Have you ever felt like you could eat a few extra cookies or a cheeseburger with extra fries one day because you did an intense workout? I’m talking about a sweat session where you burned a lot of calories …. more so than what’s in the junk food you wanted to eat. Or maybe you worked out extra hard one day before you indulged in super-size milkshakes with friends. The belief of energy balance or “calories in, calories out” is a popular one. According to this way of thinking, obesity is simply a matter of eating too many calories. After all, a pound of fat is 3,500 calories. So if you eat 500 calories less than you burn every day, in one week you’ll lose one pound of fat. That makes sense, right? But wait … is it really that simple?
What Is Energy Balance?
Without getting too scientific, calories are a measure of energy. So when you hear the phrase “energy balance,” you can really think of “calorie balance.” Before we continue, there are two phrases that you need to know – “energy in” and “energy out.”
Energy in = calories consumed through foods and drinks.
Energy out = physical activity (or simply the process of burning calories). Did you know that you burn a certain number of calories just by breathing and digesting food?
More energy in than out over time will lead to weight gain. On the flip side, more energy out than in over time will lead to weight loss. This belief is pretty indisputable since it’s basic physics. The first law of thermodynamics states energy can’t be destroyed. Rather, it can only change form. So if more energy enters your body than leaves it, that energy will get stored (usually as body fat). While this part of the energy balance belief is hands down accurate, modern research basically calls the next part ridiculous.
Many times, people who follow the “calories in, calories out” approach feel the type of food consumed isn’t that important. Rather, it’s just the number of calories the food contains. This is basically saying that a person who eats 1200 calories of Oreo cookies a day will look the same as someone who eats 1200 calories of broccoli a day (as long as they burned the same amount of calories too).
It’s Way More Complicated Than That
While the basic idea of energy balance is correct, this relationship between calories and weight loss is drastically oversimplified. There are a few other factors that should be taken into consideration.
First, let’s talk about the metabolic effect of different foods. Macronutrients (i.e. proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) are metabolized by the body differently. The body uses a different amount of energy to digest, absorb, and metabolize each macronutrient. For example, studies show that protein increases energy expenditure more than carbs or fats. In fact, about 30% of calories in protein are used for digestion. Additionally, protein helps build muscle. Along with giving your body a beautifully toned look, muscles help burn calories around the clock.
So, as you can see, a calorie is not a calorie. They aren’t all equal. Not convinced yet? Keep reading!
Each Macronutrient Affects Appetite Differently
I have a quick question for you. Which do you think is more filling – a piece of chicken or stack of potato chips?
Chances are you said the piece of protein-packed chicken. Eating a high-protein diet generally leaves people feeling full for longer, driving down appetite and the constant need to eat. That means, a person who eats more protein at meals will typically eat fewer calories throughout the course of a day without even realizing it.
There have been numerous studies conducted on the difference between low-carb (high-protein and high-fat) diets and low-fat (high carb) diets. Researchers have found people who follow a low-carb diet typically experience a decrease in hunger and subsequent weight loss.
There was even one study conducted at the General Clinical Research Center of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where researchers divided obese women into two groups. One group followed a calorie-restricted low-fat diet while the other group followed a low-carb diet and were allowed to eat until they were full. In the end, researchers found the women who followed the non-restricted low-carb diet ate less because their appetites went down. Also, they lost significantly more weight than the low-fat dieters.
When intense cravings hit, you can blame your hormones. There are a number of fat hormones that directly affect our appetite and overall ability to lose weight. While there are eight notable hormones that impact weight, here are a few:
- Adiponectin – a hormone that regulates glucose levels, breaks down fatty acids, enhances muscle’s ability to use carbohydrates as energy, boosts metabolism, and increases the rate at which the body breaks down fat.
- Ghrelin – often referred to as the “hunger hormone.” To put it simply, the higher your ghrelin levels are, the hungrier you are. In certain studies, researchers found people given the hormone ate significantly more than their usual food intake.
- Leptin – often called the “starvation hormone,” this hormone essentially lets the brain know that the body is full and has stored enough fat.
- Insulin – allows glucose from food to enter your body’s cells and be broken down to produce energy, which is essential for your cells to work properly.
To help control your appetite, it’s important to keep your hormones in balance. You can do this by eating plenty of vegetables and protein. You also need to prioritize sleep (aim for 7-9 hours a night). Additionally, try to reduce the amount of stress in your life. I know this is easier said than done. After all, there are bills to pay, kids to tend to, relationships to keep up, and jobs to be done. However, if you want to stay healthy and keep your weight in check then it’s crucial to take time to unwind and relax.
Overtime The Body Gets Used To a Restricted Calorie Diet
When someone tries cutting too many calories in an attempt to lose weight, chances are they will see results pretty quickly. However, in the long-run, researchers say the body will get used to this restriction and reduce metabolic rate. That means, even though less energy is technically going into the body, the brain will send out signals alerting the body to reduce calorie expenditure. It’s the body’s attempt to maintain energy balance and prevent itself from starving. So if you want to continue losing weight you will have to continue cutting calories. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Instead of cutting calories, focus on changing the foods that you eat.
Different Foods Affect Gut Health Differently
Your gut is loaded with delicate bacteria. In fact, researchers estimate that you have 100 trillion bacteria living inside of you. While most of that bacteria is considered good, some of it is bad. No matter what strains your gut is housing, though, one thing is for sure – your gut bacteria has an impact on your entire body! There’s a growing amount of research that suggests it can actually influence food cravings, metabolism, and how many calories your body absorbs from the food you eat.
Studies show a diverse gut microbiome is key to staying lean. A 2013 study found that thin people have 70 percent more gut bacteria than people who are overweight. Additionally, there are specific bacterial strains that thin people have which obese people don’t (and vice versa).
I mention this because gut bacteria is affected by diet. Eating an abundance of sugar and processed foods wreaks havoc on the gut and acts as fertilizer for bad bacteria and yeast. On the flip side, fresh vegetables, proteins, and fermented foods help good bacteria flourish.
Don’t Put All The Focus On Calories
There’s a popular saying that says it all:
“There are too many people counting calories and not enough people counting chemicals.”
It’s so true! While most people read nutritional labels (and quickly focus on the calorie content), not enough are worried about the ingredients. When it comes to processed foods, they are loaded with chemicals and dangerous food additives that researchers have linked to various health problems. Additionally, conventional meats are loaded with hormones and antibiotics. Plus, conventional produce is coated in pesticides.
Rather than worrying so much about the calorie content, focus on eating clean. Here are a few tips:
- Fill your diet with organic fruits, vegetables, and lean meats (if your diet permits meat).
- Base each meal around protein.
- Don’t fear fat. Incorporate healthy fats (like avocados, coconut oil, and salmon) into your regular diet.
- Cook for yourself so you can really know what ingredients are in the meals you eat.
- If you don’t have time to cook healthy meals every day, try meal prepping. This entails putting meals together on Sunday and saving them for the upcoming work-week.
- Don’t drink your calories. As you wean yourself off soda, try drinking flavorful detox water.
- In an attempt to cut out refined sugar, don’t turn to artificial sweeteners. Instead, use natural sweeteners like raw honey, raw maple syrup, and stevia.
- Keep a food journal. Writing down what you eat instantly increases your awareness of what and how much you’re eating.