The myth of calories in equals calories out

Exercise is not punishment for eating. So why do we keep buying in to the idea that certain foods need to be burned off with extra training?

Photo: Getty Images

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Paul Gomez didn’t think twice when he interrupted his breakfast order at a favorite diner to consult the fitness tracker on his phone. “I wanted to order chocolate chip pancakes instead of plain, but I needed to check my stats first to see if I burned enough calories that morning to earn the chocolate.”

Of course, no one at his table full of fellow athletes seemed to notice or care that he was using math to make a menu choice. He’d had countless conversations with all of them about balancing calories in with calories out, so this kind of behavior didn’t raise any eyebrows. However, he started to wonder if something was off when he caught himself contemplating an extra run later in the day so that he could justify the more indulgent breakfast choice.

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“I was already exhausted from pushing hard all morning, but here I was, telling myself that I couldn’t have the food I wanted unless I burned it off later. Not for anything, but that can’t be good.”

Paul was right: it’s not good, but the concept of using training to justify food choices is common in the endurance athlete community. While athletes must be mindful about energy intake if we want to perform well, the truth is that some of us are also quite concerned about achieving or maintaining a physical ideal. We start to get the idea that we can cancel out calories with training and so begins the slippery slope to having a transactional relationship between food and exercise. Now that special birthday dinner must be paired with a big morning workout to justify the meal. Alternatively, we add extra workouts in the wake of an unexpectedly large or indulgent meal. Before you know it, most training choices are based on caloric burn, most caloric intake is based on the anticipated caloric expenditure, and the whole concept of proper fueling for performance is erased entirely.

The myth of calories in equals calories out

We keep trying to play the numbers game because we don’t want to gain weight. (Photo:

Of all the nutrition myths out there, the one that seems the hardest to kill is the idea that we can accurately predict the amount of calories we need to eat based on what we think we are burning on any given day. This myth is based on the assumption that a calorie will always provide the same amount of energy and that the body will always use that energy in the same way; a concept that even researchers say is ludicrous.

“The body is not a robotic machine,” said Kirsten Screen, founder of Your Fitness Dietitian. “The body is in constant communication with its internal systems to modulate energy usage. When we try to whittle it down to a basic math equation we start thinking in terms of allowances, rewards, restriction, and control.”

With so many activity trackers and calorie counting apps spitting out numbers at users, it’s all too easy to forget that most of the equations are painfully inaccurate.

Body image holds power in endurance sports

Even if we’re aware that the caloric logic is flawed, not many of us are willing to admit the reason why we’re still willing to cling to it. It’s not because we are intent on achieving the best performance possible. Screen said that if we were, we’d be eating more. The truth is that we keep trying to play the numbers game because we don’t want to gain weight.

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“Even if we start with good intentions to fuel performance, athletes quickly realize that they may have to eat a huge amount of calories per day to meet that need. It stresses people out in this society where we are told that calories must be restricted because calories equal fat gain,” said Screen. “However, if you have to restrict your dietary intake to achieve a certain body type, you have compromised your performance.”

It may be an uncomfortable statement to hear, but in a sport where both men and women have been shown to not only have body image concerns, but manipulate their habits in service of those concerns, it can’t be ignored.

Make a choice: Performance or weight

When athletes engage in this transactional relationship between nutrition and training, it’s only a matter of time before the wheels fall off. Athletes may notice that their times are not improving or that they can’t maintain performance, that they are tired and irritable, have gastrointestinal issues and muscle cramps, or even that they have increased anxiety and can’t sleep.

Sadly, very few of us connect any of these symptoms to the fact that we’re underfueling. Screen said it’s because athletes are focusing on body weight as an indicator of fitness, not realizing that to achieve the best possible performance, we might not be in our thinnest or leanest body. Since multiple studies show that the majority of endurance athletes are not fueling adequately, we are forced to wonder how much we could accomplish if we were willing to stop being so afraid of calories.

Of course, trading calories for miles may have a far darker side as well since serious eating disorders can easily hide behind this habit. It’s common to schedule big meals as preparation for or recovery from races or hard efforts, but could this be an athlete’s way of planning a binge? Some people have said that they recovered from anorexia through endurance training, but is it really because they can feel safe eating, knowing they will burn it off through a huge amount of training? Screen said it’s important to pay attention to these behaviors since we have come to view them as normal, though they are far from it.

“It becomes acceptable to be food-focused, because it’s for training and it’s under the guise of performance, health, or recovery. They’re still doing math in their head about how many miles they are covering to compensate for the food, which causes a massive strain physically and mentally,” said Screen.

Related: Despite Increased Awareness, RED-S Still a Major Problem in Endurance Sports

Stop with the complex calorie calculations

During the Belgian Waffle Ride, for example, some riders can burn in excess of 6,000 calories over the longest route. (Photo: Wil Matthews)

The first step to getting out of this transactional relationship is to recognize that although everyone eats, not all of us know how to fuel for endurance training. We understand the same logic when it comes to swimming, biking, and running, so it’s important to apply it to the sport’s fourth discipline–chowing down.

Seeking the help of a qualified Registered Dietitian is the absolute best way to master your nutrition skills. Second, we must also recognize that achieving a body composition or weight goal may be at odds with our training goals. Screen said that when a body is given enough food to function efficiently, the side effect may very well be weight loss, but that can’t be the goal if we really want to crush our races.

Finally, we should spend some time thinking about whether or not we would apply the same method of feeding under any other circumstance in our lives. We wouldn’t withhold snacks from a hungry child and expect them to continue to play happily, just as we wouldn’t tell our partner that they don’t deserve dinner unless they take a lap around the block. The goal is to nourish the body, not punish it.

“You’ve got to use food to support the work that you’re asking the body to do,” said Screen. “You’re happier, you have more energy, you’re more motivated, your sex life is better, you yell at your kids less, and everything is better because you have not told your body that it must function on less than it needs. You’ll have better performance, but better life in general.”

When to see a professional:

If you or someone you know has the following symptoms, it may be time to talk with your primary healthcare provider or a registered dietitian:

  • Constantly thinking about food. If food is always on your mind, it’s a big sign that you’re not eating enough of it.
  • Questioning your fuel while training. For example, wondering if you “need” a gel even though you have just a mile or two to go.
  • Wondering if you did enough training for whatever food you’re eating.
  • Having trouble sleeping. You can’t fall asleep, you can’t stay asleep, or you may wake up very early.
  • Experiencing mid-afternoon sugar crashes.
  • Your performance does not improve no matter how hard you train, or you cannot maintain performance that previously was easy.
  • You have skin rashes, itchiness, hair falling out, brittle nails, amenorrhea, yeast infections, or impotence.
  • You are chronically irritated and/or anxious.

Related: 5 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough

Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra-endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.

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