Taking Control of Your Energy Balance Part 1

It is well documented that there is an overweight/obesity epidemic sweeping the world. In recent installments, I have suggested that behavioral changes related to how we procure and ingest food are playing a significant role. We now eat for many reasons other than to simply keep our energy balance in check. If you factor in the reduction in physical activity that technological advancement has brought, it’s easy to see why mankind is, in general, operating at an energetic surplus that brings the chronic storage of fat. But if our instincts can no longer be trusted to control our energy balance (i.e., ensure that the amount we ingest and the amount we expend are relatively equal), we can still make conscious decisions in that regard. This process begins with determination of the caloric maintenance level.

Caloric maintenance level is the amount of energy a specific person must ingest each day to maintain their current body fat stores. Fat deposits increase when a positive energy balance is in effect, which means that those who are overweight have regularly ingested more energy than their caloric maintenance level requires. Once you know this important number, you can make appropriate adjustments based upon your objectives. For example, to reduce fat stores, you’ll have to either ingest less than your caloric maintenance level each day for an extended period of time or increase your caloric maintenance level such that the amount you have been ingesting no longer presents a surplus. Generally speaking, a combination of these two approaches is the best plan of attack.

In theory, there are 3500 calories of energy contained in a pound of fat. This means that if you’re carrying 20 pounds of extra baggage, you have 70,000 calories of accumulated energy surplus that you’ll have to use up. The first step in figuring out how to do this is to determine your current caloric maintenance level by trial and error. This involves ingesting the same amount of calories each day for several weeks while maintaining your normal activity level. Although highly variable, a logical starting point is 2000 calories per day for a woman and 2500 for a man. You must also weigh yourself before starting this trial period and at the same time of day at regular intervals during it. This is necessary because if your weight stays relatively constant over the course of time, the number you have arbitrarily chosen is your caloric maintenance level and you can move on to the next step. On the other hand, if your weight changes significantly, you’ll have to adjust your intake (down if you have gained weight during the trial period, up if you have lost weight) keeping in mind that if you multiply the weight change (in pounds) by 3500 and divide that product by the number of days over which the change occurred, it should give you a rough idea of how much your initial estimate was off. It is also important to realize that body weight can fluctuate on a day-to-day basis for reasons other than changes in fat stores, so a consistent trend is what you’re looking for as opposed to what the scale might tell you on any given day.  

Determining your caloric maintenance level requires ingesting the same amount of energy each day for a number of weeks, but this does not mean that you must eat the same thing each day during the trial period. Instead, you can compose different diets that contain the same amount of energy such that you’ll eat a variety of foods as you learn how many calories you need. This approach makes the process easier to endure and also provides an opportunity to begin to understand the caloric content of different foods. Good working knowledge of this information is essential because once you know how many calories you’ll have to ingest to accomplish your goal (i.e., your caloric maintenance level plus whatever adjustment you’ll have to make to it), the ability to establish this daily intake with combinations of many different foods increases the likelihood that you’ll stay the course over the long haul.  

More stringent labeling laws have been enacted in recent years such that the energy content of packaged foods is generally readily available. Values for foods for which this information is not provided (e.g., fruits and vegetables that are sold without labels) can be accessed on the Internet (e.g., visit http://nutritiondata.self.com and search for the item you require information about). These websites also have values for foods that are provided at restaurants and fast-food establishments, so it’s now quite easy to find all of the nutritional information you’ll need to balance your diet. And in addition to knowing the caloric content of the foods you ingest, it will also be necessary to measure quantity because the values you’ll find on labels and websites are expressed for a given serving size. Ideally, for solid food, measurement should be done by weight (as opposed to volume; e.g., cups, tablespoons or teaspoons) because it is more precise. A digital kitchen scale is, therefore, an important investment that anyone taking control of their energy balance must make.

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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