If you want to lose weight, one of the most helpful things you can do is start tracking your calorie intake.
This improves your awareness of how much you’re eating, where you can cut back, and how to budget your calories so as to eat your favorite foods while still losing weight.
Many people take this a step further and start tracking their calorie expenditure (“burn”) using an activity tracker like a FitBit, Apple Watch, or Jawbone.
If you’ve used one of these trackers, though, you’ve probably noticed that on some days you burn a lot more calories than others. A hike, bike ride, or jog can jack up your calorie expenditure by several hundred calories.
In this case, the person set a daily calorie budget of 2,000 calories, and they’d already eaten and tracked all of those calories. But they also went on a bike ride that burned 327 calories, which opens the question . . . should you “eat back” those ~300 calories?
Even if you don’t use an activity tracker, you’ve probably wondered the same thing: if you burn more calories on a particular day, should you eat more to compensate?
The short answer is that no, you probably shouldn’t eat back the calories burned during exercise.
If you want to know why this is the case and learn a better way to manage your calorie intake that doesn’t depend on activity trackers or constantly balancing your daily calorie budget in this way, keep listening.
2:51 – The problem with eating back calories
20:06 – Does that really work if your actual calorie expenditure changes a lot day to day?
Mentioned on the show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hello, hello, and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. I am your host, Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today where I’m gonna answer a question I’ve been asked many, many times over the years, and which I don’t believe I have directly addressed here on the podcast. And that is, should I eat back the calories that I burn?
In my workouts and in this podcast, I’m going to explain why no, you probably shouldn’t be eating back calories that you burn in your workouts. Not because that is bad per se, but because it indicates that you probably need to change how you are approaching your calorie management all together. It indicates that you are probably making the process more complicated than it needs to be and are probably just making it harder to reach your body composition goal than it needs to be.
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First order. So again, if you appreciate my work and if you wanna see more of it, and if you also want all natural evidence-based supplements that work, please do consider supporting Legion so I can keep doing what I love, like producing more podcasts like this. Now the first problem with eating back calories, you burn during your workouts or just vigorous physical activity as a general rule, as something you just generally do or always do, is it’s going to greatly shrink your calorie def sit, which of course is what drives weight loss, which is what drives fat loss.
Doing a bunch of workouts is not going to. Reduce your body fat levels unless over whatever period of time we are talking about, you have consistently eaten fewer calories than you have burned. And so a mistake I see many people make is this. They go from eating and living a certain way that maintains a certain body composition, right?
And then they decide they want to get leaner, so they start exercising or they start. More. And because they mistakenly think that it is exercising a alone that drives fat loss, they assume that they can eat the calories back, that they are burning during their workouts. And so what they do is they go from eating basically more or less maintenance calories at a body fat level that they are not happy with.
They then start working out, which increases their energy expenditure, which if they were to not. Eat those calories back would function as a calorie deficit, which again, is what drives weight loss. But because they are eating the calories back, that of course erases the deficit. So let’s say you have a guy who is eating 2,500 calories a day on average, whether he realizes it or not.
But that’s his average daily calorie intake. And he is 20% body fat and he has hovered between 18 and 22% body fat for a long time, and. That’s because on average, he burns about 2,500 calories per day. Now, of course, the actual calorie intakes and expenditures, the actual numbers are moving targets.
They’re changing all the time. But let’s just say that those are the ranges that we’re working with. We are working with a range of 18 to 22% body fat, 24 till, let’s say, 2,700 calories a day. Both eaten and burned, and things have settled here, and they’ve remained there for a while. . So he then starts working out, or he starts working out more, and he increases his average daily expenditure to 3000 calories per day.
If he starts eating those calories back, those additional calories that are burned with the workouts or the extra workouts, he is now just going to maintain his body com. On that new 3000 calories per day that he’s eating and burning. And so if I have just described your situation, I understand how frustrating it can be.
And fortunately, there is a simple solution. You just have to understand more about calorie deficits and how to create and maintain them. And I have a podcast for you to listen to that is explicitly on that topic. It is called How to Use Energy Balance to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle. And uh, there’s also an article [email protected] by the same title if you would rather read about it.
But if you wanna listen to the podcast again, just search for energy balance in the feed or on YouTube and it will come up now if you understand how energy balance works, but are still wondering if you should be eating calories back. That you burn during your workouts, or if you are doing that, then we should talk about how you are managing your calories, because what you’re probably doing is starting with a baseline number that represents how many calories you burn without factoring in physical activity.
The technical terms would be your basal or your resting metabolic rates. Those are not synonymous, but in actuality, they come out to be about the same in terms of numbers. And then what you probably are doing is trying to estimate how many calories you’re burning in your workouts and your other physical activities to get to a total daily energy expenditure.
And then subtracting from. And based on my experience working with many people over the years, you are probably doing this every day. You are probably using a device of some kind to estimate how many calories you’re burning through your workouts and walking around and everything else that you’re doing.
And then finally trying to adjust your calories in based on that number, which changes every day, and in some cases may change a lot. You may burn 3, 4, 500 more calories on Monday than Tuesday because of your lifestyle or your workout schedule or whatever. And I really don’t like that method for a few reasons.
One is most people don’t know how to accurately estimate how many calories they’re burning during exercise. And fitness trackers are partly to blame for this because although they do give you the illusion of pinpoint accuracy, oh, you burned four. And 22 calories. In this workout, for example, they’re really only giving you a rough estimate of how many calories you’re burning, and studies show that they are pretty good when it comes to walking, but are not so good at estimating actual energy expenditure with just about every other activity.
I mean, research shows that many of these devices can be off by as much as 50% or more, so your fitness tracker might say that you. 300 calories during your workout when you only burned 200 calories or 150 calories, or maybe even a hundred calories. And studies show that most smartphone fitness tracking apps aren’t any better.
They’re often off by 30 or 50%. And unfortunately, you can’t rely on exercise machines either. For example, in a study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco’s Human Performance Center, they found that on average stationary bikes overestimated energy expenditure by 7%.
Stair climbers were. Off by 12% overestimated. Unfortunately, treadmills 13% and ellipticals were bad in this study, they overestimated by 42% on average. So what I’m getting at here is even if you are calorically savvy and you have properly estimated your basil or your. Resting metabolic rate and you are then using devices to try to figure out how many total calories you’re burning so you can regulate your intake accordingly.
It is probably not going to work out in your favor. You are probably going to end up thinking you are burning more calories than you. Actually are, which of course then will lead you to overeating. So for example, you might think that you burned 2,900 calories yesterday in the previous 24 hours, 2,900 calories of burning, and you then ate 2,400 calories.
Or at least you think you ate 2,400 calories. Let’s not forget that many people also underestimate how many calories they’re eating, but that’s what you. Happened when in reality you only burned 2,600 or let’s say 2,700 calories. And if you did truly eat 2,400 calories, you were in a slight deficit, but not nearly as much as you thought.
And if you were to do that consistently, you wouldn’t see the expected rate of weight loss. And then you might think something is wrong with your metabolism or your hormones or the foods you’re eating. And the next thing you know, you are following some fad diet. You are cutting gluten out of your diet or sugar out of your diet, or carbs out of your diet, or you are following a crash diet or a starvation diet, or some extremely restrictive form of eating like the carnivore diet.
And of course from there, things can just get wackier and wackier and you can get more and more frustrated and confused, and all of it would’ve been unnecessary if you would’ve understood that energy balance was the issue that you were not burning as many calories as you thought you were, and it was the fault of the device or the devices that you were using.
and you might have been eating more calories than you thought you were as well for a double whammy of weight loss stagnation. Now, that isn’t to say that approach to managing your calories can never work because of course it can. If you can consistently, accurately estimate how many calories you are burning every day and.
Eating, then you can get that granular, you can micromanage your calories on a day-to-day basis. The only reason I can think of to do that would be the spontaneity factor, because that allows you, of course, maximum flexibility every day, every meal. You can just ask yourself, what do I feel like eating?
Okay, plug it into My Fitness Pal. Okay. Look at how many calories I’ve burned so far today, and chances are if you. Good at this method of managing your calories, you will also understand approximately how many calories you are going to burn by the end of the day based on whatever it is that you are still gonna be doing for the day.
And then you make your food decisions accordingly. So if your desired lunch is 800 calories, for example, you might not. Because you might realize that you only have really another 700 calories that you’re gonna burn for the entire day, and you wanna make sure that you are in a deficit. So then you might go for the low calorie lunch instead.
And so it would go every meal, every day. And if that sounds like not a lot of fun to you, I understand, I have never enjoyed that method. I much prefer what I’m going to recommend instead, which is using. To estimate your average total daily energy expenditure based on your basal or resting metabolic rate, plus the average amount of calories that you’re burning through extra physical activity, and then creating a meal plan that allows for as much variety as you want, but allows you to just consistently.
Certain calorie and macronutrient targets, of course, not perfectly just close enough within five or 10% or so of your calorie and your protein targets in particular. And then just following the plan. And by doing that, you not only simplify the whole process, you also basically guarantee results. So long as you can.
Not accidentally overeat. That is the primary way people mess up the method that I prefer. And it also takes out all of the thinking and decision making, and that is a major hidden benefit of meal planning, the way that I teach it, because research shows that the average person makes upward of about. 200 food related decisions per day.
And other research shows that every decision we make takes a little bit of energy and we only have so much energy to pull from every day. And as our energy reserves bottom out, that’s when our mood sours and we start to make worse decisions and we become more impulsive and our willpower and our self-discipline sags.
I don’t want to waste any of that energy on food, and I’m sure you have enough going on in your life to feel the same way. You wouldn’t want to risk making worse decisions at work or at home because you are thinking way too much about. Food. And so again, my preferred and my recommended method for controlling calories and controlling macros is doing some simple math to estimate on average how many calories you are burning every day, and then creating a meal plan that allows you to eat the amount of calories you need to eat and to break those calories down into the proper macronutrients to achieve your fitness goals.
So for example, if you are burning on average about 2,900 calories per day and you want to lose fat, you might make a meal plan that provides about 2,400 calories per day. And of course, you fill it with foods that you like, ensuring that most of the calories come from nutritious, relatively unprocessed foods.
But of course you can include some non-nutritious stuff if you want some treats, and then you. Eat those foods every meal every day until you get bored of something and then you swap it out. Or what some people like to do is they like to, on the front end when they’re making their meal plan, create several options for certain meals.
So many people have their favorite meal of the day, for example, for me it’s dinner, but for other people it might be breakfast. Okay, so there are 3, 4, 5. Doesn’t matter. You can do as many as you want. Breakfasts that, let’s say someone likes to eat or rotate through, they like to do, I’ve, I’ve worked with many people over the years who like to do different breakfasts a couple days per week.
So they’ll eat one breakfast, let’s say on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then they’ll eat something else on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That’s common. Or it might be dinners or lunches or whatever. And the reason that can work well is what we do is we ensure that each of those meal options contains more or less the same calories, not always the same macros.
We do keep protein consistent, but sometimes carbs and fats can change because those don’t matter that much really. But the key is the calories stay about the same. So you have breakfast A, B, and C, or just a and. And they each provide, let’s say about 400 calories and 40 grams of protein. And then the carbs and the fats vary based on the foods.
And so then what you do is you do that meal by meal and you have a plan now that allows for as much variety as you would like, and that allows you to consistently hit. The calorie target you need to hit and consistently hit the protein target you need to hit and allows you to not have to think about it.
You know exactly what you are going to eat, every meal, every day, or at least you know you’re gonna eat one of two or maybe three things. So the decision is very easy to make. It is. I have these two options to choose from, or three options. What do I feel like? As opposed to, I have unlimited options because I have my fitness pal.
Let me look through my pantry, or look through my fridge, or look through DoorDash or something and see what do I want to eat? Oh, do I want that or, oh, that sounds pretty good. Maybe I’ll do that. Yeah, I think I’m gonna order that. Well, actually, I had that a few days ago. Maybe Mediterranean. That sounds pretty good.
And on and on it can go right? And don’t think that can’t happen. We have all sat on the couch browsing Netflix for 15 or 20 minutes trying to find something to watch. Constantly weighing one option versus another, looking for the best possible thing to watch in the moment. And what is ironic is after all of the deliberation, we are almost always disappointed in whatever we pick.
We probably would’ve been better off just closing our eyes and choosing at random. and the same thing can happen with food. It is very easy to fall into that decision trap when you are trying to track your calories on the fly, whereas you can avoid it all together by just making a meal plan and sticking to it.
And of course, you can ensure that you eat foods you like and that you enjoy every meal and you look forward to every meal, and of course, get the result you want.
If you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support of many people like you, is the leading brand of all natural sports supplements in the world. Now one good question. Many people have asked me about this method of calculating your average total daily energy expenditure using some math, and then just regulating your calories according to that is, does that really work if your actual calorie expenditure changes a lot?
Day to day, if, for example, you burn a thousand calories through two workouts on one day, let’s say you do an intense, uh, weightlifting workout and an intense cardio workout, you burn an extra thousand 1200 or 1400 calories on that day. So that’s of course on top of your basal metabolic rate and the calories you burn through just your other.
Regular day-to-day activities, and then the next day, let’s say, is a rest day. So you do no cardio and no lifting, so you don’t have that extra a thousand or 12 or 1400 calories. Does it really make sense to eat the same number of calories on both of those days? Like. Does that work? Isn’t that going to cause problems?
And the quick answer is no. No, it’s totally fine because if you have correctly estimated your total daily energy expenditure and then set your calories accordingly, all that means is let’s say you’re cutting on some days, your deficit is going to be larger. than others. So on the days where you are burning all the extra calories from your training, maybe that’s a six or 700 calorie deficit for that day.
And then on the next day when you are resting, maybe it’s only a 200 calorie deficit, and then on a day where you are just lifting or just doing cardio, maybe it’s a four or 500 calorie deficit. And that is again, totally fine. So long as that calorie. Averages out to where you want it to be, which for most people is gonna be in the range of three to 500 calories.
Or another way of looking at it is so long as your weekly calories in versus calories out are where they need to be. Now, some people push back because they’re concerned that the larger deficit days constitutes starvation, dieting. Basically, they are concerned. If they’re in a seven or 800 calorie deficit on one or two days of the week, for instance, that that may cause muscle loss or metabolic damage, or at least metabolic adaptation.
And again, this is nothing to worry about. Yes, it would be a problem if you were, let’s say, relatively lean, wanting to get even leaner, or let’s say you’re just athletic, wanting to get lean and you are to maintain a. 800 calorie deficit every day for, uh, weeks or months on end. I would not recommend that.
That is not gonna be fun. But if that happens to occur a couple of times per week, and if it is then followed by days with smaller deficits, and so long as the average deficit is where you want it to be, practically speaking, you are not going to have any. Issues. Now, there are always exceptions to every rule of course.
And the exception worth noting here is I’ve worked with people over the years who are really into endurance training, who go for 3, 4, 5 hour bike rides, for instance. And if we were to not change their calorie intake, On those days, if we were just to stick to one number every day of the week, they would be in a huge deficit.
I mean like 1500 to 2000 calories, and in that case, to get to an average daily deficit. That makes sense. They would have to eat in a slight deficit or maybe even at. Maintenance, uh, most of the other days of the week, and then have this massive deficit once a week. And while that can work, of course, for losing weight and losing fat, because a large weekly calorie deficit is a large calorie deficit, regardless of how you split it up day to day, it is not best for retaining muscle and it is not very fun.
Because chances are you are going to be very hungry on that big deficit day. You are going to dread that day, which of course then is gonna make the endurance training in this case even harder and less enjoyable. But again, that is the exception, not the rule. Most of us are training three to maybe six hours per week, and most of us alternate between days of low activity.
So maybe no training. Two moderate activity, maybe an hour or so of training too high activity, maybe two hours of training. And for all of us who follow a regimen like that, who live like that, we can just calculate our average total daily expenditure based on how active we are and eat more or less the same number of calories and the same amount of protein every day, and have no trouble losing fat and not muscle.
gaining muscle with minimal fat gain or just maintaining our body composition. There is no reason to make this more complicated than it needs to be. Now, how do you do that? How do you calculate your total daily energy expenditure accurately? And then figure out how many calories you should be eating every day, and how much protein you should be eating every day?
And then how do you take those numbers and turn them into a meal plan that you like and that works? Fortunately, it is pretty straightforward and I have explained it in full [email protected]. Just search for meal planning and you’ll find an article and it’ll come up in the search results, an article called The Definitive Guide to Effective Meal Planning.
Check that article out and just follow the steps, and by the end of it, you will know how to figure out how many calories you are burning on average every day. You will know how to figure out how many calories you. Eating according to that. And then how to set up your meal plan so you can eat foods you like every day and lose fat and gain muscle as desired.
Alright, well that is it for this installment of Muscle for Life. Thanks again for joining me. I hope you found it helpful, and I hope you’ll join me for the episodes I have coming. I have an interview I did with the Veteran Fitness author. Lou Schuler, there’s gonna be another best of episode where you can hear handpicked highlights from the most popular episodes of Muscle for Life, going all the way back to the beginning, as well as another q and a episode where I will answer questions regarding weightlifting volume and cutting training and muscle fiber types, and my best fitness advice for people who are in their forties and beyond.
All right. Well, that’s it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting and helpful. And if you did, and you don’t mind doing me a favor, please do leave a quick review on iTunes or. Wherever you’re listening to me from in whichever app you’re listening to me in, because that not only convinces people that they should check out the show, it also increases search visibility and thus it helps more people find their way to me and learn how to get.
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That is the best way to get ahold of me, Mike, at muscle life.com. And that’s it. Thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.