So much of maintaining a healthy weight has to do with awareness – awareness of what triggers you to eat and how much you’re actually eating. Too many people eat in a less than mindful manner, munching on snacks without really tasting them or even being aware that they’re snacking. Yet another problem that can make it harder to control your weight is compensatory eating – eating something unhealthy to compensate for another healthy behavior or as a way to reward yourself. Compensatory eating comes in two main forms. Let’s look at each of them.
Compensatory Eating after Making a Healthy Dietary Choice
The New York Times recently discussed compensatory eating in an article entitled How Salad Can Make You Fat. Have you ever eaten something healthy, like a salad or a plate of vegetables, and then topped off your uber-healthy meal with a 500-calorie dessert? The same sort of compensatory eating is at play when people order a Big Mac, large fries, and a diet soft drink.
Why does this type of compensatory eating happen? Research suggests this type of behavior sometimes operates below our awareness – we tend to balance out something healthy with something we deem pleasurable. As discussed in the New York Times article, fast food restaurants take advantage of this fact by including healthy items like apples or green salads in small numbers on the menu with the knowledge that simply seeing a healthy item on the menu gives you license to top your meal off with a shake or an order of fries. After all, if the restaurant serves a salad, their other items must not be so bad, right?
Seeing a healthy item on a menu can even distort your perception of how many calories less healthy items contain. In one study, participants guessed that a hamburger had a certain number of calories but when the burger was placed next to a plate of celery sticks, they thought the burger had 20% fewer calories than it actually did. Talk about your brain playing tricks on you!
Why does this happen? Scientists believe we each have a certain concept of how healthy we eat and when we violate that self-concept by eating something uncharacteristically healthy, we balance it with something less healthful. For example, you might eat a bowl of broccoli and top it off with a slice of cheesecake.
Compensatory Eating after a Workout
Compensatory overeating after a workout is another example of a healthy behavior followed by a less healthy one. You need to eat after a workout, but the ideal post-workout snack isn’t a cookie. What you need is a combination of protein and carbs. Still, good-intentioned people, sometimes reach for a sugary snack after a workout because they believe they’ve earned it by exercising. With the number of calories you get in some sugary snacks, it’s not hard to way overeat your workout.
Some studies looking at the effects of exercise on weight loss found participants who worked out didn’t lose as much weight as expected and some even gained weight after starting an exercise program. The reason? It’s likely the participants consciously or unconsciously consumed more calories to compensate for their hard work.
Another type of post-workout compensation has to do with post-workout activity level. You’ve just completed a high-intensity workout and you’re wiped out. Whereas you might normally take the stairs at work and go on a walk at lunch, you take the elevator and forgo the walk because you’re tired. So, you compensate for the calories you burned working out by being less active for the rest of the day.
NEAT is a Form of Compensation
Such compensation may even occur beyond our awareness. One source of calorie burn is the little movements you do throughout the day such as fidgeting. This type of unplanned activity is called NEAT, non-exercise adaptive thermogenesis, and a habitual fidgeter can burn up to 350 extra calories a day just tapping their feet, shaking their legs, and fidgeting with their hands. Some research suggests we fidget less after a workout as a way to conserve energy.
Timothy Church, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, has researched exercise compensation. As he quotes:
“An individual’s tendency to compensate has a direct bearing on how easy — or difficult — it will be for that person to lose weight by exercising”
Is it because exercise increases appetite? Research is conflicting on this. Some research suggests exercise increases the appetite hormone ghrelin, but surprisingly, at least one study showed despite the rise in ghrelin, participants didn’t consume more calories afterward after a workout than they burned exercising.
Exercise intensity and type of exercise may be a factor too. Some studies show high-intensity exercise at least transiently suppresses appetite while swimming due to changes in body temperature, stimulates appetite. In reality, appetite is a complex phenomenon mediated by a variety of hormones and influenced by emotional factors and an individual’s attitude towards food. Therefore, it’s hard to generalize as to the effect exercise has on appetite as it may vary with the person and the type of exercise.
How Can You Avoid the Overcompensation Phenomenon?
The best way to avoid jeopardizing healthy behaviors with unhealthy ones and out eating your workouts is to be aware. Keep a journal of what you ate, when you ate it, and your emotional state at the time. You can learn a lot by looking back over your food intake time and discover patterns of mindless and emotional eating.
Another way is to focus on the goal of living healthy in every moment rather than the vague and ambiguous goal of being healthy or losing weight. Also, don’t be so extreme that you deem certain foods off limits. Enjoying your favorite, less healthy, foods in moderation will help reduce the psychological urge to eat something unhealthy out of frustration.
American Council on Exercise. “The Truth about Exercise and Appetite”
The New York Times. “How Salad Can Make You Fat”
Women’s Health. “Can Exercise Make You GAIN Weight?”
Los Angeles Times. “Hungry after that workout?”
Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702.
Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.2006; 26: 729-736.
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