you fitter, leaner and in a better state of mind – and that will be all the reward you need.

But make sure you eat post workout - Sage Institute of Fitness

POST NOTE: Still finding excuses to stuff yourself? We’re one step ahead of you. Other excuses for pigging out that the Sage team list as not acceptable include:

  • I didn’t want to waste it
  • But I do deserve it
  • I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed
  • They’d gone to so much trouble
  • I couldn’t say no
  • I thought no one was looking
  • It winked at me

Sage Institute of Fitness – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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