Calories… Energy Balance (Energy In vs. Energy Out)
The first topic of discussion in this series covering the Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance is priority #1, Calories.
To start, remember that calories represent energy, plain and simple. Like most things, the amount of calories you need to consume depends on many factors. These factors include individual goals, body type, exercise and nutritional habits, sleep, daily activity, and more.
You could do everything else right, but without a proper energy balance, you may never achieve your desired weight or performance goals.
I’d like to first challenge your current thoughts on calories, as it is often a misused and emotionally loaded word. Calories are more than just numbers (located conveniently in our food) that we add up to see how fat we may get if we eat too much (I don’t think this way, I don’t encourage any of my clients to think this way; however, the truth is, the majority of people see them this way).
Calories are a valued resource for our survival and our ability to perform well physically, cognitively, socially – as everything we do requires energy in some form or another. We need sufficient calories to perform at our best and to achieve a healthy body composition, both for our needs to feel and look good and to have a body that can handle the stressors we put it through.
Calories represent our energy coming in.
The flipside of the coin is our energy out.
One of the most important things to focus on any time you’re trying to change an aspect of your nutrition is where are you on the spectrum of energy balance.
Energy balance (think energy in = energy out) is ground zero, the place from which all other change stems from. So whether you want to lose body fat or gain muscle, you need to achieve energy balance first to make those changes in a sustainable and consistent manner. In our current culture, this is often eating more daily (plus moving more of course!).
If you were eating a consistent ≈2,500 calories per day (≈17,500 per week), as we’ve spoken to, that counts as your energy in. As for your total daily energy expenditure (energy out), there are a few more variables to consider:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): BMR is the number of calories you burn to fuel your body’s basic functions at rest.
Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): NEAT is the number of calories you burn for nonexercise activities. Going to the grocery store? NEAT. Showering? NEAT. Taking your dog for a walk? NEAT.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): TEF accounts for roughly 10% of our daily energy expenditure (Energy Out). Some of the calories in the food you eat are used to digest, absorb, metabolize, and store the remaining food, and some are burned off as heat. This is what’s known as the thermic effect of food. Each macronutrient requires different amounts of energy to digest, represented below:
- Fats provide 9 calories per gram, and their TEF is 0-3%
- Carbs provide 4 calories per gram, and their TEF is 5-10%
- Proteins provide 4 calories per gram, and their TEF is 20-30%
This is one profound example of many, showcasing how protein has the upper hand over fats and carbs. It requires 3-10x more energy to simply digest.
Exercise: Any deliberate activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve one’s health and fitness.
Becoming aware of how each of these variables influences the total amount of energy that we either burn off or maintain is one of the first steps to developing a real, effective, and healthy relationship with food.
This also paints a clear picture of how exercise will not run you out of poor lifestyle and eating habits, as exercise for the average person, on average, only yields 5-10% of total energy expenditure.
This in no way takes away from exercise, as it still, and always will, maintain the #1 rank for enhancing longevity and increasing healthspan.
Caloric Deficit vs. Maintenance vs. Caloric Surplus
Tracking calories can be a complex equation. Simple, but not always easy.
What you need to know about how your energy balance influences your body composition, in this context, is this:
- A caloric deficit around roughly 500 calories below your maintenance will lead to weight loss when done consistently and in a sustainable manner over time.
- It’s important to point out that when most people speak or share their desire to “lose weight,” they are usually speaking to “losing fat.”
- A caloric balance (energy in = energy out) will lead to a maintenance in body weight.
- A caloric surplus around roughly 500 calories above your maintenance will lead to weight gain when done consistently over time.
- It’s important to point out that when most people speak or share their desire to “gain weight,” they are usually speaking to “gaining muscle.”
There are huge caveats to this framework of understanding, as there is an abundance of factors outside of just energy balance that could play a role in whether or not you gain or lose weight. Examples include hormonal irregularities (diabetes, hypo-thyroid, etc.), the quality of the foods you’re eating, i.e., are there actually rich nutrients within the foods you’re eating, and, once again, consistency.
To flesh out this concept, take a look at the graph below. The graph represents an average of an individual’s energy balance.
Let’s create a scenario based on the two examples above, a fat loss and muscle gaining goal.
1) A person, Jill, has a fat loss goal but has been in the above deficit (≈800 calories) for 3 years, and only eating less and less over time. What’s holding them back from actually losing body fat? They’ve likely stalled their metabolism and gone into an energy conservation state, therefore signaling their body to conserve energy (more than likely in the form of fat) rather than expend it. By first restoring an energy balance by eating more to even out their energy in and energy out (in this case ≈2,000 cal.), they can then enter a true caloric deficit to follow up on the renewed metabolic functions.
2) A person, Jake, has a goal to gain muscle is very active in their exercise and sports activities and is eating “a lot”. They’re averaging ≈2,800 calories in and ≈2,600 calories out. They are actually in energy balance, neither gaining nor losing bodyweight. They’ll need to increase their energy in to above ≈3,100 calories to begin adding muscle mass (and that’s if their energy out remains the same, as that can change depending on the season).
These two examples are just that, examples. However, I find these are common examples of scenarios I find myself in with individuals with those particular goals.
So, where would you begin when moving forward to achieve energy balance?
Let the following priorities give you an understanding of where to focus first when looking to rebalance your energy. In order:
1) Exercise. Prioritize resistance training to build a resilient and robust body, as well as increase your muscle mass and your baseline BMR, which would increase the amount of energy you burn at rest.
- If you’re an average person, you also need to prioritize aerobic fitness. This is the main engine of energy production in our body and has tremendous benefits to improving your healthspan and combating all-cause mortality — more on this in a future post.
2) Consider how your NEAT is affecting your progress towards your goals.
- To those looking to lose body fat – Don’t fit all your days’ worth of activity within 30-60 minutes. Yes, without a doubt, strength train. However, beyond that, you have an entire day to be active and increase your NEAT … which is one of the most underrated and underappreciated forms of burning more energy per day. For starters, aim to get a consistent 5,000-10,000 steps per day, minimum. Once a consistent habit of steps is maintained, you can sustainably and consistently increase your total step count. The more, the better.
- To those looking to gain muscle mass – you need to consider just how much your activity plays a role in whether or not you’re gaining weight. Almost every person I speak with trying to gain muscle believes they’re eating a TON. The truth is, they might be, relatively speaking, when gauged visually and by feelings of fullness. However, like the example we touched on earlier, if an athlete is eating 2,900 calories regularly, but their energy out totals 3,500 calories, are they eating “enough?” The answer is they need to gradually eat more. I like to keep it very simple for these people…
- I ask, “Are you gaining weight?” … Yes? Good, keep up the good work… No? Good, eat more … Still not gaining weight? Eat more.
3) Eat a high protein diet. We just touched on how it burns a significantly higher amount of energy to digest. It also helps build and maintain lean tissue such as muscle, tendons, etc. (reinforcing priority #1) and provide a higher level of satiety or feeling of fullness when eating.
4) Achieve energy balance. Many people don’t balance their energy very well, mainly due to a lack of awareness. By bringing conscious awareness to your actions first, you will have placed yourself in a high-leverage position to start making real change. By first committing to a consistent routine to expend energy each day (the previous three points), you can then begin to match your energy intake (the foods you eat) to the actual energy you’re using each day. From there, you can tailor your next step to your individual weight loss or weight gain goals.
Like most creatures of the animal kingdom, our energy is in constant flux based on our lifestyle. A bear in the spring has a much different energy balance profile than in the winter — a cheetah, different from a panda. Take stock of where you’re currently sitting and discern whether you want to actually take deliberate action on any of the above steps. It starts with awareness, then comes action!
Our next installment in the series will be tackling priority #2, Macro’s and Fiber. Stay tuned.