You Can’t Outrun Bad Food

We all like to think that if we have that hamburger, or donut, or extra glass of wine that the time we spend exercising will ‘cancel out’ the ‘bad’ bits.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t work that way.

There are a few things wrong with this premise.

Firstly, calories*, or kilojoules, in is not exactly equal to calories out.

Secondly, it is not only the energy content of the food that is a problem.

And thirdly, most of us will only count the one ‘bad’ item we eat and not include everything else.

One other factor is that most of us don’t really know how many calories we should be eating a day, so all of the numbers are fairly easy to dismiss.

So that you do know, here they are:

RDI for women 2000-2500 calories

RDI for men 2500 – 2800 calories


Let’s take the hamburger example.

Say you are going to have a hamburger for lunch, depending on exactly what is on your hamburger you are looking at anywhere between 500 to 1000 calories for the burger.  That is a big range and the low end doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

The thing is, you are probably not only going to eat a burger, you will probably also have some chips and maybe a drink…  You could be adding another 1000 calories easily depending on portion size and type of drink.  So, anything in the ballpark of 2000 calories from that one lunch.

Let’s assume you only have a hamburger and it is at the lower end of the spectrum around 560 calories.

You would need to run moderately fast for around 45 minutes to burn off those calories, and if you are not a runner you would need to walk moderately fast for just under 3 hours!

If you measure your steps each day, then you would need to do around 12,000 steps for the hamburger alone regardless of anything else you eat that day.

And you only had the hamburger!

If you had the whole lunch at around 2000 calories then you need to multiply all of these numbers by 4!

So, that’s approximately a 3 hour run, 12 hours of walking and around about 48,000 steps.

It’s not just the energy

Calories and kilojoules are a measure of energy.  The exact definition is ‘the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius that is equal to about 4.19 joules’.  (Source: Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Your food is not only made up of energy.  It contains nutrients which your body uses, and other products which it can’t use.

Processed foods often contain more fillers and ‘empty calories’ which your body is not able to use so it then needs to dispose of these in some way.

What else is in the hamburger?

If we take an average again you would have approximately the following in your burger:

26 grams protein

42 grams carbohydrates

32 grams of fat

12 grams of saturated fat

1 gram of trans fat

2.5 grams fibre

1200mg sodium

This is not a full nutrient breakdown and there would very likely be other additives and preservatives which are not listed here.

Additives and Preservatives

Let’s address the additives first as they don’t get listed above.

Depending on the individual components of your hamburger, it is likely there are a number of additives and preservatives.

One important thing to know about food additives is that they are tested and approved individually and not with other additives so there is no way to know how they may behave when a number of additives are combined in a meal.

Another important thing is that some additives will accumulate and while an additive may be at a safe level for consumption in one item, when you add several items together, it is possible that the level of that additive may exceed the ‘safe’ level.

Now let’s break down the burger

Below are the numbers which the Australian Government Nutrient Reference Values recommends as a daily intake for the components of your burger.  

Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) values vary for age and weight so if you would like to find yours then I suggest you use the guide.

It is worth noting that nearly all of the information in this guide is from 2006.  There have been some reviews conducted for some nutrients since then but they are not comprehensive.

Based on how quickly information about food changes and how much research is done each year on different foods and diets you may want to investigate other reference values from around the world to get some more recent numbers.

I have chosen to use these because this is where most Australians would start if they are looking to modify their diet in some way.  I have not chosen them because I believe they are the most current.


37-64 grams, for an adult depending on age and weight. 

So the protein in the burger is not excessive and, depending on where the meat comes from and how it is processed, could be a good source of protein.


Interestingly there is no RDI for carbohydrates and there is no differentiation between carbohydrates from whole food and carbohydrates from processed food. 

Here is the quote from the reference values about carbohydrates

It was deemed inappropriate to set an upper level of intake for carbohydrates, however, evidence of the role of various carbohydrates in relation to chronic diseases is discussed in the ‘Chronic disease’ section where an acceptable range of intake is given.”

What you might like to know about carbohydrates is that they break down into sugar, glucose to be exact, in your body for your body to use as fuel.

A separate government website, Health Direct approaches carbohydrates and sugar a little differently and quotes the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

“Adults and children should reduce their intake of sugar to less than 10% of their total daily energy intake. On average, this equals about 12 teaspoons (50 grams) of sugar per day for an adult. This include all added sugars, as well as the naturally-occurring sugars in honey, fruit juices, syrups and fruit-juice concentrates.”

“Reducing your intake to less than 5% of total energy intake (6 teaspoons or 25g) would provide even more health benefits. Read the nutrition panel on the food label. If the total sugar exceeds 15g of sugar per 100g of the food, check the list of ingredients to see if any added sugars are high on the list.”

So, based on the Australian government RDI’s the amount of carbohydrate in the hamburger is fine.  Based on the WHO guidelines there is approximately 10 ½ teaspoons of sugar equivalent in the hamburger which makes up almost all of the recommended adult intake and exceeds it if you are aiming for 6 teaspoons of sugar a day.  (As a side note, the WHO document was published in 2015 so is much more recent than the Reference Values.)

Given that the WHO guidelines are based on your liver’s ability to process sugar, and this could also vary widely for an individual.


Fats vary a lot depending on their structure and there are different values based on this. 

To keep it simple the RDI for fat for women is 8 grams a day and for men it is 13 grams.

Just using these simple numbers, your hamburger is far over the RDI for fat no matter who you are, which means your body is going to work hard to process all this extra fat.


The recommended values of dietary fibre vary also but not as much.  For women it is 25 grams, for men it is 30 grams.

Your hamburger, at 2.5 grams, falls a long way short of this so you will need to be looking for a good source of fibre to make up the difference.


Sodium is an essential nutrient and is mostly consumed as salt and your body needs some to function.  Too much, however has been tied to many chronic illnesses the guidelines set an Adequate Intake (AI) number which is a guide for how much sodium you need a day to maintain your health and a Suggested Dietary Target (SDT) which is a target for a population average.

The AI for both women and men is 460-920 milligrams per day and the SDT is 2000 milligrams a day. 

Most Australians currently consume around 3600 milligrams of sodium a day and it is easy to see why when you look at the sodium level in the hamburger.

Working out the numbers

If you would like to crunch some numbers based on your own weight and type of exercise, you might like to use this calorie burned calculator.  Bear in mind that there will still be differences based on how much muscle you carry, or how active you are so this will only be a more accurate calculation. 

To get an even more accurate reflection of your own numbers you would also need a heart rate monitor and to monitor your exercise more closely.

In Summary

In the interests of keeping this article relatively short I am not going to break down the donut (200-300 calories) or the glass of wine (70-135 calories).  I’m sure you get the idea.

My point is that you can’t simply offset a bad food choice with one workout or walk or run.

You also can’t use the same gym session to offset a number of different bad foods.  How many of us have done that at some stage?

If you want to eat the hamburger, eat the hamburger, but don’t try to justify it by using your 45-minute gym session twice a week or your daily walk around the block with your dog as an excuse.

You really need to recognise how much that quick meal is contributing to what you choose to eat.

It is possible to make a really great hamburger with good ingredients but you are probably not going to find it at your local fast food outlet or at the pub when you drop in for a counter lunch.

Where to from here?

If you really want to figure out your numbers and what your body is capable of when it’s free from digestive overload make the investment into a health coach or naturopath.

If that’s outside the budget at the moment you can do my online course from home and rebuild your body for the better.

Disclaimer: This article is using generalisations to illustrate a point.  It is not dietary or medical advice.  If you have specific requirements please consult an appropriate specialist.

* To convert calories to kilojoules, multiply the calories by 4.184.  Or you can have a calculator do it for you at Rapid Tables