Should I Eat Back the Calories I Burned Through Exercise?

This is one of those questions I get every day. “Should I add calories that I burn during exercise back to my total”.

When faced with this decision, it’s important to consider several factors, most notably your weight goal (whether you’re wanting to lose, gain or maintain), the frequency, intensity and duration of your exercise, and your overall level of hunger.

Obviously, you shouldn’t go overboard on superfluous calories just because you worked out. However, post-workout is an ideal time for almost anyone to have a quality snack or meal because of the potential recovery benefits. You’re not ‘eating back’ your calories. You’re picking a time to eat when your calories will most benefit you.

If you are at the point where you are trying to build more mass and muscle, or recover faster, it’s important to refuel after a workout and consume adequate calories to see those changes. Post workout, aim for 20g of protein, as well as some carbs.

It’s easy, and fairly common to overestimate calorie burn (both from everyday activity and from exercise) and underestimate calorie consumption. By going out of your way to eat back every calorie you expend during exercise, you may unintentionally undermine your efforts to lose or maintain your weight. Additionally, you could be overriding your body’s hunger cues if you don’t feel particularly keen for those exercise calories but eat (or drink) them back them anyway. If your body isn’t telling you it needs fuel, it’s best to save your exercise calories for when you want them–say, for an unexpected hunger pang or a weekend treat meal with friends.

Before you eat back your exercise calories, consider the three downsides of tracking exercise in your calorie tracking app.

  • Most calorie trackers have a very small exercise database with broad categories and limited customization. For example, you can pick “walking” for “30 minutes” and you might be able to estimate a mph or a minute-mile, but not always. Broad categories like this don’t take into full account the extent to which you exerted effort and make it very difficult to accurately estimate the calories burned.
  • The estimated calories burned tend to be high. Meaning, you likely burn fewer calories doing the activity than what your app says. When you subtract those inaccurate calorie estimates from your daily calorie allotment, you will end up consuming more calories back than what was burned. This often results in a double whammy – you’re not burning as many calories as the app says and you’re eating back more calories than you may have burned.
  • Subtracting exercise calories from total calories consumed gives the impression that you can eat more. Most adults do not need to eat back their exercise calories because they are doing moderate activities, like walking, biking, swimming, weight-lifting, etc. These activities do not burn enough calories to require a post-workout snack, particularly if weight-loss is the intended goal. The exception to this rule is for athletes who do vigorous workouts for several hours each day. They, of course, require additional calories.

3 Tips to Help You Fuel Intelligently, No Matter What Your Goals Are

  • Stay well hydrated

The body has a difficult time differentiating between the physiological differences of hunger and thirst. When what feels like hunger strikes, try drinking a glass of water instead.

  • Eat fiber-rich foods

Choosing foods that are high in fiber — oatmeal, apples, beans, popcorn, berries — will help tamp down your hunger and increase satiety.

  • Turn to protein

Protein can help you recover more quickly after a workout and it can also regulate your appetite and make you feel fuller than a carb- or sugar-heavy snack will.


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