“I have been a very active person most my life; I played four sports in high school. I’m in my 30s now and have remained active up until I had to stop because of injury. I had to stop running and actually exercising altogether last year because I had knee surgery. I finished physical therapy and am back to my old, active self now. I try to take two to four classes at my gym each week and I do strength training with weights with a trainer twice a week. Problem is I gained a lot of weight (about 40 pounds!) while I was recovering from surgery. I’ve lost half of it but since I started exercising again, I’ve noticed that I’m always hungry. Always. Like starving. They say you should listen to your body. I want to be healthy and don’t want to starve myself but I’m still overweight for my height and I know that’s not healthy. Should I put the gym on hold until I lose the rest of the weight? I don’t know what to do. Can I lose the last 20 pounds (and keep the weight off) but stay as active without feeling like I’m starving?” – Terry M., Farmingdale, NY
First off, Terry, I want to congratulate you for getting back on the horse after working through your injury. I have a specialization in corrective exercise and, as a result, have worked with a number of clients returning to the gym post-surgery and the work involved in rebuilding strength, stabilization, endurance and range of motion is not only physically challenging but can be psychologically daunting. I hope you can appreciate how impressive your progress has been thus far.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Almost anyone will experience an increase in appetite when they drastically change the intensity of the fitness regimen, even if you are already in excellent shape. It’s not surprising that you’re experiencing a marked increase in appetite as you have shifted from being more or less sedentary to full throttle in a relatively short period of time. What you are experiencing is to be expected but there are some tips I can offer to help you work around it.
“I DON’T NEED TO BE MUSCLE-Y. I JUST DON’T WANT TO BE FAT”
I can’t tell you how many people use “Exercise makes me hungry” as an excuse not to exercise. I have heard so many variations on this sentiment, “I’ll start exercising once I lose the first 12 pounds,” or “It’s all diet anyway. I don’t need to be all big and muscle-y. I just don’t want to be fat,” or, occasionally someone will bust out this goody, “Exercise makes me fat.”
You’re doing the right thing by getting back to the gym. For long-term success, exercise is the best possible thing you can do. You mentioned that you not only want to lose the 20 pounds to get to your goal weight, but that you want to keep it off. So many folks focus so hard on the “After” in “Before and After,” that they forget the most important phase is “After-After.”
While it’s true, that reducing your calories is a bigger factor in weight loss initially—it isn’t the long-term solution. To lose weight, you want to create a calorie deficit by expending more calories than you take in. Naturally, exercise contributes to that deficit. Believe it or not, the most important benefit exercise has to offer you on your weight loss journey isn’t in the number of calories it burns. In order to keep the weight off, you will need to change your body composition. You don’t just want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. You want to build muscle (even if you don’t know it.) Building lean muscle will elevate your resting metabolism. More muscle on your frame (and that doesn’t mean you need to look like a bodybuilder) will allow you to burn more calories while you sleep.
EAT MORE (BUT NOT TOO MUCH MORE)
Now that you are exercising, it is likely that you can increase your calorie count for the day (but not by too much) on the days that you exercise. You do want to remain in a deficit for the time being. So, if you are limiting your calories and you need energy for your workouts; the number of calories you take in won’t be the only factor; you will also need to consider quality of calories.
ALL CALORIES ARE NOT CREATED EQUALLY
To get the most out of your workouts, you want to make sure that you are giving your body what it needs; plenty of lean protein, complex carbs, vegetables, some (but not too much) healthy fat, an adequate amount of fiber and a lot of water. Foods containing these nutrients pack the most pound-for-pound (pun intended) caloric punch in terms of the way to get the most out of your allotted calories for the day.
People tend to get “penny wise/ pound foolish” when they are counting calories. People will often dismiss a nutrient-dense food if it isn’t a low-calorie food. You are better off eating one serving of avocado (234 calories) that is more likely to help you feel full than 2- 100 calorie snack packs of pudding or crackers or some other food-type product completely devoid of calories.
EAT MORE OFTEN
Eating the right foods in small portions every couple of hours should help preempt the desire to binge. Plus, fibrous foods, foods rich in protein and complex carbohydrates tend to make you feel full for longer periods of time. Pounding water all day long, even if you aren’t thirsty, should also help curb your cravings.
AND IF THAT DOESN’T WORK, TRY THIS…
Of course, everybody is different and every BODY is different so that hungry feeling might not go away entirely but there are ways to help yourself if you find that’s the case. Feeling hungry is not simply a matter of an empty belly; it’s the result of messages from the brain and the way your individual body responds or does not respond to certain hormones, and exercise affects each of us differently. If you are one of those people that gets more hungry signals when active than most, make sure you eat something of quality within thirty minutes of working out. Post-workout, rather than doing a protein shake immediately after and a “real” meal later, switch it up and eat a full meal; a lean protein, a vegetable and a complex carb within 45 minutes of your workout and then do a whey protein shake (try and limit your shake to about 100 calories and you don’t need to go crazy with grams of protein 18-25 grams is more than sufficient) about 90 minutes to two hours after that meal.
THERE IS A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
In time, your body will likely adapt to your current activity level and the cravings should subside somewhat. If you can make it over the hump, your strength training will pay off, as an increase muscle mass will allow you to consume more calories as your metabolism will be higher all day long.
I hope this helps, Terry. Let me know how you progress and thanks for writing!
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