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How many jumping jacks do you have to do to “earn” a serving of mashed potatoes?

Spoiler alert: none.

There are a series of memes going around Facebook… well, for years now. And they’ve been silently pissing me off.

When I first saw this, I thought it was a trend that would pass. I assumed saying anything would give it more attention than it deserved. But instead of dying off, it’s picked up momentum. And it’s getting bigger than ever. So it’s time we kick this trend to the curb once and for all because it is dangerous and destroying people’s relationship with food.

Here’s the original Halloween meme that was posted a few years ago:

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 9.08.04 PM

This chart basically shows how much of a workout you have to do to “earn” a certain type of candy bar. As you can see, we’re singling out a certain type of food as “naughty” and forcing you to “earn” or “work off” your calories for that food.

This year I’ve seen three or four different versions of this same chart right around Halloween. And now I see this:

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 9.07.50 PM

Side Note: 419 calories for a serving of mashed potatoes? 

Let’s just say I’m baffled and awed at the thought of packing 419 calories into a serving of mashed potatoes. The average mashed potato recipe falls in the 200-300 calorie range.potatoespotatoes2


Even Tyler Florence’s recipe for potatoes that include 2 cups of heavy cream, served in generous portions (the recipe says 6-8 servings, I calculated the recipe for 6) doesn’t add up to 400 calories.

PicMonkey Collage potatoes

TRX may be failing as your personal nutritionist, but I really think they could have a future in the gourmet chef industry.

End side note: let’s get back to the subject at hand.

Let’s talk about why these charts are so damaging.

Misrepresentation of our bodies’ use of calories.

So you eat a serving of mashed potatoes… what happens? This chart would make you believe that you will store all of those mashed potatoes as fat unless you burn it off with a grueling workout.

In reality, our body breaks down all of our food into useable energy, and any excess energy, whether it be green beans, Brussels sprouts, chicken, avocados… or, yes, mashed potatoes is stored for future use in our fat stores.

This means that if you eat in caloric excess, you will gain fat regardless of whether or not you eat a serving of mashed potatoes as part of your daily intake.

If you eat in a calorie deficit you will lose fat regardless of whether or not you eat a serving of mashed potatoes as part of your daily intake.

No one food is responsible for your health, fitness, or the lack thereof. 

The thing is: you eat an extra serving of mashed potatoes, if you’re listening to your body you’ll likely eat a little less of something else… and if not, an extra serving of mashed potatoes on one day of the year equates to an extra 1-2 calories per day over the course of the year… depending on who’s calorie count you’re using for potatoes, of course.

Those extra 1-2 calories come out in the wash because it’s NOT about what you do on one specific day of the year; it’s about your habits day in and day out, year in and year out.

If one serving of mashed potatoes is ruining your fitness goals, you likely don’t have solid habits that can be relied upon the rest of the year. Instead of beating yourself up over the mashed potatoes, congratulate yourself on learning an important lesson about what you can do next … and that would be to create lasting nutrition habits, not hit the gym for an extra workout.

Exercise is NOT punishment for eating

Not only is this way of thinking about food and exercise physiologically inaccurate, it’s also likely to make you hate exercise. 

When we have to do a certain a number of burpees, jumping jacks, miles to run as a stipulation for eating a “wrong” food, we are essentially creating a punishment for our eating behaviors. On a psychological level it engrains two different harmful thoughts.

  1. There are foods we need to be punished for eating.
  2. Exercise is punishment for “bad” eating behavior. 

There’s a corner of our home that my son absolutely hates. It’s his time out corner. If you want one clear spot of ground where there are no toddler crumbs or strewn toys, look to the time out corner. That corner is no different than any other part of the home except that it is where he goes when he does something wrong. And he knows it. So he absolutely hates it.

Once you’ve created the condition that eating “bad” food is what gets you in the “time out corner” (exercise) you’re going to start hating exercise and seeing it as a punishment only. Not only does this make working out miserable, but you’re not likely to create a healthy and fun long term workout habit if that’s the mindset going into it. 

You don’t need to be punished for what you eat because it’s just food. 

Let’s call it what it is: purging

I’ve worked as an RN in an eating disorder treatment center prior to starting Youtrition. While my work at Youtrition is NOT eating disorder treatment, and I do NOT provide recommendations for eating disorders (besides the really sound recommendation to seek professional help) I have experience with eating disorders in my past career.

One of the things that most people are clueless about is the definition of purging. Most people assume that purging means vomiting, and that if you didn’t vomit, you couldn’t be classified as bulimic.

While the well-known definition of purging is self-induced vomiting, exercise can also be a form of purging as well.

Purging means any type of compensation for eating behavior – some specifics include vomiting, use of laxatives, and yes, over exercising.

This meme isn’t empowering you to be able to eat whatever you want over the holidays, it’s polarizing food as good or bad, creating an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and triggering disordered eating.

At first glance you may look at these charts and get a little excited. Here is your ticket to eating whatever you want over the holidays and not feeling guilty. In fact, this is why these memes have built up steam; they cause a false level of empowerment around their control over food.

But on the flip side is a deeply unhealthy relationship with food, a need to “work off” or “earn” calories, and the potential trigger for an eating disorder. 

You don’t have to “earn” your food. Any of it.

You have permission to eat a candy bar at Halloween.
You have permission to eat mashed potatoes on Christmas.
You actually have permission to eat what you want when you want because you actually don’t need permission at all.

And you don’t have to earn it by doing an extra grueling workout either.

When it comes to the holidays, the key is to remember that habits count and consistency counts. What you do the other 364 days of the year matter more than what you will do on one day of celebration. Even if you ate five extra servings of ultra decadent TRX potatoes (Puh-lees send me the recipe!)… that still doesn’t lead to one full pound of extra calories. However, if you ate five servings of potatoes, chances are you will be less hungry later and end up eating less at another meal if you’re listening to your body.

burpees and friesSo next time you’re wondering how many burpees you have to do for that serving of fries… you already know the answer.


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Ashley Palmer
Ashley is a Registered Nurse with a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition. Ashley loves her son, her husband, and lifting heavy things then putting them back down repeatedly. She is a nutrition, fitness and weight loss coach and blogs at www.youtrition.net.


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