By Nutritionist Sarah Bennett
The BBC recently broadcast a show showing a restaurant where every calorie eaten is burned off by a secret gym team next door. (Yep, they actually did)
The fact that this is airing in the middle of lockdown is even more shocking than the show itself.
So, here are a few of my thoughts about it:
Food is much more than just energy in, and exercise is much more than energy out.
Energy balance (calories in, calories out) is actually a fairly straightforward equation, but is a highly complex subject especially when you start talking about what it ‘takes’ to burn off certain volumes of calories.
Exercise shouldn’t be used as punishment for the food you’ve eaten, you never have to earn your food.
And it’s not all that matters, things that are just as important are the enjoyment, emotions, health and social gains around food and exercise. Amongst many other things.
You need food and energy simply to stay alive, and there’s absolutely no way you have to exercise to ‘burn’ everything you eat.
In fact, of all the energy your body uses, planned exercise uses up the smallest proportion.
The majority of our energy is burnt through our BMR (breathing, moving, sleeping, digesting food; i.e. staying alive!)
There are a million reasons to exercise, to burn off calories is not one of them.
The vast majority of people who regularly exercise will exercise for reasons other than calorie burn.
Exercise can make you feel better, fitter and stronger, both mentally and physically.
Some people can’t even exercise, so what does this mean for them?
Weight control is about calorie control and exercise has very little to do with it. Ever heard the saying “you can’t out-train a bad diet’? Just like you can’t diet yourself fit.
Exercise should not be motivation for burning calories. Finding an exercise you enjoy which means you do it regularly for fitness/health is much more important.
And as for the ‘science’, its flawed. The energy expenditure between individuals varies hugely depending on gender, age, height, weight and physical fitness.
Twenty stone Pete who sits on the couch all day will burn calories at a totally different rate than eight stone Carol from down the road who is on her feet all day.
Yes, we should be educating individuals on energy balance and the energy in food but throwing a very loose estimate on menu that doesn’t apply to vast majority of people could cause more issues than it solves.
Understanding what calories are is a very different thing to creating a guilt/earn cycle between food and exercise.
You also don’t NEED to know the calorie content of the food you eat to lose weight.
This idea also actively encourages disordered eating behaviour.
A key component of eating disorders is the need to “compensate” for food they have eaten with exercise and depriving themselves of food when they have not exercised.
The fact that the eating disorders helpline (BEAT) told people that they would have extended hours after the program aired, for people that felt triggered by it says it all. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
So, the TV programme isn’t just poor judgement, bad timing and inaccurate science, we also once again have the narrative of weight loss jammed down our throats with no consideration at all for people struggling with their relationship with food.
• You need to eat every day. Even if you have not exercised.
• Exercise is not about punishing your body or compensating for the food you eat.
• Food, especially in lockdown, is allowed to be more than fuel. It is a source of enjoyment and comfort.
• Exercise can be a source of enjoyment too. Separate it from weight loss and calories.
• It’s also incredibly inaccurate for viewers to be watching and translating it to themselves. We can go on the same run at the same speed and our bodies will burn different number of calories. You aren’t all the same as 20 stone Pete or 8 stone Carol.
• This is a hard time for everyone, and we don’t need a diet culture show to add to our misery. You are doing the best you can.
Food is enjoyment, it’s nourishment, it’s love, it’s fuel. It’s not something we need to “earn”.
And this is such a harmful message to be pushing, at any time, let alone when we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.