It feels good to finish a workout, especially a challenging, high-intensity one! Sometimes, we mindlessly treat ourselves to a sugary treat, as our conscious tells us we deserve it after such a challenging sweat session. After all, exercise burns calories! Surely, we need to replace them. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to “overeat” a workout and end up in a calorie surplus.
Why is it so easy to head to the doughnut store after a workout or indulge in the quart of ice cream hiding in the fridge? Some people already have a problem with sugar cravings. They don’t just enjoy sweet stuff, but their body craves it and it’s difficult for them to shut off their desire to bite into something sweet. You might wonder what impact exercise has on sugar cravings. Can exercise worsen sugar cravings or can it actually make them better?
Unfortunately, there’s still not a great deal of research on the topic of exercise and sugar cravings. But preliminary research suggests that exercise may increase the desire to eat something sweet, at least for some people. Why might this be? During exercise, your body burns through glycogen stores and your body naturally wants to replace them since glycogen is a muscle’s preferred source of energy. Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate and the way to replace it is to consume carbohydrates. Your body knows that your glycogen needs to be replenished, so you feel hungry for something sweet. Sugar cravings may be your body’s way to remind you to refuel after a workout.
Factors that Impact Sugar Cravings after a Workout
However, not everyone experiences sugar cravings after a workout. Whether you have an overwhelming desire to nosh on sweet stuff after a workout may partially depend on the diet you routinely eat, the type of exercise you do, and how physically fit you are. Some people are more efficient at burning fat as fuel and more readily tap into fat as an energy source during exercise. Therefore, they conserve more of their glycogen stores when they work out. People who are physically fit and have been exercising for months or years are usually more efficient at using fat as fuel during exercise. In contrast, sedentary people and people who are overweight or obese are less efficient fat burners and burn through glycogen stores faster.
The type of exercise you do is another factor. High-intensity exercise forces your body to use a higher ratio of carbohydrates to fat as an energy source since fat is a “slow” fuel that’s better suited to low to moderate-intensity exercise as opposed to HIIT training where you need to supply your muscles with fuel as quickly as possible. If more intense exercise causes you to crave sugar, this may be why. Lower intensity exercise may help reign in sugar cravings. For example, a study found that taking a short walk can reduce cravings and improve self-control.
Also, the diet you eat may be a factor. If you eat a low-carbohydrate diet routinely, your body has adapted to using fat as a fuel source. It can also better harness fat as a fuel source during exercise. On the other hand, if you regularly eat a diet high in refined carbs, your body expects a constant supply of readily available glucose and is less efficient at using fat as fuel. Although a low-carb, ketogenic diet isn’t for everyone, some athletes believe it improves their performance during moderate-intensity endurance exercise because their bodies adapt to using fat as a primary fuel source. In fact, there’s evidence to support this. However, the same may not apply to high-intensity exercise. A study carried out by researchers at Saint Louis University found that men and women performed worse during anaerobic exercise when they ate a ketogenic diet.
How Exercise Can Work in Your Favor
On the other hand, exercise can in some ways help you better deal with sugar cravings. A workout boosts the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a mood-enhancing brain chemical. One theory as to why people crave sugar is that they’re trying to get a short-term boost in mood or better manage stress. So, exercise boosts serotonin in your brain and therefore has some of the same impact as eating a sugary treat. Plus, exercise increases levels of another mood-enhancing group of chemicals called endorphins. When serotonin and endorphins are pulsing through your body, you feel good without indulging in sugar. So, regular physical activity could help you tame those sugar cravings by its impact on brain chemistry.
Plan Around Those Sugar Cravings
Don’t let your after-workout snacking habits undo your hard work! The key is to plan your post-workout meals carefully so you can replenish your glycogen stores in a healthy manner. Satisfy a sugar craving with a bowl of naturally sweet berries or other fruit rather than a sugary pastry. Mix berries into yogurt and you’ll get healthy carbs and protein to help further curb those cravings. Ideally, it’s best to consume a ratio of carbs to protein after a workout of around 3 to 1. The worst thing you can do is not refuel with healthy foods after a HIIT session or any form of exercise. You’ll inevitably become hungry and reach for whatever is most convenient, like that tray of brownies in the break room.
Also, make sure you’re hydrating during and after your workouts. Once completing a workout, focus on hydration first. Sometimes we confuse thirst and hunger signals and eat something sweet when our body is actually telling us we need to drink fluid.
The Bottom Line
Preliminary research suggests that, at least for some people, a tough workout can trigger the desire to eat something sweet. The intensity of the workout may be a factor since you deplete more glycogen during an intense workout session. So, the urge to eat a cookie or other sweet treat may be stronger after an exhausting workout session. Plus, you’re mentally tired and may be less inclined to make the right food choices. Plan carefully so that you can refuel with nutrient-dense foods that will satiate and prevent cravings. Choose fiber-rich carbohydrate sources combined with protein and you’ll help keep those post-workout cravings at bay.
· HealthLine.com. “Here’s Why the Keto Diet May Hurt Your Athletic Performance”
· Journal of Health Psychology. Vol 23, Issue 6, 2018.
· Diabetes Self-Management. “Exercise and Cravings”