Whether it’s Halloween lollies, U.S. election week stress eating, or that upcoming Christmas dinner, we need to talk about how to react when we suddenly eat more food than normal. You don’t need to immediately burn off those calories with exercise, or somehow prove to yourself that you’ve “earned” them. Just enjoy the food and move on.
Before we talk about how to handle these occasional indulgences, though, I’d like to take a moment to point out that binge eating disorder is a condition in which overeating leads to guilt, and then dieting or restrictive behaviour. It’s cyclical, so the dieting tends to lead to more bingeing. If you experience this often — like weekly — seek professional help. Treatment may include talk therapy, nutritional counselling, and sometimes medication.
What about the rest of us? Well, the fact that binge eating disorder exists should perhaps clue us in to the fact that restricting food or increasing exercise is not a remedy to overindulging, but rather a way to further harm our health.
Calorie counts shouldn’t rule your life
You should eat well because eating well supports your health. You should exercise because exercise supports your health. These two things are not opposed. Eating is not a problem that exercise solves.
But I totally understand why you might be tempted to think that way. For example, it is true that weight-loss diets work by altering the mathematical equation between “calories in” and “calories out.”
We also can’t forget that the makers of high-calorie foods promote the idea of burning off indulgences, because that shifts the blame to you, the consumer, without denting their sales at all. I’ve written before about how the snack food manufacturers who repeat platitudes about “balance” are the same ones who give each other tips on how to increase impulse purchases of candy.
This is the context for those horrible charts that tell you how to burn off a given morsel of food. One Reese’s cup requires 15 minutes of swimming, we’re told. Even if that’s true, is it helpful advice? Heck no — these charts exist as a tool that we pass around to scare and guilt each other. Nobody pulls up these charts to plan their workouts for the week; we just use them to masochistically destroy our ability to enjoy a treat.
What really happens in your body?
So, here’s the thing. Yes, a chocolate bar has calories. But you know what else has calories? Broccoli. Chicken breasts. Rice. Pasta. Burgers. Coffee. Everything. The average American needs about 2,500 calories a day. If you eat five Reese’s cups at 105 calories each, that’s just 525 calories. The other 2,000 or so can come from other sources, and you’ll still break even.
Similarly: it’s not just swimming or running or cycling that burn calories. Your body is constantly using energy just to exist. According to this calculator, a 68 kg person expends 119 calories in 15 minutes of swimming, but you also burn 102 calories in an hour of just sitting around talking.
These two facts combine for a shocking conclusion: it’s 100% possible to have a high-calorie indulgence, then just eat normally and go about your normal business for the rest of the day, and be totally fine. No extra exercise needed. In many cases, you’ll either break even when it comes to calories, or come close.
The worst case scenario
OK, but what if you had a lot of candy (or beer, or pie, or whatever), and you know for sure that you ate far more than you burned? What if you know that you ate 3,000 calories and only burned 2,000?
Don’t underestimate your body’s ability to adapt: chances are, if you ate a ton last night, you may be a bit less hungry today. This may sound weird if you’re used to tracking every last bite, but people who don’t deliberately diet can still maintain their weight over time. Our bodies kind of figure things out.
And because it’s only one day, things tend to even out. Let’s say you ate that extra 1,000 calories, and your body didn’t adjust anything else; you continued with your life, eating 2,000 and burning 2,000 every day. Your average calorie intake for the month will work out to just 2,033 calories per day, only a smidge above your usual.
So if you ate more than you intended on some particular day, don’t panic. You don’t need to feel guilty about it and you don’t need to immediately burn it off.
Instead: just do your normal healthy shit. Eat to nourish yourself. Exercise because our bodies work better when we move them around on a regular basis. Our minds work better when we exercise, too. Have a little self compassion because your mental health will be better if you aren’t constantly thinking of your body as your enemy.
If these indulgences are enough of a problem that you think you really are gaining weight because of them, make a plan. Not “I’m going to spend an hour on the elliptical tomorrow because I hate myself,” but rather setting up a consistent, sustainable, non-miserable plan to eat healthy and get a reasonable amount of exercise each week. That way, you’ll be taking good care of yourself whether you end up eating a few candy bars or not.