Have you ever felt hungry or thirsty during or after a workout? It is not uncommon to confuse the two sensations when it comes to your appetite and wonder, “Should I eat or drink, and when?” In this article, we will identify the body’s different signals and how to mindfully respond to them to manage hunger and thirst.
Hunger is the body’s signal indicating its need for food and energy. There are three types of hunger that reflect your body’s need for food in everyday life: physical, emotional, and situational hunger. First, symptoms of physical hunger include stomach growling, weakness, headaches, loss of concentration, and mood swings. Be mindful of these physical signals and respond to them regularly because if they are ignored, then the body will release hormones that increase the sensation of hunger, decreasing the hormone that enhances satiety (Brown, 2017). Second, emotional hunger is the desire to eat to cope with feelings (i.e., sad, lonely, anxious, or bored). Unmanaged emotional hunger can lead to eating disorders and/or worsened emotional health, which in extreme cases professional support from a mental health counselor or dietitian is suggested.
The best way to manage hunger is to recognize these signals to distinguish between physical versus emotional hunger. Then, use The Hunger Scale to measure your hunger level before, during, and after eating to monitor your food intake:
4-Satisfied (not hungry nor full)
Third, situational hunger is influenced by your surroundings. For example, extra-large restaurant servings, food ads, and your home and workplace influence your food intake. Furthermore, when individuals are eating and distracted by watching television, on a phone call, or browsing the web, their attention is drawn away from the food being eaten, which can lead to over-consumption (Crome, 2017). In response to these habits, the Food and Brand Lab recommends the “C.A.N.” approach, which encourages making healthy foods Convenient, Attractive, and Normal (Brown, 2017). For instance, consider decluttering your kitchen, pre-washing and slicing produce, preparing healthy meals in batches on the weekends for your workweek ahead, or replacing unhealthy snacks with better on-the-go options. As you can see, there are different types of hunger, but if you listen and respond to these signals mindfully, your relationship with food will be more positive.
Meal timing is key to workout performance and recovery. It is normal to feel hungry after a workout because exercise burns calories. Whether or not you eat before your workout can impact your hunger later in the day. In fact, exercising in a fasted state will lead to early fatigue, poor stamina, and increased hunger later (Bachus and Macdonald, 2015). Sheri Berger, BaySport Registered Dietitian, recommends that for quick energy, pre-workout meals should consist mostly of carbohydrates and consumed 1-2 hours prior to strength training (e.g., a smoothie or Greek yogurt with fruits, nuts, and honey) or having a small snack (e.g., granola bar, fresh fruit, or a bagel with peanut butter) about 30-60 minutes before cardio or circuit training. Following cardio or circuit training, eat a small snack within 30 minutes after your workout and a meal, composed of a ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 carbs and protein (e.g., pasta with a salad and a glass of milk), within 2 hours of finishing. Similarly, post-workout meals following weight training should be consumed within 2 hours and composed of a carb to protein ratio of 2:1 or 1:1 (e.g. grilled chicken with rice and broccoli). Whenever possible, choose whole foods.
At the same time, if you feel hungry, you might actually be thirsty. Thirst is the body’s signal that it is on the way to dehydration. The American Council on Exercise emphasizes that most people do not drink enough water before, during, and after exercise, but it is recommended to drink whether you are thirsty or not. Consider the various factors that influence intake throughout your day: sweat rate, water lost through excretion, food and beverage consumption, metabolic water loss and any water lost through respiration. Given that, the brain sometimes confuses a lack of fluid with not enough food, signaling physical hunger symptoms. In addition, be aware of concentrated and decreased urine (urine should be a pale yellow), weight loss, increased heart rate and low blood pressure, dry mouth and eyes, and constipation. Because water composes more than half of the human body, it is impossible to sustain life for more than a week without it and must be consumed to replace the amount lost each day during basic activities.
Water is the best form of hydration for most individuals, and it is recommended to drink eight 8 ounce cups of water a day. Before exercise, drink 2-3 cups of fluid 2 to 3 hours before workout and 1 cup of fluid 10 to 20 minutes right before activity. During exercise, drink 1 cup of fluid every 15 minutes, and after exercise, drink at least 2 cups. Sports drinks are not needed unless the activity exceeds 45-60 minutes to replenish salt lost during sweat. If sports drinks are unavailable drink water and having a salty snack (i.e. pretzels). Moreover, daily water intake does not always need to be met through the consumption of plain water (Nitschke, 2017). Foods and beverages possessing hydrating properties that work to our benefit include: fruits fresh, frozen or canned in natural juice, leafy greens, dairy, coffee/tea, tomatoes, and oatmeal.
In conclusion, listen to your body’s hunger signals and respond to them accordingly. Time your meals and check the hunger scale to monitor food intake, choosing whole foods whenever possible. Remember to drink throughout the day to quench your thirst and that there are alternative sources from which you can fulfill your daily water intake from. Taking steps to manage your thirst and hunger will promote a more positive relationship with food and a satiated appetite.
Bachus, T., R.D.N., & Macdonald, E., R.D.N. (2015, July 20). Why Am I Always Hungry After a Workout? Retrieved March 16, 2017, from https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/60/5552/why-am-i-always-hungry-after-a-workout/
Brown, K. (2017, March 10). All About Hunger. Retrieved March 16, 2017, from https://www.acefitness.org/blog/6331/all-about-hunger
Crome, G. (2017, March 7). Mindful Eating. Retrieved March 16, 2017, from https://www.acefitness.org/blog/6323/mindful-eating/?topicScope=nutrition
Healthy Hydration. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2017, from
Nitschke, E. (2016, December 28). Eat Your Water – Sources of Hydrating Foods. Retrieved March 16, 2017, from https://www.acefitness.org/blog/6211/eat-your-water-sources-of-hydrating-foods
John Paul (JP) is a American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer. He is a Bay Area native and long-time San Francisco Giants and 49ers fan. He spent most of the winter shredding the slopes on his snowboard, but is ready to hit the ground running again to train for his 7th full marathon.