Is ‘calories in vs calories out’ really that important? Here’s everything you need to know
If you’ve tried to lose weight in the past, you’ve probably been told to focus on “calories in, calories out” (CICO). But is this really an important factor in weight management? While calorie intake helps us understand how our bodies lose and gain weight, the actual process is much more complex than that. Here’s all you need to know about counting calories, and how other factors impact the process.
The calorie debate
CICO is a simplified way of explaining the Energy Balance Equation. Put simply, when you consume more energy than you burn, you gain weight. When you consume less energy than you burn, you lose weight. This is where the “eat less, exercise more” adage comes from. But measuring energy intake and output is much more complex than that.
This is why so many people disagree on whether or not CICO works. Some will say a simple calorie deficit is the only true way to lose weight. Others believe that this doesn’t account for hormone imbalances, insulin resistance, and other health issues. The truth is that neither extreme is completely accurate.
The complexities of the Energy Balance Equation
The Energy Balance Equation includes all the inner workings of our bodies, including our brains. This means that hormones, sleep quality, and phycological factors can all impact how much energy our bodies consume and use, just as much as genetic factors, age, and overall health.
Even in metabolic diets like keto, the Energy Balance Equation comes into play. Eating large amounts of protein, cutting out highly processed foods, and using a diet that generally suppresses appetite all result in a lower energy intake, leading to weight loss that people rave about. But the fact is that such diets are usually unsustainable. And again, while CICO is in play, it’s about so much more than just food intake.
The other oversimplification with CICO is that it’s all about weight loss. But the Energy Balance Equation (and therefore ‘calories in vs calories out’) can be used for all types of weight management, including building muscle and body mass, for which your body actually needs a calorie surplus rather than a deficit.
In the end, CICO is a crucial way of understanding how to manage body mass. But “eating less and exercising more” doesn’t always work.
Does counting calories work?
When you do want to monitor your calorie intake, you might use a calorie calculator. Unfortunately, many of these calculators are inaccurate because they’re based on averages and estimates. For a young, healthy person these calculators can be off by as much as 20-30%. Food labels themselves can display nutrition information that’s inaccurate by 100-300 calories per item. Not only that, but each individual absorbs calories differently based on their gut bacteria, and absorption rates vary across food types, as well as how the food is processed. Put simply, you’ll never be able to count calories perfectly.
This isn’t to say that calorie counters aren’t beneficial for some people. But if you’re not seeing the results you’re after, it could be because your calorie count isn’t accurate. The other thing to note is that calorie counting isn’t the only factor in weight management. Sometimes using your calorie count is a good starting point – but you may need to factor in other elements such as eating slowly, changing the time you eat, or adjusting your macronutrients (i.e. more or less protein, fibre, carbs and fats) to see a change in your weight.
What impacts “energy in, energy out” other than food and exercise?
If you’re looking to maintain or change your body mass, whether it be losing weight, or gaining muscle, the Energy Balance Equation will come into play. But, as we’ve seen, it’s about much more than food and exercise. While eating healthy and exercising regularly are crucial to weight management, here are some other things you can try to see results in your health and fitness:
Get a good night’s sleep, Regular, quality sleep will help your body regulate hunger hormones, improve recovery times, and increase metabolic output
Reduce stress. Try meditation, deep breathing, and spending time in nature
Improve the quality of your eating, rather than focusing on the quantity. When you eat the right food you’ll be able to consume more food with fewer total calories
Monitoring your calorie intake can be a great way to take control of your eating and monitoring your weight – but don’t be alarmed if you don’t see results straight away. If you want a holistic plan to manage your health and fitness, contact us for a tailored fitness plan to suit your needs.