QUESTION: I calculated that I need to eat 2000 calories a day to lose weight, but what about the calories I burn during my workouts? Should I be eating back those calories?
For example, if I burn 500 calories during my workout today, does that mean I can eat 2500 calories instead of 2000 and basically eat back the 500 calories I burned?
My diet tracking app (MyFitnessPal) makes it seem this way, but I just want to be sure.
ANSWER: Ah yes, the “should I eat back the calories burned during exercise” question.
Don’t take this personally, but I hate this question.
Why is this, you ask? You’ll see in a second.
There are 4 important things you need to know…
1. Your App Is Wrong
Most of the diet, workout, and progress tracking apps out there are fine for helping you track a few basic things each day.
But for damn near everything else? They suck.
In fact, I’ve previously pointed out problems with MyFitnessPal specifically, like how they frequently recommend that women should eat 1200 calories a day even though that’s WAY lower than most women will ever need to eat.
But MyFitnessPal isn’t the only app getting things wrong. There are dozens of similar apps that are problematic for similar reasons.
- Telling tons of women to eat 1200 calories a day.
- Emphasizing the meaningless day-to-day body weight fluctuations that only stress you out and cause you to misinterpret what’s actually happening.
- Making you focus on getting to a specific “goal weight,” which is often detrimental to actually reaching your goal.
- Letting inaccurate user-generated nutrition info into the public database.
- Telling you to eat back tons of calories that you probably should NOT be eating back.
The list goes on and on and on (and on), and you’d be surprised at how often these apps do more harm than good as a result.
One day, someone is going to build something significantly better, that’s designed significantly smarter.
And by “one day,” I mean today.
And by “someone,” I mean me.
More details coming soon. 😉
But let’s get back to the question…
2. Your Activity Level May Already Be Factored Into Your Calorie Intake
When you calculated how many calories you need to eat per day, I bet that whatever calculator you used for this purpose asked you about your activity level.
You know… are you sedentary, lightly active, moderately active, etc.
Or do you have 1 workout per week, 2-3 workouts per week, 4-5 workouts per week, etc.
Whatever it was, virtually every calorie calculator in existence will take your activity level into account in some way.
Do you know what that means?
It means the calories you’re burning during your regularly scheduled workouts each week are typically ALREADY factored into the calorie intake you calculated.
By eating them back, you’re essentially factoring in those calories a second time.
Now I’m not sure if MyFitnessPal or whatever diet app you happen to use does things this way (I’d certainly hope not), but if it does, that’s a big problem.
And if it doesn’t? That’s still a problem, but for a whole other reason…
3. “Calories Burned” Is Overestimated
There’s something else you need to know about the calories you’re burning and thinking about “eating back.”
And that is, it’s probably being overestimated.
This includes the number you’re getting from your fancy smart watch, smart bracelet, smart necklace, smart earrings, smart sunglasses, smart nose ring, smart whatever-the-hell device you’re wearing on your body to accurately track how many calories you’re burning.
The reality is that it’s NOT accurately tracking how many calories you’re burning (sources here, here, here, and here).
It’s just giving you an estimate for how many calories you’re burning, and it turns out that this estimate is high in the majority of cases.
The same goes for the cardio equipment you’re using that tells you how much you’re burning, or the calorie calculator you found on some website, or the app you’re using to track your diet or workout.
It’s all just giving you estimates, and research and real-world experience has shown us that these estimates are high.
So if you “eat back” these calories, or even just assume you can eat more one day because of how much you supposedly burned during your workout (which happens all the time [source])… chances are pretty good that you’re going to end up eating more calories than you should be.
For example, you might eat back 500 calories when you really only burned 300.
And if this happens regularly, as it typically does, it can easily cancel out your entire caloric deficit and prevent fat loss from happening (details here: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?).
Hell, it could potentially even put you into a caloric surplus and cause you to gain fat.
4. Focus On What’s Actually Happening
So what should you do about all of this?
It’s really, really simple.
Be consistent with your diet and your workout for a while (4+ weeks), and focus entirely on what’s actually happening with your progress in the real world.
If the amount you’re eating and the amount you’re burning are coming together to produce the results you want, awesome!
Keep eating and burning those amounts.
If it’s not… then adjust accordingly until it is.
That’s really all there is to it.
You can still feel free to use an app or wear your favorite device to help you come up with some estimated starting points.
That’s totally fine.
But you need to remember that your app could be telling you to do things you shouldn’t be doing, and the device you’re wearing probably isn’t very accurate when it comes to how much you’re burning.
In the end, the only truly accurate way to know if you need to eat more, eat less, burn more, or burn less is by looking at your own progress or lack thereof.
Everything else is just an estimate that could potentially be inaccurate enough to prevent you from making any progress at all.
If you liked this article, you’ll also like:
- Why Am I Not Losing Weight?
- The Starvation Mode Myth
- The 1200-Calorie Diet Myth
- Superior Fat Loss (This is my fat loss program, which is designed to let you lose fat without losing muscle, feeling hungry all the time, giving up the foods you love, doing tons of cardio, or struggling with any of the problems that make losing fat hard and confusing.)