Many people exercise in order to lose weight or to keep it under control, but does this make sense? It is beyond doubt that regular exercise will improve your health and well-being, but could it make you hungrier, and therefore make you eat more? If so, it would not make any difference for your waistline…
In the November 2014 issue of Nutrients, Stephanie Howe and her colleagues published a review article discussing what we know today about this subject. There are still plenty of questions left, especially concerning women, as most studies have been done on men. Studies on women are indeed much more difficult to conduct since oestrogen influences appetite, and researchers therefore have to control for the menstrual status.
Stephanie Howe and her colleagues explain how hormones influence our appetite, and how exercise influences these hormones. They then discuss several studies which have investigated this problem, and finally they look at the impact of diet.
They come to the conclusion that if you are sedentary, an acute bout of exercise is likely to make you overeat. However, as you become well-trained, your body becomes better and better at matching your energy intake with your expenditure.
They also note that as intense exercise suppresses your appetite more, you have to pay attention to what you are having after hard workouts: you could be tempted to eat too little or too late, which will delay your recovery.
Their article is free for all to read, and I will just try to make a summary in lay terms.
What determines your appetite?
Appetite is very complex and influenced by a long list of factors, such as gastric motility, the status of your energy reserves, temperature, dehydration… Your brain receives all this information via hormonal and neural signals, integrates them and then stimulates or suppresses your appetite.
The involved hormones can roughly be divided into two types: tonic circulating and episodic hormones.
The tonic circulating ones reflect your energy reserves and suppress your appetite when your energy stores are full, and are thus more involved with long term regulation. The best known ones are insulin and leptin.
The episodic hormones on the other hand are involved in short term appetite. Most of them are gut hormones and are released when you are eating or just before a meal. They suppress appetite, except for ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry. As their levels depend on what you are eating, it is easy to see why some diets make you feel fuller than others. Foods rich in fibres for example, will allow you to take in fewer calories without feeling hungry.
As mentioned earlier, oestrogen and progestogen also influence appetite, which explains why many women tend to gain weight during the menopause.
All these hormones act on the hypothalamus (an organ in your brain), which integrates the information and controls your appetite. Despite this sophisticated system, other factors, such as the sight and smell of food, cultural and social elements or the time of the day, also influence your desire to eat and can even override the hormonal influences.
Researchers who want to study the influence of exercise on appetite therefore have to measure the amount of the appetite hormones in your blood as well as your desire to eat. The first can easily be done by a blood test, and the latter is often done using a visual analogue scale (VAS) or by measuring what the participants eat at a buffet in the research centre. A visual analogue scale typically consists of a series of numbered boxes (e.g. from 1 to 10), where the first and the last ones correspond to the extremes (e.g. “I’ve never been so hungry” and “I couldn’t eat anything at all”). You can then mark the box that corresponds best with how you are feeling.
Appetite hormones and exercise
A bout of aerobic exercise decreases your appetite by influencing your gut hormones. This effect is more pronounced in weight baring and more metabolic demanding exercise, such as running, than in non weight baring exercise.
Intense exercise influences the hormones more than moderate exercise. This suppression is only temporarily, but it can be enough to interfere with your next meal, and therefore with your recovery. This explains why it is so hard to eat anything solid after a race!
Resistance exercise on the other hand, does not seem to have an influence.
Are you really eating less?
It is not because your hormones are suppressing your appetite that you will eat less. As I am sure you know by experience, you can override your appetite if the food looks nice or if you believe you have good reasons to eat (e.g. I have spent a lot of calories, I need some comfort after all this hard work…).
Most studies looking into energy intake after exercise do so by measuring what the participants eat at a buffet offered by the researchers. This does not necessarily simulate real life and might therefore lead to false conclusions. Even so, there is evidence that trained people are able to match their energy intake to what they have spent, and can therefore maintain a healthy weight. Sedentary people however, are more likely to overeat after an acute bout of exercise.
Most athletes are health conscious and will choose a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains etc…Such a diet will contain fewer calories per volume than an unhealthy one. It will also make you feel full much earlier. For the vast majority of us this is excellent news, but the combination of a low calorie diet, intense exercise and appetite suppression can become a trap for some athletes. It can lead to a chronic negative energy balance, and is more often seen in women engaged in sports for which being lean is an advantage, such as long distance running. It can lead to menstrual disorders with all their complications: poor bone health, injury, illness…
If you want to recover quickly, you have to refuel as soon as you can. This can be difficult if your appetite is suppressed. Other factors such as fatigue, dehydration, an elevated core body temperature or gastrointestinal problems can make things even trickier. A good recovery drink can help you out though, as drinking is much easier than eating.