Counting Calories, and counting workout calories?

Hey everyone, when counting calories, do you include your food intake during exercise? And do you count the exercise as a deficit, or do you just consider yourself to have an “active lifestyle” and count only food outside of exercise?
My daily recommended intake is right around 1800cal, and I exercise about 4 times per week. To make things simple, I thought it would be easiest to only count calories during my day to day life, and don’t worry about the “negative” calories from exercise as well as tracking every item I ate or drank on a bike ride (the list can grow very long for longer rides). Has anyone done either of these methods? If I only count calories in while I’m not exercising to keep things simple, do I include my post workout shake? My gut says yes, but then I might be down the hole of needing to count my exercise and fuel

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This is going to be an “it depends” answer I’m afraid.

Firstly, you should outline your goals to make it easier for us to give you the best advice. Is the 1800cal reocmmendation for losing, maintaining or gaining weight?

If you wish to maintain your weight, you will need to eat your BMR calories (aka the calories you burn doing day-to-day existing, and the calories that Myfitnesspal will recommend if you choose the “maintain weight” option). You will also need to eat back your exercise calories. Eating fewer calories than the combination of your BMR+exercise will result in weight loss.

I’m not sure what you mean about the post-workout shake. I’d suggest just being consistent whichever way you choose to track calories. For the best result I’d recommend tracking all exercise and calories, at least until you have a strong understanding of what is “correct”.

I use MyFitnessPal and set it to having a “sedentary lifestyle”. I then include any extra calories from exercise in my allowance. So, for example, if my allowance in order to lose 0.5 kg per week is 1700 kcal, and I do 800 kcal of exercise, then my limit for the day is 2500 kcal. I record everything - food while riding, oil used in cooking, etc. This can be a bit of a chore at first, but is very easy once your usual foods have been input into the app. If using a power meter, then the expenditure estimate is pretty accurate - if based on heart rate or an estimate based on duration and intensity then I’d take any estimate with a pinch of salt as these tend to be overinflated (often by a significant amount).


I also do exactly this. Some examples of why this is important.

A 3 Hour zone 2 ride might be 2000-2200 callories it’s possible to eat that during a 3 hour zone 2 ride but unlikely.

However in a 60 min Vo2 Max session I will burn 800-900 callories, i’d be lucky to take in 200-400 callories during such a ride. So I would need to make sure i’m taking that into account for the meals before and after the workout.


I use MyFitnessPal as well.
I set it to an active lifestyle and a baseline of 2400 cals per day.
I have meal classes as:

  • Breakfast
  • 2nd Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner
  • In-Workout
  • Snacks

It’ll add in exercise calories requirements from Strava or Garmin or somewhere.

So If I do a 1500 calorie ride it’ll add that as calories to replenish. The maths all works out and I can eat like a horse and stay at 75Kg all year with 17% fat according to my scales.

If you don’t replace what you burn during workouts then you’ll run into the ground real soon.

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That’s pretty cool, is that a premium feature?

I use MFP to track calories. Depending on one’s goals, you’ve got to be really careful with their daily requirement calculations as well as the calories burned even if based on kj work done. I had myself down as an active lifestyle due to 6 days working out on the bike & was fueling/refueling my workouts to a slight deficit. I ended up gaining a couple of pounds in 3 weeks. No good. So I’ve switched to a sedentary setting on MFP & estimate about 1/2 of the kj workload for any given workout. I’m 5’5” & around 148lbs. I’d like to get to 135-140 depending on how I feel. Was eating ~2400-2800 calories a day depending on the workout. I’m back to a baseline of 1600 calories a day & 1/2 my daily kj estimate eating about 70% carb, 15% protein & 15% fat. I struggle with weight issues as I used to be north of 200lbs. It’s a constant battle & im frankly sick of it.

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I think it is.
Premium is only about £40 per year and it does seem to have a lot of useful stuff.

Hi there,

Counting calories in and out is a false paradigm, I would not ever do it again and would discourage anyone from doing it.

Food and how your body processes it is far more complicated than how much energy the food potentially contains and the estimates and extrapolations of how much energy is being expended.

My opinion is that the optimum approach is to have a healthy diet based on the macronutrients you need and the quality of the food you consume, then if your structured training is significant (most TR plans, definitely any triathlete) fuels their workouts separately from their daily diet, and during the session.

Just had a look for myself on the desktop website. Turns out it’s actually a free feature!

It works for me.

I also have myfitness pal set to sedentary and have activities added to it from strava and garmin (i also have a garmin smartwatch that tracks steps etc).

I think we both agree on the answer to the OP’s question though… which is to eat more when you exercise. If you do that by trusting yourself to eat normally and just fueling your workouts or by logging all ins and outs you will come to the same answer.

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:slight_smile: Makes me think of Hobbits and their breakfast, 2nd breakfast, elevenses, brunch, etc.

I’m the same though really;
06:00 breakfast
(first workout)
10:30 2nd breakfast
(second workout)
13:30 lunch
15:30 snack
19:00 dinner
(optional third workout)

Fuelling sessions depends on how many, how hard and how long I’m doing that day. At the moment their short enough they don’t need extra, just maybe a glass of milk or latte after.

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I count it all, using the approach of base needs outside of exercise and then add the specific expenditure of workouts as well as all food (whether associated with a workout or not).

Some folks (Matt Fitzgerald for one) take it a step further and deduct the “base” caloric requirement from the hour(s) of a workout, since this expenditure will be estimated more precisely. That seems like excessive detail to me, given the ballpark nature of this whole process.

Ultimately whatever you do will need to be correlated to your actual results. If MFP shows a rough balance of calories out and in, and your weight is steady, then I would say things are roughly right. But if your weight is going up or down appreciably and this is not consistent with your overall net calories, something is off.

All of this needs to be given a wide margin or error, since all aspects are just estimates: the caloric content of a given food, the amount of each food you’re eating, your calories burned on the bike, and your non-workout base caloric needs. And for weight management, you’re trying to track differences between these estimates, which makes the margin of error larger. Informative for sure—and I have learned a lot about my nutritional habits far beyond just calories—but it’s not gospel.


Calorie Counting worked for me losing, and now maintaining*. I think it’s very much n=1 in terms of the “best”/ “most effective” method of losing and maintaining weight. I always counted a calorie is a calorie, and that has worked for me, and I haven’t been convinced as to what’s been presented as evidence otherwise for weight loss/ maintenance at least. About the only thing that doesn’t is calories from Alcohol in my experience.

I worked out my TDEE, and then took off a deficit. I also tried to run a deficit from exercise (I had expected weight loss using Power and Garmin with HRM fwiw). I ran 500 from diet and 500 from exercise, but if I was doing it again I would go for a % based deficit from food based on what I’ve read further.

In maintenance, I still count to my TDEE, and exercise calorie “burn”. It’s working for me (again n=1). I generally try for the maintenance over the week, than necessarily over a day. I relax a bit more diet wise at the weekend, so run a small deficit over the week.

I got a formula for TDEE, and set it up as a spreadsheet. MFP was off the wall. I updated weight, and then targets on that once a week. And then used MFP to track.

Anyway, that’s my n=1 experience going from 125kg to maintaining (for 18 months) at 70kg. Weight loss was over 6 years (and a few more before with “diets” rather than a change in diet). What I eat is still a work in progress - calorie counting really helped me make incremental, and sustainable, changes to my diet. It really was just portion control at the start!

*Apparently (link to come if I can find it), the biggest factor to maintaining weight loss is to carry on keeping a food diary.

Why do you think it is a false paradigm?

I think the rest of my post explained why, but here are some of my other posts on the subject:

I saw that and was about to make the Hobbit comment! You beat me to it!

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How much weight did you gain when measuring CICO?

In response to the first post you shared, if calories were an archaic estimation then surely you’re most likely to sometimes eat a bit too much and sometimes eat a bit too little, with the end result of them cancelling each other out and your weight not changing.

Also if you don’t think its an effective tool then why still “keep an eye” on calories? If the system based around them caused you to put weight on then it’s not a system you should be using at all.

And what do you mean by “measuring protein primarily, then other macronutrients”? If you did this, knowing the calories per gram of each macro puts you right back to counting calories.

What was your protocol for weighing yourself?

I’ve yet to find a convincing argument for why the ‘Calories in, calories out’ model is wrong when it comes to weight loss, or more specifically fat loss (water loss can be a confounding factor in the short term).

Yes, there are a number of estimates involved, but assuming your estimates are reasonable then calorie counting should work for weight loss. However, I think that many people are way off on their estimates in the following areas:

  1. Calories in - effective calorie counting really requires you to count EVERYTHING. That includes being precise in terms of weight and volume of all foods consumed, down to the amount of oil used for cooking, the amount of butter/spread put on your toast, the amount of salad dressing, etc. Many people can’t be bothered to be this rigorous, and it’s surprising how many calories these things can add up to. If you eat a couple of nuts on your way through the kitchen, then before you know it you’ve done that a few times and you’ve added a few hundred kcal.
  2. Calories out - if you train using a power meter that is reasonably well calibrated then this should give you a reasonable estimate. Heart-rate based estimates, and other algorithms are notoriously unreliable and I would always err on the very conservative side (sometimes even less than half of what is stated). This can be hard to account for, especially if you haven’t trained with power at all and can’t compare efforts where you have power data.
  3. Basal metabolic rate - without physiological testing it’s impossible to know what this actually is, but it’s unlikely that you’re a million miles away from the general population guidelines.

So, assuming you’re being rigorous with recording the calories in and you’re not massively overestimating calories expended through exercise, then with a bit of trial and error you should be able to find a calorie allowance that will be appropriate for your basal metabolic rate (and any consistent in/out measurement errors) that will enable weight loss / maintenance if you consistently stick to it.

That’s not to say that calories should be everything. It is, of course, important to get a good balance of macro- and micro-nutrients. You can lose weight while eating crap (I’ve done it) but by eating healthily and cutting out junk food you will be healthier, perform better, and it will be much easier to sustain your diet without exceeding calorie allowances.

Of course you can lose weight without counting calories, but it’s not possible to lose weight if you are consistently consuming more calories than you expend. Calorie reduction is generally a happy byproduct of eating healthily, but conversely it’s easily possible to consume excess calories and put on weight while only eating healthy foods.

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Right that’s its. That’s enough common sense for one day thank you very much!


A 4th point I’d like to add is consistent weighing of body weight. I very often see the argument “weight fluctuates a lot so there’s no point weighing yourself more than once a week”. This is flawed on a very basic level and actually the opposite is true. To be most accurate, weigh yourself every day. Do it under the same conditions, so far as you can control. And take a rolling average. If you weigh yourself once a week then a week’s worth of expected weight loss that hasn’t showed up might be corrected by a bowel movement later that day.