Is Energy Balance as Simple as “Calories In, Calories Out?”

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Energy balanc is tough to figure out


Most of you have heard the mantra: “weight loss is as simple as calorie’s in versus calories out.” If you asked me to explain this, I’d say it works. Then I’d follow up that up with “well, sorta.” Let me explain.

Calories in versus calories out tries to sum up the concept of energy balance. Energy balance, also called thermodynamics, refers to the calories you take in along with the calories your body burns. The overall concept looks like this:

Burn more calories than you take in = Weight Loss

Consume more calories than you burn= Weight Gain

So keeping things very basic, energy balance is the key to shedding pounds. But digging a little deeper we can see that the issue isn’t as simple as you’d think.

For one, energy balance doesn’t consider the quality of weight loss. You could lose weight, but some of it could be muscle. This would result in a decrease in performance along with other negative effects, like altering your hormone profile. Not to mention you’d probably have a pretty underwhelming physique for all your trouble. Who wants that?

We also know that a calorie is not a calorie. 100 calories from a lean steak is not the same as 100 calories from a low fat cookie. Researchers agree that diets that tend to be higher in protein can lead to greater weight loss, greater reduction in bodyfat, higher levels of satiety, and consumption of less calories later in the day (1). So even though you’re following a lower calorie diet, your results are partially dependent on the quality of your diet and not just the quantity.

Lastly, energy balance is a complicated process. Research shows that people can be anywhere from 30-50% off in reporting their actual calorie intake – meaning that they underestimate how many calories they take in (2). In fact, the FDA allows a certain allowance on nutrition labels, so the content of the food you eat could be off by more than 20%. This makes crunching all those numbers quite a hassle as you’ll never have accurate records of what you’re taking in.

But a lot of other factors will affect your energy balance. How much you exercise and the specific type of training will affect how much you burn. After all, not all exercise is created equal. You also have things to consider like:

-Your overall metabolic rate

-The type of energy you burn at rest (whether you burn fat, sugar, or (yikes) protein

-How much of the food you eat you actually absorb

-The type of food you eat (cooked, raw, steamed, etc)

-Overall appetite, stress, mood, and sleep quality

Now don’t get things twisted. Burn more than you consume and you will lose weight – that’s just science. In fact, it’s one of the few things that we know about the body for certain. But just slashing calories and moving more won’t develop a high quality physique. So if you’re looking to take your physique to its ‘upper echelon’, you have to look beyond calories in versus calories out..



  1. Halton, T.L. nad Hu, F.B. “The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety, and Weight Loss: A Critical Review.”(2004) Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Vol 23;5. 373- 385
  2. Donnelly, J.E. and Smith, B.K. “Is Exercise Effective for Weight Loss With Ad Libitum Diet? Energy Balance, Compensation, and Gender Differences.” (2005) Exercise and Sport Science Reviews Vol 33;4. 169-174


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