Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Why I hate the caloric math game

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I have a beef with a lot of the all-in-one fitness/weight management apps. Many people benefit from tracking their calories when they’re trying to lose weight. I’m all for that. What I hate is the inclusion of calories burnt through exercise. I think that a lot of these apps over-estimate the number of calories expended during various activities. This can mean that if you’re looking at the bottom-line to determine how many calories you can eat without gaining weight you’re probably going to eat more than you need. I often tell people to either not track their exercise using these apps or to ignore the additional calories the app then tells them that they can have. Just use the nutrition side of the app. It’s wise to remember that even that’s not going to be 100% accurate, especially if you’re not weighing everything you eat. It’s just another weight management tool in a box of many.

Now for the real beef: I don’t like that these apps try to turn weight loss into a math problem. It’s not. We used to believe that cutting 3500 kcal would result in a pound of weight lost. We now know that it’s much more complicated than that. There are many factors contributing to the weight we are. Yes, how many calories we consume (and expend) are a huge factor in determining how much we weigh, and whether we lose, gain, or maintain our weight. I don’t want to diminish that fact. I’m not going to tell you that if you just ate cleaner you would lose weight. The cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter when it comes to weight loss. However, adding 350 calories by going for a walk is an oversimplification. It may also lead to an unhealthy way of thinking about food, exercise, and weight management.

Most of us easily consume more calories than we’ve burnt after a workout. Exercise makes you hungry and it’s a whole lot easier to eat 500 calories than it is to expend them during a workout. When we start thinking about exercise as a way to “earn” more calories we’re moving away from healthy eating and healthy fitness. While I’ve said that the cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter for weight loss, and I’ve also said that there should be no forbidden foods, eating primarily nutrient-rich whole foods is important for your health. A session at the gym shouldn’t be a licence to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient foods for the rest of the day. Focus on gaining health through the food you eat and the physical activity you do, rather than the numbers in an app or on a scale.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

10 thoughts on “Why I hate the caloric math game

  1. On this note, I bringe very time my zumba instructor starts a class by announcing that you can burn 750 to 1000 calories in an hour of zumba…!

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  2. I completely agree. I think counting calories only makes for more pain and trouble. Focusing on how you feel, whether you’re treating your body right by eating the proper amounts and healthy food and exercising is so much more important. And then it feels less like you have to live by all these difficult rules and more like you’re being healthy because you actually care about your body.

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  3. I loved this! It’s so frustrating listening to ‘experts’ feed us information about how many calories we’re going to burn doing physical activity! Everyone has different metabolisms and puts in different amounts of effort; there is no way to definitively say how many calories you will burn!

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    • Thanks Joy! Great point about the varying metabolisms. Also the varying apps. I know that my Nike+ thinks I burn more calories on a run than my Fitbit does.

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  4. Thank you for your good sense! I use an all-in-one app, and I never “eat back” my exercise calories, because they are ridiculously overstated. I cringe when I see someone post on the app’s chat “I burned 1500 calories in a hour of Zumba!” I have lost 60 pounds in 10 months, mostly by eating less and trying to eat a little more protein than the app tells me to, because I think it keeps me satisfied longer. But moderate exercise actually helps me tame my appetite instead of making me feel hungry the way boredom does. But anyway, I love love love your blog! It makes me feel as if I’m not crazy. I’m not an RD, and you make things easier to grasp for me. Thank you.

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  5. Pingback: Have you ever “undone” all your hard work at the gym with a burger? This post is for you. |

  6. Pingback: Which fitness tracker gives you the best calories burned for your workout? An experiment |

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