A recent study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explored how exercise influences food intake. They found that it makes a big difference whether you choose your post-ride snack before your training session or wait with your choice after. The results are really helpful, especially for those trying to maintain race weight.

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A chocolate brownie or an apple?

Researchers Karsten Koehler, Ph.D., Christopher Gustafson, Ph.D., and their colleagues asked two groups of participants to go about their normal workout routines. Before exercising, subjects from one group decided whether they wanted an apple, a chocolate brownie or no snack after the exercise. Subjects from the other group were presented with the same choice, but after they had already exercised. What were the differences?

A bowl of oatmeal with nuts, a large omelet, three sandwiches with cheese and ham, 100g of pasta, 1 cup of yoghurt, 500ml fruit smoothie, 1 glass of apple juice, 1 coffee. All of those items make up a breakfast for just one Tour de France cyclist.
  • The apple was chosen by 74 % of participants from the group asked before exercise but only by 55 % of participants from the group asked after.
  • The brownie was selected by 14 % of participants from the pre-exercise group and by 20 % of participants from the post-exercise group.
  • Only 12 % of participants from the pre-exercise group declined a snack compared to 25 % in the post-exercise group.

“We found that there was very little research on this very tangible thing that I think everyone can relate to,” said Koehler, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences. “If your goal is to lose weight, then I would say our findings support that you’re better off making the choice not when you’re hungry after your workout but instead before you go to the gym.”

Why do you make worse choices after exercise?

This study set out to test two models of behaviour: ‘compensatory eating’ that suggests that people consume more calorie-dense food in the aftermath of exercise to make up for the calories expended. And ‘exercise-induced anorexia’, which says that exercise can suppress appetite-related hormones and consequently lead people to eat less.

The post-exercise group participants were choosing the brownie more often than the pre-exercise.

“There have been a lot of lab studies that have looked at appetite and hunger,” Koehler said. “Most of these studies have found that right after exercise, you seem to be less hungry. I’ve always looked at these studies and wondered: does it have such a strong impact that you can use this window after you exercise to say, ‘Because I’m not hungry, I’m going to make a really good choice about what I eat’? But knowing myself and many other exercisers, there’s also the notion that after you exercise, you want to reward yourself.”

The study’s results support both models to an extent. The post-exercise group participants were choosing the brownie more often than the pre-exercise but they were also declining a snack all together more often. How about you? Do you think you would choose differently before and after your ride?

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