Do You Really Need To Eat That? Pt. 2
The last post explored why the answer to the title question is usually NO. For most people, most of the time, workouts do not need any special snacking or sports products before, during, or after the event. In a society where the vast majority of people who exercise do so to lose or maintain weight, more calories simply aren’t needed, or are even counterproductive. Most people have probably seen news reports of research studies that conclude the exercise does not help weight loss. A lot of exercisers, athletes, and personal trainers were upset with this, but I think a lot people felt their frustrating personal experience validated.
What Is Going On Here?
First, most people overestimate the calories they burn during exercise. Our bodies are quite efficient. Evolving in an environment of food scarcity has ensured that. Based on Allen Lim’s research, I estimate no more than 500 calories an hour for most people. Obviously, there’s a range, where an experienced fit athlete may burn less due to better technique and efficiency compared to a beginner with poor technique. The unfortunate and simple truth is exercise does not burn nearly as many calories as people think.
Second, most people underestimate the amount of calories they consume. Research studies show that people underestimate calories by 30-50%, even professionals! But you don’t need research do determine this. Just look around. Well over 70% of people are not at their ideal weight. Yet these people (most of us) consistently eat more calories than they need, even when they don’t want to!
So Why Do We Get It Wrong?
We let our conscious mind and executive function try to solve problems that our autonomic nervous system already handled. Translation: We OVERTHINK it.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT!
But that’s exactly what the fitness articles encourage us to do: Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, eat a pre workout snack, drink a sports drink while you exercise, be sure to consume calories within 30 minutes of finishing. The assumption here is that exercise is so tricky, your survival instincts are not up to the challenge and that your conscious mind has to step in and “figure it all out” so you won’t collapse.
Think about that for a moment: Do you honestly think we could have survived as a species struggling to gather enough food to eat if we had to think through every calorie? Did our ancestors count their calories with sticks in the sand? Did they count up how many glasses of water they drank that day to know if they were hydrated? Of course not! So why do we think we need to now?
Consider the fabulous precision of the autonomic nervous system: You do not have to consciously think about your heart rate, breathing, or digestion. It is all orchestrated perfectly without any effort on your part. Why should eating and drinking be any different? It isn’t. Our thirst and hunger operate in the same way as our need for oxygen. While we can consciously influence these mechanisms, there is really no need.
So Why Doesn’t Exercise Cause Weight Loss?
Folks have suggested that people simply overcompensate by eating more calories so that they don’t lose, and maybe even gain. It could happen consciously, as in a reward system, like, “I worked out today, so I deserve a treat.” Remember the small number of calories exercise burns. That treat negates the workout.
But I think the unconscious action of the brain is more important. Your brain has already accounted for the calories burned, and simply increases your appetite without any conscious thought. When you sit down to eat, you eat more. If you added in snacks, you could easily create a surplus. I believe that this happens as seamlessly as responding to decreased oxygen availability at high altitude. If you travel from sea level to the mountains, your brain recognizes that oxygen is harder to come by. You might become consciously aware of this if you try to exercise, or you might not. But the brain immediately speeds up the breathing rate and heart rate to compensate. Not dramatically, you won’t be puffing with a racing heart, but it is measurable. I believe our thirst and appetite operate the same way.
Do You Really Need To Eat That?
I believe the answer is most often NO.
Your brain is unconsciously on it, and will make sure you get the fluids and calories you need. If you let your conscious brain try to step in, it ends up solving the problem twice. Trust your body to know what it needs, and its ability to get it.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT!
There are times to eat during and immediately after exercise, and the conscious mind can help with the planning and logistics, but it shouldn’t take charge. Next time…