Author Paul Hollinrake, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/10 May 2019
The issues and debates around energy balance, that is calories in vs calories out (CICO) still remains a hot topic and has been discussed in some of our earlier blogs on energy balance and counting calories. This blog acknowledges that human physiology is complex and involves many factors when it comes to losing weight, however, identifying potential issues is the first step when it comes to fat loss plateaus.
Problem 1. You have suddenly started to gain weight despite nothing else changing
There is a good chance that energy balance has been affected by something very subtle. A small increase in food intake could be attributed to changes in your mood or increased hunger levels. If you have started on new medication the number of calories absorbed could have changed or you might have an unknown medical condition. Your body physiology might have also changed which could result in fewer calories used at rest or during exercise. Perhaps you are not sleeping very well or feel stressed. Both of these can influence hormonal changes which can influence your metabolism and or food consumed. If you have picked up an injury and are less mobile, then your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) could also be reduced, although this may seem insignificant, the day to day movements involved in fidgeting, foot tapping and small movements etc. can all add up over days or weeks.
Problem 2. Hormonal influences
While it’s true that hormones have a strong influence on many functions in the body including energy balance, sometimes they can get blamed for everything and used as an excuse to give up on weight loss. The point here is that hormones such as the thyroid hormones T3/T4 that control metabolic rate, hormonal issues such as menopause, PCOS and insulin resistance may negatively affect energy balance and can make losing weight harder. Despite this, it is still possible to change other aspects of lifestyle. Making adjustments to eating, exercise, stress, sleep and even taking prescribed medications can take into account any hormonal influences whilst still allowing weight loss to continue.
Problem 3. I hardly eat anything / I only eat once a day
If you genuinely believe that you are following a low-calorie diet and are still not losing weight then it may well be time to dig a bit deeper into your daily intake.
* Most people underestimate their calorie intake and this is usually not intentional.This is easily done by underestimating portion sizes. For example, I actually measured out a teaspoon of butter the other day that I would typically use, the picture below is double that of a normal portion and obviously double the number of calories, studies support the fact that many people also do this. Very often people forget to count foods, especially those they wish they had not eaten or just did not record them down. Not recording snacks, bites, tastes etc. can significantly add to your total intake for the day if you are not more mindful. Research has shown that on average most underestimate intake around 30%, which means for 2000 K/Cal this could add up to 600 K/Cal per day extra.
* It`s weekend, I deserve it! By the time Friday comes around most look forward to time off, plan social events and generally let their hair down. This is great for a balanced work-life balance, but if weight loss is your goal, could also be your enemy. Consider that during the week (Monday-Friday) you have been really good, dropping your intake by the generally accepted 500 K/Cal per day which would be an approximate intake of 1500 K/Cal (2000-500 K/Cal; total deficit 2500 K/Cal). However, its now weekend and you start adding in those extras. The alcohol Friday, Saturday and maybe even Sunday. The Friday night take out, Saturday lunch at your favourite café, the dessert you deserve because you have been really good all week. Sound familiar? The fact is this could easily add up to 4000-5000 K/Cal and negate the 2500 K/Cal deficit, effectively increasing the average daily intake for the week.
What works best for you?
The CICO concept is too simplistic and creating a calorie deficit can involve many variables. The following strategies will help you figure out a starting point.
1. Switch your mindset and try fasting. If you were told you could not eat and had to miss a meal you may well feel deprived and feel the hunger urges to eat. However, by having a strategic fasting day that is planned, you not only create an energy deficit but you also allow your energy reserves (body fat) to be used, preserve metabolic rate and avoid snacking.
2. Studies have shown that increasing the amount of protein and fibre helps you to feel more satisfied during meals and fuller for longer. This has a few benefits:
* Less likely to want to snack between meals, especially processed foods
* Feel like you are eating more food and not restricting intake like a typical diet
* Naturally eating fewer calories, and therefore lose weight
The first step is to make sure you eat 1-2 portions of protein with every meal (1 portion = 85g or 1 x palm of your hand of red meat, poultry or fish. For fibre eat 2-3 portions of vegetables with each meal (1 portion = 80g or 1 x clenched fist). If you do need to eat a snack then something like cottage cheese with celery, Greek yoghurt with mixed berries or a Turkey roll-up (slice of Turkey, a bit of cheese and sliced veg/salad of choice), natural peanut butter with celery sticks would hit the spot.
If you do not want to decrease food intake but enjoy exercise, then this is a great way to create an energy deficit whilst also getting fitter, stronger and improving mood. The food you eat will also contribute to muscle growth if combined with resistance training and will preserve metabolic rate.
Take home message
Measuring calories in and out has many limitations within the human body, however, the basic principles of reducing calories to lose fat are sound. Factors such as too much stress, poor sleep, hormones, inconsistent healthy lifestyle habits and lack of activity have influences on calories in and out. Addressing and adjusting for these will help tip energy balance in your favour.
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