Is there more to weight loss than just calories in and calories out?

You have heard that weight loss is easy: just eat less and move more — calories in VS calories out! If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. This is referred to as the Energy Balance hypothesis, which states that energy intake and energy expenditure dictate changes in body composition, particularly the storage or breakdown of body fat.

Energy balance is the sum of energy intake and energy expenditure, which can either be an energy surplus, deficit or match. If our body consumed more energy from macronutrients than it expended during a given period of time, the energy surplus must be stored somewhere in the body. Like it or not, the body’s primary storage mechanism for energy is body fat, which means if we frequently consume more energy than we expend, we will gain body fat.

On the flipside, if we burned more energy than we consumed across the day, the body will use stored energy to fuel the activity. We could not eat any food today and we would still be able to function by utilising stored energy as fuel.

The macronutrients we consume are preferably used for fuel or to undertake functional roles in the body, but they can also be stored in their current form such as carbohydrate, which is stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver. But if the body’s glycogen stores are full, it will be needed to be stored elsewhere, so the carbohydrate will be converted to fatty acids and potentially stored as body fat.

We have a much greater storage capacity for body fat than glycogen — the average 80kg male holds about 500g of glycogen (2000 kcal) compared to 16.8kg of body fat (151,200 kcal).

Does The Theory Really Matter? Just Do What Works!

It is very important for me to have a central belief of what factors alter body composition. If I am responsible for helping people achieve their body recomposition goals, then it is imperative for me to have principles in place that guide the individual strategies to help people achieve these outcomes.

The Energy Balance hypothesis is the central belief that we implement for managing body composition. The aim of our body recomposition strategies is therefore to develop an approach to training and nutrition that allows the client to achieve the energy balance required to achieve their goals. Understanding the client and developing a personalised strategy that facilitates adherence is important, but this has to be done in the context of managing energy balance.

The principle of managing energy balance forms the basis for personalised body recomposition strategies. Instead of cutting carbs for everyone because it worked for someone, we can take the insight that carbohydrate reduction helps some people decrease their energy intake. For others, it might be a matter of decreasing fat intake, eating fewer meals or something completely different. These are different methods to achieve the outcome, which allows us to develop a toolbox of different strategies to suit different people.

It is not enough to tell someone that the results will come when they eat better or train harder. Often these are not quantifiable metrics — what does eating better 50% better or training 12% harder look like? Would doing both of them together be 62% better?

The same goes for the concept of simply eating less and moving more. We do want to decrease energy intake and/or increase physical activity, but there is more to it than more/less. There might be some high-energy foods that are worth keeping in the diet because they bring pleasure, while we can cut calories in other ways.

Likewise, we might decrease activity compared to a current target that you are struggling to complete to a level that is adhereable. We can always build it up over time, particularly when there is a solid base that has been adhered to for a period of time.

The process can be compared to hiring a financial planner to help build wealth for your future. Their goal is to ensure you spend less than you earn to generate some savings, then you invest those savings to provide a greater return on investment than if you kept it in the bank. But if you do not save any money to begin with, there will be nothing to invest.

That does not mean that a financial planner simply tell you to spend less and/or earn more. Instead, they can help show you where it can be done, alongside additional approaches to decrease taxation, find appropriate insurance to mitigate risk and ensure your investments have the right time frame for your goals.

The Theory Matters

Having a theory that directs your body composition is important. Without having an approach it is hard to make adjustments based on what is happening in real life because there are no guiding principles to apply. Continuously applying the principles also helps to determine what approach might work for someone, based on the experience of working with others and implementing different strategies. So if we have had a client who is limited in their physical activity and managed their energy balance primarily by managing carbohydrate, and we meet someone similar, maybe this is the place to start.

There were times where I wanted the approach to be other than the Energy Balance hypothesis because it seemed too simple. I looked into different theories surrounding insulin, somatotyping, and the old-favourite of not all calories are created equal.

[My next article is going to outline these three theories in some more detail — so you can decide for yourself]

I can see why people want to reject the Energy Balance hypothesis, be it because it has not worked for them or someone wants to be the new expert with all the answers. These are the people who claim ‘everything you know about weight loss is wrong’ before espousing a theory that sounds good at the time, but does not really stack up to further analysis.

That is not to say that my approach is right either. In ten years time, the Energy Balance hypothesis may well be proven wrong and something superior will take its place. But until then, the work I do with clients will be based on developing strategies to manage their training and nutrition in a manner that is aligned with their energy balance requirements.

Tom Fitzgerald