Nutrition: Energy Balance

Many people try to find the magic formula for weight loss but the answer is pretty simple– you must be in a negative energy balance. In this blog, we’ll break down the concept of energy balance by looking into the following:

  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

  • Energy Balance– Gain, Maintenance, and Fat Loss

  • Fad diets–why some of them work

  • How do I know how many calories to eat?

We touched upon a few of these topics in a previous blog (Introduction to Macronutrients and The Real Way to Boost Your Metabolism)

Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

TDEE is how much energy you expend per day, measured in calories. It is used in the energy balance calculation. TDEE consists of the following:  

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): This is the energy needed to sustain the major body functions; it accounts for 60 to 75% of the TDEE. 

  • Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): Calories expended from the cumulative small movements throughout the day; this includes small twitches and movements that are not considered “working out”. 

  • Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT): Calories expended from physical exercise and purposeful activity.

  • Thermal Effect of Food (TEF): TEF is the cumulative increase in energy expenditure from food digestion,  after you eat a few meals. It makes up about 10% of daily energy expenditure.

Energy Balance

The equation for daily energy balance is:

Energy= Caloric Intake – TDEE

As detailed above, TDEE is the energy expenditure per day. Your caloric intake is the amount of  food you eat per day. There are three scenarios with energy balance: 

  1. Positive energy balance, caloric surplus— in this case, a positive energy balance means that you eat more calories than you expend. The result of this is usually weight gain. 

  2. Zero energy balance, maintenance calories— this is known as maintenance. In this situation, the amount of calories you eat is the same as the amount of calories you expend. The result is weight maintenance, usually you won’t experience weight loss or weight gain. If you do experience weight gain, it probably is due to muscle gain/body recomposition, which is a topic for a future blog. 

  3. Negative energy balance, caloric deficit-– this is where weight loss occurs. In this case, you burn more calories than you consume, thus resulting in weight loss. 

  • Want to gain muscle? Go into a slight caloric surplus or maintenance phase.

  • Want to maintain your weight? Stay at your maintenance level calories. 

  • Want to lose fat? Go into a caloric deficit, in a sustainable manner. 

Fad diets–Why do some of them work?

One of the most common things I hear is “I tried out the XYZ diet, and I was able to lose weight. It worked, but I gained it back when I stopped.” When someone tells me this, there are a few things I think of. First, I question if the diet approach was or was not sustainable. If the person was unable to stick with it, then it was probably extreme or not conducive to their lifestyle. The goal is to find an approach that works best for YOU. For example, I cannot do keto diets because I rely on carbohydrates as a fuel source for my workouts. Carbohydrates are known to be the body’s preferred fuel source, therefore if I cut them out of my diet then my performance would suffer and I would feel groggy, tired, and unable to build the strength I’d like. Cutting out carbs gives me an extreme headache. Also, I really like carbs, so why would I purposefully cut them out if I know I will fall back into eating them eventually? It is not a sustainable approach for me. 

Next, I think about the energy balance of the diet approach. If someone says they lost weight when they were on a Ketogenic diet, it’s not because keto is magic but instead it’s because they placed their body in a caloric deficit when they took on the keto diet approach. For example, if someone was eating 2,400 calories per day with carbs and then they hopped on Keto, their daily caloric intake would probably decrease because they no longer are taking in carbs. Therefore, their daily caloric intake would probably fall below their usual 2,400 calories thus creating a caloric deficit and resulting in fat loss. Once they introduce carbs back into their diet, the calories would probably increase back to 2,400 (or beyond) and they will gain the weight back.

How do I know how many calories to eat?

There are a few ways to estimate your TDEE, however the most accurate way is trial and error. You can use one of the equations to calculate TDEE (below) but the best way is to track your food intake and body weight for about 1 to 3 weeks and correlate the two numbers. If you are eating ~2,800 calories per day and your body weight is increasing then you are in a caloric surplus. If you are not gaining weight and your body weight is consistent, then you are most likely in a caloric maintenance phase. If you are losing weight, then you are in a caloric deficit. From here, you can adjust your intake to meet your goals. This process takes time. 

TDEE Equation

Simplified Process

  • Step 1: What is your caloric intake?

    • How much food do you normally eat per day?

      • Is it consistent? Does it vary day per day?

    • Are you gaining, maintaining, or losing weight on this caloric intake

      • From here, you can estimate your TDEE. 

  • Step 2: Adjust your caloric intake. 

    • Your caloric intake will be a result of your answer to the following questions: 

      • What are your goals?

      • How much weight do you want to gain/lose?

      • Do you want to build strength and muscle?

    • Make small changes! Do not go from eating 2,400 calories per day to 1,200 calories. You will experience extreme hunger and negative hormonal changes. 

    • If you already take in enough protein, then the main variables to manipulate in your diet are fats and carbohydrates.

  • Step 3: Adjust your TDEE

    • The variable that you can manipulate to increase or decrease your TDEE is your EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis). If you’d like to increase your EAT, then you will need to increase your physical activity. 

  • Step 4: Create a plan

    • Make it sustainable! The goal is to make this plan one that you can keep long-term without being constantly hungry, tired, and miserable. 

    • If your goal is to lose fat, then you will need to be in a caloric deficit. When in a caloric deficit, you will lose fat but you will also be losing muscle mass. In order to preserve as much muscle mass as possible, you must keep protein in your diet. We recommend 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight.

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