Should You Eat Back The Calories Burned From Exercise?

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 4 most common are:

  1. How much cardio should I do to lose weight?
  2. What type of weight training workout is best for burning fat?
  3. What are the best fat burning exercises?
  4. This strange “should I eat back the calories I burned during exercise?” question.

I’ll admit that those first 3 questions make a lot of sense to ask. But the 4th 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 always feeling hungry, 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’tNo, 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.

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Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.

110 thoughts on “Should You Eat Back The Calories Burned From Exercise?”


  1. Jay,
    This answered a confusing question that I’ve had for a while and I guess it just comes down to definitions. You’re not really ‘eating back’ the calories as opposed to ‘maintaining the deficit’ in the right range.

    I do have a question though….

    Let’s say that someone does it the right way, as described above, but every couple of days, has a ‘large deficit day’ (say 35%). Would this help to prevent the negative consequences of going way out of range habitually but still give a little more boost to the loss? I understand it’s not staying on a consistent goal, per se, but physiologically speaking, could it help to give a little kickstart every so often?

    • That’s the kind of thing that will vary quite a bit from one person to the next.

      I mean, for one person that one day of a significantly larger deficit will just help push fat loss progress along a little bit faster, and seeing it/knowing it will be satisfying and motivating. It would only be a positive thing.

      For someone else, that one day of trying to put themselves into a significantly larger deficit will lead to short term issues with hunger that can set off a domino effect of problems which can very easily sabotage their long term progress.

      For a third person, going into that significantly larger deficit and seeing fat loss happen a little bit faster as a result will turn into “hmmm, what if I do this more often?” which can turn into “hmmm, what if I make the deficit even bigger?” which can turn into “hmmm, what if I make the deficit even bigger than that?” which can turn into an eating disorder, if it hasn’t already.

      So again, it depends on the person.

      • So, could a greater caloric deficit than planned on some days cause muscle destruction/catabolism instead of fat loss? Is this separate from any eating disorder or rather a part of it?

        Thanks for all the wonderful information that you have here on your site(s)! I have just started taking note of my caloric intake and expenditure and will send you an email soon describing my progress. 🙂

        • There’s no super specific answer to this one. It’s basically just that the larger the deficit is, the higher the potential risk is for muscle loss.

          And looking forward to your progress!

  2. Your the greatest Jay, I know you probably here that alot, but its true man…. you always hit the nail on the head with your articles. For years my friends and I struggled to find out why we weren’t gaining enough muscle, and how when we ate a ton of food ” as listed in bodybuilder routines” we’d end up looking more fat than in shape. The calorie deficit is the only proper way to lose fat. I have tried starving myself and running alot just to end up drained and trashing the workout. Proper calorie intake with a good workout = goals complete !! Thanks for the article Jay.

  3. This somewhat solves my confusion on calorie cycling, after reading your calorie cycling article i always wondered that when you eat more calories on your training days and less on your rest days, making the net calorie intake for the week on your goal. Great till then, but you also slightly contradict yourself because in earlier article you mentioned that one should avoid going beyond your daily calorie goal for optimal muscle growth. For eg.

    My calorie maintenance level is 2000 and to gain muscle i should have to take 2250 cals based on your recommended calculations. Great, but if i do calorie cycling then from what I understand i should take 2500 cals on training days & 2000 cals on rest days. Now thats going above and below the level you recommend for optimal growth.

    So i was hoping you throw some more light on it. Thanks

    • Two things.

      First, while I have vaguely mentioned calorie cycling from time to time, I’ve never written an article about it (or really provided any specific details about it) so I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

      Second, calorie cycling is a completely different and unrelated topic to what is being discussed in this article.

      • Oops , i meant in one of the articles or comments, cant recollect.

        As i was reading this article i just remembered that so put in a quick comment. Will be careful next time.

        Anyways love your articles, words simply cannot express how you have changed my life.

        Thanks for everything.

  4. How about when I have a daily maintenance level of 3000 calories a day and I work out 4-5 days a week to gain muscle? How much should I be eating to gain weight in muscle BUT lower my fat percentage?? Or is that more a question about WHAT should I eat instead of how much?

  5. Yet another amazing(ly disturbing) article, Jay! For the more meticulous of us, I was wondering how should a person approach counting exercise calories in relation to defaul amount of calories burned. So, if a person burns 400 calories exercising in an hour, should he deduct the amount that would have been burned in the same amount of time of not exercising?

    • I would answer a question like this by reminding you that the biggest key to fat loss is consistently eating a certain amount/consistently burning a certain amount, and closely monitoring what happens.

      Are you losing fat at the rate that you should be? If so, keep input and output exactly where you have them.

      If not, adjust input and/or output in whatever way you prefer until you are.

      Above all else, this is what matters most. And really this one statement is the answer to like 90% of all fat loss questions.

  6. Thanks, but how about “eating back calories” from doing cardio while bulking up? What do you recommend?

    • Very good question. In this case the key is still ensuring that same total net surplus is intact, however thinking of it as “eating back the calories burned” actually makes sense from this perspective.

  7. Point, blank AND the period, an awesome article! You clearly stated exactly what I needed to come to terms with for myself in my personal fitness journey. Not just in regards to the deficit itself, but also the school of thought surrounding it. I’ve tried many different approaches to diet and exercise and the ones that worked, regardless of the ‘terms’ involved, all had the same common denominator…a caloric deficit. I am a female who uses MyFitness Pal and one of the things that it does is build any calories that I burn back into my ‘calories remaining’ total for the day. Anyone who uses that or a similar approach to tracking calories is given the idea that if you burn it, you should ‘eat it back’. I personally don’t like that and I tend to disregard a calorie count that I have ‘earned’ from exercise. Mainly because my mindset is that I am going for a deficit that is at LEAST a certain amount daily and any addition to that is welcome and will only positively affect my end goal. I also don’t want to put myself in a position where I use exercise as an EXCUSE to eat more. I’d like to see fat loss sooner rather than later =) …again, GREAT article Jay!

    • Glad you liked it!

      And you bring up some good points there, especially the one about people burning some calories through additional exercise and using it as an excuse to eat more. Because it many cases, people greatly overestimate calories burned (AND underestimate calories consumed). So with a mindset of “eating back” those calories, you end up with a common scenario where a person burns 300 calories and but “eats back” 1000.

  8. Hi, and thanks for this article. The “eat back calories” idea comes from using calorie trackers such as My Fitness Pal, where after adding food and exercise at the day, it gives your net calories for the day, and suggests you eat more if you are below the goal amount.

    My question is, isn’t your TDEE obtained by calculating calories burned on a daily basis, including how much exercise you do? So exercise cals shouldn’t be deducted, they are already included in your TDEE, you just need to eat at 20% less than this number.
    Would love your feed back on this- cheers!

    • Another good point. Technically speaking most people calculated their TDEE with their exercise activity taken into account. So in that regard, you’re right.

      Then again, some don’t include exercise in that calculation. “Activity level” for them is just typical daily activity, basically everything except exercise thus making exercise extra calories burned in addition to their TDEE.

      And if exercise activity was factored in to that initial TDEE calculation, this would assume that their exercise activity remained exactly the same from that point on AND that the TDEE calculation is actually accurate.

      Which is why in the end, this is all mostly insignificant distracting nonsense. All anyone truly needs to do is monitor progress. Is weight consistently being lost at an ideal rate? If so, great. If not, decrease calorie intake, increase calorie output, or do a little bit of both.

      • Hi there! Love your articles so much! I was just wondering about the calculator on the site and started looking through comments to find one that addressed this topic. I understand that monitoring your weight is key to really figuring out daily caloric intake for fat loss, but I’m just worried that calculations for a ‘lightly active’ person could be too high for me. My question, how does one know how to accurately choose the activity level that pertains to their lifestyle. The difference between ‘sedentary’ and ‘lightly active’ is something like 350 calories. Maybe lightly active is more accurate for me, seeing as a don’t sit on my ass aaallll day, just part of it. When I follow calorie calculations for a sedentary lifestyle (1200 cals for me,) I feel pretty sick by the end of the day… starving. I may just stick with the higher calorie count for lightly active peoples, and hope that I don’t gain weight over the next few weeks. I wish there was a more accurate and faster way to really figure it out. Well, I think I know what you are going to say, which is to try it and see. I agree. I guess I’m sort of reaching out for encouragement in this endeavor. Also, can you comment on the activity levels? What do they pertain to, etc.? Sorry about the long ass post, and thank you for soooo much! You really know your stuff and it’s awesome!

        • The activity level you pick honestly doesn’t matter all that much. Just take your best guess or go with a number somewhere in between.

          Remember, this calculator exists to give you an estimated starting point. The key step is to then consistently consume this amount of calories and monitor what happens as a result. Is your body doing what you want it to do at the rate it should be? If so, awesome. The estimate was accurate. But if not… adjust up or down until it is. That’s what truly matters here.

      • Ok I am starting to understand this more little by little. Going back on what Shan was talking about…if with with all my usual exercise (burning 400 a day) my calculated TDEE was around 2000, plus a 20% deficit my goal calories for the day would be 1600, which I already achieve by doing my regular exercise. So then i should be losing fat. Once I reach my goal weight, and Ive pre-calculated it (TDEE) to still be around 2000.Do I simply eat 2400 for my weight to stay the same? I can’t imagine how many questions (especially repetitive ones) you get per day so I’d like to thankyou in advance for you response!

        Cheers to fitness and being healthy!

        • If 2000 is your TDEE, that’s your current maintenance level. Anything above that will cause weight gain, and anything below it will cause weight loss. Regardless, your current maintenance level is going to be different than what your maintenance level is when you reach your goal weight. You’ll have to recalculate (or really, increase calories slightly and experiment) at that point.

  9. Jay, I’ve literally been wanting to send you a private message asking you about this – it’s like you know what we need to hear. I’m so glad I stumbled onto your website and you 🙂 I searched “Busting through a plateau” and found you; thank you for providing this service!

    Just another layer to this question – when I completed my Mifflin St. Joeur information on your website and stated that I work out moderately (Cardio & Strength no less than 5 days/wk), my activity level changed things up. For me, my maintenance level is 2350 with the moderate activity level, so my deficit number is 1880…is it wiser to leave my activity level out of the equation and just go from my maintenance level at sedentary? I have lost 80lbs over the last two years and I have 50lbs to go, so there is still a significant amount of fat loss needed. BTW, I tried to be a dumbass & go down to 1,600 “to speed things up” after finding you 3 weeks ago, and all I got was HANGry, so it’s best for all that I get to eat 😉 Thanks for this information!

    • Like I’ve told a couple of people already in the comments of this post… this is the ultimate answer to every single question remotely similar to yours:

      Be consistent with your diet and activity, and consistently monitor your progress (body weight, measurements, mirror, pictures, etc.).

      Then ask yourself, are things moving in the direction you want them to move at an acceptable yet realistic rate (and with the least amount of torture involved)?

      If your answer is yes, cool. Keep doing what you’re doing.

      If your answer is no, then either start eating a little less, burning a little more, or some combination of the two.

      Calculators and maintenance levels and estimations for calories burned and exact deficit amounts are all well and good, but above all else THIS is the key step and for many people the only thing they truly need to give a crap about when it comes to losing fat.

  10. Hi Jay, thanks for the article great info yet again.Just a comment though all this technical working out on how much to eat to replace calories burnt during what ever exercise you are doing,Isn’t it just calorie in calorie out + or – depending on musical gain or fat loss and watching your weight depending on what you are wanting to achieve.

  11. I suppose lifting weights is crucial in a caloric deficit so one does not lose muscle and all calories come from fat right? Because the goal isn’t weight loss but it is fat loss. Can intense exercise increase the rate you burn the calories though? Does intense cardio like HIIT offer anything towards weight loss other than calorie burn?

    Also, damn you Jay! Thanks to you I now have sore back muscles 2 days after my back workouts form lifting even less weight. Before, I lifted more weight, and felt nothing after. Now all of a sudden I have to actually deal with soreness and get results because I now focus on better form? Come on man!

    • Correct, weight training in a deficit is key to preserving muscle.

      HIIT, steady state, high intensity, moderate intensity, low intensity… it all burns calories which means they all potentially aid fat loss. The higher the intensity is, like HIIT, the more EPOC there will be (aka “after burn”)… though it’s much less significant than people like to make it out to be, usually to sell products built around HIIT being amazing compared to steady state cardio.

      Ha, and congrats on the back soreness!

      • But what keeps me awake at night pondering is although the calories burned are the same, where are those calories coming from and how can we target fat tissue only?

        We can burn calories from carbs of the previous meal, stored glycogen, muscle or fat and maybe from somewhere else. We could jog, sprint, MMA, yoga, power lift, body build, jump rope or breakdance all at various heart rate intensity. We can even do no exercise and simply just do a 20% calorie reduction. There must be a way to determine which method will use the fat for fuel most efficiently so those 500 calories. are going to be burning fat mainly.

        • As far as your body knows, a deficit is a deficit. All it sees is a need to burn some other fuel source (fat, muscle or both) for energy… it doesn’t really care what specifically caused this need to exist. It just knows it’s there and responds accordingly.

          The key however is to do everything possible to – at that point – convince your body that muscle NEEDS to stay and fat is all it should burn. How do you do this? This one is the best place to start.

          • Thanks for the link. Really reminds me how important weight lifting is in a caloric deficit to lose fat.

            But what I was wondering is although a deficit is a deficit, can we target what the body uses for fuel in that deficit? For example, 500 calorie deficit with just diet, vs 500 calorie deficit with only exercise, the body takes 500 calories from somewhere in the body to burn for fuel since it isn’t coming from food or drink. Will the body use the exact same source for that fuel, depending on what method you use to create that deficit? Is there any science demonstrating this?

            So what you are saying is wearing my Ab Ripper 2000 belt while doing lots of bicep curls in the squat rack eating 9 times a day to stoke my metabolic fire, while listening to Law of Attraction affirmations in my Beats By Dre headphones at my gym isn’t the key to weight loss?

          • Nope, nothing I’ve ever seen showing that – with all else being equal (weight training and sufficient protein especially) – the method of creating the deficit (diet vs cardio) matters in that regard. Same shit, different ways of making it happen. Pick the one you hate the least.

          • I find that I can’t eat low calorie enough to create the deficit I need so I have to exercise to make the 300 + calorie deficit.

            Obviously I was joking in the last bit about the Ab Ripper 2000 Belt. I don’t want you to think I am insane.

            Still wonder if science will ever figure out how we can specifically target fat to be burned rather than muscle or glycogen to maximize fat loss in that calorie deficit. Such as burning 300 calories in a steady state cardio as opposed to jumping rope, sprinting, swimming, burpees, etc. A way to make those calories burned from fuel specifically come from fat. That was the whole “target heart rate zone” for fat loss craze was trying to come up with. Of course, weight lifting can minimize muscle loss.

  12. Love the article Jay.
    I’m not an expert, but I occasionally am asked for advice by friends and family.
    I prefer to answer no do not eat back what you burned because people love to overestimate the calories burned by exercise and end up eating hell of a lot more than they burned.

  13. Hi Jay!

    Awesome article, really good and funny!
    This made me think of a question, maybe a question you have already heard.

    Assume i am doing the muscle building routine, 3x week.
    If i want to be as accurate as possible, how do i know the calories burned in my workouts?

    Im in a calorie deficit and would like to stick to that ideal 20%, no more.
    Does it really make a difference if I dont count those calories in the diet plan? Just wondering…

    • Like I’ve told a few people who have asked similar questions, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is your progress. Is fat being lost at the ideal/realistic rate it should be? If so, cool. Keep doing what you’re doing. If it’s not, adjust (eat less, burn more, or do a little of both) until it is.

  14. What’s the difference between RMR and BMR ? Many sites say it’s dangerous to have a deficit below the RMR lol Also are you still constantly updating your research and looking for newest research on things or do you not have the time to research and update info like you did years ago? Thanks man

    • BMR is a more strict version of RMR, and I only sometimes barely remember which is which.

      And yes, I am constantly and obsessively looking at new research. Always have been, always will be.

  15. Hi Jay :),

    I know this has nothing to do with the article but I was hoping to get some advice. Over the summer I want to train with my friend because he wants to lose weight and maybe pack on some muscle. I was just wondering if it is better for him to lose the body fat first and then build muscle because there is less chance of him losing muscle that way? He has never weightlifted before so he can easily gain some noob gains. I just fear if he builds muscle first there is a higher chance of him losing it if he loses weight too fast. Or am I wrong? Would it be better to build muscle and lose weight since he is only starting and he’ll gain muscle either way? Thanks in advance 🙂

  16. I know this is the wrong place to ask this, but i need a clear defenition of what light activity means. Im confused as to weather i am sedetary or not. I work seven hours a day at a coffe shop preparing food on my feet. Please help!

    • It honestly doesn’t matter at all. Take your best guess.

      The key step is eating a certain amount of calories consistently, monitoring progress over the next 2-3 weeks, and if needed, adjusting accordingly.

  17. Hi Jay, I’m not sure if this is the best post for this question but the way I see it is, if the worry is mainly mental health and a little muscle depletion if you drop the calorie deficit to way under 20%, someone with a strong will and mental health may be able to cope with the byproducts of continued stupid calorie deficit.
    Or am I sailing too close to the wind.

    • A deficit larger than 20% could certainly be used (and in the case of people who are obese it might be doctor-recommended).

      But the bigger it gets beyond that point, the more problematic it will be not the non-obese.

  18. Hi,
    firstly, I would like to give a big thank you, because I find that this site is the answer to almost every question that pops in my head. Your articles are really on-point, everything is thoroughly explained and fun to read!

    After reading this post a few times I have come up with something that has been bothering me. I’m on a 1500calorie diet and my macros are 130g protein/130gcarbs/50g fats (35%35%30%ratio). Let’s say, on a given day, I play a really active day – weight lifting, hiking, bicycling (which is quite often), and I know I will NEED to eat more I if don’t want to put myself in too big of a deficit for that day, and I really really really don’t like to be hungry. What happens with my macros? Do I just predict the calories I will burn and make a same macro ratio meal plan for that day or what? (I make a meal plan for one day in advance, depending on what foods I have at home and try to hit my macros the best I can). That means I will be eating more protein/fat/carbs that I’m supposed to eat on my diet on a daily basis.(Also, is there such thing like too much fat/carbs/protein as long as you are in a deficit?) Or do I just leave the daily plan as it is and then eat anything (messing up my macros) in addition to it untill not hungry? The problem is that I still want to maintain a deificit, but like someone said earlier, it’s really hard to estimate calories burned.
    I hope I made myself clear. Thank you in advance!

    • As long as your protein is at sufficient levels (which it should already be), and fat is at sufficient levels (which it should already be), then if you’re in a situation where you burn more and want to therefore eat more to keep the deficit at a certain size, then you could really get those extra calories from whatever combination of protein/fat/carbs you want.

      In most cases though, the average person would probably just get them all from carbs since protein/fat are already sufficient and carbs are yummy.

  19. Why do some people say the low carb diet is best for weight loss? I’ve seen a lot of videos on how to lose fat and a lot of people say cut out your carbs like bread,rice,etc. does this really make a difference even though you’re in a calorie deficit?

  20. Thanks for posting this, I’ve been wondering about this for a while. One question, does it matter what time of day Jane works out? If she works out every other day, early in the morning before she eats all of her daily calories would she still “eat back” her calories on the days she works out? Thanks.

  21. TL:DR

    Q) “should I eat back the calories I burned during exercise?”

    A) “In this case, she’d simply eat 2500 calories that day”


    A) Yes

  22. Shamefully, I came across this page when I Google’d, whether I should be ‘eating back my calories burned’. Love the honest and clear answer. Thank you!

  23. Thank you for posting this, even if you think this is a strange question that shouldn’t be asked. I often find myself wondering if not feeling like I know I should be eating more calories in order to see the results I’ve been looking for. Let’s say my maintenance is 2400cals. Based on numerous calorie calculators this number is either up or slightly down. I weigh 144lbs at 5 feet 6in. But for me first thing in the morning I do before breakfast and starting my day is 1hr on the elliptical machine we have in our home. I usually catch up on my studying doing this by reading a book while on it. But regardless of this fact I’m usually soaked in sweat by the end of the 60mins. I do this always 6days per week and most weeks 7days every week just because I enjoy how I feel and it helps start my day off just right.
    Then I hit the shower and have breakfast. This is usually in the form of a shake mixed with mixed berries. A few hours later I’m out the door and at the gym where I hit the weights doing 1 body part per day. This is done 6x per week as I split leg day into 2 days. After about 30-45mins of weight training depending on the muscles being worked. I then finish off with an additional 30mins of cardio.
    All that being explained and said if I were to figure out total calories needed for me to lose fat weight based on my bmr and then multiplying that by my activity level it usually brings me in to eat around the 2400cal mark to stay the weight I am, but to lose weight at the recommended 500cal deficit then I’d be eating 1900 cals. I started this doing a 50%carbs, 30%protein and 20%fat ratio. The first few weeks I lost 4lbs felt motivated then I started to get really super hungry and have since lost no more weight. After reading this I’m wondering if by calculating your daily activity level into these equations is it possible that they’re that far off that I would be eating not enough food based on my activity level? Or should someone like me just figure out maintenance based on just my weight and not including my activity level, then calculate how many calories I’d be burning in the run of a day and either subtract or add in calories based on that?
    For instance if say to stay at a weight of 144lbs my maintenance would be 2400 cals, but my morning 60mins says I burn 800cals based on the machine stats. Then I’m not sure what 30-45mins of weight training would even burn, then to top off with an additional 30mins of cardio on a machine at the gym which usually gives me a reading based on my weight of 465cals for the 30mins. Just the cardio alone would be 1265cals burned if these machines are correct. And this would be done for sure 6x per week. So would I then take 2400-1265=1135cals. But in order to lose weight I need to be at 1900cal intake for the day, so I would then make sure to add an additional 765cals into my macros for the day? That to me feels like a lot of extra eating and possibly a bit to much food for a womans stomach to intake wouldn’t you say? Or just continue with the activity level eating at 1900 cals because that’s the number based on my activity level I would need to eat to lose weight? Do this make sense I hope so because I realise it’s a long post, but if this is the reason I’m seeing stalled weight loss despite my best efforts then I want to be able to address it right now. Adding that many extra calories right away would likely lead to a fast weight gain as well wouldn’t you think or would my body be thanking me instantly? Thank you for your time and all your hard work, trust me you’re changing and saving people’s mental and physical states 🙂

    • Here’s all you truly need to know. Keep your calorie intake and your activity level consistent for a few weeks, and monitor progress (body weight, measurements, etc.).

      Are things moving in the right direction? If so, continue to keep everything consistent. If not, slightly increase activity, slightly decrease calorie intake, or do some combination of the two.

      That’s honestly as complicated as it needs to be. 😉

  24. Thanks for the helpful info! I am tracking cals and looks like I am about on target for the 20 percent. Just started, so the most important thing I just learned from you is to make sure there is consistent progress, and if not, make adjustments. Now the question. So weight training helps to retain muscle while losing fat. Where to start for a beginner? I found the Nerd fitness guy and did the body weight circuit for a beginner-basically push-ups (had to do those on my knees) plank, squats, lunges, rows. Love to hear your input.

  25. I’d like to use this info to help my 15 year old son. He is 5 feet 10 and weighs 140. He runs cross country and is always hungry. He eats tons of food healthy and not. He wants muscle for basketball, but I don’t think that will happen while he is running.

  26. You actually explained that so incredibly well I’m going to stop searching for the answer….so THANK YOU! Yes, this is VERY confusing to me, because I’ve just been told that I’m “crashing my metabolism” because I’m trying to only eat 1200 calories/day and still work out 5 x’s a week. No, I’m not looking for some miracle. I’m just really confused. Thanks again!

  27. Thank-you for this article – I had a disagreement about this topic this morning at bootcamp, and now realize that the two of us were coming from different perspectives on weight loss.
    Great writing style, specifically that you use multiple scenarios to encompass many cases.

  28. Wow, this was great. I have really been wanting a no nonsense way of thinking of this every since I started My Fitness Pal for tracking (was diagnosed as pre-diabetic and was told to lose 10% of my current weight at the time. Thanks so much for the realistic example. Has really clarified my thinking on this matter.

  29. I am really enjoying your articles! I have in the last month started the 10 detox diet, added some light exercise, and started monitoring my calories. I am hypothyroid (Hashimoto’s) and was looking for something to help jumpstart me safely. (Also to see if I have internal “allergies” or “sensitivities” as we hypo’s usually do. I lost about 7 pounds in the 10 days. Then transitioned into a calorie plan and lost another 4. I am right on with my calories. I measure EVERYTHING. lol, and I use my fitbit as a resource. But when I go to bed around 9-10pm I am in my goal zone, or slightly over to count for the calories burned when I am sleeping.Then when I wake up I check my fitbit in the morning and it shows I am under. Sometimes by like 200 or more calories compared to when I went to sleep. Any suggestions? I really want to stay within my deficit so I can continue to loose. But I don’t want to stuff myself either before bed. With my current plan I am eating well and feeling full throughout the day. Thanks for all your articles!

    • Never had a Fitbit so I’m honestly not too sure how that all works. But really, all you need to do is monitor your fat loss progress (scale, measurements, pictures, etc.) and adjust as needed to make things move in the right direction.

      Also, check out the progress of an AWR reader with Hashimoto’s. And check out the comments too, she answers a bunch of questions.

  30. I’m in an argument with my wife that I had hoped this article might answer, but I’m not certain it did.

    I run 4 days a week and work out two but have a desk job. When I use the calorie maintenance calculator, I get 1904 for sedentary and 2698 for very active.

    I say I should either have an intake of 1904 + exercise calories burned or an average of 2698. Both are acceptable ways to estimate.

    My wife says I should have an intake of 2698 + exercise calories burned.

    Which is it?


  31. Great article – thanks for explaining that.

    I am currently trying to lose weight and have done the calculations so am working on a 1200 cal a day diet. Some days that feels easy and some days like today, I was hungry…so I view it like a points system. I went out for a long brisk walk and ‘earned’ an additional 200 calories, so ate 1400 today (but burned 200). That was much more achievable and also, I like the mindset that says if I want to treat myself, I have to earn it first.
    Thanks for the advice!

  32. If I do your fat loss + muscle maintenance workout routine, will I burn off substantial calories to let myself keep eating at maintenance, or do I still need to eat less to create a caloric deficit? In other words, how many calories would I burn if I did the fat loss + muscle maintenance routine outlined in your ebook?

    Thank you!

    • That routine is not designed for calorie burning (although it is still intense physical activity, so calories will definitely be burned… just not TONS), so chances are your diet (and/or cardio) will have to take care of the deficit.

  33. I’m a little confused. So I restrict my calorie intake at 1200 per day but mon/wed/fri I burn around 700 calories at the gym . So are you saying on these days I should be eating 1900 calories? Sorry I just want to get this right.

    • If 1200 calories per day is the number you need to end up at, then you would need to eat/exercise in whatever manner is needed to make that happen. So if you burn 700 more calories on one day than you typically do, then eating 1900 calories that day would put you at the 1200 you were aiming for.

      The only time this wouldn’t happen is when those 700 burned calories are already a part of the maintenance level you calculated.

  34. Great article Jay. I apologize if you have already answered this question elsewhere, but I was wondering if glycogen stores from liver and muscle need to be depleted before the body decides to start tapping into fat stores, or whether it just grabs the energy it needs from both glycogen and fat stores equally or indiscriminately.

    Obviously, it would be preferable to convince the body to take the required energy predominantly from fat stores exclusively. Wouldn’t a low-carb diet be beneficial in this regard insofar as it leads to less glycogen storage?

    Related to this issue, I have read that low intensity cardio (e.g., brisk walking) primarily taps into fat stores whereas higher intensity starts tapping into glycogen, but I don’t know if there is any real science to back this up. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

  35. Thanks for the helpful info, Jay, and I also really appreciate how awesome you are at getting back to people who leave comments. That’s really cool. I did have a question on maintenance calories. If I am 175 lb and I calculated maintenance to be 2500 cals, is that 2500 cals on days I workout or rest, or would that include all exercise for the week (kind of like an average maintenance for the week? What I am asking is, what does it really mean that 2500 cals is my maintenance. I work out 4x a week, so is 2500 cals my AVERAGE number of cals burned per day, with my 4x per week workout split? I can’t imagine that it stays consistent from day-to-day.

    I guess it makes sense that it’s an average, but I just wanted to know your thoughts. Here is what I’m thinking as a simplified example:

    Monday: Rest, so energy burn is 2300
    Tuesday: Workout, energy burn is 2700
    Wednesday: Workout energy burn is 2700
    Thursday: Rest, energy burn is 2300
    Friday: Workout, energy burn is 2700
    Sat: Rest energy burn is 2300
    Sunday: Light cardio, energy burn is 2500

    So it all comes out as a 2500 maintenance. Would you say this is an accurate description of what it really means to have a maintenance of 2500?


    • It’s typically easier to just think of it as an average starting point, which you should then put into action, give a couple of weeks, monitor what happens, and then (if needed) make whatever adjustments are needed.

  36. I am unbelievably excited to find this website. I have spent the morning reading all your articles. After having two babies in two years I am ready to get back into it! I had tough pregnancies that did not allow for much activity. I have about 35 pounds to go and for the first time I feel like I can get somewhere losing the pounds and gaining back the muscle. Great articles.

  37. Hi there! I read through all the previous comments and your responses so you may tell me the same thing, “Keep your calorie intake and your activity level consistent for a few weeks, and monitor progress.” However, as someone who overthinks everything, I just want to be super sure 🙂

    Mondays and Thursdays I burn about 450-600 calories through HITT and Barre.
    Tuesdays and Wednesdays I burn about 200-300 calories through weight training.
    Fridays I burn 350-500 calories through Spin.
    Saturday and Sunday I do not workout, only housework.

    So Monday-Friday, I should disregard the daily differences in the amount of calories burned through exercise, and eat my daily maintenance level of calories (2061). Saturday and Sunday since I do not exercise, I should eat 20% (412 calories) less than my daily maintenance level of calories?

    • Yup… “Keep your calorie intake and your activity level consistent for a few weeks, and monitor progress.” 😉

      It’s really the best answer to every question like this. Do something, monitor progress, adjust as needed to ensure a deficit exists. No need to make it more complicated than that.

  38. Thank you for this article! I found this article because I am trying to help my mom find an answer to her situation. She is a marathon runner and runs an average of 20 miles a week and consumes about 1200 calories on average. Losing weight for her is difficult. Is she storing fat because she is consuming too little? Or what is your advice? Thank you in advance.

  39. So is this 500 extra calories like a set value? Like if I were to do cardio on one of my off days. Like let’s say I eat less calories on my off days and a bit more on training days (From a muscle building point of view, still being in a surplus through the entire week). Is it ok to eat the same surplus amount, that I consume during training days, on the rest day where I decided to do cardio or should I just add 500 calories? Thanks.

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