Misunderstanding the Energy Balance

Updated 3.8.2015
It's distressing how few people understand the energy balance and realize that it's NOT a linear relationship. How could it be? There are multiple terms on both sides of the equation. Diet book authors such as Zoe Harcombe deliberately misunderstand the energy balance to increase sales of her brand of diet snake oil.

Misunderstanding CICO

Calories in vs calories out (CICO) is a shorthand statement of the energy balance, and perhaps that's unfortunate because too many infer that it suggests linearity. In other words, that a plot of calories cut vs weight lost will be a straight line as shown in the plot below. THIS IS INCORRECT.

A plot of the wrong cico model

Here's a 2013 Nature article that looked at the linear weight loss assumption and demonstrated that it is false. This does NOT disprove CICO. Weight WAS lost when calories consumed declined, but the loss was not linear. The article points to my favorite online weight loss calculator, as well as links to downloadable apps that use the same thermodynamic based model.

I've written about the energy balance previously, and I don't want to repeat all that again. The calories out side of the equation consists of more than simply how much you exercise. Changes in basal metabolism due to calorie restriction ARE included in the energy balance, despite what some vegans say, and it happens to be the largest term. The vegans get it correct when they say that severe calorie restriction can affect basal metabolism. CICO/energy balance also includes a term for the amount of non-exercise movement (officially called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT) each day, which is the second largest term.

Anyone who's read much of this site at all will know that I am a BIG proponent of NEAT. NEAT is most often dismissed as unconscious, but I think that is 100% wrong. Whether or not you stand more than you sit each day is a conscious choice.

This is a message that the energy balance works, but is not linear needs to be shouted from the roof tops. Weight loss is possible, it IS sustainable and it does NOT require starving yourself. But you must eat at the calorie level of the size you want to be.

So how can you lose weight?

Disclosure time: I have no medical degree and I'm not diet book author. I'm not looking to sell you anything. All I can do is share what worked for me, which I believe will work for anyone.

  1. Decide what size human you'd like to be.
  2. Go to the NIH's online weight calculator and see how many calories humans of that size eat. The site allows you to vary the activity level on a basic level. When I started out, I was completely sedentary, and so would have used that.*
  3. Learn how much food and drink this amount is. For me, that meant weighing and measuring how much I was already eating. Try eating the new amount. For me, this meant weighing my food intake for the first month or so until I learned what my new portion size was. What this exercise showed me is that I was eating and drinking much more than I realized.
  4. Decide if that amount of energy (food) is realistic for you. If it's not, then consider changing your goal or your activity level.
  5. To change your activity level, use the power of NEAT. How? Stand up.

Sure you could join a gym and/o start a new exercise program, but all of those things have a significant activation energy barriers (my degrees are in materials science and engineering). What that means is that you have to make a commitment or spend money to change your routine and make time for exercise. Whereas, you can STAND UP while doing most of your daily routines, even if you work in an office. I'm standing as I write this. When I started standing rather than sitting while working on my laptop I didn't have a standing desk, I used a box to raise the level of the computer. Five years later, my set up is slightly more official. But it doesn't need to be. Here's a old post of mine on standing up for fitness.

About that * on point #2… As I've noted before, when I first started trying to lose weight, the online tools I point to today did not exist. The tools I recommend I use now, but didn't when my journey first started a decade ago.


One Mom in the Middle…
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