Can You Eat Whatever You Want if You Workout? The Real Answer

Weight Loss & Diets | Written by Nathan | Updated on 18 August 2022

Two women wearing fitness clothes after a workout are eating and cutting into pizza on a cheat day while sitting in the middle of a city street, wondering, "Can you eat whatever you want if you workout?" or does it matter what you eat?

Can you eat whatever you want if you workout, or will you see lackluster or no results by eating with no restrictions? 

The real answer is yes and no because you can consume any foods you want and still lose weight if you’re in a calorie deficit (which means you’re burning more calories than consumed). And for building muscle, any food can be eaten if it fits your macros. 

But ultimately, neither of these routes are optimal, leave gains or fat loss on the table, and usually only works for beginners since novice to advanced lifters and dieters alike will have to work harder to see results. 

Do You Have to Diet or Eat Well to See Results From Working Out?

Many variables play a part in how food affects the body. While working out seems like the golden ticket to removing accountability from meals and snacks, there needs to be a closer investigation of the caloric details to find out the truth.

While calories in versus calories out is an absolute statement, TDEE (total daily energy expenditure or how many calories you burn) varies widely from person to person; in fact, a single person’s TDEE can vary greatly from day to day.

So scientifically speaking, if calories consumed are less than or equal to the TDEE, weight should be lost or maintained.

However, it is likely that someone will have lesser or no weight loss results if they continue to eat anything they want on a workout regimen.

Can You Eat Whatever You Want if You Workout? Can You Lose Weight Too? 

When first beginning a workout routine, the body is very inefficient at exercise which, in turn, burns a remarkable amount of calories in a relatively small window of time. So, when food is not controlled and a bunch of calories is burned, it is likely that some weight loss will be seen at first.

However, as workouts continue and weight is lost, the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient; while this is good news for the body, depending on the exercise, calories might be burned at a slower pace.1 For instance, if someone goes for a run every day, the calories burned on day 1 will be significantly higher than the calories burned on day 100, even if the distance and pace remain the same. 

Weight lifting is an exception to the above rule because when the muscle is gained at a significant rate, calories will be burned at a faster pace due to increased mass and the ability to lift more weight.

Therefore, if food habits remain the same, the calorie deficit that was once resulting in weight loss can be reduced or completely counteracted as one gains more muscle.

Building Muscle: Can You Eat Whatever You Want if You Workout?

Those who aren’t worried about weight loss but, instead, are looking to build muscle, may ask the question “Can you eat whatever you want if you workout?” And the truth is, many weightlifters follow IIFYM or if it fits your macros, but this diet is subpar in comparison to clean eating. 

While it may be tempting to throw caution to the wind and not pay attention to what and how much is being eaten, it is important to realize the impact that nutrition plays in muscle growth.

Research has found that the quality and quantity of calories as well as the timing of when they are eaten play a large role in strength training performance as well as post workout muscle recovery.2

Two glass dishes next to each other with healthy food that contain quality calories such as pecans, carrots, broccoli, onions, mushrooms and lettuce.

In other words, while it is possible to gain muscle while eating anything, consuming food with little restraint while strength training will result in a substantial amount of wasted effort evidenced by exhausting lift sessions, longer recovery time, and smaller muscle gains.

Downsides of Working Out & Eating Unhealthy

Just because results from exercise without dieting are possible, especially in the early stages of a routine, doesn’t mean it is a good option. The consequences of overeating and choosing empty calories can result in the following:

  • Slow Results, Plateaus, or Weight Gain: When not paying attention to calories consumed, there is no way to know how much of a calorie deficit is being achieved. This can drastically reduce or counteract cardio and strength training results. Spending time, energy, and effort working out can be completely negated due to eating excess calories.
  • Lack of Energy: Constantly overindulging in low-quality food can lead to poor sleep habits, feeling overly full, and actually becoming malnourished. Being malnourished does just reference lack of food, but the inadequacy of calories that are being consumed. All of these things can lead to feeling drowsy, lethargic, and sluggish.
  • Diminished Health: Deciding not to employ any restrictions when it comes to food can be dangerous. Although working out may neutralize some issues, there are many concerns that cannot be prevented if eating is uncontrolled. Long-term ramifications of poor eating habits can include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. Exercise may delay these issues, but if eating poorly is a continued habit, then these problems and diseases may be inevitable. 
  • Mental Issues: Studies show a strong link between an uncontrolled diet and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, loss of self control, inability to focus, etc.3 These can come as a result of the above-mentioned health issues or they can exist independently. Once poor eating choices begin to affect mental health, it can be difficult to break the cycle. Becoming addicted to food is a real issue that many people try to combat and have a hard time overcoming.

How to Eat Whatever You Want – Stay Skinny or Get Fit 

How can you eat whatever you want if you work out? As touched on above, staying in a calorie deficit and eating a well-rounded diet is key. However, for the best health and fitness results, there are a few other tips and tricks to eat anything and still lose weight or get fit.

Intuitive Eating 

Instead of tracking the amounts of calories in foods, try listening to what the body needs. Be determined to eat only when hungry and stop when full; this approach may allow for a wider range of food choices with fewer consequences due to mindfulness.

Intermittent Fasting

Many intermittent fasting plans do not restrict the type or amount of calories consumed, as long as they are eaten in the allowable time frame. Because there is only a small window for meals, fewer calories are typically consumed per day.

Incorporate a Cheat Day

Instead of eating anything and everything every day, consider sticking to a balanced diet throughout the week that includes plenty of fiber and protein, and then, indulging in a cheat day. So, rather than feeling deprived, know that a cheat day is coming and it can help you get in good nutrition a majority of the time. But be sure you figure out how many calories on a cheat day before indulging too much. 

Eat in Moderation

Before indulging in a favorite food, consider dialing back the amount that is being eaten. Typically, the first few bites of food are the most satisfying; so, save the calories and reduce the portion size, and still indulge in the food that is irresistible. 

Count Calories

You can technically eat “whatever you want” and still count calories; you just may not be able to eat as much as you want using this method. Giving a limit to daily caloric intake can provide a safety net to ensure that excessive calorie consumption doesn’t occur. Not putting a restriction on the types of calories will allow for taking part in any food, assuming it fits into the daily calorie allotment, but this is not to say you can’t figure out how to maintain weight without counting calories.

How Much Should You Exercise in Order to Eat Whatever?

As mentioned previously, when answering “can you eat whatever you want if you workout?” or “Can you eat anything on a calorie deficit if you workout”, calories in vs calories out are the main determining factor in how much exercise will be needed.

One way to know if a current exercise routine is sufficient is by tracking weight changes. To do this successfully, it will be helpful to track calorie intake or eat fairly consistently for 2 weeks while doing typical workouts. At the end of this 2 week period, if weight is lost, there is a calorie deficit, but, if weight is gained, then there is a calorie surplus.

If the above trial ends in a surplus, the amount of calories being burned by exercise is not sufficient and will need to be adjusted. It may be beneficial to use this body weight planner, provided by the U.S.4 Department of Health and Human Services, to determine how much to increase physical activity to achieve a deficit.

Because many factors can affect TDEE, it may be necessary to conduct the above trial on a regular basis to ensure a calorie deficit is still being achieved.

While the answer to “Can you eat whatever you want if you workout?” is technical yes, it is not the best option; so, finding alternative ways to fit in food that is enjoyable without derailing weight loss and fitness progress will be what results in the highest level of success.


References

1Byrne, C., & Mackenzie, S. (2022, January 5). 6 Factors That Can Affect How Many Calories You Burn. Everyday Health. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from <https://www.everydayhealth.com/fitness/factors-that-can-affect-how-many-calories-you-burn/>

2Volek, J. S. (2004, April). Influence of nutrition on responses to resistance training. PubMed. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15064597/>

3Mental health problems in relation to eating behavior patterns, nutrient intakes and health related quality of life among Iranian female adolescents. (2018, April 27). NCBI. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5922554/>

4U.S Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Body Weight Planner | NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from <https://www.niddk.nih.gov/bwp>

About the Author

Nathan

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.