Energy Balance: Taking a bite…out of Nutrition

The challenge to Energy Balance is when the amount of energy intake doesn’t meet, or exceeds, the amount of energy output.

From infancy, food was given to us, not by our choice but by necessity. We were too young to understand the true importance of nutritional balance and generally speaking didn’t need to participate in planning our meals.  Hell, getting us to eat anything at times was an achievement.

As we develop into teenage years, we start to become more independent in our food decisions and may even explore culinary arts or other options. Some of us have a basic understanding that a meal consisted of meat, veggies and something to fill us (and the plate) like potatoes or bread. Others who may lack this structure aim to just fill their plate with whatever is found in the fridge.

As we age into adulthood, our preceding years continue to shape our understanding of “nutrition”. Most of us grow up with the notion that one should eat three meals a day; cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat+veggies+potatoes at dinner, with some desert as a reward. Sound familiar?

With this history in mind, it shouldn’t be difficult then to understand why fine-tuning our nutritional ideas is an exercise in patience, persistence and trial and error. Our habits and skills in this department were already formed before we could pay for our own groceries.

As research on fitness and health continue to develop, so do the information bases we have relied on for years. Canada’s Food Guide, USDA Food Pyramid and the American Dietetic Association have all made adjustments to their initial claims. The one consistent factor that remains true to this day and explains, on a basic level,  the outcomes of all different types of diets and lifestyle choices is “Energy Balance”; a negative balance (-) = weight loss and a positive balance (+) = weight gain. It is basic science but what does it mean exactly to you and how can you begin to conceptualize a different approach to nutrition?

Read on!

Energy Balance as defined by Precision Nutrition, a world-renowned multidisciplinary team of counselors, doctors, exercise specialists, naturopaths, and nutritionists, is the relationship between all sources of energy intake and energy output. An organism is said to be in Energy Balance when energy flow into the body and out of the body is equal; often evidenced by a stable bodyweight.  On the other hand, Energy Imbalance is when the amount of energy intake doesn’t meet, or exceeds, the amount of energy output.   This means that there will either be a negative energy balance, from which weight loss occurs, or a positive energy balance, from which weight gain occurs. Sure, other factors like hormones, genes, and illness can influence this equation, but generally speaking, this is as simple as it gets when understanding the basis of nutrition. If you’re having trouble losing or gaining weight, there is likely an Energy Imbalance.

Let’s look at some factors that can influence this:


1) Poor nutritional choices:

Not all foods of the same caloric amounts are equal. A preferred source of fuel would be foods with a high Nutrient Density, which provides substantial amounts of nutrients within the necessary calories. For example, let’s compare an 8 oz bag of potato chips to an 8 oz sweet potato.  An 8oz bag of potato chips can total 1200 calories, 16 grams of protein, 79 grams of fat, 120 grams of carbs, 11 grams of fiber and offer very little vitamins and minerals. An 8 oz sweet potato delivers 195 calories, 3.6 grams of protein, 0.2 grams of fat, 45 grams of carbs, 6.8 grams of fiber and host more essential nutrients that your body thrives on for basic function.   Both of these examples are potatoes, but one has six times as many calories!

Nutrient dense foods are found in mainly “natural foods”, like eggs, meat, fish, veggies, nuts, healthy oils, grains, fruits, berries, spices, herbs, and even dark chocolate. Choosing foods like these to fuel your body can help you to stay closer to a negative Energy Balance if you’re looking to lose weight. In contrast, for those looking to gain weight, it can actually be strategic to consume, in addition to higher nutrient density foods, ones that are lesser to help you achieve a higher caloric total and put you in a positive energy balance! Foods like pasta, bread, and those that are often found on the higher end of the Glycemic Index but low in nutrient density are good examples of this.



2) Too little water:

Water, making up about 60% of our total bodyweight, is critical in achieving optimal health, performance and body composition goals. Water plays an important role in transporting all nutrients to our cells for function, supports chemical reactions and thus a catalyst to enzymatic interactions that are needed to break down food, acts as a lubricant for our joints and a shock absorber for our eyes and spinal cord, regulates our body temperature, provides several sources of minerals, and prevents the detrimental symptoms of dehydration. Thirsty yet?

Research has determined that 3 liters of water (12 cups) is a safe daily average for the general public. To be more specific, calculate your bodyweight in kilograms and drink 30-40ml per kg. Keep in mind that you lose water every day by simply breathing, sweating, bathroom breaks, exercise and the environment we’re in so you’re already working against a deficit from the time you wake up. A study in PubMed revealed that water has an positive effect on adipose tissue metabolism. Simply put, your energy balance is affected by both the consumption and lack of H2O.

Enjoy those glasses of water!


3) Lifestyle:

Late nights, eating out, drinking too much and too often, lack of sleep, we’ve all been there. Hey, we’re all humans and so we need to enjoy the social aspects of life! The issue is when these become too frequent. The lack of proper sleep affects your natural circadian rhythm and can negatively influence your body capabilities to efficiently use and burn calories for fuel. Eating out and drinking too much can put you in an energy surplus, therefore impacting your Energy Balance. Foods in restaurants are high in sugar, oils, and sauces which makes it taste so damn good but quickly add to your daily totals. It’s not uncommon for a meal and single drink out to total 2000 calories! Moderation is key, which brings me to my next point.


4) 90/10:

You may or may not have heard of the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle. It states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.  This theory has been interpreted in many ways for different fields and in health and fitness it suggests that adherence to a goal should be given 80% of the time and the other 20% remains flexible.  In my experience, it takes a very specific person to thrive on 100% adherence to a plan. For the most part, people have families, careers, social lives, and other circumstances that are better suited for the 80/20 rule.  Knowing, however, that people may miss the mark with life sometimes getting in the way, I modify this ratio to 90/10 as it will give a little more leeway and end up being 80/20 in the worst case scenario instead of 70/30 🙂 100 % adherence 90% of the time, and 100% adherence to your 10% off 😉

If you are eating 5 meals a day, you would total 35 meals a week. This means that 3-4 of those meals can be more flexible than the others, or another approach is that ½ a day of your 7 in the week can be yours to enjoy how you wish. I find being more lenient with meals is a safer choice as it still allows you to remain consistent in making better food choices throughout the entire day. If you lack self-control, your 1/2 day off (the 10% off) could mean binging on a box of donuts, a 12 pack of beer, a 5 patty burger, and endless candies. The initial reaction to such a feast may be one of complete satiety and reward, but the negative impact that could follow could potentially set you back in your goals. What’s important is finding out what works best for you so that you can spend 90% of the time making healthier food choices that will impact your energy balance for the day and support your goals.


5) Exercise:

This is a biggie! Research on this topic is vast and contradicting. Whether your goal is to lose weight, lose body fat, gain muscle or gain strength, weight training is an integral part of the recipe for success.  Your day-to-day life will burn calories just by doing the activities that make up your day: this is referred to as NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenisis). Preparing your food, taking the kids to school, walking the dog, typing at work, even some hanky-panky with your partner makes up the majority of the energy output in your day. Exercise is a great way to add to this expenditure and also help raise the thermogenisis for the rest of the day! Yay! On top of that, exercise will help to build lean muscle tissue that will aid in burning fat, improve cardiovascular health, increase physical and mental strength, and support hormonal health like raising testosterone, lowering estrogen, improving insulin sensitivity and stimulating growth hormone just to name a few.

But how much exercise is enough? This is really dependent on several factors but aiming for 5 hours of exercise a week is a great start and they all don’t have to be weight training! Aim for a minimum of 3 days a week using resistance, and 2 other days of doing something that is both fun and active. Examples would be soccer with the kids, adult baseball league, brisk walk with friends, running room, or maybe a dance/yoga/exercise class. Get creative! Working out 1-3 x week likely won’t cut it if you’re looking to lose body fat or weight, considering all the other factors we’ve discussed above.  For those looking to gain weight, 4 days a week could very well be sufficient depending on the intensity of your program and your NEAT activities. Having a professional write you a customized weight training and nutrition program that work with each other towards your goals is an optimal approach.


6) NOT eating enough:

I know! Crazy uh? We hear all too often that we are “eating too much” but seldom are we told that we don’t eat enough. Imagine your metabolism (thermogenesis) is a fire. This burning fire will use the wood (calories) you give it to perform basic daily functions (breathing, blood circulation, walking the kids to school, etc) and special activities like training with Coach Ty 😉 The more wood you give the fire, the bigger and hotter it gets, therefore the more wood it will need to continue to consume.  That’s a healthy metabolism! The less wood you give it, more like pieces of kindling, the smaller the fire, and eventually it burns out.

Your body is a truly amazing machine. It will quickly adapt to its internal and external environment.  If you’ve been under-eating for a while now, chances are your body has adjusted to the caloric deficit. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be achieving a healthy negative Energy Balance and experience weight loss, it means that your body could be running on idle, working at it’s minimum capacity just to make sure your able to get through the day. Doesn’t sound very energizing does it?

Eating more needs to be gradual. Start by introducing a bit more food at each meal or adding an extra meal. You will notice that your hunger hormone (ghrelin) will be happy and hunger will strike again.  “But Coach Ty, how much should I eat in a day”. Good question! It really all depends on several factors like your body type, your NEAT, your goal, your current body fat composition, and your current workout program to name a few. Generally speaking, multiplying your bodyweight x 10-18, for sedentary folks, will help them achieve weight loss, weight maintenance or weight gain depending on which end of the spectrum they find themselves. That calculation changes based on one’s activity level, goal, and body type and counting calories is not always a realistic approach for most people, so getting the basics of nutrition down first is paramount.


7) Consistency/Aptitude/Patience (CAP):

One of the biggest factors that affect Energy Balance on a weekly basis is what I refer to as CAP. Consistency is often challenged by old behaviours. You have to constantly remind yourself that you are building new skills in the kitchen and this will take time and several hours/months/years of consistent effort. We all have the basic aptitude to make decision and act on them. Recognizing and accepting that you have full control over your nutritional decisions is what will keep you accountable to yourself and self-manageable toward your goals.

Lastly, goals take time! Patience is an absolute must when it comes to nutrition. Going on 2-week extreme diets and expecting to lose 10 lbs is both unrealistic and unhealthy. Often times the initial weight loss is from a reduction in water weight (no good) and a depletion of stored glucose, especially if you’re restricting carbs to an absolute minimum.  To increase your CAP potential, try setting behavior goals instead of outcome goals! Instead of saying /writing “I want to lose 20 lbs”, be more specific by saying/writing “I will work out with Coach Ty 3 x week and 2 times on my own with 90% adherence to this plan for the next 3 months”. This type of behavior will help you focus on the steps that are needed to reach your goal and typically, just by default, will get you to your outcome goal.

This article literally just touches on some basic aspects of a sound understanding of nutrition. Just like no body is the same, neither is a nutrition program. The aforementioned factors can all influence your Energy Balance, so what another person eats will not necessarily work for you, unless you’re twins who do the exact same things every single day, which might exist out there somewhere.

Make a commitment to yourself to get educated on proper nutrition because it’s the one self-managed skill you will need for a lifetime that will impact your health, performance and aesthetic goals. By getting a good grip on this, you will take your training to another level because you’ll be supported with healthy, consistent, and conscious habits. That’s a recipe for optimal success:)

If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition or refining your skills, check out my nutritional coaching programs, kitchen/fridge/cupboard makeovers or meal plans. Contact me directly for more – [email protected]  or 416.567.4345

In strength,

Coach Ty

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