Compensation hunger: Why your grocery bill increases when you train harder

We’ve all been there before – neck deep in the fridge, battling ravenous hunger and on the hunt for more food mere minutes after dinner.

It’s fairly common for individuals who train hard to find themselves in this compromising situation, which is far from ideal when you’re trying to maintain race weight or keep that conditioning you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Having devoured all the leftovers from dinner, and your pre-prepped lunch for the next day, you’ll probably be plagued by feelings of guilt and resentment at your perceived inability to control your cravings.

But don’t beat yourself up about it. There is a perfectly logical physiological answer to your plight of ravenous, insatiable hunger, and it’s called compensation hunger.

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Exercise-induced hunger

A growing body of research shows that, in general, energy expenditure from exercise results in an associated increase in caloric intake.

By burning calories through intense or voluminous activity, researchers have found that feelings of hunger intensify as the sensitivity of the body’s hormonally-mediated appetite signalling system increases.

This can also stimulate unconscious changes in food preferences, and alters the pleasure response to food in ways that significantly boost daily calorie intake.

Often referred to as compensation, this exercise-induced hunger not only cancels out the calories burnt during an exercise session, but it’s not uncommon for hard-training individuals to consume more calories than they expended.

This happens because the body initiates a hormonally-driven survival response aimed at restoring the energy reserves that were depleted, and simultaneously tries to compensate for future bouts of excessive energy expenditure.

While the degree of compensation is highly individualised, research findings suggest that energy intake begins to exceed energy expenditure by up to 30% during periods of chronic exercising, especially the longer one spends in an energy deficit.

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Seeking homeostasis

This response relates to the hunger-stimulating effects that exercise produces, as the body tries to return to a state of homeostasis – the more we train, the more our bodies crave fuel.

This process is underpinned by the body’s regulation of energy balance, a dynamic process comprised of a number of metabolic, physiological and hormonal components that seek to achieve energy balance or homeostasis in a coordinated fashion.

When energy balance is disrupted to a large degree, either through chronic exercise or calorie restriction, or a combination of both, it’s often the most readily available and immediate source of fuel that our brains and bodies crave – carbohydrates and sugar.

This then leads to the hormonal cascade that increases hunger through the release of ghrelin. The subsequent release of insulin when we binge on carbs then increases the ease with which excess calories are stored as fat, particularly around our mid-sections.

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Managing compensation hunger

It is important to acknowledge and understand that your hunger is a natural response. In so doing, you’ll be prepared for the spike is cravings when you start getting into the meat of training programme.

The key then is to make better food choices when diving head first into the fridge or pantry cupboard.

It is also beneficial to eat something immediately after a hard training session. In these cases, a well-formulated supplement is often best, as it delivers precise doses of the macronutrients your body needs most to kickstart the recovery and rebuilding process.

By scheduling your workouts before main meals, you’ll also ensure that a large dose of calories soon follow a post-workout supplement. This will further satiate any exercise-induced hunger pangs that may develop. Again, the important factor to consider is meal composition and total energy content. You don’t want to break the proverbial calorie bank in a single sitting, so manage your portions.

Also, stay away from high-GI carbs, particularly the processed variety, as these can amplify the hormonal response mentioned previously.

A solid, nutritious meal comprised predominantly of protein, some healthy fats and lots of vegetables will deliver across the macronutrient and micronutrient spectrums to feed and nourish your body.

Lastly, never use food as a reward for exercising. Numerous studies demonstrate that individuals who contextualise hard or intense exercise as a reward-worthy endeavour tend to overeat during post-workout meals, and tend to reward themselves with less healthful meal options.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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