Why do people doubt the energy balance equation?

As a PT and group fitness instructor I frequently talk about the Energy Balance Equation.  How if you want to lose weight you must have more energy going out than in, if you want to gain weight it’s the opposite and to maintain you want them to be about equal.

It’s essentially the base of any nutrition knowledge, and the first thing anyone needs to get to grips with if they want to work on their nutrition.

Macros, meal timings, supplements.  They all have a place sure, but if you haven’t got your calories in v calories out in the right place what time you eat dinner, the amount of protein or fat you eat or whether you take BCAAs or won’t make much difference to your success.

Equally, people will say I had massive success with this way of eating / this method / this diet, and essentially behind each of these methods the fundamental reason for success is the individual found a way of controlling their calories in v. out that was appropriate to their goals and which suited their lifestyle.  It can be dressed up in many different ways but that fundamental lies behind every successful method of actively managing food intake.

So why are we so reluctant to believe this?

Almost universally, at some point of another, most people have chosen to believe that either the reason they are not reaching their goals or are reaching their weight management goals is something beyond calories.

No again, I’m not saying that other factors cannot help refine a diet.  If you are managing your energy balance well the types of food you get your energy from, when you eat, extra supplements can help you improve energy levels and performance.  They do this however building upon the foundation that is you eating the right amount of food for your gapl each day.

If you are over eating by 1,000 calories every day whether you eat those calories at 6 am or 6 pm makes no difference.  Whether the calories come from avacado and lettuce or Nutella on biscuits makes no difference.  Your body shape makes no difference, your genetic make up makes no difference.  You are eating too many calories for your goal.  Energy in v. energy out is like gravity- it’s a fact.

So why do we self sabotage on this so often?  Because actually, when it’s this simple, we all have the ability to successful manage our food intake in line with our goals.

I think  it comes down to two main reasons:

Firstly, people selling their ideas means that very often the calories truth is hidden behind a gimmik.

We buy into products or brands or books and theories that promise us results.  In order for those brands to stand out and or you to go to them specifically they need to have a selling point- the thing that makes their methods work.

For that they need to sell you lots of reasons beyond calories as to why their methods work.  You do their diet, you lose weight or gain weight and so accept that those methods must be the reason.  But behind all of these diets there is still always the energy balance equation, and whilst other factors can also provide benefit you still need that energy balance to be right.  What these brands don’t do is actively promote calories as the key.  They let is silently do the work in the background and let their ‘unique selling point’ take the credit.  Essentially they are like a really bad boss taking credit for what their team does as the ground work!

The second factor is our own emotional response.  It’s so much easier for us to think if i can get this one really sexy aspect of my diet right everything else will fall into place.  Why else do diet pills appeal to people – you take this one pill, make no other changes and you’ll see results.  We like that idea.  If I add this supplement that will make the difference.  Because accepting that actually we aren’t eating enough or are eating too much means we need to actually work and make real changes to what we eat.

We also often tend to over estimate (for people looking to gain weight) or under estimate (for people looking to lose weight) how much we eat in terns of calories I find.  That’s why tracking, whilst unsexy compared to intuitive eating, is useful.  Again though it’s harder work and seems very old school and boring next to I eat what my body tells me it wants.  Now i’m not saying doing that is a bad thing – but you have to know how to listen to your body to do that, and if you aren’t already getting the results you want I’d suggest you don’t yet know how to listen to your body.  The way to learn is unfortunately the very boring learn about calories in v. out until you find the right balance for you – once you’ve grasped that eating intuitively and not tracking becomes very possible because you do then have a better idea of your energy (by which I mean calories) levels.

We all want to think we are different.  That calories might be your issue but mine is my metabolism, mine is how I react to certain foods, my blood type and so on.  It might be to a certain degree – but that thing is in reality going to be such a small factor in comparison to your energy in v. out.  So for many of us is our issue is we are focusing on something that makes a 1% difference to our diet instead of focusing on something that can have a massive difference.  We then assume that because we aren’t seeing our desired results we need to delve even deeper into our biology and chemical makeup to see results.

The best way to get results is to stop bullshitting yourself.

Workout what you burn.

Workout what you consume.

Change those to get the result you want.

It’s boring.  It’s simple.

That’s why we always look for other answers.  We assume it’s so boring and simple and obvious it cannot be the key.

We literally cannot see the wood for the trees.

Slagging off Slimming World doesn’t help people

On Sunday I’ll be appearing on Ricky Long’s podcast talking about the fitness world in general.

One of the things we talk about is Slimming World, I myself did Slimming World before I became a fit pro and feel like I have a decent understanding of it from many angles because of this.

This wasn’t the focus of the podcast so I went into a lot less detail that I could have so I wanted to delve a bit deeper into a point here – it’s not enough as fitness professional to say what’s wrong with slimming clubs – we need to look at what we ourselves can do to help people who may otherwise have turned to such clubs

I did a podcast last year which you can listen to here, where I spoke about my own personal experience of Slimming World and what I think is wrong with the system.

Rather than rehashing that here I instead want to talk about something I’ve touched upon both here and in my upcoming podcast.

Slagging off Slimming World doesn’t help people.

When I needed help I went to Slimming World, I didn’t go to a PT – the idea intimidated me and didn’t feel accessible. All these perfectly nice people I know now would have intimidated me- me now would have intimidated me. I wouldn’t have gone to a fitness event or gym because I’d have felt like a fraud like I didn’t fit it.

Sliming clubs felt accessible for me. That’s why I took that route.

I eventually found training and with it learnt about nutrition and left Slimming World and am where I am now. BUT for that to happen took PTs and group ex instructors who didn’t criticise the route I’d chosen to take, they didn’t point out in distaste all the things that were wrong with Slimming World. They educated me within a framework that allowed me to see why Slimming World can work on a energy in / energy out basis and allowed me to come to the realisation that I didn’t need the club and see the faults for myself.

There weren’t Facebook groups back then for Slimming World but to be honest if there had been and some people had come into them and attacked what was, at the time, working for me I’d have probably defended Slimming World and I wouldn’t have felt like I wanted to go to those people for advice.

In short – as Fitness professionals I think we need to find a balance between exposing myths and educating people without making them feel stupid for trying to reach their goals. How I see this…

That PT thinks everything about Slimming World is stupid

I do Slimming World

So they must think I’m stupid

I’m not going to them to help

In attempting to help there’s a real danger we actually alienate without meaning to.

Now actually Slimming World can be successful in that it creates habits that lead to a calorie deficit. It’s not unsafe or faddy as diets go.

It doesn’t educate.

But you know what – I played rugby for a while, no idea of the rules I just ran at people.

Would I have been a better player if I knew more – yes. Did I still play? Yes.

I honestly don’t know how the best way to go about it is, but I feel like supporting and understanding peoples choices creates an environment of trust that might convince people away from Slimming World and into training and understanding basic nutrition more than simply laughing at the notion of syns, body magic and star weeks ever will.

Will you be on a Diet in January?

January 1st is the day where traditionally people go on ‘a diet’.

The word ‘Diet’ conjures up images of restriction, lettuce leaves, starving, no chocolate, cakes or sweets, cutting out carbs, cutting out fat … the list goes on.

What ‘Diet’ actually means is the sum of food consumed by a person – what we actually put in our mouth.

Some diets may be more health focused than others, some may promote weight loss and others weight gain, but we all have a ‘Diet’.

So if you were planning on starting a ‘Diet’ in 2020 – good news- you’re already on one and have been for the last 365 days!

So actually all you need to do is make some small improvements to that current diet to see weight loss.

If you have booked sessions with a trainer, signed up to a programme or plan (in person or online) then you know you will get the advice you need to do this sensibly.

If you are planning on making the changes yourself then don’t look to quick fix diets or plans that promise you a six pack in six weeks.

Work out how many calories you burn daily, take 20% off this and aim for that number of calories each day.  This will create safe and sustainable calorie deficit which will allow you to reduce body fat steadily.

You can eat whatever you want as long as you stick to that calorie allowance.  Perhaps you will want to make more sensible choices and eat less junk but overall the way to reduce body fat (which I am assuming is the goal) is to consume a little less than you burn.

Overtime you might want to start fine tuning what you eat, but to start just focusing on hitting a calorie deficit is a great habit which will make a huge difference to how you feel and one small change to your diet at a time will have a longer lasting effect on your health in 2020 than any quick fix fad diet.

Intuitive Eating

Recently I’ve heard a few people say they would prefer not to count calories and instead want to try Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating is almost an anti diet movement, believing people should eat when they are hungry and what they feel their body needs.  It follows a ten point plan which includes respecting your hunger, not labeling food good or bad and not using food as an emotional crux.

There is actually very little about intuitive eating that I disagree with, it largely encourages people to have a healthy relationship with all foods and not starve themselves.

My issue with Intuitive Eating is this.

Unless you have already mastered tracking calories you will struggle to reach your goal eating intuitively. 

I can see the appeal.  If you’ve always struggled to stick to a certain number of calories the idea of eating what you ‘feel like’ you need is appealing.  Let’s be realistic here though.  If you were able to do this you’d probably already be at your goal (here I’m assuming it’s some form of fat loss).

If you’re not at your goal, which here I’m going to assume is fat loss, you are probably currently eating more calories than you burn.  If you were not you’d be losing fat and not looking for an alternative way of eating.

So what you need to do is learn how to track, then stay within your calorie goal for a sustained period of time.

Now once you have mastered this and done this for a fair while chances are you will be able to eat intuitively.  You’ll start to get an idea of how much you need to eat each day to be at the right energy level for you and be able to track less and still stay on track.

But until you reach this stage eating intuitively is likely to be much the same as eating as you currently do, with a limited idea of how much you are actually eating and no way of educating yourself on how to make the changes you need to make.

Think of it like driving a car.  Now when you drive you probably get in the car and just go- everything happens automatically without even thinking.  But that wasn’t the case when you first started to learn – you followed rules and checklists.

Think of your job, how you were in the first few weeks or even years of doing it compared to now.  As you become more skilled in something you can react more instinctively, but to begin with you need to learn that trade.

So if you want to eat intuitively and reach a specific goal, you really need to qualify to do that by first learning how to track and understand calories.

In the News

Two things in the news over the last week you may have read about.

The Fat Shaming PT and Instagram banning the advertising of content that “makes a miraculous claim about certain diet or weight loss products, and is linked to a commercial offer such as a discount code”.

Thankfully the general reaction from most people demonstrates the overriding belief withing the fitness industry that fat shaming isn’t ok.  Most fitness professionals are both welcoming and understanding to people from all walks of life, backgrounds and whatever their previous experience of fitness and nutrition may be.  You could argue this should be a given- let’s be real people who need help with exercise and food are the PTs ideal clients right?  Therefore it stands to reason that understanding the obstacles (be it medical, mindset or education based) involved when creating healthy habits and understanding their effect and how to overcome them should be a key skill for any fit pro.  Of course there are some people who fail to see this.  These people are known as dicks and the less airtime or exposure they are given the better in my opinion.

The banning of the advertising of diet ‘miracles’ is an undoubtedly positive thing.

As a fitness professional you can look at these paid ads by minor celebrities with no fitness qualifications and dismiss them as ridiculous.

But if you think you have wright to lose and see something that claims it will help you do this with minimal work or effort the chances are you’ll be tempted.  The fact they are advertised by people you may know add strength to the claim.

The cold truth is given the choice to listen to a semi famous person you’ve heard of tell you drinking this tea every morning will help you lose weight will often win out over that unknown PT on your instagram feed telling you that you’ll actually have to take some bog standard boring action and change your habits.  That costs less but will take longer and seems a bit like hard work and we are all pretty used to being able buy anything we want and get it the next day.

When these products are given less exposure people will have to go and look for them more actively – and if your willing to actively research a solution to your problem you’re more likely to be willing to  actually work to fix it, which means you’re more likely to actually find a healthy sustainable solution.

This week has shown there are many issues within the fitness industry but also that there are positive moves being made all the time to remove some of the bullshit.