7 Ways to Stop Overeating After Your Workout

PHOTO: How to avoid gaining weight despite all your hard work.Getty Images
How to avoid gaining weight despite all your hard work.

intro: You must have sweated off hundreds of calories during that Spin class, so it's totally okay to indulge in a bowl of ice cream when you get home—right?

Not so fast.

Research shows that people tend to reward themselves with rich foods and large portions after exercising, and that they often eat back all of (if not more than) the calories they just burned. There's nothing wrong with small snack or a filling dinner after exercising, says Emily Brown, RD, a wellness dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. and former professional runner. But before you dig in, you have to understand your body's true nutrition needs so you don't end up gaining weight despite all your hard work.

Read on for the smartest ways to refuel—and silence that rumbling belly.

quicklist: 1 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Work out right before a meal url: text: If you're always hungry after you exercise—regardless of whether you ate beforehand or how many calories you burned—try to schedule your workouts before one of your main meals, says Brown. That way, you can refuel with calories you would have consumed anyway, without having to add extra snacks into your day.

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This strategy can work regardless of whether you're a morning, noon, or nighttime exerciser. Have a small snack when you wake up and eat a larger breakfast after your a.m. run; hit the gym at lunchtime and pick up a sandwich on the way back to the office; or prep your dinner ahead of time so you can just heat it up when you get home from an evening barre class.

quicklist: 2 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Make your workout fun url: text: Thinking about exercise less as a chore and more as something you do because you enjoy it can help you eat less afterward, according to a 2014 Cornell University study.

Researchers led volunteers on a 1.4—mile walk, telling half of them that it was for exercise and half that it was a scenic stroll. The "exercise" group ate 35 percent more chocolate pudding for dessert than the "scenic" group. In another experiment, volunteers were given post-walk snacks, and the "exercisers" ate 124 percent more calories than those who were told it was just for fun.

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quicklist: 3 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Pair protein and carbs url: text: When you do need a snack to recover from a tough sweat session, Brown recommends a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. "This will allow you to begin to replenish your energy levels and repair muscle damage resulting from the workout," she says.

For workouts less than an hour, keep your snack to 150 to 200 calories total—an open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a slice of turkey and cheese on crackers, or a handful of trail mix, for example. If you worked out for longer than an hour and aren't eating a full meal soon, aim for half a gram of carbohydrates for every pound of body weight. A 140-pound person, for example, should refuel with 70 grams of carbs and about 18 grams of protein. (An energy bar or protein shake, plus one of the healthy snacks above, should fit the bill.)

quicklist: 4 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Get milk url: text: Low-fat dairy is another great recovery food with plenty of protein to help tide you over until your next mea., says Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. Plus, studies have shown that refueling with dairy—low-fat chocolate milk, specifically—helps improve subsequent athletic performances better than traditional sports drinks.

quicklist: 5 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Stop eating out of habit url: text: Sometimes, overeating after exercise is more a consequence of routine than anything else. "When you consistently consume a 500-calorie smoothie after you finish up at the gym, you start to get into that habit of consuming a smoothie no matter how long or intense your exercise was," says Brown.

Her solution? Choose different snacks for different workouts—the shorter the duration, the fewer calories you need to replenish— and always pay attention to your hunger cues. "It's important for weight loss and weight maintenance to get in tune with your body and learn to eat in response to hunger, versus eating in response to boredom, stress, or the idea of rewarding yourself for exercising."

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quicklist: 6 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Don't trust your tracker url: text: Activity trackers like the Fitbit and Jawbone have become a trendy way to estimate physical activity expenditure throughout the day. But a 2014 Iowa State University study found that not all devices are accurate in estimating calorie burn during workouts. The least accurate device, the Basis Band, had an error rate of 23.5 percent.

Even the most accurate trackers can still only provide an estimate of true calorie burn, says Brown, and it's not smart to base your refueling strategy entirely on their calculations. "You also want to get in the habit of eating in response to hunger and stopping in response to comfortable fullness. This is dictated less by numbers and more by listening to your body."

quicklist: 7 category: How to Stop Overeating After Your Workout title: Snack throughout the day url: text: It may seem counterintuitive, but eating more throughout the day may be your ticket to consuming fewer calories overall, especially if you tend to pig out post-workout. "Incorporating two to three healthy snacks throughout the day will help regulate hunger between meals, increase energy, and keep metabolism bumped up," says White.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.