Pop quiz - have you ever said or thought any of the following things?
I should exercise a lot today to earn that pizza tonight
Eek - I ate way too much but I'll work it off tomorrow at the gym
The elliptical said I burned 300 calories - score! I can drink 3 vodka sodas tonight
I don't know about you but I scored a 3/3 on this quiz. I've fallen victim to these false rationalities parading as reasonable solutions. Let's get real. Can we really cancel out food with exercise? Can we earn our indulgences?
Keep reading to find out - the answer might surprise you!
Calories In vs. Calories Out
We've all heard that to lose weight you have to burn more calories than you consume (aka calories in > calories out or "calorie deficit"). And while technically that has some scientific merit it's a major simplification of a complicated issue surrounding weight loss and overall well-being.
First, calculating calories burned is complicated because we each have a unique metabolism. And estimating your basal metabolic rate (how many calories you burn just existing) is just what it sounds like - an estimate!
Furthermore, many exercise machines, workout videos, and weight loss apps overestimate the number of calories you burn during exercise. Exercise studies show that when adults estimate energy expenditure from exercise it is two to three times higher than the actual calorie burn.
But even that doesn't account for EPOC or basic differences between our own metabolism and someone else's. It's just not that simple.
Inevitably there is someone is out there wondering, well what about professional athletes - they work out so much they probably eat whatever they want. True - professional athletes consume and expend more calories than the average person. But it further proves that everyone's needs are different. And you should find what works for you in order to bring you peace of mind and a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
So, calories in vs. calories out is a good estimation tool. But it shouldn't dictate all of our eating and exercise behaviors.
You Don't Need to Earn Food
For some people, it's easier to work out feverishly than to say no to a piece of chocolate cake (I fall into this category too!) But the issue is thinking that you have to choose between an hour on the treadmill and a piece of cake. We all need food - some need more than others but no one should feel like they don't deserve to eat.
I believe that making healthy eating decisions means eating foods in quantities that make you feel good. A small slice of that chocolate cake might make me feel good but eating three or four slices would not.
Thinking about food as a reward system can be dangerous and a slippery slope towards disordered eating. We need to do a better job as a society to remove the food as reward jargon from our vocabulary.
A Cycle of Eating Behaviors
When we tell ourselves we can't have something it can make us want it more. So when we tell ourselves we can't have pizza until we exercise and then we finally get to the pizza we are way more likely to overeat. And once we overeat, we feel a need to over-exercise to compensate.
Does this cycle sound familiar? Read this blog about how you can use patterns to help you build healthier habits instead of repeating unhealthy ones.
Vacillating between overeating and overexercising is also a form of disordered eating. It can be dangerous for your physical and mental health.
Enjoy Food and Enjoy Exercise
The solution? Enjoy your food and enjoy your exercise. Stop exercising to earn food or indulging in food awaiting penance in the form of burpees. Seek a healthier path that involves eating things you like that make you feel good and moving your body in ways that bring your joy.
It's possible to untangle a complicated relationship between food and exercise. All you have to do is try your best to use both as a way to make yourself feel energized, happy, and powerful.