Weight loss: How does ‘calorie balance’ work?


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Here’s the personal trainer’s not-so-secret key that those behind fad diets don’t want you to know.

• Weight loss and gain is due to either consuming too much or too little energy, regardless of the source.

• If you consume exactly as much as you need, you won’t gain or lose any weight unless you’re very unhealthy.

• When you spend a long time consuming less than you need, your body adapts.

• Personal trainers use different tactics at this point to ensure weight loss continues whilst maintaining muscle.

The science behind weight loss

Weight loss and gain is the result of a physics equation. If you recall high-school physics, you were taught about energy in versus energy out.

When looking at a system, you often had electric power put into it, and then it created energy. This was either light energy, heat energy, sound energy, kinetic energy, or stored chemical potential energy by charging another battery.

If you look at our body in the same way, we’re putting in food as energy, whatever kind of food that is. Most of us mortals can’t emit light, so once you’ve moderated our own body temperature, made noise and moved around, all that’s left to do is store the rest.

Except, as opposed to storing excess “charge” or energy in a battery, your body’s mechanism is fat cells.

So, if you consume more calories than you need to live, you store energy in your fat cells. If you don’t consume enough, you draw energy from your fat cells to supplement your daily needs.

That is the simple truth of the matter, regardless of what trendy workouts and diets you do. Yes, the type of foods and workouts can contribute to whether weight lost or gained is in the form of fat or muscle, but that’s for another article.

Essentially, workouts only add to your kinetic energy usage or increase the chemical energy needed to repair and grow muscles.

Counting calories

What does this mean? First, you need to work out how many calories you need using a Calorie Maintenance Calculator. Then work out how many calories are in your day’s food and drink.

Your intake should end up anywhere from 15-30% less than your required maintenance calories. Provided you’re not consuming these calories through KFC & Pina Coladas and messing up the hormones in your body that manage your energy balance, you will lose weight.

Loss will often be more aggressive at first. From being in a surplus for so long your body is careless with its calories and burns them easily, but over time in a deficit this will slow.

Your body begins to be more conservative with its burn-rate, and becomes more efficient at operating without burning as many. You have to understand that in a calorie deficit, your body thinks you’re dying. It’s evolved to stop this from happening.

There are two options at this point.

One, drop your calorie intake by another 5-10%. This maintains the deficit because, with a more efficient body, your “maintenance” number has dropped. Two, take a “diet break”. This is where you bring your calories back up to maintenance calories (but remember, that number is now a bit lower that originally calculated).

This reassures your body that impending death is not on the horizon. It should bring you back to being less efficient with your calorie burn, before you drop back down into a deficit again.

You need to be quite careful with both options. If you overdo the first option, it can result in your body resorting to muscle breakdown for energy. This is not ideal for optimising one’s body composition; the goal is rarely to have less muscle.

It’s also very hard to manage the second option well. For most people, after a period of several weeks in a deficit, the temptation to overindulge and go back into consuming a surplus is irresistible.

Your body is not only burning fewer calories than before, it is desperate to return to its weight of “safety”.

You may also forget to keep monitoring your intake out of sheer relief, and your body piles on fat in even the slightest surplus to get you back to what your body feels is a “normal” weight.

Why personal trainers matter

Good personal trainers specialising in weight loss understands these mechanics well. They’ve studied the experiments working out the optimal percentages and time periods to work with on each cycle.

More important though, is that they have experience with personal training clients who have been through such journeys.

Calorie calculators aren’t 100% individualised and none of the numbers is set in stone, from the percentage deficit one should be in, to the length of time one should have between diet breaks.

The whole process requires constant adjustments to ensure you are able to not only see consistent progress, but to maintain adherence to your deficit over enough time to see results.

It’s not an easy process, as it’s something that your body was only meant to experience in times of famine. However, it is one that should be far less traumatising than famine and much more productive, with correct management.

Joompa is a digital platform that facilitates the sourcing and booking of freelance, mobile personal fitness coaches. Available on iOS or via www.joompa.com.my