Clearing Up Some Calorie Confusion

How To Create A Calorie Deficit

Body recomposition is often simplified to the following: eat less and move more to create a calorie deficit and results will come. It is true that creating an energy deficit, whereby more energy is expended than consumed, is a necessary component of fat loss. Consuming fewer calories and/or and increasing energy expenditure through activity are the tools we have to manage our energy intake and expenditure. We often refer to these as the 3F’s — food, fluid and fitness (physical activity) — and they are levers we can pull to manage energy balance.

While an energy deficit is the key to fat loss, creating the deficit often requires more nuanced advice than ‘eat less and move more’. For example, we can decrease the amount of calories you consume without eating a lesser quantity of food. By replacing energy-dense foods, particularly processed foods that are high in sugar and/or fat, with less energy dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, we can decrease energy expenditure without necessarily eating less food. This means we can create an energy deficit while still feeling full between meals.

When it comes to physical activity, the definition of ‘move more’ will depend on the individual and their current regime. One person might keep their two weekly gym sessions the same but they start walking an extra 30 minutes per day to increase their energy expenditure. Someone else might stop parking their car 20 minutes from work, even though this walk was the only physical activity they were doing because parking closer to work will free up time to do a 30-minute high-intensity training (HIT) session that burns more calories than the daily walking.

The key to creating an energy deficit is understanding the current regime to identify adhereable ways to increase energy expenditure and/or decrease energy intake. To understand the current regime, we need to track the current regime to see what are the incomings and outgoings.

How To Use Tracking To Create A Calorie Deficit

  • Track food and fluid intake alongside physical activity over a 7–14 day period.

  • Assess the tracking and look for opportunities to increase energy expenditure and/or decrease nutrition intake in an adhereable manner.

  • Develop a strategy to implement those changes — it could be sticking to a meal plan, portion sizes, or doing a new training plan. Make sure it is something you can measure — did you do it or not.

A Calorie Deficit Leads To Weight Loss

Any energy that is surplus to the body’s requirements is stored for later use. Carbohydrate are stored in the muscles and liver; protein in the muscle; and fat in adipose tissue. Carbohydrate and protein that exceeds storage capacity can be converted to fat, which can then be stored in adipose tissue. As we probably all know by now, an increase adipose tissue leads to changes in appearance.

The energy stored in adipose tissue can be released into the bloodstream to be used by the body. This occurs when the body has insufficient energy on-hand, so it dips into its stores to make up the difference. As body fat is mobilised from adipose tissue, the total size of adipose tissue decreases.

The simple version is that we will gain body fat if in energy surplus and lose it when in deficit. These outcomes should be measured over a moderate period of time. A single day in an energy deficit will not lead to significant loss of body fat, but it will lead to noticeable changes over a moderate period of time (weeks and months).

“I am Creating A Calorie Deficit But Not Losing Weight!”

There are a few things that could be going on here:

  • You have created an energy deficit and fat loss has occurred. However, you have also gained muscle, which has masked changed on the scale. This is possible for people in a small calorie deficit who are in the early stages of resistance training.

  • You have created an energy deficit and fat loss has occurred. However, you have also retained more water, which has masked results on the scale. This can happen with people who are taking creatine or have re-introduced carbohydrates after a period of depletion.

  • You have failed to create an energy deficit despite sticking to your training and nutrition regime. Energy expenditure can decrease compared to the start of the program, which can reduce the size of the energy deficit. However, this takes time and occurs after significant weight loss — it will not happen in the first two weeks of a program. We refer to these as ‘adaptation plateaus’ because progress slows due to metabolic adaptations.

  • You have failed to create an energy deficit because you have not stuck to your training and nutrition regime. The emphasis should be in reinstating the regime, or making alterations to it that will make it more adhereable. We refer to these as ‘adherence plateaus’ because progress slows due to adherence.

I cannot provide an exact prevalence rate for each of the above scenario, but if I had to guess, I would say that not adhering to the plan is responsible for 98% of stalled progress, due to the fact that no energy deficit was created. It is relatively easy for people to decrease their adherence to the plan without noticing — maybe training intensity has dropped and they are eating some extra food — but most people can identify this on their own.

Many people who struggle to recognise their non-adherence are those who stick to the plan six days per week but then have one really bad day. This might look like a 500kcal deficit for six days, but then on the seventh day their energy intake blows out by 3000kcal. This cancels out the entire energy deficit created during the week and leads to weight staying stagnant. What is frustrating is that they are creating the energy deficit on six of the seven days, but the weekly blow out stalls their progress.

If there is a lack of progress, it is highly likely there is a lack of energy deficit. Take audit of your current food, fluid and fitness to see where you may have dropped off over the past few weeks.

Eating Less And Moving More Does Not Guarantee a Deficit

One final consideration is that just eating less and/or moving more is not always going to be enough to create an energy deficit, particularly for those who are currently sitting in an energy surplus. If you are currently eating an extra 3000kcal above your needs over the course of the week, and you implement dietary and lifestyle changes that reduce energy expenditure by 400kcal per day (2800kcal per week), then your body will be sitting near maintenance and weight should be steady, but without loss.

It is frustrating to implement changes to your regime only to see weight stay the same. Despite the reduction in energy intake and increased energy expenditure, the magnitude of change has not been sufficient enough to elicit an energy deficit. This typically occurs when people look to lose weight by increasing exercise and without altering nutrition intake. If both exercise and nutrition are altered to a noticeable amount, it is highly unlikely that they would still be in an energy surplus (unless the changes were small).

We advise clients to focus on finding their energy balance if weight has recently been gained. This allows them to find the place where energy intake matches expenditure. At this point, if we make any further adjustments to energy balance then a deficit will be created.

Focus On The Fundamentals

To lose body fat we need to create an energy deficit, whereby the body must mobilise its stored fuel for use. To create an energy deficit, we need to ensure energy expenditure exceeds energy intake during a given period of time. The 3F’s are the primary variables we have to manipulate energy balance, primarily through a reduction in food and fluid intake and increased physical activity.

We need to understand that is a process that involves other components. Eating less food does not guarantee fat loss, but it is a variable that we can control as part of energy intake. The choices we make around food intake play a huge role in body composition.

Tom Fitzgerald