Plus, expert advice for smart, healthy fueling—both before and after exercise.

By Jenny McCoy
March 08, 2019
Getty: Rawpixel

If you’ve ever finished a workout and then felt the urge to immediately stuff your face, you’re not alone. Post-workout hunger pangs are a real thing, affecting some gym-goers on the reg, and many gym-goers from time to time.

But beyond the simple (and frankly, obvious) explanation that calories burned during exercise equals need for replacement calories after exercise, what exactly goes on in your body to trigger such ravenous feelings? Is it normal to go into starvation mode after you break a sweat? And how can you properly fuel throughout the day so that you don’t end up ravaging the fridge after every gym session?

Here, four registered dietitians explain post-workout hunger and how to best fuel—both before and after your workout—to stay on track with your health goals.

Why Am I So Hungry After Working Out? 

There are several reason you might feel like you could eat a horse after hitting the gym. The first: you went into the workout already hungry. “Many people go into workouts undernourished and come out ravenous,” says registered dietitian Maya Feller. But how, exactly, does that work?

Well, when you work out—or perform any type of movement, for that matter—your body uses a substance called glycogen to power that movement. Your body gets glycogen through carbohydrates—basically, when you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose and stores them as glycogen, says registered dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot, author of The F-Factor Diet and creator of F-Factor. When you use up your glycogen stores, your liver secretes a hormone called ghrelin, which tells your brain it’s time to chow.

If you go into a workout with already-low glycogen stores, exercising can further deplete them and trigger the release of ghrelin. If your glycogen stores are really low, this can translate into that I-need-to-eat-something-ASAP feeling.

Another possible explanation for post-exercise hunger pangs is dehydration. When you exercise and sweat, you lose fluids and thus experience feelings of dehydration, says Zuckerbrot. Because the symptoms of dehydration are similar to those of hunger—like feeling tired, weak, and shaky—you can easily confuse the two. For that reason, not sipping enough H2O before, during and/or after a sweat session can trigger hunger-like symptoms, explains Zuckerbrot. In other words, you may think we’re extremely hungry after a sweat sesh, when in fact, you’re actually dehydrated.

Lastly, working out very intensely and/or for a long period of time can trigger intense feelings of hunger, even if you went into the workout well-hydrated and well-nourished, though this isn’t something the general population of gym goers needs to worry about.

“For the average person who exercises moderately a few times per week, hunger after a workout shouldn’t be so severe that you feel faint if you don’t grab something to eat immediately after,” says registered dietitian Alyssa Pike, manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

How to Properly Fuel Before a Workout

What type of food, how much, and when to eat before a sweat session depends on several factors, says Pike, like how much you’ve already eaten that day and the duration and intensity of your workout. Your own physiology plays a role as well.

To determine the best pre-workout fueling plan for you, take minute to recall the last time you ate and if you currently feel hungry. If it’s been several hours since your last meal or snack, you should probably schedule in a snack before you lace up, Pike suggests. Also, if your workout is going to be 60 minutes or longer and/or especially intense, you should probably eat something beforehand, says Feller.  

When selecting your pre-workout snack, foods with minimal fat and a balanced carb to protein ratio are good bets, says Zuckerbrot.

In general, how much to eat pre-workout will depend how much time you have until your sweat sesh, says Kris Sollid, registered dietitian, senior director of nutrition communications at IFIC Foundation. If you’re fueling on your way to the gym, for example, keep it light, suggests Sollid, like a lower-calorie protein bar with several grams of fiber. A piece of fruit or a cup of berries, which are easily digested and provide quick energy, are also good bets, adds Zuckerbrot.

That said, if eating so soon before a workout triggers GI issues for you, yet you have limited time to fuel up, try eating something even simpler, like a piece of toast, or, if you’d prefer something liquid, an electrolyte beverage, suggests Feller.

If you have more time before your workout—say, an hour or more—you may want to go a little heavier, like a protein smoothie with peanut butter and banana; oatmeal with milk, strawberries and walnuts; or a half sandwich on whole grain bread, says Sollid. Lastly, if you have two or more hours before exercise, even heartier options, like an omelet with veggies and cheese, a sandwich on whole grain bread, or a lean protein with brown rice, could do the trick, says Sollid.

On top of adequate fueling, it’s important to make sure you start your workout hydrated, says Feller. Because hydration needs vary person to person, a good indicator of your current level is the color of your pee. If it’s dark-colored, you should drink more water until it’s a pale yellow color, says Feller. You should aim to hydrate consistently throughout the day, instead of chugging a liter of water right before you hop on the treadmill.

Also, nutrition is definitely not one-size-fits-all, which is why Feller recommends staying mindful of how certain foods and the timing of when you eat them makes you feel, both during and after your workout. You may need to play around with different foods and timings to find what works for you.

How to Refuel After a Workout

Post-workout, your body typically needs three things: carbohydrates (to replenish your glycogen stores), protein (to build and repair muscles), and water (to rehydrate). The specific amount you need of each depends on the intensity and length of the workout, your physiological needs, and health goals, says Zuckerbrot.  

The ideal post-workout snack should pair lean proteins with high-fiber carbohydrates, ideally in a 3 to 1 carb to protein ratio, says Zuckerbrot. As mentioned, the carbs will replenish your body’s glycogen stores, and protein will help your muscles refuel. Protein is especially important if your workout involves weight training, says Zuckerbrot, as that activity can create small tears in the muscle fibers, and protein is what helps your muscles rebuild and grow stronger. To maximize these benefits, eat your snack within an hour after your workout (though sooner is better!)

Great protein choices include grilled chicken and Greek yogurt, says Zuckerbrot, and high-fiber carbs include whole fruits, vegetables, and foods that contain whole grains, like a high-fiber cereal, whole-wheat bread, or whole-grain crackers, she adds. Other good carb-and-protein snacks include a banana with peanut butter or two hard-boiled eggs and crackers, says Pike.

As you schedule in workouts, it can be helpful to stay mindful of your typical hunger patterns, says Feller. If you frequently feel hungry after your workouts or after particular types of workouts, plan ahead so that you have a high-quality, substantial snack readily available when you’re done. This will help you avoid going into your next meal so hungry and at risk of overeating.

And on that note, regardless of whether or not you exercise, “it’s helpful to get in tune with hunger cues so we can better assess how much to eat,” says Pike, who recommends intuitive eating—essentially, listening to your bodily cues and feeding yourself accordingly.

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