Overcoming the post-exercise cravings

An age-old proverb states that good behavior deserves a reward. Moms want the chores done, teachers want completed homework and coaches want to win games. And whether it is a treat from the cookie jar, a gold star or a starting position, the human body is conditioned to exchange hard work for a savory delight.

It is no wonder that after a tough hour at the gym people feel entitled to devour a bowl of ice cream or shovel down a second dinner.

According to Dale Schoeller, a professor of nutritional sciences at UW-Madison, the physiological and psychological needs associated with exercise affect people's post-workout diet. Poor eating habits after exercise stems from an imbalance between what the body needs and what the mind wants. Emotional eating powered by a caloric deficit or behavioral conditioning can hinder a healthy diet.

When students experience an imbalance of calories or emotional cravings after a workout, they head to the kitchen.

UW-Madison junior Alex Martina said the meal after her workout is the largest one of the day.

""I crave healthy foods after I run, but I do feel entitled to eat more,"" Martina said.

According to Schoeller, exercise can easily lead to a caloric deficit, when the body burns more calories than it consumes. The brain recognizes the caloric deficit when the insufficient calorie intake triggers its hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin levels typically increase before meals and decrease after meals; however, if the body's calorie count is low at any given time, ghrelin levels will increase and produce hunger.

Poor eating habits do not have to accompany a workout, according to Schoeller.

""It's okay to eat more after a workout, just be careful how much more,"" Schoeller said. ""Keep in mind, though, that if the goal of an exercise regime is weight loss, do not eat more.""

According to Schoeller, if students expend calories doing day-to-day chores, and then go to the gym in addition to that, it is normal for them to feel hungry afterwards. However, he said students do not actually realize the amount of calories that they burn throughout the day. Routine activities, such as cleaning the house or walking to the class, burns calories, and the body even burns calories when it is at rest.

To maintain a healthy weight, the average student only needs about 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day combined with a nutritious diet, Schoeller said. This could be anything from a brisk walk to a fast jog.

The combination of daily activities and a workout creates physiological needs for food, especially if a student is not eating enough throughout the day. According to Schoeller, the way to accommodate those needs is to eat more based on those physiological needs, rather than psychological needs. In other words, eat more if the body needs it, but do not use the workout as an excuse to overeat beyond fullness.

Whether students feel entitled to overeat or a craving for unhealthy food, psychological factors often influence poor eating habits after exercise.

UW-Madison junior Kayleigh Marten said that she works out five days a week and tries to stick to fruit and water after her workouts. Still, she occasionally craves unhealthy snacks.

""I get in the mindset where I think, ‘I just worked out for two hours; I can have a pizza,'"" Marten said.

Cravings can be physiologic or conditioned. A desire for unhealthy food may be the hunger and satiety hormones taking care of the body's caloric needs, but more commonly, it is an emotional need for comfort foods that results from a conditioned behavior, Schoeller said. This kind of behavior is a conditioned response from childhood. If junk food accompanied exercise in childhood, then the body is conditioned to crave it for years after. For example, if a student ate Dairy Queen for a post-game treat in Little League, then their body still expects to have a similar indulgence after every workout. As one's metabolism slows down with age, these post-work treats will not burn off as quickly as they used to. To undo this response to exercise, college students must re-condition their minds to expect something healthy after a workout.

For some students, there is no need to re-condition behavior.

Casey Lynde, a UW-Madison senior, works out about three to four times a week, and eats out for almost every meal. Standing at six feet and 185 pounds, he still maintains a healthy weight for his frame.

""I drink a lot of water after my workouts and stick to my usual unhealthy meals,"" Lynde says. ""And obviously I eat more because I just burned a lot off.""

Unlike Martina and Marten, after a workout Lynde feels compelled to meet his physiological needs rather than his psychological ones. Although his post-workout meals are unhealthy, he eats them in response to his body's need for food, not the fulfillment of a craving or an entitlement to overeat. His diet stays consistent before and after working out.

It is obvious that nutritious foods, exercise and a good night's rest all contribute to maintaining a healthy lifestyle; it is just a matter of whether or not people actually do these things, Lori Devine, the fitness director for the Division of Recreational Sports, said.

""It's not about knowing what's good for you and what's bad for you, people know if you eat the muffin instead of the apple, you're going to gain weight,"" Devine said. ""It's common sense.""

According to Devine, students must use their self-control to make healthy choices. It is okay to have junk food once in awhile, but do not eat it every day.

Although it may sound easy to make healthy choices, post-workout cravings and overeating continue to tempt some students; however, Schoeller mentioned ways to break free of this unhealthy cycle.

""You need to get to know yourself in order to make behavior modifications,"" Schoeller said.

He recommended keeping a diary to see what triggers specific cravings. Then, find a substitute for that craving, such as taking a walk or chatting with a roommate instead.

""Two things lead to weight gain, genetics and environment,"" Schoeller said. ""You cannot control your genes but you can control your environment.""


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