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Calories In to Calories Out: Answers to Your Burning Questions

Understanding energy balance, usually explained as the "simple" equation of 'Calories In' versus 'Calories Out,' is essential for nailing your weight management. But let's face it, it's not always as clear-cut as it sounds!

My clients often come to me with questions about how to put this energy balance concept into practice in their everyday lives. So, I've compiled a list of common questions they throw my way, all centered around the themes of nutrition, energy balance, and achieving those fat loss goals.

If you have a burning question that hasn't made the list, don't hesitate to drop it in the comments below. Let's dive into this Q&A sesh to better understand energy balance and empower you to make informed choices on your journey to a healthier you!

"I have been eating the same foods for decades! Why am I just gaining weight now?"

The same plate of food that sustained us at age 20 may not serve our bodies the same way at age 40 or beyond. We often find ourselves dishing up portions as we always have, yet as our bodies have naturally changed over time. We might inadvertently be consuming more than we need! Consequently, this surplus tends to be stored, usually as fat.

What we can do about it:

We can break the cycle with two simple tools: firstly, adjusting our portion sizes and secondly, integrating more movement & exercise. Then keep in mind, what fuels you today may not be the same as what fuels you in the years to come. Being attentive to and comprehending our body's changes empowers us to make choices that will help us achieve a balanced energy equation.

"I am a clean eater! I eat little to no processed foods. I eat whole food, grains, nuts, and wild game proteins. I also walk every day & workout twice a week. Why would I still be gaining weight?"

While your dedication to clean eating and regular exercise is awesome, it's important to consider that factors like age and metabolism also play a significant role in weight management. As we age, our metabolism tends to slow down, which means we burn calories less efficiently. Additionally, changes in muscle mass (which happens naturally as we age) can influence your metabolic rate. This means that even with a healthy diet and exercise routine, you may need to adjust your portion sizes and overall caloric intake to align with your body's changing needs.

The Good News:

To ensure your caloric intake aligns with your goals, tools are available online, or consider consulting with a nutrition coach like myself or another professional. They can help you pinpoint your current caloric needs, whether it's for fat loss, weight gain, maintaining energy balance (also known as maintenance), or achieving body recomposition.

"I do all the things! I track my calories out with my smartwatch. I track my calories in with a food journal. On paper, it looks like I have energy balance but I'm still gaining weight! What is going on?"

Tracking calories in and out is a great strategy, but it's important to remember that the quality of the calories matters too. Even though your calorie tracking might indicate an energy balance, the composition of those calories plays a big role in determining how your body utilizes them. For example:

My personal favorite - 🍟 300 calories of french fries, though they provide energy (all food does), are considered "empty" calories. These calories are quickly absorbed, causing a spike in blood sugar levels. Any excess beyond immediate energy needs tends to be stored as fat, especially if the energy expenditure from physical activity isn't high.

On the other hand, 🥗 300 calories of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins offer a wealth of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. These nutrients are utilized by the body for various functions like cell repair, hormone regulation, and maintaining a healthy metabolism. After all that... there isn't much left to store as fat! And your body is running smoothly!

In other words - not all calories are created equal. Different types of calories are metabolized and stored differently in your body!

What can be done?

Opting for nutrient-dense, whole foods supports not only weight management but also overall health. Consider the types of foods you're consuming and aim for a diverse, nutrient-dense diet.

"I've been told that if I lift weights & build more lean muscle, my BMR will be higher & I'll lose fat. Is that true?"

Yes, that's absolutely true! Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) refers to the number of calories your body requires at rest, just to maintain basic bodily functions like breathing, circulating blood, and regulating body temperature. Muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning it burns more calories at rest compared to fat.

By building lean muscle through strength training, you can increase your BMR. This leads to a higher calorie expenditure even when you're not actively exercising, which can be beneficial for weight management and overall health. More on the topic of strength training for fat loss here!

"How is eating a piece of chicken with 30 grams of protein better for fat loss than drinking a protein shake with 30 grams of protein?"

Whole foods like chicken not only provide protein, but also come with a variety of essential nutrients and fiber that support overall health. Additionally, they tend to be more satiating, helping you feel fuller for longer. While protein shakes can be convenient, they may lack the same level of nutritional diversity and satiety as whole foods.

Also, when it comes to fat loss, it's important to consider the thermic effect of food (TEF). This refers to the energy your body uses to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients from the food you eat. (Yes... it takes energy a.k.a burns calories just to digest your food!)

Solid, whole foods, like a piece of chicken, have a higher TEF compared to liquid foods like a protein shake. Your body expends more energy processing solid foods. By opting for whole, nutrient-dense foods, you not only get the benefit of the protein but also the added boost of a higher TEF, which can support your fat loss goals.

"If I have ADHD and move & fidget a lot, do I burn more calories than other people around me?"

Yes, individuals who move and fidget a lot tend to have higher levels of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT encompasses all the calorie-burning activities that aren't formal exercise. This includes activities like fidgeting, standing, walking around the office, tapping your foot, and any other non-planned movements throughout the day. People with higher NEAT levels can indeed burn more calories than those who are less fidgety or active in their daily routines. So, all those little movements can add up and contribute to calorie expenditure, which can be beneficial for weight management.

"Why is it so hard to lose weight with thyroid issues or when my hormones are out of whack?"

By now you know, weight loss hinges on creating a calorie deficit—consuming fewer calories than you burn, right? But for those dealing with hormone imbalances, this can feel like an uphill battle. These imbalances often translate to a slower metabolism, a bigger appetite, lowered energy levels, and sometimes, a decrease in physical activity. It's no wonder that achieving that deficit seems like such a challenge. So, even when we're consciously cutting back on calories, it can feel like the odds are stacked against us!

Interestingly, weight gain from starting birth control & taking certain medications can have similar effects on our bodies.

So now what?

The good news is, losing weight with thyroid and hormone imbalances, though a bit of a challenge, is totally doable. You now know a bit more about WHY losing weight feels so hard! The next step is teaming up with a healthcare provider or a seasoned nutritionist trained in hormone imbalances. They'll not only help address the root causes but also help create a plan that's all about you—your unique needs and challenges.

Simplifying the Complexity:

I'm sharing this Q&A because for many of us, it's important to know why certain food choices can help us reach our goals. Sure, hearing "Eat whole foods, they're healthy!" or "Get moving, it's good for you!" is motivating, but for real, lasting change, understanding the 'why' is like having the secret sauce. It's what makes your choices stick and keeps you on track for the long haul!

Having said that - Don't overcomplicate it!! It really IS about calories in & calories out! Now that you understand a bit more about the Why's and How's of energy balance, focus on the basics! Here are a few mantra's to help:

  • "Eat with Awareness, Not Excess."

  • "It's about progress, not perfection."

Did I miss anything?

I hope this Q & A helped answer some of YOUR questions! Remember, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to energy balance. So, don't hesitate to reach out with more questions, big or small.


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