By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
If you are on a weight loss journey, few experiences can compare to stepping on a scale and seeing your hard work pay off. Alternatively, when the number is stagnant or goes up when you did everything right, the experience can be heartbreaking. We have all been there in some shape or form. While we never want to use just a scale number to monitor progress, it is still a helpful data point. It can communicate the overlying story when analyzed properly. If the scale won’t budge and you have plateaued in weight loss, it all comes down to energy balance.
While the overall process is a bit more complicated, our goal should always be to simplify things as much as possible and to focus on what is in our control. That’s where our lifestyle comes into play. Our habits help to properly control energy balance to allow us to lose fat or healthily gain lean muscle. Here’s how to make energy balance work in your favor so that your weight loss dreams become a reality.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a fitness expert is, “What’s the best diet to follow when it comes to losing weight?” While it may seem implausible, the truth is there isn’t one. It doesn’t matter whether you are paleo, keto, high carb, vegan, etc. What matters is whether you can choose a food lifestyle that you can stick with. Can you consistently remain in a caloric deficit?
CICO, or “Calories In Vs. Calories Out,” is an abbreviated way of saying two things. First, when you intake more energy than you burn, you gain weight. Second, when you burn more energy than you take in, you lose weight. CICO sounds pretty simple, but this informal way of expressing the energy balance equation is far from it.
There are a myriad of factors that affect “energy in” that are much more complex than just the calories you consume. For example, appetite can be influenced by hormones that can be thrown off from a rough week of sleep. The calories that we absorb from a meal can be impacted by how we prepare it and our gut microbiome. The food we have access to may change based on our culture or socioeconomic status. Looking at CICO through this lens can be overwhelming and you can easily see how complicated things can get. Instead, let’s focus on the actions that we can specifically take to create a negative energy balance.
When it comes to factors that affect energy out, there are three main areas to look at: work, heat, and storage. While this all is fairly complex, success lies in our ability to simplify. You must identify the actions that you can take consistently to lead you to success.
Our physical work consists of exercise and activity. When it comes to what we could be doing, there are a plethora of choices out there. When it comes to what we should be doing for fat/weight loss, there is a hierarchy. And when structuring your workouts for optimal fat burning efficiency, choosing strength training is king. It should be your foundational building block. Next up on the pyramid in terms of effectiveness is high-intensity interval training, and rounding out the bunch is steady-state cardio. Building more lean muscle through strength training can elevate your metabolic rate and will likely lead to increased work capacity (i.e. the ability to tolerate tougher workouts and to burn more calories). Incorporating high-intensity interval training into your workouts allows you to maximize post-workout energy expenditure, a definite plus if you are training to reach a caloric deficit.
While steady-state cardio isn’t as effective, it shouldn’t be disregarded. The truth is we can’t show up at the gym every day and just crush our bodies with intense workouts. In this case, more could be problematic. It’s important to incorporate lighter activity to increase blood flow and enhance recovery. Our body adapts in our recovery period, so if we don’t make time for recovery then we won’t get the favorable results that we are looking for.
When it comes to increasing our energy expenditure, I also want you to think outside of the gym. NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, is the energy expended for the things that we do when we aren’t exercising or sleeping. Things like mowing the lawn, parking a little further away, biking to work, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator add up over time. They produce a compound-interest-like effect as the calories they burn build up over time to help push us into a negative energy balance.
It’s all about balance, whether you are hitting your workouts hard with fitness equipment or incorporating NEAT strategies into your daily routine.
Adjusting how you intake your calories is another way to impact the big three. TEF, or Thermic Effect of Food, is the increase in metabolic rate that occurs after a meal. These are the calories that you burn just to digest the food that you’ve already eaten. Like our activity level, It’s a modifiable component that we have control over. Studies have shown that it is a factor worth considering when it comes to weight loss and weight management. Consumption of carbs, protein, unprocessed foods, and meals mixed with several macronutrients have been shown to increase the TEF.
Controlling your environment is more of a calorie intake strategy, but you don’t have to burn what you don’t eat. So many times people rely on willpower when in reality controlling their environments by limiting the options available is a simpler way to cut calories and set themselves up for success. Removing temptations and replacing them with healthier and possibly higher TEF options could play a major role in helping you to achieve a negative energy balance. More importantly, adopting these actions and habits are successful weight loss strategies that will help you to lose it and keep it off.