Cutting body fat, getting lean, shredding, losing weight... it's just simple case of creating an energy deficit. Expending more energy (‘utilising/burning’ energy) than we consume (the food that we eat).
Maintaining our ideal weight is balancing energy expenditure with energy intake.
We also have an array of gyms popping up all over our towns & cities, with 24-hour access and cheaper memberships than ever. Access to training, exercise and diet information is at our finger-tips and there is now an abundance of ‘online coaches’ / apps to help people on their journeys.
So, if it’s that simple and that accessible, why do so many people struggle to maintain a healthy body weight? Or at least maintain one they desire?
The Health Survey for England reported (from the NHS database) that over 60% of adults in the UK (2016) were either overweight or obese. The survey also reports that over the past 25 years obesity levels have risen from 15% to 26%.
Now, we all know that we commute by foot far less, spend longer at desks, communicate via online media portals & are less active in general. However, why can we not nail this Energy In Vs Energy Out balance nonetheless?!
Maybe you are happy with your current weight and you have no intention to lose any. Fair play. Although it’s important to note that by carrying excess body fat you could be at risk of developing joint problems, lower back pain, hypertension, heart disease, deep vein thrombosis, Type 2 diabetes, menstrual abnormalities, respiratory problems, erectile dysfunction or even cancer.
But what if you are eating in a calorie deficit and not losing the weight? Sadly, by definition, if you are not losing weight you cannot be in calorie deficit. This is painful to hear, especially if you consider your current diet to be on the lower end of the calorie spectrum. The questions you need to ask yourself and answer honestly are…
Are you even tracking your calorie intake?
How accurate are you tracking your intake?
Are you weighing your food?
Are you tracking and accounting for everything that goes into your mouth?
Are you over estimating your energy expenditure? Or
Have you calculated your maintenance calories too high?
Everyone has a different body fat set point. This is the point at which your body seems to maintain a certain weight.
Some people seem to find their ideal maintenance calories with little effort. They consume enough food to complete their daily activities, remain mentally alert, succeed in their chosen hobbies / sports and enjoy a healthy body fat percentage. For many of us though, a little more effort needs to be applied to get the results we want. And this can work in reverse, if you are somebody who is trying to build muscle or put weight on!
To calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) – i.e. the benchmark as to whether you are hitting a deficit or surplus, you need to consider four aspects –
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (your body’s basic requirements to stay alive);
2. Non Exercise Adaptive Thermogenesis – NEAT (non-exercise, unconscious movements);
3. Exercise activity – EA and
4. Thermic Effect of Food - TEF.
Now all of a sudden it quite possibly doesn’t seem so straight forward…
You can calculate what your basal metabolic rate (BMR) should be from various different equations. There are several to choose from, as well as online calculators, which take into account age, height, sex, body weight, lean body mass and fat mass, depending on which formula you choose. These aren’t perfect and you may well need to make slight adjustments and take in account personal or specific conditions. But all of these equations will give you a benchmark of some kind to work from. Your metabolism may well be slower or faster than an equation predicts.
This said it’s also possible to track, monitor and subsequently calculate maintenance calories by keeping a food diary over several weeks. While you will need to keep an accurate measure of all the foods you consume, it will guide you in a very good direction of where you’re at. Food diaries in general, can be very eye opening for most people and are a great way to learn about your eating habits and true calorie consumption. Apply this to hormonal, training, work and/or personal situations too, for example and it becomes even more interesting.
Once you have estimated your BMR you can take in account your activity factor. Some people are extremely sedentary because of their jobs as well as a lack of exercise or sports. Whilst others may be far more active in the jobs and /or how often and intensely they train for a particular sport. The more active you are, the more your calorie needs will be.
Different foods also require different amounts of energy to be processed and protein (and fibre) has a higher TEF than carbohydrates and fats. Protein is crucial for muscle protein synthesis as well as maintaining lean body mass when dieting (i.e. a calorie deficit).
Taking all of this into account, all you need to do now is apply it! Easy right.
Maybe not… Application of theories is always easier said than done. Especially when you start to apply financial, professional and / or personal situations to the equation. And what if I said that your metabolism adapts (I wouldn’t use the term damage) after a period of dieting so that your BMR lowers. This then too, needs to be taken into account. This is normal and is your body’s way of trying to be efficient with energy. What originally put you in a calorie deficit now becomes your energy balance.
But let’s back up a moment. To keep it simplified; determine your TDEE by your preferred calculation. You will find a starting point based on whether you’re gaining, maintaining or losing weight. Once you have a benchmark you can manipulate your figures to put you into a calorie deficit (or surplus). Next work out how much protein you need. 1g/1lb of bodyweight wouldn’t be a bad place to start. I always calculate protein needs on lean body mass rather than total body mass. Once you have calculated this macro fill in the remaining calories with carbohydrates/fats depending on your personal preferences. Remember I mentioned that as you diet, protein helps to maintain lean body mass, so you may want to consider changing this further depending on your starting macros. Protein requirements also increase as we age beyond 30.
The secret to the perfect ‘diet’ is adherence. So be honest with yourself & set yourself realistic & achievable goals. If something doesn’t work, adapt it. Once you hit your goals, you set yourself new ones. A healthy development of the mindset as well as the body will bring about the change you so desire.