(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: My goal is to lose weight. I understand all of the diet stuff and I figured out how many calories I need to eat per day to make fat loss happen.
However, I’m also going to be doing some form of exercise 4-5 times per week. Some days will be weight training, other days will be cardio. Some days I’ll do both.
My question is, am I supposed to eat back the calories burned from working out? For example, if my goal calorie intake is 2000 calories and I eat that amount today BUT also burn an extra 500 calories from weights or cardio, should I be eating back those 500 calories?
ANSWER: I get a lot of questions about exercise in relation to fat loss. Tons of them. And if I had to guess, I’d say the 3 most common are:
- How much cardio should I do to lose weight?
- What type of weight training workout is best for burning fat?
- This strange “should I eat back the calories I burned during exercise?” question.
I’ll admit that those first 2 questions make a ton sense and need to be answered. But the 3rd one? The one this article is going to answer? It’s one that has left me scratching my head for years. And there’s a very simple reason why…
You’re Thinking About This The Wrong Way
In fact, you have it all backwards. It’s really not a question of eating back the calories burned through exercise.
It’s a question of how do you want to create your deficit on a given day?
- Do you want to eat a little more and create your deficit by burning a sufficient amount of calories through some form of exercise (larger output)?
- Or, would you rather skip the exercise/burn less calories and create your deficit by eating a little less (lower intake)?
- Or, would you rather do some combination of the two (eat a little less, burn a little more)?
That’s the only question here.
And if you choose some form of exercise like the person asking this question clearly has yet doesn’t seem to realize, thinking of it as “eating back the calories burned” is backwards.
What you’re doing is eating an amount of calories, and then using exercise to burn enough of them to put yourself into the deficit you need to be in for fat loss to occur.
Here’s An Example
Let’s take an example woman named Jane.
Why make the example person a woman? Because I don’t think a guy has ever asked me this question. For whatever reason, it only seems to be women.
So let’s pretend Jane estimated that she has a daily maintenance level of 2500 calories. This is the amount of calories she needs to eat per day to maintain her current weight (again, just an example). Since she’s trying to lose weight, she needs to end up below this maintenance level.
Doing so would put her into a caloric deficit, which forces her body to start burning some alternative fuel source (body fat) for energy instead. This, by the way, is the one and only cause of fat loss.
Jane has decided that she wants to create a deficit of 20% of her maintenance level because 20% seems to be the most commonly recommended deficit size by most people (myself included). Since 20% of 2500 is 500, Jane knows she needs to end up at a net calorie intake of 2000 calories.
To do this, she can eat 2000 calories today and taaadaaa… she did what she needs to do for fat loss to occur. No weights or cardio or workouts of any kind needed whatsoever. Her deficit was successfully created through diet alone. Good job, Jane.
Tomorrow however she will be doing some cardio. What kind? How much? Who cares… but it’s enough to end up burning 500 additional calories. In this case, she’d simply eat 2500 calories that day. Why? Because she will be burning 500 additional calories and creating her deficit with exercise instead. In the end, she’s at the same 2000 calories she needs to be at.
The next day, she’ll be doing some other form of exercise (let’s say weight training). Nothing fancy, just a basic workout that will end up burning about 250 calories. In this case, she’d eat 2250 calories that day. Why? Because when she eats 2250 and then burns 250 additional calories from her workout that day… she’ll end up at that same 2000 calories she’s trying to end up at.
So she’s not “eating back the calories burned” in these last two examples. She’s simply eating an amount of calories that works in tandem with the amount of calories she’s burning to allow her to create the deficit she’s trying to create.
But What If She Did Both?
Now in these last two examples, could Jane have STILL eaten 2000 calories and then STILL burned those additional calories from exercise? Yeah, she could have. In that case, her total net deficit would just end up being more than the 20% below maintenance she intended for it to be.
Is that a problem? With all else being equal, no.
But all else isn’t always equal when it comes to sustainable fat loss. For example, if it’s going from something like the intended 20% deficit up to maybe a 21-25% deficit instead on those days, it’s usually no big deal. The larger the deficit becomes however, the more potentially problematic it might be.
No, Jane won’t go into “starvation mode.” Hell, even if the deficit went significantly higher than that, starvation mode still ain’t happening.
So then the question becomes… why not do that? Rather than eating at her maintenance level (or higher) on the days Jane will be using exercise to create her deficit, why not eat below maintenance — the 2000 calories she needs to be at to create her 20% deficit — and then use exercise to burn additional calories and create an even larger deficit beyond that?
If the dreaded “starvation mode” isn’t going to happen, why not do this? It will make fat loss happen faster for her, won’t it?
Indeed it will. Larger deficit = faster fat loss.
So, why in the holy hell shouldn’t Jane do this? Two reasons.
- First, because she set out to create a deficit of 20% below maintenance. Not 22%, not 25%, not 30% or more. She made a plan based on a deficit of 20% being her ideal target, and she should stick to her plan. Why? Because that’s what plans are for… being stuck to.
- Second, because there’s a reason that her planned 20% deficit is so commonly recommended in the first place for the average person trying to lose weight. Because it’s not too small, and not too big. It’s typically just right for most people. It takes what’s good about a smaller deficit and what’s good about a larger deficit, and avoids the downsides of each. Basically, a moderate-sized 20% deficit strikes the perfect balance between the achieved rate of fat loss, the amount of time and effort required, short term and long term sustainability, maintaining training performance, maintaining strength, maintaining muscle, and minimizing or preventing the various other issues that make fat loss hard and annoying (no, still not “starvation mode” but rather things like hunger, mood, hormonal issues, adaptive thermogenesis, etc.).
So could Jane create her entire 20% deficit through her diet, and then use exercise to create an even larger deficit on top of it? Yeah, she certainly could.
Should she? That’s honestly something that will depend on the size of the deficit that would be created this way (just a bit bigger, or a lot bigger?), how often it would be happening (some days, or most days?), and how each individual person would be affected by it both physiologically and psychologically.
For many, I’d say they probably shouldn’t. No, it’s STILL not because of “starvation mode” or any other such nonsense.
It’s because doing so would put you into a deficit larger than the 20% (or whatever) that you deemed appropriate and ideal for yourself. And logic dictates that if you stray from something that is ideal, things are likely to become less ideal.
With fat loss, this means things will become harder, more annoying and more potentially problematic (see #2 above). Which is exactly why this 20% deficit IS the recommendation for what’s “ideal” in the first place (and not 30%, 35% or whatever else), and why many people would probably be best served to avoid exceeding it.
Summing It Up
So, should you eat back the calories burned through exercise? The answer isn’t yes or no. The answer is stop thinking about it this way.
What you’re doing is using your calorie intake (your diet) and calorie output (your workout) together in whatever the hell way you prefer to ensure that you end up in the total net deficit you need to be in for fat loss to occur.
Simple as that.