3 Reasons You Need to Stop “Earning” Your Calories

November 4, 2018

How many jumping jacks do you have to do to “earn” a chocolate bar?

Spoiler alert: none.

Every year there are a series of memes that make their rounds on social media. We call the people who share these memes the Fun Police. And we’re sick of them. It’s time we kick this trend to the curb once and for all because they’re:

1) not fun,
2) dangerous, and
3) destroying people’s relationship with food.

Here’s the original Halloween meme that was posted a few years ago:

This chart shows how much you have to exercise to “earn” a certain type of candy bar. As you can see, we’re singling out a certain type of food as “naughty” and forcing you to “earn” or “work off” your calories of that food.

We saw these at Halloween, but brace yourself for the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter versions too. To prepare you for next time, we have three reasons why these charts are misleading, damaging, and completely unnecessary.

1. Misrepresentation of our bodies’ use of calories.

If you eat a mini Snickers bar… What happens? These charts would have you believe that you will store all of that chocolate as fat unless you burn it off with a grueling workout. In reality, our body breaks down all of our food into useable energy. Any excess energy, whether it be green beans, mashed potatoes, chicken, avocados, or – yes, chocolate, is stored for future use in our fat stores.

This means that if you eat in a calorie surplus, you will gain fat regardless of whether or not you include a Snickers bar as part of your daily intake.

If you eat in a calorie deficit you will lose fat regardless of whether or not you include a Snickers bar as part of your daily intake.

No one food is responsible for your health, fitness, or the lack thereof.

If you think one chocolate bar is ruining your health and fitness goals, you’re likely struggling with creating solid habits that can be relied upon the rest of the year. Instead of beating yourself up over the chocolate, congratulate yourself on learning an important lesson. Focus your energy on chipping away at those lasting nutrition habits, instead of hitting the gym for extra workouts.

2. Exercise is NOT punishment for eating.

Not only is this way of thinking about food and exercise physiologically inaccurate, it’s also likely to make you hate exercise. When we have to do a certain number of burpees, jumping jacks, miles to run as a stipulation for eating a “wrong” food, we are essentially creating a punishment for our eating behaviors. On a psychological level it engrains two different harmful thoughts:

There are foods we need to be punished for eating.
Exercise is punishment for “bad” eating behavior.

My Grandma used to have a time-out corner. All of the grandkids hated that corner. There was nothing awful about the corner in particular, only that it’s where we were sent if we were misbehaving. We associated that corner with punishment which is why we grew to hate it.

Once you’ve created the condition that eating “bad” food is what gets you in the “time out corner” (exercise) you’re going to start hating exercise and associating it with punishment. Not only does this make working out miserable, but you’re not likely to create a healthy and fun long term workout habit if that’s your mindset going into it.

3. You don’t need to be punished for what you eat because it’s JUST FOOD!

There’s a name for exercising in excess after eating. It’s called purging.

One thing people don’t realize is that in professional eating disorder settings, purging encompasses more than vomiting. Purging is any type of compensatory behaviour after eating – some specifics include vomiting, but also fasting, the use of laxatives, and yes, over exercising.

These memes that go around during the holidays aren’t empowering you to eat mindfully. They are moralizing food, creating an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and triggering disordered eating.

At first glance you may look at these charts and get a little excited. Here is your ticket to eating whatever you want over the holidays and not feel guilty. In fact, this is why these memes have built up steam; they cause a false level of empowerment around their control over food.

But on the flip side is a deeply unhealthy relationship with food, a need to “work off” or “earn” calories, and the potential trigger for an eating disorder.

You don’t have to “earn” your food. Any of it.
Give yourself permission to eat a candy bar at Halloween.
Give yourself permission to eat mashed potatoes on Christmas.
Give yourself permission to eat what you want, when you want, because you actually don’t need permission at all.

And you don’t have to “earn” your food by adding a grueling workout into your day either.

When it comes to the holidays, the key is to remember that habits count and consistency rules. What you do most days of the year matter more than what you do on a few days of celebration. Even if you ate ten Snickers bars on Halloween, that still doesn’t lead to even one full pound of calories.

So next time you’re wondering how many extra burpees you have to do for that serving of fries… You already know the answer.