The world of health and fitness in social media and the press, we can all agree, is somewhat confusing and conflicting as of late. Is “clean-eating” good or bad or just a fad? Are carbs good now or is fat better? Can you make a diet craze out of anything just because it looks good abbreviated?
As a personal trainer, all this information is confusing to me let alone my clients. It is very hard to be neutral and to not upset someone when you try to voice an opinion or give advice on social media platforms. However, over these next few posts, I endeavour to simply explain calories, macronutrients (macros) and what a calorie deficit or surplus (effectively energy balance) really means. No sexy abbreviations or trendy labels. Just plain, simple and logical explanations as to why everything in moderation really can be all it takes to achieve weight loss and a healthy relationship with food. Yet also to say that the most common answer to most nutrition-related questions of “How or why?” is “It depends”.
Firstly, in this post let’s start with what energy balance is. Does it mean if energy isn’t balanced something terrible happens? Is it really unhealthy to be off balance? Of course, extremes exist and it can indeed be unhealthy to be at either end of those. However, energy balance simply is the balance between the food and drink we consume and the energy we expend just being alive and whatever activity we do during the day. This isn’t only purposeful exercise but also “NEAT”. NEAT stands for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis”. In other words, it is the energy we expend doing everything else that isn’t sleeping, eating or purposeful exercise. Such as cleaning, gardening, walking to the shops, running after kids etc. Essentially, just moving around and fidgeting. Therefore, this relationship determines whether we lose weight, gain weight or just maintain our current weight.
If the “energy-in” (calories in the food and drink we consume) equals the “energy-out” (calories burned doing purposeful activity or NEAT) then we maintain our weight and we are in an energy balance. If “energy-in” is greater than “energy-out” then we put on weight. This is a positive energy balance which is also known as a calorie surplus. If the “energy-out” is more than then “energy-in” then we lose weight. This is a negative energy balance and also known as a calorie deficit.
At certain points in the day, our energy balance will go through all 3 of the above. When you wake up you are in a calorie deficit or negative energy balance as, believe it or not, it does require energy and calories to sleep. Yes our metabolism slows down, however, our bodies require energy to recover from the previous day, repair any cells that have been damaged and, quite importantly, to breathe and for our heart to keep beating! From then on your energy balance completely depends on when you first eat, how much you eat, how much activity you do, if you’re injured or unwell, what age or gender you are, what type of food you have eaten and how well your digestive system is functioning and the list goes on and on and on! Depending on who you are and what you pursue in life, there will be moments when a calorie surplus is vital for health and/or performance. Pregnancy would certainly not call for a calorie deficit and you wouldn’t see Anthony Joshua winning many titles without being in a calorie surplus at multiple points of his day.
I mentioned the extremes previously. It is not always a good thing to be in a calorie deficit and it is not always a bad thing to be in a calorie surplus. Being in too much of a calorie deficit for too long and taken to the extreme is far from healthy and can lead to many serious conditions, of which is beyond the scope of this post. Equally, being in a calorie surplus for too long, as is becoming more of a problem for many countries, is also a serious health issue.
The bottom line is, energy balance is highly complex and isn’t as simple as eating less and moving more if you want to lose weight. You can’t just “work off” that pizza or starve yourself when you feel guilty after eating too much and expect it to work. In my following posts I will address if calories are actually “king”, what the different macronutrients are and why they are all important and how building a healthy relationship with ALL foods can help you achieve a sustainable healthy lifestyle.