I’m a nutrition coach and it never ceases to amaze me how little people understand energy balance. I have explained this in some previous videos like this one (HERE) and this blog (HERE). But I understand why people don't get it. It's not something that you get taught in school, there's a lot of conflicting opinions about energy balance (although the the first law of thermodynamics isn't up for debate) much of which is down to unethical marketing. But not only that, counting Calories accuracy is not easy and most people get wrong for a variety of reasons. So, to help you stop pissing in the wind here is a brief introduction to how Calories work and how to estimate and track your Calories.
Calories are merely a measurement of energy, like millimetres are a measurement of length. So, let’s not get all hung up on the minor details here. Calories, or kcals, measure the amount of energy you get from the food you eat and how much energy you burn during daily activity and exercise.
We measure this over the 24-hour period, not one meal at a time or one workout at a time. But, we also need to look at this mechanism over the week. So, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you go over on your kcals one day, so long as you are under for the rest of the week (assuming fat loss is your goal). In fact, you can look at energy balance over a month, treat it like a bank balance, all the deposits and withdrawals you make will determine how much money (Calories) you have left at the end of the month.
As I have pointed out many times before, there is a compelling body of evidence that shows us Calories in vs Calories out matters - A LOT. You can read some of that scientific evidence on Science Direct (HERE). it doesn’t matter what a nutritional therapist, holistic lifestyle coach, naturopath or fad diet books tells you, physics DOES matter. All diets work because they are designed to create an energy deficit. The methods they use are a set of rules that control the volume of food you consume. Some of these methods are healthy and sustainable and some aren’t. Special mention to Slimming World here. Food is food, it’s not a sin (or syn) please stop teaching people to have a disordered attitude to food.
Just before I show you a simple predicative equation to estimate your kcals let me just say that this isn’t an exact science, the clue is in the name – PREDICTIVE – these equations will estimate your energy balance based on a number of factors. These factors are largely averages so your actual kcals may vary by about 5 to 15% either side of that number, so don’t be too rigid in your thinking here. Track your body composition and weight over a couple of weeks, but also track your exercise performance, your sleep and your overall sense of wellbeing. If everything looks and feels good then there’s no need to change, if things aren’t going according to plan you may have to increase or decrease by around 10% or so and then reassess until you get things right.
Yep, it could take a little while to get it right but it’s worth it in the end. To work out your resting metabolic rate use the following equation:
Bodyweight in kg x24 (or lbs x11) for a male or 22 (or lbs x10) for a female.
Then multiply by a physical activity ratio (PAR).
At this point I should mention that most people will instinctively over estimate the amount of activity they do, and this might be where your kcal prediction falls down, your RMR is probably pretty spot on, and I have come to find that part mostly reliable when doing similar equations on my clients. But almost everyone is less active than they think and trains well within themselves. If fat loss is the goal UNDER estimate and then adjust over the coming weeks.
Using myself as an example the calculation will look like this:
This is my predicted maintenance Calories or total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). If I ate 2,700kcals per day for the rest of my life, assuming my activity didn’t change, I shouldn’t gain any fat. But, if I wanted to lose some fat I would need to create an energy deficit.
(I know from experience that this estimated number is pretty close and I have previously ate as much as 2,600 kcals per day while still losing fat)
I like to use percentages with my clients to create the deficit.
It’s worth noting that the bigger the deficit, the faster the weight loss and the more of that weight will be from water and lean body mass which isn’t ideal. You want to maintain as much lean mass as possible while dieting. There are three things you can do to ameliorate this process. I should also take this opportunity to mention fitness trackers like MyFitnessPal. These often tell you to eat back Calories after a workout. DO NOT DO THAT! If you have done the calculations above, you have already accounted for exercise energy expenditure and will therefore be eating those Calories twice.
Before you say it... No, lifting weight won't make you bulky (especially when you're in a caloric deficit). Being fat makes you bulky!
For weight management it’s important to understand how energy balance works and it’s important to track this consistently. Eventually you may come away from meticulously tracking kcals all the time and adopt a more intuitive approach to eating. You don’t even HAVE to count Calories so long as you control portion sizes, it’s just that counting Calories is more measurable and more accurate. It's important to learn how to weigh and track everything you eat if you are to avoid under reporting. Anyone who thinks they are only eating 1,000kcals per day and NOT losing weight is 100% not eating only 1,000kcals per day.
Weight loss is never linear, there will be peaks and troughs and plateaus, but each plateau is a sign that you have made progress. You do not have to be in an energy deficit every day and you can be flexible with how you manage your Calorie intake to match your lifestyle. For example, if you like to socialise at weekends (remember before COVID when that was a thing in your life?) you could set most of your days slightly lower and then have one or two higher Calorie days and, as long as you are in a deficit over the week, you will still be on track to lose fat.
The graphic above shows how this 'flexible dieting' template might work. In this example Friday and Saturday are high days. The Calorie target for approx 1lb of fat loss per week is 2,000kcals per day or 14,000kcals per week. Therefore, on 5-days you would consume 1,500kcals and on the two social days you would eat 2,500kcals and you're still in a 3,500kcal deficit that week.
This all requires a shift in mindset. Your weight is NOT your identity or a measure of your worthiness as a human being. Do not place so much attachment in the scales or the numbers it reads to define your moods or how you feel about yourself. They are numbers, measurable metrics to track progress and nothing more. This is why you should separate your fitness goals from your weight loss goals. Train to be stronger and look/feel better, make your training feel motivating and rewarding and not like a punishment for being a fat-ass. This way, you have other measures of progress to feel good about. It might be that you hit a weight plateau, but you managed to do a Turkish Getup with a 24kg kettlebell for the first time, or maybe you ran a PB at Parkrun, maybe you got 8-hours sleep EVERY night that week or managed to eat a slice of cake without feeling guilty. Those are ALL positive markers of progress that have nothing to do with the scales. For more on goal setting read this guest blog by Tom Bainbridge of BTN.Academy (HERE).
There's quite a lot here to get your head around but I’ll let this infographic that I made with my remedial levels of Canva design expertise sum it all up for you:
Let me just finish by saying, trust the numbers, they aren't far off and if you think it's too much but you are overweight you can guarantee that you have been pretty consistently eating over that for some time already, so it's not the numbers that are wrong, it's your perception of the energy value of the food you eat. Don't forget that liquid Calories count too, especially alcohol... Sorry about that.
Lastly, if you have been struggling to achieve your fitness goals don't get frustrated, that's why coaches like myself exist so if you want help reach out to an expert to help you, just like you would if your car breaks down on the M1.
To learn more about personal nutrition sign up for my online program The Nutrition Solution: CLICK HERE
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