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Are you trying to out-exercise your eating habits?

Have you fallen victim to the “calories in, calories out” or “move more, eat less” mindset?

On more than one occasion I’ve seen an article outlining the exercise equivalents to eating ‘guilty indulgences’ pop onto my social media news feed. Here’s how these articles go: They list a bunch of unhealthy foods, and list how many minutes of a particular exercise you need to burn the calories.

For instance, if you eat a piece of pepperoni pizza, you’ll need to go ballroom dancing for 90 minutes to off-set the ‘damage’. A can of soda? At least 40 minutes of brisk walking (one particular article recommended no-calorie drinks so that you can ‘avoid exercising away the calories’).   As for that super sized meal, be prepared for a real sweat-fest.

This way of looking at calories and food presents itself in other ways as well. While enjoying a dinner out, you may think “I’d better go to the gym in the morning after this”.  And, at conference last month, the keynote speaker described the total energy (calories) in a new protein product as the ‘caloric penalty’. Since this new product had fewer calories than other products, it’s caloric penalty was less.

I get that the intent behind these articles, and this way of thinking, is to deter you from consuming ‘unhealthy foods’, or at least guide you to make an informed decision when deciding to go ahead and indulge.  But if there’s an implied need to exercise away the calories of burger, there’s also an implied need to overemphasize calories of all foods.

There’s no doubt that calories matter. However, there are some very fundamental problems in this way of thinking, and the perspective when looking at food. Let me explain.

First, from a purely physiological perspective, the ‘calorie equivalent’ of food has some flaws. In most cases, such as using online fitness calculators, the calories burned during exercise is overestimated. Combined with optimistic human inputs, we usually overestimate the calories burned during a workout and underestimate the portions that we eat. Trying to out exercise poor nutrition is completely futile.

This model also assumes the human body is a simple math equation, and that all calories are the same. Eat X number of calories. Burn X number of calories, and everything will balance out. The body is not a simple equation, and not all calories affect the body in the same way.

The human body is a highly intricate biochemical system with complicated processes, and different foods affect the body differently. For instance, protein requires a lot more energy to metabolize than carbohydrates. And, different foods will have different effects on your hormones, which affect your body’s ability to burn calories.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this way of thinking is that it implies that the focus of nutrition and exercise is to maintain an energy balance so that you don’t gain weight. Calling calories ‘caloric penalty’ or linking exercise as the punishment for poor eating is a slippery slope down to a disordered relationship with food and exercise, and to the on-again-off-again diet and exercise roller coaster ride.

This way of thinking completely ignores health.

Nutrition and exercise is so much more than calories consumed and calories burned so that you lose weight, or maintain your weight. It’s not about eating ‘good food’ or ‘bad food’ and then tracking your exercise obsessively to make sure you’ve burned it off.

What you put into your body matters, far beyond the scale. Your food will affect your energy, your mood, and your vitality. Eat real, whole foods that nourish your body and make you feel good, most of the time. Move your body to get strong and improve your health. And since you’re no longer obsessing about every calorie that you consume and burn, you can take all that extra energy and freed up time to live your life.