There is a trend that cycles in and out of our collective societal consciousness to lump our eating and exercise habits together under a single banner. It can be difficult to avoid it – given that nutritional information on packages and menus supposedly tells us just how many calories we’re consuming; that our fitness and lifestyle trackers love to show us how many calories we’re burning through the day; and that there are endless diet plans and gurus that have you tracking your food on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that we’ve become attached to the notion of counting calories.
All of this, in and of itself, is not actually a bad thing (assuming it doesn’t become obsessive or compulsive) – in fact, I’ll often recommend people keep a food journal for a few days just to gain an awareness of their current eating patterns. But where these situations can go sideways is when we start to connect them in a cause/effect mindset and begin to adjust our eating or training habits in response to one or the other.
Before getting too deeply into this, a few facts to keep in mind when looking at nutrition and exercise. To begin with, the nutritional labels and breakdowns are, at best, an estimation… and frequently, not very accurate. Something else that’s notoriously inaccurate is our ability to self-report… it’s not a statement against our character, but by nature, we tend to overestimate the amount of exercise we do and underestimate how much we’re eating.
And lastly, keep in mind that energy expenditure is not exclusively how much we “burn” doing that 45min HIIT class or 60mins on the treadmill – rather, it’s the total number of calories that we burn throughout the day including the 23hrs we’re NOT exercising. This total energy expenditure is made up of a few different components: our Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) – which is essentially how many calories we need just to live (breathing, sleeping, getting through the day); the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) which is a fancy name for the metabolic impact of digestion and your body breaking what you’ve eaten down; and your active metabolic rate, in the form of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (walking to and from the grocery store, or climbing the stairs to your office) and Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT and EAT, respectively).
Where We Go Awry
It’s when we stop looking at this information objectively and begin to assign emotional attributes to these numbers – and this can stem from a lot of places, including, unfortunately, the messaging from the health and fitness industry. Posters that say things like “30mins on the stair-mill is equal to half a hamburger” or being berated because you indulged at the birthday dinner the night before can create a toxic, unproductive, and inhibiting mindset.
“Trading calories” can seem like such an innocuous concept – you worked out hard, so you’ve “earned” those slices of pizza. Or you do an extra 15mins on the treadmill because you over-indulged on the weekend. I mean, we’ve all done this, right? It’s a slippery slope, though, and can lead to an endless cycle of regret, guilt, and atonement. Nothing takes the joy out of a delicious meal faster than adding up the theoretical calories in your head and calculating how long you need to work out to “burn it off”; similarly, nothing can make a training session more interminable than setting a certain number of calories as your target for completion.
So check yourself if you start thinking this way, or break that cycle if you already are: food should never be a reward, and exercise should never be a punishment. Instead, set about learning and developing healthy habits that can be incorporated into your every day – for example, figure out how you can prepare the type of food you enjoy and still have it be a healthy and nutrient-rich meal. Focus on what you can achieve physically because of your workout, rather than doing it for the sake of countering other lifestyle choices. Nutrition and exercise are inextricably linked, yes – but while they will forever be correlated, we need to stop seeing them strictly through the lens of “cause and effect” or we run the risk of deriving no satisfaction from either of them.