The calories we eat through food and drink are converted into energy for our bodies to use to keep our bodily processes running smoothly. In theory if you eat more calories than what your body burns over time you will start to gain weight (either body or muscle depending on the type of physical activity you do). Theoretically this makes sense, however, there are many factors that can affect how much energy is coming in –
Appetite: influenced by hormones that regulate appetite and satiety.
Food consumed: influenced by availability, palatability, energy density, sleep quality, education, socioeconomic status and culture.
Calories absorbed: influenced by macronutrient intake, food prep, age, personal microbiome, health status and energy status.
Psychological factors: influenced by stress levels, mindset, perceived control self-esteem and sleep quality.
(Reference: Precision Nutrition.com)
To run this beautiful machine, we call our body requires a lot of fuel and similar to a car the more km’s you travel the more fuel is needed to top up and keep the engine running. Like a car there are many factors that can affect fuel economy –
Energy burned at rest: influenced by body size, hormonal status, dieting history, genetic factors, health status, sleep quality and age.
Energy burned through exercise: influenced by exercise – ability, intensity, duration, frequency, type, environment, as well as hormonal status and sleep quality.
Energy burned by non-exercise activity (NEAT): influenced by health status, energy status, stress levels, hormonal status, occupation, leisure activities and genetic factors.
Energy burned by metabolizing food: influenced by macronutrient make up (protein, fats and carbs) and how processed the food is.
(Reference: Precision Nutrition.com)
Stop counting calories
Calories in vs calories out isn’t just a simple maths equation, as you can see there are many factors that can influence energy balance. Unfortunately, many people can get confused by trying to track their intake and output through calorie tracking apps. There’s a good reason – they don’t really work and for most people are unnecessary.
The problem with trying to track your intake using an app is that it is very inaccurate, research suggests that calorie tracking could be out by up to 30%! So, if you’re trying to lose a bit of body fat by eating 1700cals/day you could actually be eating 2200cals and no longer in a calorie deficit (for fat loss). The good news is that you don’t need to rigidly track your calories to lose a bit of body fat or gain a bit of muscle. These goals can be achieved by identifying what factor you need to work on, build skills that influence what you’re working on and small actions that develop those skills. This process overtime can lead to big changes!
Simple not easy
Manipulating energy balance is simple enough to understand although it isn’t necessarily easy to execute. Unfortunately, knowledge isn’t enough when it comes to long term behaviour change, instead it’s a slow and steady process of tiny actions that snowball into big change over time. To get started you need to determine where the best place for you start is, which can be done with a simple exercise.
Look at each factor above and rate each one on a 1-10 scale of importance (1 = not important, 10 = Very important) and 1-10 scale of difficulty (1 = impossible, 10 = Easy peasy). Add these two numbers together for each factor, the factors with the highest score should be the first thing you work on. Now write down the skills you need to work on that factor, from here choose 1 skill and come up with 1 easy to do action you can take today that will help develop that skill.
Here’s an example of what this process might look like –
Factor: Appetite regulation/satiety.
Skills: Regulate eating behaviours/ Appetite awareness.
Action: Eat slowly and mindfully by taking a sip of water in between each bite.
Once you feel like you’ve got control of one factor choose the next one that is the most important and easiest to execute, follow the process above and rinse and repeat until you have achieved your goal.