Eating back calories burned through exercise

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JUNE 21, 2022

Thanks to the growing popularity of fitness trackers, people can now monitor their daily steps taken, calories burned, and other metrics. Many wonder if they should eat back calories burned through exercise, especially after being more active than usual. 

Eating Back Calories

Eating back calories refers to increasing your calorie intake in proportion to the number of calories you burn through physical activity. For instance, if you do an hour of cardio and burn 400 calories, you consume an extra 400 calories that day.

Should You Eat Back Calories?

The answer would be no for most people but context matters, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Let’s go over how I approach the question and how you might determine the best course of action in the future. 

Scenario #1: The Occasional Bout of Activity

John is an average guy in his early thirties. His activity level is identical on most days as he works a desk job, works out four times per week, and walks an average of 5,000 steps daily.

But, occasionally, John goes on a weekend hike. According to his fitness tracker, he burns anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 extra calories during the two days of activity.

In that case, I would recommend John eat back some calories simply because his expenditure is too big to ignore.

Still, we must acknowledge that determining how many calories to eat back is difficult, and most fitness trackers are not that accurate. It might say that he’s burned 6,000 calories over Saturday and Sunday, but his actual expenditure might be closer to 4,000 or 3,000.

I recommend eating back around half the calories your tracker claims you’ve burned. If that’s 3,000 calories, eat back around 1,500.

Scenario #2: The Regular Activity Performed

Macy is your average gym goer. She does three weight sessions per week and three cardio workouts. Her cardio workouts last anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes, and the treadmill suggests that she is burning roughly 275 to 400 calories.

While it can be tempting for Macy to eat more at dinner, I recommend against that. For one, calorie trackers, especially on older cardio machines, are inaccurate. Second, this is part of her regular physical activity, and Macy should count these cardio sessions into her TDEE calculations instead of eating back calories after each treadmill run.

Macy should consider all regular activities when calculating her TDEE. That way, determining how many calories she should eat based on goals becomes easier. The alternative is to justify overeating because of any activity which is likely to result in weight gain.

Bottom Line

Tracking progress in the form of weight averages, progress photos, circumference measurements, and gym performance provides valuable data for determining if you’re eating the correct number of calories. Focusing on that and making adjustments to your overall diet will bring better results than being reactive and eating back calories you’ve burned during exercise.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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