Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Working Out Makes Me Hungry! Help!

Q&A Wednesday: Working Out Makes Me Hungry! Help!

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: I have been working out consistently since January and have went down one size. I work out for an hour (cardio and strength training) at least 5-6 times a week. But here lately, my hunger has increased alot. I don’t know if it harmones or what. Is this normal? Should I eat more?

A: You have to think about what you’re doing when you take in food and when you execute an activity.

Food isn’t about all this emotional, lovey dovey stuff that we evolved humans have attached to it. I mean sure, food can have emotional attachment (like a positive – or negative – memory) but that’s not what it’s for. It’s our primary source of both energy as well as nourishment. Plain and simple.

When you eat, you take in energy. Ever heard of calories? A calorie is a standard measurement of energy – chemistry classes told me something about kilocalories and kilojoules… but if I admitted that then I’d also be admitting that my teachers were right in telling me I’d need this information some day and that would just be… disastrous. Anyway.. I’m off track a little bit, here.

A calorie is a standard measurement of energy. In order to get through your entire day, your body burns energy (read: calories) in order to maintain your daily functions. We’ll call this the Basal Metabolic Rate, the rate at which your body burns energy without any extra activity at all.

This puts food intake in a whole new perspective. When you eat 100 calories of broccoli – mmm, broccoli – you’re ingesting 100 calories worth of fuel that the body stores for later use – actually… let me put that in a different perspective – when you eat 600 calories worth of french fries, you’re ingesting 600 calories worth of fuel that the body stores for later use. If your body only burns 1500 calories a day without you engaging in any extra activity, then you just ate half of your intake for the day…. and anything that you eat beyond that 1500 calories is stored as fat.

That being said, its just as important to fuel any extra activity as it is to fuel your basic daily functions. If you’re trying to starve yourself, your body will catch on sooner or later and your metabolism will slow down – not simply because there’s no food coming in to burn, but more specifically because the body recognizes that there’s not enough energy coming in to fuel the activity you’re engaging in… thereby causing your body to work against your efforts to burn fat.

There was an article in Time Magazine a few years back titled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” that brought up this issue… saying that exercise doesn’t work because it increases your appetite.

Um, it’s supposed to increase your appetite!

If you’re burning a ton of energy at any given time, the body is going to notice that! It’s going to outright demand that you stuff your face with something to replenish the energy you’ve burned! Of course it will! It only makes sense. It doesn’t want to starrrrrrve, it doesn’t want to be limited in energy. It wants to have a balanced supply of energy in preparation for the next famine. It’s going to try to compel you to take in more energy. That’s its job.

The reality is that as you engage in more cardiovascular activity, the body is going to realize this and its going to trigger ghrelin – the hunger hormone – to act a complete fool. No, seriously. I’ve come home and felt that ravenous feeling before… and felt further justified in eating “half of what I burned” because “I burned so much.”

So…. if that’s the problem, what is the solution?

Let’s think, here. If you simply decide to go into cardio and not eat afterwards… as in, go straight to bed after cardio, you’re going to wake up pretty groggy. Double negative points if you decide to skip breakfast, as well.

Clearly, you have a death wish… or an overeating wish. Same diff.

What do I do? I simply go ahead and eat afterwards. Why the hell wouldn’t I? Suffering through hunger pangs isn’t a badge of honor. If you decide to eat something before a cardio session, you’ve got the energy you’ll need to dive head first into your workout. When you crash in your blaze of glory, you’ll need to replenish what you’ve lost… and that demands that you eat.

This is why eating clean and keeping your calories under control throughout the day is so important. You simply cannot unnecessarily gorge out during the day because “I’m working out later… its cardio day” only to be shocked and confused about what to do when you experience actual hunger pangs. That kind of mentality might work for when you’re trying to maintain your weight, but as far as losing weight? No, you won’t be successful that way.

It’s an extremely delicate dance, and there’s no simple answer in here anywhere. You’ll have to find out what works best for your height and weight combination, but realize that even that takes time. I’d try to play with keeping up my regular intake every few hours, but focus the bulk of my daily caloric intake around my cardio sessions. That requires planning – heaven forbid – but weight loss requires a conscious and concerted effort… and your body will, without question, thank you for it in the end!

For more info, check out Is There Such Thing as Too Much Cardio For Weight Loss?

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16 comments

Kerri March 2, 2011 - 3:36 PM

When I started working out at my gym 5 weeks ago, I had cravings for Carl’s Jr. burgers after every workout. I overcame those cravings with the following hunger trick:

(1) I drink one freshly squeezed orange juice before my workouts to give me a bit of an energy boost.
(2) I carry a big bag of unsalted nuts in the car, and after working out I eat some.
(3) After each workout, I eat fewer and fewer nuts. After two weeks of this I’m eating only about 10 nuts.

I know the nuts pack a big caloric punch, but at least they are healthier than the burgers I was chowing down on at first. And, since I’ve lost nearly 10 lbs since I started working out and eating healthier, they certainly aren’t having an adverse affect!

Danielle March 2, 2011 - 3:45 PM

I’ve found drinking lots of water helps to where yes I feel hungry but my belly feels full at the same time.
I also eat small snacks – the key is to have healthy ones available and be truthful with yourself. It seems like there is always a sneaky voice saying ‘go ahead… order that pizza… you worked out soooo hard today you deserve a break! your metabolism is higher so you’ll burn it off!’

Cissy March 2, 2011 - 4:29 PM

I’ve just started a SERIOUS attempt to lose weight .. this is about the 10th effort .. and I’m ALWAYS hungry right away, energetic for about an hour or two and then I crash as soon as I let my body slow down. Add to my dilemma that I’m not a breakfast eater (I work out weekend mornings and one night of pilates), and my neighborhood caters to the best fast-food aficionados out there (which isn’t me), and I can’t catch a break on getting healthy food following a work out.

Sadiqua March 2, 2011 - 4:49 PM

So glad to read this article! I have gotten to the point that I can stand the feeling of being hungry, and as busy as I am some days, I don’t eat like I should. Now, I eat dinner before evening workouts, and I keep fruit cups, nuts, and fiber bars for times after I’ve worked out and don’t want to undo everything I have done. There are also drink mixes with protein that help with my hunger, as well as hummus and a whole grain chip!

Sonya March 2, 2011 - 5:14 PM

Danielle you have that same voice i hear also…lol well what i do is have some protein before i do my workout, maybe a 1/2 of cup of Greek yogurt and some fresh blueberries just so that i have the energy to blow it out at the gym. Now when i come back from the gym i try to just put more lean protein in and a piece of fruit. I might just make a nice big grilled chicken salad and call it a night, but i’m so tired from the workout that it takes me an hour b4 i really eat. I used to think that if i work it out in the gym real hard then i can come home and eat up some food and fill up on the carbs. I’ve learned now (because i wasn’t losing jack) that is not the way to do it. I try not to do any brown carbs after lunch these days…i try but some times that brown rice looks good or some black beans in my salad are hard to turn down, but the beans are full of protein so that only helps the muscles at the end of the day.

Tks Erika for this….like all your others this came right on time! 🙂

Tiana March 2, 2011 - 7:10 PM

I had the same hunger issue but then I switched my cardio to the morning before I eat breakfast. That was key for me because it gave me the opportunity to eat throughout the day…Soon as I’m finished, I’ll have a baked hash brown (I’m a potato LOVER) or a bowl of oatmeal – not to get full but to jump start the metabolic burn. Usually 2 or 3 hours later I’m hungry again then I eat a piece of fruit (usually an apple) then lunch about an hour later…I found that eating snack like meals throughout the day after a morning workout kept my hunger in check and I went from losing 1-2 pounds a month to 4-5 pounds…

Yum Yucky March 5, 2011 - 1:04 AM

Heck yeah. running especially makes me really really hungry. I feed my body extra on run days. There’s no guilt about the extra eating. I need that fuel!

Renee December 14, 2011 - 4:16 PM

Most athletes I know ingest protein immediately after training or at least within an hour after. They will pack protein powder in a gym bag and mix it with water. It’s quickly absorbed and easily digested. It’s also a craving killer.

Michelle January 4, 2012 - 7:15 PM

I either work out before breakfast, since I know I’m going to eat anyway, or I have a protein shake after exercising, which usually handles the hunger. 170 cal shake with 25g of protein and 6 carbs does the trick.

Tami March 21, 2012 - 2:08 PM

I do really active calisthenics training 3-5 times a week. I have to eat beforehand, or else I’ll crash. All it takes for me is a simple carb and sugar – oatmeal, banana, and soy milk. Afterwards I have an omelette and whole wheat toast with almond butter to refuel. Protein AND carbs are necessary to refuel.

Sara August 1, 2012 - 9:41 AM

Post-workout your body needs protein to rebuild muscles. My perfect snack after a workout has been Greek yogurt. Plenty of protein and not too many calories/too much fat. I budget it in as a snack and I’m good to go!

Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2012 - 9:54 AM

Actually, since “post-workout” could refer to ANY kind of a workout – cardio-focused or strength-focused – your body’s needs are heavily dependent upon the kind of workout you’ve completed.

CurlsCoilsStef August 1, 2012 - 11:01 AM

I monitor my calorie intake thoughtout the say and save my dinner for after the gym. I do strength training everyday so I have a protien shake and a salad for dinner. Make no mistiake a salad can be very filling.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2012 - 11:47 AM
dominique August 1, 2012 - 11:40 AM

Ok I know it sounds crazy, but I’m doing the turbo fire workout and the instructor recommends that u eat 3 hours before u workout to fuel your body. I eat 5 times a day, 3 meals and 2 snacks and eating 3 hours before I workout and having a snack at least and hour before the workout prevents me from starving afterwards. By the time I eat lunch I’m good. But you gotta eat those healthy snacks between breakfast, lunch and dinner! They work!

Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2012 - 11:46 AM

I agree completely. 3 hours before, then RIGHT before… and the post-workout meal depends on both your workout routine and what your meal schedule for the rest of the day looks like.

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