Tag Archives: calories in calories out

Calories count, but don’t count calories!

When it comes to losing weight, calories count. Thanks to a host of wearable devices and mobile apps, counting calories has never been easier. This matters because losing weight almost always means cutting the calories that you eat and increasing the calories that you burn. This concept of “eat less, move more” is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Modern wearable devices and mobile apps allow you to track your weight, what you eat, and your activity fairly accurately. Many apps can measure the intensity of exercise by using the GPS and accelerometer features of your phone itself or by syncing with a wearable bracelet or belt clip. Some include heart rate to make the estimates even more precise. Using this technology, you can count steps, measure how many miles you walk or run, and estimate how many calories you burn.

Other apps can help you track what you eat. Whether you are counting calories or concerned about the amount of protein you are eating, diet analysis apps can show you what you are really eating. Most require you to enter the foods you eat and the app calculates calories, nutrients, sugar, salt, and water intake based on standard databases. In order to get accurate results, it is important to estimate portion sizes accurately, something that is challenging even for experts. That said, these apps can be useful for tracking what you eat to help you learn about your eating patterns to develop healthier habits or meet specific goals, such as eliminating added sugar from your diet.

Activity trackers and exercise apps are especially popular for improving fitness and promoting weight loss. Both the physical activity that you do throughout the day and dedicated exercise are important for good health, physical fitness, and weight control. This technology can help you know what to do, when to do it, and how much you did at the end of the day.

Even if you aren’t concerned about exactly how many calories your burned in an exercise class or how many steps you took during the day, these devices can help you develop healthier habits. Many people are simply unaware of how sedentary they are during the day or are unrealistic about how intense their workouts really are. For many people, an accurate report of how many steps they took or how many calories they burned is helpful for gauging their success and identifying things they can improve.

While these tools can be helpful, it is important to emphasize the importance of developing healthy habits in order to improve fitness, lose weight, or keep it off. A focus on “micromanaging” steps or calories may cause you to lose sight of the “big picture” changes you want to make. For example, you should strive to be as active as you can throughout the day, even if you have already met your step or calorie goal.

Keep in mind that there are very few people who failed to meet their fitness or weight loss goal because they didn’t have the latest activity tracker or fitness app. Real success comes from making lifestyle changes to incorporate healthy eating and activity habits that you can maintain without constant reminders. While technology can help you make those changes, it does not replace the dedication needed to develop lasting eating and activity habits to promote good health.

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Despite the controversy, energy balance still matters.

The concept of energy balance has been in the news again this past week. Unfortunately, the media reports focused on controversial funding for a network of researchers, not on practical information that could help people with weight control. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I take the opportunity to explain what energy balance means and, despite the controversy, how it can help you achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

walking weight loss

First, it is worth explaining what energy balance means. Basically, the energy balance model suggests that your body weight is determined by the balance between the number of calories you consume and the number of calories you expend each day. It is often illustrated as “calories in, calories out” and is the basis for the most basic weight loss advice: eat less and move more.

Now for the controversy. It was recently reported that the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), an organization aimed at promoting activity and health, received money from Coca-Cola, a company that promotes the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.  Furthermore, the obesity and exercise researchers at GEBN started focusing more on the lack of activity, instead of unhealthy food, as a major cause of obesity. Whether this is truly a real conflict of interest or simply a reality of funding a non-profit health organization remains to be seen.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean that the efforts of GEBN scientists or the concept of energy balance in general should be dismissed. In fact, the energy balance model is a simple and effective way to explain how weight gain and weight loss occur. In fact, the only treatments we have for obesity focus on changing energy intake and energy expenditure. While some suggest that the “calories in, calories out” idea is too simplistic, it certainly helps people understand why they have gained weight and provides an intuitive guide to losing weight. This is most commonly expressed as “eat less, move more” and is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program.

For most researchers, practitioners, and people in general, the focus is typically on the “energy in” and “eat less” parts of the equation. Nearly all diets work by reducing the number of calories someone eats, even if they claim that you can eat as much as you want. Common recommendations to cut back on sugar or fat tend to lead to eating fewer calories, especially if those foods are replaced by fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Since we now know that eating fat won’t necessarily make you fat, the emphasis has shifted to sugar as a cause of weight gain. And sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, are a major source of sugar for many people, especially children. So, most experts recommend consuming less soda, candy, and other sources of added sugar.

But there is another part of the energy balance model that can’t be ignored—energy expenditure. One goal of the GEBN is to emphasize the importance of activity in achieving energy balance and a healthy body weight. The focus on physical activity makes sense considering that the component of energy expenditure you can control is your activity level. This includes exercise, other occupational and leisure activity, and limiting sedentary (sitting) time, with a goal to be as active as possible throughout the day. The key is to achieve a balance between what you eat and drink and the energy you expend by being active.

The importance of exercise and energy expenditure for weight loss is shown by the members of the National Weight Control Registry, commonly called the “successful losers” because they have lost an average of over 50 lbs and kept it off for over five years. They lost weight by following a variety of diets and programs but nearly all continue to exercise regularly. This suggests that physical activity to promote “energy out” is at least as important as diet when it comes to maintaining weight loss.

In fact, if energy expenditure is high enough, a person could get away with eating almost anything he or she wants. In the 2008 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps famously revealed what he ate on a typically day. The amount and type of foods he consumed were not what you would expect from someone so fit and healthy! Without the hours of training he engaged in each day that diet would almost certainly have resulted in obesity and poor health.

Clearly, increasing physical activity is important both for weight control and health in general. But diet matters, too. And while the energy balance model says that there is nothing wrong with having your favorite foods or drinks as long as you are active, most of us could benefit from drinking less soda and moving a bit more. In this way, keeping yourself in energy balance should allow you to maintain a healthy weight without depriving yourself too much. The key is, and always has been, to find a balance between what you eat and drink and the energy you expend by being active.

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Calories Still Count!

The debate about whether diet and exercise are the cause of or good treatments for obesity has been going for some time. A familiar point of argument is the role of total calories vs. the source of those calories.A new model of how obesity illustrates how calories in, calories out may not be the initial step in the cascade of physiological and behavioral factors that lead to significant fat gain. But this doesn’t change the fact modifying eating and activity behaviors are a key step in the development of obesity—and the key to weight loss.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Eat less, exercise more. Calories in, calories out.

These phrases are probably familiar to you if you have tried to lose weight. This is because these concepts make up the traditional explanation for why people gain weight and the most common method of losing weight.

More and more research suggests that gaining and losing weight might involve more that the simple math of counting calories. It may be that the source of the calories matters as much as the total amount that you eat.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can ignore the calories you eat and expend through exercise and other activity. While it may be true that the quality of the food we eat is important, calories still count.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association proposes an alternative to the classic model of how weight gain occurs. Traditionally, an imbalance between calories in and calories out causes obesity. According to this model, eating too much and not being active enough results in increased fat storage.

The new model suggests that diet quality, especially the type and amount of carbohydrates, combined with genetics and lifestyle factors including getting enough sleep and excessive stress leads to fat accumulation. The excess fat alters levels of hormones and other factors that stimulate hunger and inhibit energy expenditure, including physical activity.

In the new model, increasing fat mass comes first and excessive food intake and inadequate activity follows. The end result is the same, though: a small increase in body fat turns into obesity.

This seems to suggest that carbohydrate intake, especially from refined grains and sugars, is the main culprit. This is good news for people who follow and promote low-carb diets! It also gives the impression that exercise isn’t as important as previously believed.

But a closer look at the new model shows that obesity—storage of excessive body fat—really is the result of too many calories in and too few calories out. The difference is that the eating and activity behaviors is driven by other factors.

The fact of the matter is that diet quality, genetics, and factors such as stress and sleep do play a role weight gain. Changes in hormones, sugars, and fats in the blood are real and powerful physiological signals that certainly contribute to obesity.

But so do changes in how much we eat and how active we are. It would be wrong to disregard these behavioral factors and the important role they play not only in body weight regulation, but in health in general.

Furthermore, the traditional calories in, calories out model of weight gain leads to a sensible treatment for obesity: Eat less, exercise more. Even though these simple recommendations can be challenging to implement, certainly in the long term, people who follow this advice do lose weight.

Even in the new model, calories in must be greater than calories out to lead to the significant fat gain that characterizes obesity. Additionally, the focus on the food quality is also consistent with this idea. People who get more of their calories from refined grains and sugars tend to consume more total calories.

As of now, the only treatments we have for obesity focus on changing energy intake and energy expenditure. This almost always involves altering eating and activity behaviors and frequently includes other lifestyle changes including stress management and getting enough sleep.

Given this new model of obesity, the best way to lose or maintain weight is not new at all: Eat less, move more, chill out!