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How many calories do you need to burn to eat _______?

By Michelle May, M.D.

How-many-calories-do-you-have-to-burn-to-eatHow many calories do you need to burn to eat ________?

None. You already have the right to eat it.

Based on a media frenzy about an article in The BMJ1 titled “Food should be labelled with the exercise needed to expend its calories,” you’d think that the idea of labeling food with how many minutes you’d have to exercise to burn it off is a new one. It’s not, and in fact, much of the media coverage pointed out the many problems with this idea:

  • Food labeling is a complex science.
  • It hasn’t been studied or proven to have any effect.
  • Studies on calorie labeling on menus does not consistently lead consumers to order lower-calorie items, so why would this?
  • Even the survey the Royal Society for Public Health conducted found that only 53% of respondents said that they would positively change their behaviour as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information. As intention and action are two completely different things, it is unlikely that even that many would.
  • It may encourage eating disorders.
  • As the author Shirley Cramer herself stated, “People can’t out-run a bad diet.”
  • Simplistic labels would be misleading since the number of calories burned during exercise is affected by many variables including an individual’s weight.
  • It focuses on the calories in food, rather than nutrition.

Turning Eating into a Math Problem

Most current or past dieters can readily cite approximately how many calories are in most foods. They can also tell you about how many calories they would burn doing various exercises. The concept that “If you eat a chocolate glazed doughnut worth 240 calories, you’d have to walk for about 60 minutes to burn it off” is part of the dieter’s eat-repent-repeat cycle.

How-many-calories-do-you-have-to-burn-to-eatIn fact, we’ve seen this sort of information so often that we don’t stop to think about how absurd it is! To illustrate the absurdity of this kind of threatening approach to eating, just imagine if it were the other way around: “If you walked for 60 minutes, you’d have to eat a chocolate glazed doughnut.”

Ridiculous, huh? Then why would it make sense the other way around?

Subconsciously, the message people hear is, “If you eat _______ (fill in the blank with something you love), you have to do X minutes of _______ (fill in the blank with some dreaded exercise). No wonder so many people say they hate to exercise!

How to Turn Exercise into Punishment for Eating

Worse than being absurd, this kind of messaging often has the opposite effect. Instead of causing people to decide that the food isn’t worth it, they decide that the exercise isn’t worth it.

Exercise is for health and vitality, not for earning the right to eat.

What do you think?

1 BMJ 2016;353:i1856


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.


  1. Suzanna says:

    Exactly right from someone who used to exercise compulsively when dieting no longer “worked”. Still trying to break the exercising too much when think I ate too much. Read an article many years ago saying one should exercise in the morning to earn the right to eat breakfast as if it was a moral failing not to.

  2. Irene Bolden says:

    I enjoy reading about mindful eating and practice it most of the time. However; eating for health seem to be only one critical element to keep body and mind healthy. I am 70 and going to school full time to get my bachelor’s degree. recently I felt as if I was going through a mild depression. I am used to doing Tai Chi once or twice a week and I had to stop this semester because of classes. When I went back yesterday I noticed the difference, not in muscle aches etc, but in a life in my spirit.

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