Nutrition Coaching: Energy Balance
The saying “calories in, calories out” comes from the concept of energy balance. And energy balance, which determines if you lose or gain weight, is one of the most confusing concepts in the world of sports medicine. At first glance, it appears to be a relatively simple concept but the countless books, weight loss programs, and blogs (like this one) say otherwise.
We’ll cover energy balance, body fat reduction, and hormones in this article. Let’s start with a basic definition.
The Law of Thermodynamics
Revisiting high school chemistry, we come the most basic rules of science: energy cannot be created or destroyed. In our case, we consume energy from food (those pesky calories) and then use that energy for various things in the body: like swinging a kettlebell, digesting food, growing hair and every other process in the body.
And really, calorie burning just comes down to breathing. Here’s a little knowledge bomb you can drop on your friends: you burn 5 calories per liter of oxygen that you take in. This is why exercise enhances the number of calories you use: you’re simply breathing at a higher rate.
If we’re not burning, then food gets stored. Our muscles and liver stockpile carbs. Muscles use those carbs to swing that kettlebell while the liver makes sure that your brain has a supple of energy. See – those carbs aren’t so bad after all, are they? One way to store more energy is to get your muscles bigger. You’ll have more room for carbohydrates and avoid storing those carbs as fat (resistance training makes your muscles more sensitive to the proper way on how to store the food you eat).
Of course fat is another form of storage. Our body’s preferred energy supply is that of bodyfat. If you’re in good health and metabolism is firing on all cylinders, the body will gobble up fat throughout the day. This isn’t an all or nothing scenario, but we want a majority of our calories coming from bodyfat stores. Getting frequent exercise will burn more calories but also make sure your body does in fact use fat (rather than sugar or protein). As we’ll see though, this isn’t always the case.
So human physiology adheres to the law thermodynamics very well: we either use calories right away, or we store them for later use. So every calorie you eat has one of two fates. Great. What does this mean for you?
In order to lose weight, a negative energy balance is needed. This means the body expels more calories than it takes in. This can be achieved by:
-Getting 5 hours of purposeful exercise each week
-Eating around 250 calories less than baseline needs (meaning if you burn 2,000 per day, you eat around 1,750. Keep in mind the math will never be perfect)
-Chewing food slowly
-Avoid prolonged sitting. Binging Netflix doesn’t scream six pack abs
-Take up hobbies. It doesn’t have to be extreme either, just something that keeps you off the couch.
-Sleep 7-9 hours a night
To gain muscle mass, a positive energy balance is required. Now the body needs to take in more energy than it burns. This is done by….
-Resistance training 4-5 hours a week
-Eating 250-500 calories above baseline.
-Chewing kind of fast
-Being slightly less active. You won’t get jacked if you’re running marathons.
-Sleep 7-9 hours a night
Just doing these things will get you 85% of the results you want – and that’s without doing crazy bootcamps and going keto. Problems arise because people are terrible at being consistent. Doing this and making it works means you do this almost everyday (I’ll cut you a little slack and say that you don’t need to be perfect. One night out once a week isn’t going to be the end of the world. Do you really think I’d be married if all I ever ate was chicken and broccoli?).
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if the scale isn’t budging in the direction you want, it really just comes down to these things:
|Not Losing Weight||Not Gaining Weight|
|Eating too much||Not eating enough|
|Not getting enough exercise||Not training hard enough|
But Is It Really That Simple?
Now I’m going to throw a wrench into things. If getting in shape is just basic math, then why all the frustrations with losing weight? So far, getting in shape looks like:
Burn X Calories – 250 calorie deficit = YOU’RE AWESOME
While the concept of energy balance can be summed up in a simplistic way, the actual processes are quite complex. Some of the rules change when the focus is on body composition. Let’s say this: dropping 15 pounds is as simple as following the rules of energy balance. Trying to earn a living modeling swimsuits with just the slightest amount of fat on you requires a much more detailed approach.
But getting back to the basic math, no one likes to count calories while they eat pizza. If that was the case, pizza time wouldn’t last very long. It doesn’t take much pizza to add up to a whole bunch of calories. Are people really going to be that precise with the foods they eat? Probably not.
Calorie counting can get pretty murky. Scientists believe that people tend to be way off when it comes to what they consume – on average, there’s a 47% difference between what people consume and what they think they eat (1). The percentage tends to be higher the more overweight someone is. The calories burned from exercise is also overshot by 51% (1). Right out of the gates the calories in, calories out argument is flawed because people, well, aren’t really honest about their habits. Fun fact: The FDA allows a 25% allowance on food packaging, so those nutrition facts on your granola bar are just an average. Even if you’re honest about what you eat, others probably aren’t being truthful about what you eat.
The calories your body uses is not a static number. You have zillions of processes going on as you read this; cells are hard at work making magic happen (you biological rockstar ). Figuring out how many calories your burn each day is like picking lottery numbers – very few get it right and when they do it’s just a lucky guess. No two days in your life are alike so it’s unreasonable to expect your body to always burn “X” amount of food.
For example, NEAT stands for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.” It refers to the amount of energy you expend doing basic chores of being an adult – working, running errands, getting lost in IKEA and walking around to try and escape (now you know how I spend my weekends). NEAT can account for 15% of your metabolic rate if you’re sedentary while jumping up to 50% if you’re active (1). In the day and age of technology, some old school manual labor can really pay off. Just switching your daily habits can have a huge impact on how many calories you burn.
All in all, a lot of things can affect energy balance without you even realizing it, such as:
Types of food you eat
Energy burned through exercise/NEAT
The Hormonal Effect
There’s also another saying in sports science: a calorie is not a calorie. A Snickers Bar and a few ounces of chicken may both have 150 calories, but one is loaded with sugar and the other protein. That means those two foods, even though equal in calorie amount, can have drastically different effects. I’m pretty sure you can guess which food leads to better body composition.
This is where energy balance has to cooperate with hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers; they’re job is to tell different parts of your body to do something. They’re responsible for building muscle, losing bodyfat, your mood, brain power and a whole host of things. Getting really, really fit is about mastering your hormones – not just about eating less.
These hormones that can determine the type of calories you burn. So two people who both burn 2,000 calories a day may get them from different sources. One may burn a ton of sugar while the other uses a lot of fat. Sports medicine calls this the “respiratory exchange ratio” and it measures the type of calories your body is using. A score close to 1.0 means you’re a carbohydrate burning machine, while a score of .7 means all fat. One study measured 300 people and found a range of .82 to .95 (2), meaning that subjects were at opposite ends of the sugar/fat burning spectrum. I see this a lot when I meet clients who lost some weight but just don’t have the look they want: they didn’t lose an appreciable amount of bodyfat with that weight.
Here’s another interesting study: 55 women went on a 7 week weight loss program. They lost weight and exercise was responsible for 36% of the weight loss. That RER number we talked about before explained 7% of the variance between subjects: some women were just able to burn more calories from fat than others (3). Consider that 7% the difference between “good” and “awesome” results.
What can cause this to happen? Well, a lot of things. Being sedentary doesn’t help. Combine little activity with a diet high in refined carbs and you’re not exactly going to terminate fat. High levels of sugar and triglycerides (fat) in your blood can be the precursor to metabolic syndrome. In that case, the body is less concerned with burning off stored calories and tries to concentrate on solving the problem at hand (which is too much sugar in the bloodstream). People who fit this bill are pre-diabetic.
High levels of a hormone called cortisol can also can issues. Your body releases cortisol in response to stress. Running through a tough workout, arguing with your spouse, and being chased by a dinosaur can all cause cortisol to be high. When cortisol is elevated, the body’s natural fat burning engine kind of shuts off. This is okay in the short term, but chronic high levels of cortisol put the body in “fight or flight” and weight loss becomes increasingly difficult.
The types of food you eat play a big part in energy balance. Studies show that diets high in protein lead to a higher thermic effect (meaning your metabolism has to work harder to break the meal down), more fat loss, higher levels of satisfaction, and less snacking throughout the day (4). In short: people who have larger portions of protein tend to eat less throughout the day while keeping their metabolism high.
There’s a fear that high protein diets place an acidic load on the body, which can’t be good for your bones (or your digestive system). That’s why it’s important to eat servings of fruits and vegetables throughout the day, as they work to lower the higher acid load from all that protein. Consider a serving of veggies/fruits equal to a half cup; and you should be getting at least six servings a day. Some extremists out there think protein and veggies are mutually exclusive when they’re not – you should be eating both together.
Metabolism mimics calorie consumption. If you’re drastically undereating by 800 or more calories you’re probably slowing down your metabolic rate over time. As you age, it’s going to be really tough to get that metabolism back up. it’s a double whammy too because people who practically starve themselves become scared to eat – and when they do eat, the slightest bump up in weight forces them to revert back to crash dieting. It creates a vicious cycle.
You can also sneak calories in without even realizing it – and yes, this happens with “clean food” too. Adding 2 table spoons of olive oil to each meal gives you an 800 calorie surplus. Doing the same with nuts can boost up your daily intake by 500 calories. I once had a client who couldn’t lose a pound because he was devouring nuts like they were M&M’s. He cut his portions in half and lost half an inch off his waist in two weeks.
There’s no escaping scientific fact. Trying lose weight requires you to burn off more energy that you take in. If you’re not seeing the results you want, you either have to eat a little less or get in more activity.
If you want to build a high quality physique, then the quality of food you eat matters just as much as the quantity. Energy balance then becomes one aspect of the process.
Regardless of your approach, consistency will have the biggest effect on your results.
- Aragon, A.A., et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Diets and Body Composition.” (2017) International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand 14;16 DOI 10.1186/s12970-017-017-y
- Venables, M.C, et al. “Determinants of Fat Oxidation During Exercise in Healthy Men and Women: A Cross Sectional Study” (2005) Journal of Applied Physiology 98. 160-167
- Barwell,N.D., et al. “Individual Responsiveness to Exercise Induced Fat Loss is Associated with Change in Resting Substrate Utilization.” (2009) Metabolism Clinical and Experimental 58. 1320-1328
- Halton, T.L., et al. “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