Riddle me this: An increase in physical activity of any kind is bound to increase your appetite, right? When you expel significant amounts of energy, your system needs to be refueled with foods that are rich in nutrients in order to recover. So, if you’ve noticed your eating habits have changed a bit since you committed to getting and staying active, new research says it’s likely not a coincidence: Exercise can actually make you crave healthy food, and the proof is in the types of snacks you reach for post-workout.
These findings come from a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, in which researchers from the University of Texas at Austin followed the fitness regimens of 2,680 young adults who, prior to this experiment, were not exercising or following a specific diet, according to a ScienceDaily press release. Participants were required to perform 30 minutes of aerobic exercises three times per week for 15 weeks, and even though the researchers never instructed participants to change their eating habits in any way, the results showed that regular exercise seemed to lead to naturally healthy dietary behaviors.
“One of the reasons that we need to promote exercise is for the healthy habits it can create in other areas,” Molly Bray, PhD, chair of the Nutritional Sciences department at UT Austin, a pediatrics faculty member at Dell Medical School, and co-author of the study, said in a statement, per ScienceDaily. “That combination is very powerful."
When you think about the correlation between a healthy workout routine and a healthy diet, it makes sense: You exercise to keep your body healthy, so you might as well keep the ball rolling and follow suit in your food choices, right? This concept is what certified strength and conditioning specialist and founding trainer of Rumble Boxing, Rob Sulaver, refers to as the “virtuous cycle,” in which good exercise habits tend to enforce good eating habits, and vice versa.
“Choosing healthier food post-workout is a psychological benefit of exercise," because, generally speaking, when you bust your butt in the gym, it’s natural to want to keep that good momentum going, Sulaver tells Elite Daily. Therefore, you end up fueling your body with whole, healthy foods. “It self-perpetuates,” he says.
Of course, if you’re working hard at the gym, on the track, in the studio, even on your living room, and you feel good about the way that routine is going and how it's treating your body, there’s no reason not to treat yourself in moderation — heck, no matter what kind of fitness routine you have, you can always give yourself those indulgences. That being said, just remember that “as you become more active, you're simply asking more from your body,” Sulaver tells Elite Daily. “In return, we need to give it more of the goodness that makes it healthy, happy, and strong," including lots of fresh produce, healthy fats, and protein, he explains.
It’s also important to note that, while any level of physical activity requires a nutritious refill, you might not necessarily leave the gym feeling particularly famished all the time. This is because, according to Sulaver, different workouts yield various levels of hunger. "People who do high-volume endurance training quickly figure out that they’re hungry pretty much all the time (they can eat a meal and be hungry an hour later)," he explains, while strength training (and other forms of higher intensity/lower volume exercise), he says, "has a less pronounced effect on hunger."
Sassy Gregson-Williams, a ballerina, personal trainer, cookbook author, and founder of Naturally Sassy, tells Elite Daily that the amount of muscle mass you have also plays a role in how hungry you are post-workout. Cardio creates a greater feeling of hunger than, say, a strength training routine, because the body is losing so much water. But because muscle is active tissue, the more muscle you have, she says, the hungrier you’ll be.
So whether you finish a workout feeling ravenous and craving a salad, or moderately hungry and craving a donut to reward your hard work, it's all good. Just remember the golden rule: Too much of anything is never a good thing, so everything in moderation is key.