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What to Eat When You're Working Out More

Is exercising making you hungry all the time? Here's what to know — and how to eat smart

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When Lori Nersesian of Napa, California, recently started working out again after a months-long hiatus, not only did she find herself gaining more muscle, but gaining quite an appetite as well.

A longtime healthy eater, Nersesian, 50, describes herself as diligent about her diet. But after taking up regular strength-building sessions — with workouts full of crunches and body-weight exercises like push-ups — her cravings intensified. “It's usually around 4 in the afternoon that I want to eat everything in sight,” she explains, “particularly the stuff I shouldn't be eating. I want to consume an entire bag of chips — and sometimes I do!"

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Nersesian's hunger spikes are common, says Nancy Clark, a Newton, Massachusetts-based registered dietitian and author of the best-selling Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2019). “Your body is your best calorie counter,” she explains. “If you have a car, you put gas into it. If you drive only 20 miles, you need less gas than if you're driving 100 miles. The same is true with our bodies.” When you exercise, you increase your calorie expenditure and you need more food. If you're not eating enough and/or you're not eating the right foods, you'll get hungry, she says.

But before you reach for an energy bar, also consider that working out may have simply made you thirstier. “Many times you might think your body is hankering for something to eat, but all that your body may actually want is water,” says Clark, who notes that as we age, our “thirst mechanism isn't as sensitive, which means we may not feel thirsty even when our body needs fluid.”

To be sure you're hydrating sufficiently, drink every two to four hours and check that you're urine is light yellow. “If it's not, you need to be drinking more,” Clark says.

Hunger hormones at work

Much of postexercise hunger is stimulated by hormones, explains Morristown, New Jersey-based Tina Marinaccio, a registered dietitian and American Council of Exercise-certified personal trainer. “If your glycogen, or stored sugar, is being used up after a hard workout, you have an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which makes us hungry,” Marinaccio explains. “This is particularly true if you exercise after fasting, for example, if you exercise in the morning on an empty stomach after not eating all night long.” Such was the case for Nersesian, who typically exercises in the morning after just a cup of coffee.

If you're training for a race and find yourself doing long bouts of exercise, you may also be temporarily reducing the amount of leptin — the satiety hormone — circulating in your body, Marinaccio says. This could trigger intense hunger as well and make you want more even after you have something to eat.

What you eat — and when — matters

So how to eat if you're kicking your fitness routine up a level or two? “Your goal should be to surround your workout with food,” Clark says. “You should either be fueling up for your workout or refueling after your workout.”

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Overall, Clark says, “the key is to not get too hungry, because that's when cravings set in.” Many exercisers end up putting on weight because they don't eat enough during the day, and then they get hungry and end up eating too many cookies, crackers or whatever happens to be easily available at night. The excess calories add up. “This is a meal pattern that's fattening,” Clark says. Instead, try these tips.

Have protein-carb combinations

"You need protein to build and repair muscles, and you need carbs to refuel muscles,” says Clark, who notes that optimal protein options include eggs, lean chicken and turkey, fish, dairy, beans or legumes, and nut butters. Some good carb options are sweet potatoes, whole grains like brown rice or quinoa, fruits and vegetables. “If you have a diagnosis of sarcopenia, where you're losing muscle, you want to eat more protein, as it can help with that [protein is the building block of muscles],” Marinaccio explains. She adds that if you have any kind of a health diagnosis, such as osteopenia, arthritis, diabetes or a cardiac condition, you should speak to a health care professional about the best dietary options for you.

For an optimal protein-carb option, try one of these dietitian-approved combos:

  • Half a bagel with nut butter
  • Brown rice cakes with hummus
  • Crackers and a low-fat cheese stick
  • Greek yogurt with granola
  • Chicken with rice
  • Sardines on crackers
  • Roasted edamame with dried tart cherries
  • Cut red peppers and cucumbers with pita bread and tzatziki sauce
  • Fruit smoothie with berries, bananas and yogurt
  • Bowl of oatmeal with nut butter swirled on top
  • Pear with low-fat cheese

Limit your calories if eating a snack

"It's ideal to aim for about 200 calories if you're eating a snack after a workout,” Marinaccio says. “More than that and you'll need to count it as a meal."

If you're just working out a couple of days a week for no more than 30 minutes, you won't be burning many calories, and don't need to really increase your calorie intake, Clark says. Instead, your focus should be simply on healthy eating — getting plenty of proteins, grains, vegetables and fruits throughout the day.

Choose your veggies with purpose

"Exercise, even though it's beneficial, causes inflammation in the body,” Marinaccio says. And that's where eating a rainbow of colors of fruits and veggies comes in. “By fueling up with colorful foods that are high in antioxidants, you'll be able to reduce this inflammation while getting important nutrients.” Colorful produce is also high in fiber, she adds, which helps to keep you satisfied for longer.

Finally, don't deprive yourself as you make exercise a bigger part of your daily routine. “If the thought of just a snack isn't satisfying to you, eat an earlier lunch or dinner,” Clark says. “Having a meal may be what your body needs at that point."

This is no news to Nersesian, who is making it a point to eat a chopped salad with plenty of protein (turkey or salmon) and a handful of nuts after her now-more-regular workouts. And when she gets really ravenous, she just eats dinner early. “I just cook myself a meal at 5, and then I won't eat dinner with my husband later,” she says. “This is the habit that I'm getting the most success with."

How to Jumpstart Your Weight Loss

Key nutrition and fitness tips for your first week

Define your motivation + set a goal

Holly Herrington, a registered dietician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, suggests identifying the reasons you want to lose weight and making them as specific as possible. “You may want to improve your health, you may want to look better or you may want to live a longer, healthier life so you can see your grandchildren,” says Herrington. “Or you may find that in a world that seems so out of control, it’s the one thing you actually can control.” Research shows that a solid motivation that you’ve committed to will help you stay on track when temptation arises.

From there, identify what might be a meaningful short-term goal — whether it’s losing 5 pounds over two months or finally getting in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly. Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional science at the Penn State College of Health and Human Development, and the author of Volumetrics, suggests choosing manageable or ambitious. “Ask yourself what you think you can manage without feeling deprived, because your plan doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she says.

Cut carbs + add protein

While everyone knows that losing weight involves eating healthier foods and cutting empty calories, focusing on a couple of specific food swaps can help the task seem less overwhelming.

To accommodate the slower metabolism that comes with age, Zhaoping Li, M.D., codirector of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, suggests cutting out all starchy food and carbs like bread and pasta. “Carbs will make you feel sluggish.” Replace them with “protein and vegetables that will not only give you all the vitamins and minerals you need, but will speed up your metabolism.”

Rolls suggests swapping in water-rich snacks like fruits, vegetables and yogurt for dry snacks like chips and crackers, which, she notes, pack a lot of calories into each bite and are easy to overeat. Or, she suggests, try eliminating sugary drinks and adding a snack in their place. “Cut down on sodas and fruit juices that are high in sugar content and add extra calories. Instead of a glass of apple juice, eat an apple that will fill you up more and add fiber to your meal,” she says.

Add an hour of sleep at night + eat breakfast

Not getting enough sleep and feeling exhausted during the day? That can slow down weight loss, since sleep regulates hormones that balance your appetite. Falling short on shut-eye increases levels of hormones that make you hungry, explains Liz Weinandy, lead outpatient dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Which means that moving back your nighttime routine can be a great first step to any weight-loss plan. And while you’re at it, stock some healthy breakfast items that you’ll look forward to when you wake up. “Eating breakfast in the morning is important because your cortisol level that regulates blood sugar is at its peak,” Weinandy says.

–Barbara Sadick

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