Rant: We Need Calories to Live

RANTEvery once in a while, I see a social media post or weight loss tool that exploits the concept of how much exercise is needed to burn off the calories in different foods. The premise makes sense on the surface: If you know it will take two hours of jogging to counteract the donut you ate, maybe you’ll think twice before choosing breakfast pastry. However, I submit that the premise is actually deeply flawed and can lead to disordered thinking about food. We need calories to live.

You don’t need to burn off every calorie you eat through exercise because we all burn many of the calories we eat simply through being alive. Our basal metabolic rate is the measure of how many calories we burn through activities like breathing, circulating blood, and otherwise successfully existing as human beings. If we did enough burpees to burn off every morsel that passed our lips, we’d die because there’d be nothing left for these essential processes.

So, while it is nice of Daily Infographic to remind us about the physical activity costs of our Thanksgiving meal, in fact they have forgotten to include the hundreds of calories burned by things like nerve impulses and digestive processes:

from DailyInfographic.com
from DailyInfographic.com

I argue that this type of mental calculus leads to disordered thinking about food. Even treats aren’t necessarily something to be compensated for with exercise, if a person adjusts her daily food consumption to accommodate it. Say you eat a donut for breakfast. You’re replacing your normal breakfast of oatmeal with this donut. In terms of the nutrients the food delivers, this may not be the optimal choice, but in terms of calories, it may be fairly even. A Dunkin Donuts chocolate glazed donut has about 350 calories; a big bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit and nuts could be similar. If you’re substituting an “unhealthy” food for another one with a similar amount of calories, you may not need to do any additional activity to mitigate its effect on your weight.

So, while concepts like displaying the activities required to burn off a food on its packaging may sound nice, I believe that they have the potential to do more harm than good in the long run by casting the energy in food as an evil rather than a necessary fuel for life.

If you’re eating more than normal and adding additional treats on top of your daily meals, then of course you would need to counterbalance that with more activity. But some portion of the calories you take in are needed for life. Food is not an evil force that makes you fat if you don’t exercise. It’s the source of the fuel we need to survive.

So enjoy your donut, if that’s what you’re choosing to eat today, and know that your body will use at least some of those calories even if you don’t hit the gym.