Why you crave sweets post-workout and what foods to reach for instead

There's a reason we tend to crave sweets after breaking a sweat.
There's a reason we tend to crave sweets after breaking a sweat. AP Photo/Matthew Mead

Blame science for your junk food cravings following a workout.

New research published in the Journal of Health Psychology suggests we’re wired to want sugary treats after burning up a sweat. That’s the takeaway from the University of Massachusetts study titled “Acute aerobic exercise increases implicit approach motivation for dessert images.”

Its 88 participants were asked to look at a bunch of pictures, some of which included foods like: chocolate, cake, ice cream and brownies. When a photo made them happy, they were told to pull a joystick toward their body. Next, half the group was put through a 20-minute bike workout while the others worked on a computerized memory game. Then they were all shown the pictures again.

Those who’d done the spinning session were way more likely to react to pictures of the sweets.

The theory is…

So why do we crave treats in such situations? The researchers figure it’s because our bodies are looking for ways to get back the energy they lost during a workout.

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“From an evolutionary perspective, individuals need to consume energy (i.e. calories) in order to survive and maintain bodily functions,” the researchers concluded.

Downing calorie-laden sweets is one surefire way to do that. But it’s not exactly the best — especially if you want to cut calories and lose weight.

READ MORE: The skinny on snack bars: What to look for on the nutrition label

What a top registered dietitian says…

Kate Comeau, spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, argues the best way to fight a craving is to first drink some water. You may just be thirsty.

And don’t bother with all those pricey post-workout snacks and supplements, she says.

“Unless you are training twice in a day, or your exercise is very intense, there is no real need for a snack or recovery meal.”

READ MORE: Why prepackaged ‘fitness food’ may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts

Those who still want that post-workout meal or snack, even after a shorter burst of exercise, should think of it as “borrowing” from their next meal instead of adding extra food to their daily intake, Comeau adds.

The official recommendation is that a recovery meal or snack be eaten “within 30 minutes of finishing very intense exercise to speed up muscle repair and refill energy stores in the muscles.”

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Snack ideas following intense workouts:

These should be a combination of carbohydrate-rich foods and include about 15-25 grams of protein.

  • 175 mL of plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup of berries
  • 2 slices of whole grain toast with 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • A smoothie made with 1 cup of milk or fortified soy beverage, 2 tbsp of peanut butter and a banana

READ MORE: Here’s what a top Canadian registered dietitian eats in a day

Snack ideas following less intense exercise:

If you’re looking for something to munch on after your yoga class or 30 minute jog, consider:

  • A banana and 8-10 almonds or cashews
  • An apple with 30 g of cheese
  • Half of a pita with 2 tbsp of hummus

For more suggestions on what to eat before and after a workout, click here.

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