Should You Eat Back the Calories You Burn Through Exercise?

The last time I wanted to get rid of the ring of flab around my midsection, it was a few months before a trip to the lake — gotta flex and fish for some compliments when doffing the T-shirt on the boat. I signed up for a thrice-weekly HIIT kettlebell class. Each session left me gasping, drenched in sweat, and so, so satisfied. Even though my limbs were rubbery and loose after class, my thoughts were still on the jiggly fat hanging around my belly. So each day I would take a few shaky steps toward the treadmill and jump on to blast out another 300 calories worth of exercise.

I was also ravenous. I started digging into leftovers — lasagna, burgers, pasta — believing that since I just worked my butt off, I could eat whatever I wanted.

The workouts had left my body stressed and tired and hungry, causing my brain to circumvent my steadfastness by engaging in what’s called compensatory behavior, an unconscious adjustment to get back the calories or mitigate the physical stress you just put your body through.

For some, a tough workout may prompt their brains to steer them toward the couch for an all-day laze-about instead of raiding the fridge. For others, it may tempt them into doing both. Either way, these reactions are your body’s attempts to regulate its physical expenditure and keep calories in balance.

“Exercise can make you really hungry, especially if you’ve just started a new program or are ramping up your volume of exercise,” says Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant professor of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And it really depends on what your goal is — if it’s weight loss, then you need to be mindful of the [total] calories you are putting in the body. If you are looking to improve performance, it’s important to refuel appropriately.”

So many people get this wrong that the message is worth repeating: You should think about calories in terms of total daily intake, whether you’re trying to lose weight, trying to improve performance, trying to gain muscle, or trying to gain weight.

“Obviously, you shouldn’t pig out on superfluous calories just because you worked out,” says Denis Faye, Openfit senior director of nutrition content. “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, says Pritchett. Post workout, aim for 20g of protein, as well as some carbs — particularly if your session was intense. If your routine was less strenuous, try a veggie scramble, a Greek yogurt parfait, or avocado egg salad toast.

Most of us though, would just like to lose a few pounds and look leaned and toned. We aren’t trying to bulk up for a bodybuilding competition. To get there, you need to keep close watch on your number of total daily calories. You should still plan to eat a healthy, protein-focused snack or meal soon after you finish your workouts because your body absorbs nutrients best during this time, and doing so will help you recover faster. Just make sure you factor your post-workout snack or meal calories into your daily eating plan.

It’s a good idea to to figure out how many calories you should be consuming to maintain your weight, or drop a few pounds. Once you get your daily calories figured out, you can simply, “add 300–500 calories to your current energy intake for weight gain, and decrease by 300–500 calories for weight loss,” says Pritchett. “Another easy strategy is to slightly increase the protein intake during a period of lower energy intake to help maintain lean body mass.”

Just don’t let your total daily calorie intake to drop below 1,200; you need this energy to support healthy body functions, daily activity, and your exercise program.

If you want to make the equation simpler, “Your focus should be on total daily caloric intake, and as long as you stick to your goal, you’re fine,” advises Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior fitness and nutrition content manager.

Eventually, I defeated my brain’s attempt to balance my metabolic processes and stopped myself from eating back all of my exercise calories. And, though I didn’t get super-shredded, I showed up with a solid four-pack, which was enough to net me a few admiring glances, and assuage my vanity. To get there, I kept up my intense routine — along with my regular weight lifting program — and stuck to these following tips to help keep my consumption in check:

4 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. Recent research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that bumping up overall daily water consumption helped reduce daily calorie intake; participants who drank one cup of water before a meal ate 69 fewer calories and those who drank three cups of water consumed 206 fewer calories.

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. A 2013 meta-analysis found that there’s a direct association between dietary fiber intake and lower body weight.

Turn to protein

Protein can help you recover more quickly after a workout and it can also regulate your appetite and make you feel more full than a carb- or sugar-heavy snack will. A 2012 review in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a moderate increase in protein can help you lose weight because it increases satiety.

Go heavy on veggies

A simple way to stave off the post-workout binge: When you do sit down for a meal, aim for a macronutrient breakdown of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. Fill up on fruits and veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. The extra portions of plants will fill you up and keep you satisfied throughout the day, plus help you meet the USDA’s recommended amount each day.