Wednesday, May 25, 2011

3 meal time words that can cripple weight loss

"Because I exercised"

And to be fair, I've had them run through my head as well.

What am I getting at?

Most of us folks, when we've exercised intensely, we tend to delude ourselves that we've earned some dietary leeway and indulgence.

That belief then leads to the suffix, "because I exercised".

"I can have seconds ... because I exercised",

"I can have that (insert indulgence here) ... because I exercised"
And guess what, have the, "because I exercised" indulgence and more often than not, while you'll still be racking up the incredible health benefits of exercise, you'll probably be kissing any theoretical caloric benefits goodbye.

I think these 3 little words may in part explain why exercise doesn't tend to have a tremendous real-world impact on weight loss, despite having a theoretical mathematical one on paper.

That doesn't mean you can't, or shouldn't indulge.

It just means that the indulgent calories you can consume in a few minutes, to truly be "balanced" through exercise, are likely going to require a heck of a lot of exercise.

Or put another way, it means that the calories burned through exercise are usually much lower than most of us would expect, and that while indulgence is an important part of a rich and complete life, your choice to do it shouldn't be based on whether or not you've exercised, it should be based on whether or not you've decided the indulgence is worth its calories.

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  1. I thought that the other reason exercise isn't so useful is because the body adjusts to increased exercise and becomes more efficient, so that over time you don't burn as many calories doing it. Is that true?

  2. Or indulge in awesome foods that are reasonable calorie wise.

    Check out post-exam-party foods:

    Compared to recommended diet by (<It's a pdf)

    Who has cake for desert as part of a healthy diet?

  3. While certainly bodies improve their anaerobic thresholds through consistent exercise, I'd be surprised to see this being terrifically dramatic in terms of calories burned. I'd imagine any decrease in efficiency would be offset by the 4 net calorie difference per pound of built muscle per hour per day. All that said, I don't think I'm informed enough on exercise adaptations to make a firm call herein.

    I think the other major area where exercise fails the real world weight loss test, aside from for lack of a better term, "unearned overindulgence", is hunger.

    If exercise makes you hungrier, and if calories are generous, consume just a tiny bit more of almost any meal because you're hungry, and again, kiss exercise's caloric benefits goodbye.

  4. Sorry, early morning.

    4 calories PER DAY per pound, not per hour per day.

  5. Hopefully this is a good forum to ask. If you burn, say 250 kcal running for 30 minutes does that include the basal calories you would have also burned? I.e. are the estimates of calories burned overstating extra calorie burn? I've noticed in the past that if I do a long bike ride (2h+) and supposedly burned a lot of calories, I can go up in weight even eating calorie neutral. I realize there are a lot of other factors, but wonder if the estimates of calories burned don't make this an even bigger problem because someone thinks they burned 500 extra calories, but only really burned 300.

  6. @Bill, generally those estimates reflect incremental calories used exercising, and don't include the basal amount you'd burn just maintaining usual body function.

    @Dr Freedhoff, do you find that diet and exercise tracking helps people better understand the energy balance concept? It certainly does for me. I use several easy tools (iPhone app, websites) to calculate what I've eaten and what I've burned, with the aim of equilibrium, on average.

  7. Hi Kat,


    Careful diarizing will protect folks from all sorts of hidden caloric pitfalls, including the "because I exercised" one.

    I food diarize everything and find it exceedingly helpful at understanding energy balance.

    Problem is, most folks who believe the "because I exercised" statement are folks who aren't diarizing, because if they were, they'd likely know better.

    All that said, and as I mentioned in the post, it's an easy trap to fall into, even if you're calorically literate.

  8. @marchwinds: while running energy expenditue is approx 1 kcal/(km*kg) efficient people may decrease to 0,9 at a given speed but will overcome that by increasing the speed, so back to square one.

    Overall, we adjust the speed according to the efficiency and fitness, but at the end, that is the total distance that count for energy expenditure.

    Same thing with food intake; more we are active, more we eat, in order to meet energy balance, and considering all the temptations we face around, the energy balance on a daily basis is "easier" and may become mindless if we exercise enough over a certain threshold.

    Indulgence? this is a fight that can be levelled adopting all kind of behavioural or environment strategies, exercise is one, but Yoni is right: take care to indulge too easily because you exercise.

  9. "Calorically literate" - love it! I'm going to borrow that one.

  10. Thanks @Kat. Appreciate the feedback. I do track calories (and find it helpful despite what some say), so this is a key data point.

  11. I suspect these three mealtime words are why so many sedentary people, who start exercise programs, still don't seem to shed the weight. They're rationalizing poor food choices with their "good behavior."

    Glad I discovered this blog!

  12. Anonymous10:43 am

    Good post.

    I like to use those three words as a reason not to overindulge. I'm going to turn down that cookie because I exercised. Why negate my hard work?

  13. PAul Boisvert: "and may become mindless if we exercise enough over a certain threshold". Are you saying that if one exercises "quite a bit" (whatever that is), then there may be a comfortable buffer for extra calories consumed? What do you consider the "threshold" for exercise?

    Dr Freedhoff, I'm curious, do you use the paper/pencil method to food diarize or some other method? Do you keep track of other info besides calories? thanks.

  14. Hi LJ,

    I use Tweet What you Eat (a Twitter based food diary).

    It only tracks calories.

    I love it.

  15. @LJ, in addition to (not countering) what Dr F uses, I rely on the LoseIt app on my iPhone and the associated website: It allows you to track activity as well as calories.

    I linked to several similar resources in this guest post on The Healthy Apron, as well:

  16. Thanks Kat, I use that LoseIt app on my phone, too. I appreciate you sharing your info.

  17. Generally speaking, most exercise machines give an inflated number of calories burned, especially if you are a woman and smaller than average. Am I correct?

    If so, then as a very small woman it takes a huge amount of work for me to burn a small number of calories. My only alternative is consistent, low-level starvation. Sad, but true.

  18. Hi NewMe,

    I agree, the numbers on the machines seem very inflated and likely contributes a significant amount to caloric confusion out there.

  19. We have apples and bananas for sale at our gym for 50 cents each. My husband and I have gotten in the habit of buying one right after our workout. Eating the fruit keeps our appetites from going crazy.

    :-) Marion