Why you crave sugar after a workout

You’ve just finished an intense workout but instead of reaching for that protein rich chicken salad you prepared earlier, you find yourself staring longingly at the tub of ice-cream in the freezer.

Or maybe you did eat that salad but as soon as you put that knife and fork down, the first thing you think about are some choc chip biscuits stashed away in the cupboard.

It’s okay, you’re not a bad person. And there’s science to back it up.

A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that exercising actually makes us more susceptible to craving sugary treats.

Led by Christine N. May from the University of Massachusetts, researchers recruited 88 university students to take part in what’s called an “approach avoidance task” where they tested each volunteer’s automatic response to different forms of stimuli.

The students were asked to hold on to a joystick and look at images of desserts mixed in with pictures of random objects. When each image appeared, researchers noted the participant’s hand movements, checking to see if they would pull it closer to their body in a motion that would suggest positive responses.

After this first round was complete, the group was then split into two with one half doing memory games and the other half jumping on bikes and doing moderate aerobic workout.

Then they did the test again. Sure enough, the group that did the workout were more inclined to respond positively to the sight of desserts while the group that played memory games showed no measurable differences in their responses.

So what is it about doing exercise that makes us want to make such bad choices?


According to Ashleigh Brunner, a Sports Dietitian and owner of Body Fusion in Sydney, these sugar cravings are basically your body simply trying to replace fuel and repair itself in the quickest way possible.

“Our preferential energy for fuelling muscle during exercise is carbohydrates… and during exercise we create many micro-tears in our muscles which require protein for repair,” Brunner said.

“These sugar cravings are more likely to be driven by our muscles’ need to replenish our carbohydrate stores and repair our muscles after exercise. So this is the thing, many desserts are high in fast releasing carbohydrates or sugar which usually isn’t the best quality nutrition but will help replenish quickly, hence cravings! We just need to take a minute to prepare a healthier post workout snack/meal or have one organised and ready to go.”

Which may sound easier said than done, and as a self-confessed cookie addict I have taken the easy way out more than I care to admit.

As a way of appeasing both the nutritional requirements of your body along with the demands of your taste buds, Brunner does offer a few handy tips.

“There are many better quality alternatives post exercise which can still hit your sweet tooth,” says Brunner.

“Foods that are naturally sweet but are also bundled in with an adequate amount of protein would be your best bet such as a smoothie with milk, fruit and honey. If you are on the run or in-between meals, a date based bliss ball or healthy muffin with a latte would also be a great choice. My favourite breakfast after exercise in the morning is two pieces of grainy toast with natural peanut butter and honey and a homemade milky chai.”

Another way of overcoming the cravings is to eat something before you start your workout.

“Most of the time, having a small snack that digests well and is primarily carbohydrate based before a workout is a great idea ie. a banana or a cereal (not nut!) based bar. It also means you are more likely to have sustained energy for your workout.”


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