The Truth About Burning Off the Calories You Eat

A recent study suggests that we show people how much they'd need to exercise to "burn off" various food choices. Here's why Nutrition Diva thinks this is a bad idea....

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #307

As Nutrition Diva fan Cathy commented on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page, "I feel that this could trigger compulsive behavior, she writes. "As in: 'I ate a piece of pizza, so if I don't jump rope for 45 minutes, I'll be fat!' I'd much rather see a bar graph of the calories in the food compared to the total caloric recommendation for the day for weight maintenance."

I think Cathy's suggestion is right on the money. First, get a sense of how many calories you should be eating every day. This number will be based on your height, weight, age, sex, and daily activity level - including any exercise you do. Almost any online calorie counting program or mobile app has a tool for this. But, as I explained in a previous episode, the number you get is going to be a rough estimate. That's OK.

See also: How Many Calories Do I Need?


It's not necessary to know your calorie expenditure down to the last calorie. But it is important to know whether your calorie needs are closer to 1,600 or 2,500 per day. Once you have a ballpark number, you can compare calorie counts on food packages and menus to that. If your daily needs are about 1,600 calories, an 800-calorie burger-and-fries-combo represents half your allowance for the day. If your daily needs are 2,500 calories, it's about a third.  Either way, unless you're biking over the Alps, it's not a between-meal snack.

See also: Are Some Calories More Fattening Than Others? and Can You Lose Weight Without Counting Calories?


Calorie awareness is important but it's certaintly not the only thing that matters - either for your health or your weight. Think of it as the long drive that gets the ball on the green.  Once there, other strategies, such as paying attention to the quality of your calories, will help you sink the putt.  But it doesn't make sense to pull out a putter while the ball is still on the tee. 

Questions? Comments? 

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Sara N. Bleich, Colleen L. Barry, Tiffany L. Gary-Webb, and Bradley J. Herring.  (2014). Reducing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Providing Caloric Information: How Black Adolescents Alter Their Purchases and Whether the Effects Persist. American Journal of Public Health. Link to abstract


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.