If you fear that your nightly workouts will cause you to become ravenous and gorge on snacks right away, you shouldn’t worry. According to new research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, exercise actually suppresses hunger pangs — at least immediately and temporarily after you step off the treadmill.
Researchers sought to test the effects of creating a calorie deficit through exercise versus food restriction. In the first study, researchers looked at the hormonal and behavioral responses of 12 healthy young women over the course of nine hours on a single day. One group of women created a calorie deficit by restricting food intake, whereas the other group did the same through workouts.
The researchers noted that those who cut back on their food intake experienced spikes in ghrelin, also known as the “hunger hormone,” and drops in the appetite-suppressing hormone peptide YY. These women also consumed an average of 944 calories when presented with a buffet meal, whereas the group of women who created calorie deficits through exercise alone took in around 660 calories at the same meal.
The research team had run trials on exercise and appetite focused on men in the past, so for the second study, they also wanted to see if exercise induced different levels of hunger in different sexes. The answer? Nope. When they instructed 10 men and 10 women to run for 60 minutes at the beginning of a seven-hour testing period, the scientists didn’t see any difference between genders in perception of hunger, hunger-related hormones, or food intake.
There are a few limitations to this new study. The sample size was small and only involved a young, healthy population, so there might be some variation in people with conditions such as obesity or diabetes. But according to Jackie Buell PhD, RD, an assistant professor of Health Sciences and Medical Dietetics at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, there’s definitely a reason why hunger may calm down after a workout.
Buell says that as adrenaline kicks in, the fight-or-flight response is triggered in our sympathetic nervous system, causing our bodies to shut down some momentarily unnecessary functions. “Enkephalins might be another piece of this,” she tells Yahoo Beauty, as these peptides are released in the brain during exercise, which tend to trigger positive vibes and reduce pains (and perhaps hunger pangs). “But as a person relaxes from the exercise session, the parasympathetic system takes over again and drives the food-seeking.” So, your hunger is definitely going to return.
And you should heed its call. Prolonged restriction typically leads to overeating later on, so make sure to fuel up whenever your stomach starts growling again after that run, says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, founder of the New York Nutrition Group. “The best type of post-workout recovery snacks includes both protein and carbohydrates,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “Protein helps repair muscle tissue, which later increases strength and muscle growth, and carbohydrates help facilitate that protein absorption into cells.”
Moskovitz usually recommends a 1:1 ratio of protein to carbs, which means roughly 20 to 30 grams of protein and 20 to 30 grams of carbs, a half hour or so after you hit the gym for an hour. “Try a cup of Greek yogurt mixed with one teaspoon of honey and a half cup of cereal,” she says. “Or one cup of skim milk with a scoop of whey protein powder and a banana for a smoothie will work too.”
Other options include half of a turkey sandwich, half a bagel with a swipe of tuna salad, or even a 10 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk. “Higher glycemic carbs, such as honey, chocolate syrup, and white bread, which digest more quickly and enter bloodstream faster, are better post-workout, as they get the protein to the muscles faster,” Moskowitz explains.
If anything, this research serves as a reminder to eat up. Skipping a meal is definitely not the solution for cutting calories on non-workout days.