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Should I Eat Back The Calories I Burn During Exercise?

Anthony Diaz
Published by Anthony Diaz
Last updated: July 30, 2022

Dealing with the clients on their weight-loss journeys, I got familiar with their everyday struggles.

Most of them are foodies who religiously count their calories burned just to make space for their guilty pleasure snack. That's why from time to time, the same question arises - 'Could I eat back my exercise calories?.'

Regardless of knowing the answer, I went ahead and conducted a one-month study and consulted some research papers to reassure everyone once again why that's not a good idea.

Check it out.

Quick Summary

  • You shouldn't be eating back exercise calories as you can't precisely know how many calories you've burned or even how much you've eaten during the day, so it will most likely make you gain weight.
  • This often happens because most people measure their exercise calories using fitness trackers or apps that don't give accurate readings.
  • A better approach would be to use a method called total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and adjust your dieting and exercise intensity accordingly.

Should You Compensate Burned Calories?

A healthy meal on a plate

You shouldn't compensate burned calories since it's hard to estimate the number of calories burned accurately, and that's why many people doing this have slow or lousy weight loss results.

Since the primary goal when losing weight is to get into a calorie deficit, eating back the calories in a post workout snack may interfere with your progress and even lead to weight gain.

It usually happens because people don't factor in a few aspects.

Fitness Tracker Malfunction

Tracking calories has become an easy task in the modern world, thanks to fitness trackers.

Still, ironically, fitness (calorie) trackers are the main reason why people tend to have unreliable energy expenditure statistics.

Most fitness trackers (if not all) will give you inaccurate exercise calorie measurements as they have limited customization and a small exercise database.

Also, they aren't universal and designed on specifics of your body since calorie burn depends on these aspects:

  • Body composition (more muscle mass - more calories usage)
  • Body efficiency (the more you do exercise, the exercise will burn the fewer calories)
  • Previous training history (basal metabolism)
  • Diet (protein has a higher thermic effect on food - more calories needed to digest it)

Like so, these calorie trackers won't provide you with accurate total calories daily consumption and even mislead you to eat back more calories than you've burned.

A study from Stanford University showed that calorie trackers could get wildly inaccurate and usually overestimate calorie burn by up to an astonishing 93% [1].ย 

For example, the study found that the Apple watch overestimates calorie burn by 40%, so practically, if it says you've burned 400 calories, in reality, you probably burned around 160.

"If you want to know the exact number of calories that you are burning during an exercise session then it doesn't matter which device you use, you have to interpret the data with some caution."

- Rhys Thatcher, Ph.D., at British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences

A similar rule applies to mobile fitness apps, going off by 30 to 50% in estimation [2].

But if you think you're ahead because you don't possess these apps and gadgets, and you measure your calories burned using exercise machines, you're wrong.

A study from 2010 found that, on average, how many calories you've burned get overestimated by 7% on stationary bicycles, 12% on stair-climbers, 13% on treadmills, and a staggering 43% on elliptical machines [3].

So, don't get me wrong, activity trackers are helpful gadgets that encourage activity, and I like to use them for different reasons. Still, you shouldn't take them as a relevant source for calculating exercise energy burn.

Especially knowing that they are entirely irrelevant in calculating the calorie expenditure of other daily activities than workouts.

Daily Activities Oversight

A man watching on his television

Unless you are a couch potato who spends the whole day binge-watching Netflix, you should know that workout represents only 5-10% of your total daily calorie expenditure.

The remaining 70% of calories get burned every day during rest (basal metabolism), 15% from non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), 10% from digesting food, and 5% from planned workouts [4].

Having in mind that a one-hour workout is only 4% of our day, you should either be more active during the rest of the day or give your best to perform that workout session in high intensity to prevent the consequences if, after all, you decide to eat back exercise calories in a post-workout snack.

Not Training Hard Enough

It's hard to imagine any weight-loss plan without some exercise included, especially weight lifting that will preserve your muscles while on a calorie deficit.

But to make a workout helpful, you should do your best not to think of it as a tool used just to eat back the calories you spend there.

This mindset will make you think of exercise as a punishment for eating or a method for eating back exercise calories, which is wrong.

This kind of motivation won't make you last longer and could probably make you even develop an eating disorder.

Instead, you should center your thoughts around increasing your performance, which will make you a bit fitter and stronger during your fitness journey.

Unfortunately, most people do develop the wrong mindset, and that's why their performance in the gym is low, creating the illusion of calories burned and rewarding themselves with 'undeserved' calories.

What Should You Do Instead?

A meal plan for the week

Instead of using an activity tracker or some fitness app to find out how many calories you burned and how much you could eat back, you should focus on your meal plan and activity levels.

It's crucial because you'll never get a completely accurate measurement of your calorie intake or calorie burn unless monitored in the lab, which probably won't be the case.

Moreover, you will probably soon be overwhelmed with calories count, tracking, logging the calories in the app, overestimating calories burned, or underestimating extra calories intake, all impacting your fitness goals.

I'm saying this from my own experience because long ago when I wanted to eat back my exercise calories; it quickly became a time-consuming, dull, and fallible job. Not to mention that almost every time I had a plan to eat back my exercise calories, it ended up being counterproductive.

Therefore, to lose fat and burn calories, you should stop counting them and build muscle, followed by a healthy diet plan.

Manage Your Daily Calorie Input and Output

Top view of different meal preparation

Rather than using a fitness tracker to estimate your average number of calories expenditure, you should use a method known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) [5].

To find your TDEE, you should weigh yourself daily, take an average of that and compare it to your daily consumption.

While it still won't accurately estimate your results, you would be able to roughly set your daily calorie goal based on whom you could make your meal plan.

The meal plan will give you the freedom of eating roughly the same amount of calories per day to lose weight or make you achieve your fitness goal.

The meal plan for fat loss consists of:

  • 1.2g of protein intake per pound
  • 0.2g of fat per pound
  • Carbs as the source for the rest of the calories

Suppose you still want to track your calories with a fitness tracker, regardless of its inaccurate readings.

In that case, you may want to modify your exercise plan, eat back only half of the exercise-burned calories, or you could choose not to eat any exercise calories at all so you can increase your deficit and body fat loss.

Exercise Plan Modification

A fit woman instructor using her laptop

See, if you did half an hour of cardio for weight loss, you've probably burned 300 calories, but if your goal is to lose weight, there isn't a need to eat back those exercise calories.

What you should do is improve your performance and build your body up, not tear it apart with wrong exercise plans centered only on burning calories.

Therefore, your exercise improvements should have a goal of you:

  • Improving your mile time
  • Improving your form
  • Doing more reps
  • Doing more sets
  • Lifting more weights

With accomplishing those goals and enhancing the body composition, losing fat and calories will come almost effortlessly.

Still, remember that you can't overtrain a bad diet, so make sure to have quality nutrition.

FAQs

Why Am I Not Losing Weight Even Though I'm in a Calorie Deficit?

You are not losing weight even though you are in the calorie deficit, most likely because you hit what's called a weight-loss plateau.

It means that in the beginning, your weight will probably drop quickly, but at one moment, the process will stagnate until the final stop.

It happens because the initial weight loss is typically just water weight and not fat loss.

The other reasons you should also factor in are slow metabolism, lack of sleep, stress, muscle growth, and inappropriate diet or workout.

What Happens if You Burn All the Calories You Eat in a Day?

If you burn all the calories you eat in the day, you will end up with a severe deficit since, except with exercise, over half of the calories you burn every day is expended on your basal metabolism - functions like breathing, digesting, or maintaining body temperature.

This means 'exercising off' all the calories you digested daily would put your body in starvation mode and cause a stoppage of weight loss followed by hormonal imbalance.

In the First Place - Make Them Burn

So, should I eat back my exercise calories?

Well, if you are trying to lose weight, you shouldn't eat back exercise calories as it's hard to calculate how many additional calories you lost with your exercise, assuming you are already in a calorie deficit.

However, as your metabolism will eventually slow down on fewer calories consumption, supplements may come in handy to keep your metabolism optimized for burning calories.

You can check our articles where we tested and reviewed a couple of these supplements in the search of the best option.

Therefore, cut down your meals, consume fewer calories than before, burn calories with exercise supported with a fat burner, and use a mirror and not a weighing scale as your improvement indicator.


References:

  1. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4426/7/2/3/htm
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27633618/
  3. https://www.exercmed.org/journal/view.php
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978141600089150008X
  5. https://tdeecalculator.net/
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