“Am I supposed to be eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal?”
Something I’m sure you are wondering. Since calorie apps have come more popular, this is something people often ask.
Though the idea is good in principle. Telling people how many calories they burn, I do feel like this could be warping peoples perception of what exercise is about.
Take this scenario for example.
Your activity tracker says you burnt 2000 calories on your run.
Or your phone has added 5000 steps and said you burnt 700 calories. So you think that’s great, I’ve “earnt” that doughnut then.
2 months later, you notice one big problem. You’ve not lost any weight. Maybe you’ve gained weight. That’s not what you wanted, was it?
The whole purpose was fat loss, you wanted to lose body fat. Not be exactly where you started.
But why would this have happened?
Why you need to stop eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal
Your fitness tracker, Apple Watch, Fitbit, band whatever is inaccurate. It’s leading you on. It’s telling you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.
Fitness trackers can be around 27% inaccurate. Some are 97% inaccurate. So if your watch said you burnt 500 calories, it could be 350 you’re burning. (1)
This means your watch may have told you, you’ve burned 1000 calories on your run. But in reality it may be between 30-730.
Either way if you’re eating back 1000 calories, you will ruin your progress.
One such study in 2019 proved this. (2)
40 people had to do a cycle test. The main purpose of the test was to measure the accuracy of their heart rate. The accuracy whilst using an Apple Watch.
They also measure their calorie burn and compared it, with what the watch says.
The results show the watch was consistently inaccurate, with the calorie burn.
Another study done in 2018 also showed very similar findings. (3)
44 people had to wear 6 different fitness tracking devices. What made this test also different, was that they were tested under different movement states.
This study also showed, for variables such as steps and heart rate, these trackers are good. But for calorie burn, there is still work to do.
What to do instead
You need to reframe the way you see exercise. Stop seeing exercise as a tool which burns calories. Exercise has many other benefits.
Instead of seeing exercise as a tool to burn calories, think of exercise as a tool which:
- Lowers the risk of preventable diseases (4)
- Helps regulate appetite (5)
- Improves mental health (6)
- Prevents age related disease like frail bones and a lack of muscle (7)
- Builds muscle (8)
- Prevents muscle loss (8)
- Improves cognitive ability (9)
You may have noticed, I never mentioned exercise as a reward to eat more.
Now you understand why we exercise, let me explain how to deal with your diet.
instead of relying on the numbers on Myfitnesspal, use my calorie calculator. It will ask for your activity levels.
This also includes exercise. This way exercise is included. So when your Fitbit or Myfitnesspal tells you burned 500 calories. It’s already included, from the original number they calculated.
So when you use Myfitnesspal, ignore the exercise numbers, better still deactivate it.
The Myfitnesspal calculator isn’t great.
Most people choose the “lose 2lb a week” option. Their calories end up super low, usually around 1200.
So when they get some exercise calories back, of course theyre going to eat them. Unfortunately the exercise calories would have been an overestimation.
Myfitnesspal is an amazing tool for counting calories. But that’s it, don’t use it for anything else. If you eat back “exercise” calories, you’ll be eating into your deficit.
I hear you asking: “What if I did more exercise than usual?”
Cool, treat the extra calories burned as a bonus, allowing you to get to your goal faster.
How does Myfitnesspal work out the calories to eat
Once you understand how your calories are calculated, you’ll see why eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal makes no sense.
Myfitnesspal or any other app, will ask you for certain details.
It will ask you your age, sex, height and weight.
With this information it will do an equation and spit our your BMR. This is the number of calories you burn at rest.
Then Myfitnesspal will ask you how active you are. With this number they multiply your BMR by a certain number.
Usually 1.2 – 2, depending on how active you are.
This number is your TDEE, your total daily energy expenditure. This is the number of calories you burn in a day.
Then Myfitnesspal will ask you how much weight you want to lose per week. The more you want to lose the smaller they make your target number.
So let’s start from the beginning.
Let’s say your BMR is 1333 (The number of calories burnt doing nothing).
Then you are reasonably active, so Myfitnesspal multiplies your number by 1.5. Your daily energy expenditure is 2000.
You tell Myfitnesspal you want to lose a pound per week. Thus they tell you to eat 1500 a day.
The problem then happens when Myfitnesspal or your watch says you burnt 600 calories from your workout.
The 1500 calorie number had already taken that into account. When you add 600, you end up with 2100, this means you’ll end up gaining weight instead.
So please stop eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal, you’re pulling your progress back.
Not only are we overestimating what we burn, we underestimate what we eat.
This means, what ever you put into Myfitnesspal, there is a likely chance you’re eating more than that.
One study even showed Dietitian’s underestimated what they ate by an average of 223 calories per day. The non Dietitians underestimated by 429 per day (10).
There are various reasons why we are so inaccurate.
- Calorie labels are allowed a 20% margin of error (13)
- People not tracking every little morsel they eat (You don’t need to do this)
- People having sneaky snacks they don’t track
- People not weighing food accurately
- Not taking into account drinks
When you take into consideration we already underestimate what we eat. Then you consider we over estimate what we exercise. Combining these 2 is a recipe for disaster.
You can see why a lot of people, don’t ever see any progress or perhaps feel like they’re going backwards.
What if I want to eat more on days I exercise?
No problem. Again, use my calculator. Work out how many calories you’re going to eat a day, to lose weight.
Multiply that number by 7 to get your weekly total.
On your rest days, eat less calories.
On your workout days eat more.
Make sure the total weekly calories adds up to your weekly number.
Or you could do the weekend version.
For instance a lot of people are very busy during the week. This means they don’t think about food as much, so they can eat fewer calories during the week.
But during the weekend they are home and usually a little bored. Thus having some more calories during the weekend, helps them stay on track.
Why else I also don’t agree with eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal
Exercise is not about burning calories. You don’t exercise to earn food.
I get so annoyed when people think they need to work hard for their food.
That attitude is very problematic. It’s associated food with shame, guilt and punishment.
I didn’t get into this to make people feel guilty for what they eat.
Exercise is about building strength, preserving muscle, improving mental health. It’s about living a healthier, happier life.
Exercise is not for burning calories.
To lose weight, we find ways to shave off calories in your diet.
We don’t beast ourselves to burn fat.
Exercise is important for losing fat, to sustain strength and muscle.
Ignore exercise calories
So yeah. Ignore the calories burnt on your phone or watch. Please stop eating back exercise calories on Myfitnesspal.
Instead focus on getting stronger, fitter and making progress with your exercise. Stick with the original number.
You’ll make better progress and feel less stressed to exercise.
Exercise has so many benefits, but burning calories isn’t one of them. Just focus on your diet and let exercise make your life better.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.