about “eating back” calories burned while exercising

Follow the free exercise program and you will get results.
Follow the free exercise program and you will get results.

Long over due sequel to my Eat More, Do Less; Lose Weight post from earlier in the week.

What we talked about in the last instalment was determining our actual requirements, rather than just sticking to the numbers we expect to work based on our mathematical formulas. As I said, in most cases we will get an accurate prediction using the Mifflin – St Joer equation… but if we’re not seeing results, we’re not using the right targets.

So figuring out how many calories you need is not very complicated. We do the maths based on our physical characteristics / statistics to determine our theoretical BMR, and then multiply by an appropriate activity level. If we don’t see results at that amount of calories, we probably need to increase, either by running the maths again with the next activity level, or just by adding one or two hundred calories and monitoring our progress from there.

Why did it take me 1000 words to say that last time, and one paragraph just now?

Anyway… it’s pretty simple, right? But as I often find, people like to take what is simple and make it over complicated. As a result I keep noticing more and more people attempting to track the amount of calories they burn at training, and then “eat back” that amount afterwards.

Now, I will say this is a lot better than just trying to eat as little as possible and trying to burn as much as possible. Still though… I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for weight management.

First of all, those devices that count the calories you’ve supposedly burned in a session. How much do we really trust them to get it right? Don’t get me wrong, I had one a few years ago (but I broke it or something) and it’s kind of fun to look at it after training and say “wow, that many calories? I knew I was working hard today!”, but as I keep on saying, we’re hitting the gym each day to perform specific movements targeting specific muscles in a manner that will build our goal physique. We burn calories in the process, but burning calories isn’t our reason for being there.

So, I may have this wrong but I think this is the theory behind the tracking and eating back calories thing the way a lot of the calorie counting websites do it. The best sense I can make of it is; BMR based on maths, + amount of calories required for daily activities not including exercise = how much you should eat in a day. But then, you’re going to need to eat extra after training, depending on how much you burned in the session.

It does makes sense but wow man, that’s too complicated! I see a little bit of it on fitness & weight loss blogs that I follow, where the person is saying “well I’ve eaten this amount, but I burned this amount, so now my net calories is negative this amount, so I have to eat this much more before I go to bed in a few hours”… and I’m just like “what?!”

Way too complicated for my liking.

Here’s the problem as I see it. Exactly like I explained in the previous article, we use the maths to predict an amount of calories that we expect will lead to the maintenance of our goal weight. It’s a theoretical amount and we may have to adjust it depending on the results we do, or do not see.

How are you supposed to do this with a different target each day, trying to find ways to eat more after an extra hard or long training session one day… and then trying to survive on low calories another day if you miss training or just have an easier session?

Here’s what I think is a better strategy, if you want results without having to over think everything. Point form for simplicity.

  1. Follow an exercise program that is actually suitable to your goal.
    For weight loss this means more resistance training with some cardio for good measure.
  2. Determine your expected / theoretical maintenance calorie requirements for your goal weight, and plan your meals accordingly. Use the Mifflin – St Joer Equation with the activity level that best describes your training program.
  3. Consider the results above as guidelines and plan to stay within them more often than not, but don’t obsess about it too much if you go a little over or under once in a while.
  4. Monitor your progress and ask yourself the following questions:
    1. Am I seeing the expected progress towards my goal?
    2. Do I feel like I am getting enough fuel to train, recover and adapt, and to get through my other daily activities?
    3. Could I eat a little more and still see progress?
  5. Adjust your nutritional intake targets accordingly.
  6. Repeat.

Simplicity is the key.

We often get too caught up in the maths or whatever other factors our expectations are based on, and stubbornly insist “what I’m doing should be working, damn it” and refuse to adjust our approach. If we actually want to be successful, we need to objectively ask ourselves “well, is it working?” and if it isn’t we need to figure out why and make the appropriate changes.

If you’re trying to hit a different intake target each day depending on how many calories you think you’ve burned at training… if you’re not seeing results it seems like it would be quite complicated to figure out where the problem is. Maybe you’re not burning as much as you think you are? Or maybe you’re burning so much more than you think you are? Who knows?!

Regardless of differing energy expenditure from one day to the next, if you are consuming about the right amount of calories on a daily basis you will inevitably arrive at your goal weight.


Author: davehpt

I'm DaveHPT, Maybe you've heard of me? Musician, rock star and recording artist. Published author. Former security industry professional. Personal Trainer, Online Coach and the INNOVATOR in Sports Nutrition.

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