This is one of the questions I get asked a lot – how do you resist eating everything in sight after a good workout session? I often overhear ladies at the gym discussing after a class (once they have caught their breath) what they plan to eat when they leave the gym. For example, going to a cafe and having coffee and muffins, or going home to make pancakes.
I know of people who leave the gym and head into the first bakery to buy whatever they crave – croissants, pain au chocolat, eclairs or a quiche, probably feeling like they’ve earnt a nice pastry. There are also those who want to refuel the body the smart way and jug bottles of sports drinks, juices or smoothies.
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with refueling your body. Your body needs nutrients to perform at its best, especially if your pushing it to get stronger, fitter, faster or more efficient. However, at the same time, a lot of people complain that they’re exercising regularly but cannot lose weight – meaning they cannot lose body fat. So what’s going on? Let me explain.
1 You compensate by eating more
As the heading of this blog states – if you don’t fight the post workout cravings, but instead give in and indulge since you “deserve” a treat after your hard work, you’re sabotaging yourself. Unfortunately a hard session at the gym or doing some hill sprints doesn’t give you a freebie of cheesecake or double choc muffins. Not even a big “healthy” breakfast. At the end of the day, if you want to lose fat, you need to expend more energy than you consume. Increasing the expenditure side of the equation (exercise) is going to help – but only if you don’t increase the intake of energy (eating calories) at the same time.
2 You compensate by moving less
Studies show that as we increase our efforts in exercising, we compensate by moving less the rest of the day.1 For example, going to the gym in the morning but then taking the elevator instead of the stairs at work later because we feel tired. Some of it even happens unconsciously. A bodybuilder noticed that he even spoke slower, blinked less and fidgeted less when he was training hard for a competition.2
So although you are exercising and you believe that your calorie expenditure has gone up, it may not be as much as you think.
There are other compensation mechanisms happening in your body over which you have no control, such as the resting metabolic rate and the thermic effect of foods. There is also a difference how men and women respond in terms of weight loss to increased amounts of exercise.3
So how do we avoid this vicious cycle of exercising but also eating more? How do we successfully create an energy imbalance (i.e. spend more energy than we take in) so we can lose body fat?
1 The sugar traps
I know the feeling of being ravenous and wanting to eat everything in sight. Strangely though we seem to hardly every crave a hard boiled egg or a tuna salad. We naturally tend to crave the sugary foods – and/or the sugary drinks. Unfortunately, that also includes the so called “healthy” smoothies and sports drinks. I think most people are aware that many sports drinks and energy or “healthy” bars have high amounts of sugar. Most of these products contain as much sugar as a regular chocolate bar. This is particularly bad in its liquid form as it does nothing to actually fill you up. You can easily drink a banana, half a punnet of strawberries, a slice of pineapple, 3 cups of spinach and a celery stick (maybe some ginger for extra benefit). This is just an example, but I think you know what I am talking about. If you actually ate all that, you’d be pretty full. Whereas if you drink it in smoothie form, you could easily eat a bowl of cereal along with it.
Sugary foods also make us crave more sugary food. And before you know it, you consumed your whole calorie burn from that one exercise session and then some. That’s why people say “you cannot outrun a bad diet”.
2 Create good habits
What you eat after a workout is often out of habit. Think about it – more often than not you probably eat the same thing after every workout. A very long time ago I had the habit of having a cigarette after my workout. Pretty insane, isn’t it? I am not saying that your pancakes after your workout are as bad as my fag. But I had a very bad habit and I had to replace it with a good (or at least better!) one. If you’re not happy with your fat loss and you think it could be because you’re eating the wrong thing after exercising, then think about how you could replace it with something that is more helpful in achieving your goal. I also used to eat a “healthy” protein bar after my workouts for a while until I figured out that it contained a lot of sugar along with the protein. These days I have a huge cup of coffee after I exercise (coffee, not sugar syrup and whipped cream aka as frappuccino). It’s all I crave now as my body actually doesn’t feel like digesting anything – my blood is too busy pumping through my muscles!
You don’t even need to replace your treat with food or drink. You may consider other ways to fight those cravings. Like doing extra stretching. Going to the sauna. Walking home. Reading a chapter in your book first or answer some emails. If you’re still hungry an hour later, you can make a conscious decision to have nutritious food that actually brings you closer to your goal. That tuna salad, for example, or a veggie omelet.
3 Listen to your body
It’s intimidating and confusing these days when you start working out. When you decide to make a change in your life, to get fit and healthy, lose body fat. Suddenly there are all these conflicting messages. Maybe your doctor told you to stick to complex carbohydrates. The fitness gurus on social media recommend low carb, vegan or paleo diets. The sports nutrition shops want to sell you protein powders (whey? soy?), bcaa (branched chain amino acids), creatine, pre workout concoctions, post workout recovery drinks and of course also a gel that will keep you energised during exercise. Maybe your personal trainer tells you to eat breakfast every day. Your buff friends tell you to eat carbs before you exercise. Another fitness expert online recommends you do your workouts fasted.
It’s not just confusing. It’s annoying.
Believe me, I have probably done all of the listed above and then some. I don’t regret it because by doing all this I have figured out what works for me, for MY body. And that’s exactly the point. You need to find out what works for you. What do I mean by “work”?
First, it needs to be sustainable, for you, for your life. Second, it needs to get you the results you are after, in a healthy way.
For example. I am not a breakfast person. Never have been. Even as a child I didn’t eat breakfast. When I started training the trainers told me to eat breakfast. So I ate. I didn’t feel like it made any difference in training, I just ended up eating more calories in a day. When I trained during lunch break, my trainer told me to drink a protein shake beforehand so I would perform better. It just made me feel sick during the workout. So, if you don’t like vegetables, it may be hard to follow a vegan diet. If you don’t like meat, why should you be forcing yourself to eat steak and chicken every day? Some people have great results on a low carb diet, others cannot imagine a life without bread. Some thrive on 5 meals a day, others rather enjoy just two decent sized meals in a day (one of the very popular intermittent fasting patterns). Everyone is different and what works for your colleague, your friend or your aunt may not work for you, even though they mean well with their advice. Most people in the fitness industry just want your money. The bottom line is – I would recommend to listen less to others and more to your body, and to create habits that work for your goals.
It feels like I went off on a tangent when addressing the food cravings after a workout. But at the end of the day, it comes down to all the little decisions we make every day that can get us either closer to or further away from our goals. The decision what (and if) to eat after a workout is one of them. Hopefully the above will help you today, tomorrow, and every day to make the right decision for you. And please drop me a line or a comment if you have had success in changing your post workout habits, I’d love to hear about it.
1 Corby K. et al; Effect of different doses of supervised exercise on food intake, metabolism, and non-exercise physical activity: The E-MECHANIC randomized controlled trial, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 10, issue 3, Sep 2019, pp 583-592
2 Layne Norton, https://www.biolayne.com, a good video is https://www.biolayne.com/media/videos/nutrition-myths/why-eat-less-move-more-is-terrible-advice/
3 Donnelly, Joseph; Smith, Bryan; Is Exercise Effective for Weight Loss With Ad Libitum Diet? Energy Balance, Compensation, and Gender Differences, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: October 2005 – Volume 33 – Issue 4 – p 169-174