A Look Into Energy Balance And Why You Are Putting On Weight…

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You’re training religiously and staying on track all week with your diet, but instead of achieving the ‘shredded’ look you’re longing for, you seem to be slowly and consistently gaining weight. This is not in the style of the lean muscle you’d hoped for, but instead the type you were trying to get rid of in the first place: fat.

If this is the case, something’s gone awry. We’ve touched on this before, and provided our top tips to ensure you continue to progress towards your goals, but now we’d like to explain the energy balance itself and why despite following all the top tips provided, there is still a gap between what you think you should be achieving and the reality of your progress.

Exercise does not burn as many calories as you think…

Exercise is an essential part of staying healthy. If you’re on a fat loss diet it can also be used to increase the calories you burn on any given day, therefore helping to create an energy deficit required for fat loss. Saying this, people tend to be at risk of overcompensation here, especially if  sedentary during the rest of the day. If you’re doing a 45 minute spin class that’s great, but it’s certainly no excuse to stop keeping track of your daily calories.

A spin class, on average burns around 400 cals for a 70kg woman. This doesn’t mean in this case that her overall energy expenditure has increased by 400 calories because you need to take into account the calories she’d have burned regardless. If you burn 1700 calories per day, this means you’ll burn roughly 90 calories per waking hour. This means that sweaty session at your local boutique studio actually only burned 310 additional calories, otherwise known as the amount of calories in the almond croissant you regularly dip into your morning coffee.

Similarly, when your goal is to build muscle, this is not a justification to just eat in a massive calorie surplus all of the time. Yes, building muscle is easier in a calorie surplus but not impossible in a deficit, and a small surplus is sufficient for most. Muscle growth is a slow process and being in an excessive calorie surplus can be culprit to simply adding  on extra fat, rather than muscle.

We tend to overestimate the calories we burn in the gym and underestimate the effect of activity we do outside of the gym. A good way to increase your overall energy expenditure is by being more active throughout the day. This includes walking more, cycling to work rather than taking the tube and standing up to have a phone call, rather than sat slumped at your desk. This may not sound like a lot, but implementing  these small changes will add up.

You are not as skilled at counting calories as you think and you end up slipping up at the weekend…

For fat loss you need to be in a consistent energy deficit. Maintaining a deficit is hard and we are all terrible at estimating the energy value of food. We also tend to forget (intentionally or not) about foods we have outside of meals: so things like snacks, condiments and drinks. Have you ever wondered how many calories are in the sauces you add to your meals or the glass of wine you have after dinner? Did you ever consider that the biscotti you get with your black coffee might actually contain more calories than the sugar you so carefully exclude? All these small things are often forgotten when  tracking calories but together they do add up, and can result in a unwanted calorie surplus rather than the deficit you desire.

Take the weekend for example… During the week, you’re eating only what’s delivered in your little black bag, but on the weekend you go all out. You think it’s pretty harmless because you’ve been good all week and deserve a ‘cheat day’. Although nobody puts on weight by swaying off their diet for just one day, the risk of it becoming a weekly habit is far more likely, creating a bigger hindrance than you may think.

Of course it depends on your personal goal, but nutrition will always play a role, and fitting in a drink and a pizza during a 3000 calorie bulking diet happens to be much easier than on a 1500 calorie fat loss diet.  When it comes to fat loss, you simply don’t have the calorie budget to do this every weekend.

See the example below of a fictional FFF client.

For a 30-year old woman of 1.65 m and 70 kg, mostly sedentary, her calorie requirement is 1700 calories per day. Our fat loss package would add a 20% calorie deficit to that number, which means her calorie allowance per day is only 1360. This creates a calorie deficit of 340 calories every day. She is on FFF and she sticks to what’s in her bag all week. Over 5 days this has created a total calorie deficit of 1700 calories.

However, the weekend comes around, the sun’s shining and her favourite tennis player has just won a match at Wimbledon. So, she decides to put her FFF dinner in the freezer for a rainy day and goes out to treat herself and a friend to a pizza instead. To celebrate, she’s starting off with a Cosmopolitan. They shared a bottle of wine, had pizza but no starter because she’d rather have a dessert. She’s skipping the bread too because carbs are ‘bad’ right?

Then because it’s too early and too sunny to go home, she takes a seat in the garden of the pub for a pint of cider or 2, maybe she had 3. By the time she gets home she has consumed 1781 calories more than planned and her weekly deficit has almost disappeared.

The next day she’s feeling a bit sluggish, the cider didn’t sit so well and she needs a good breakfast to cure the headache. She makes a full English and craves something sweet to top it off, so she heads to Starbucks for her favourite Mocha Frappuccino. Since she’s been told they can have almost as much calories as a meal, she orders a small.

Planning to do nothing all day but recover, she is convinced by her friends to meet them for a roast. She has a full roast with a small glass of red wine because she’s trying to ‘be good’. She’s not having a starter or dessert because it’s almost Monday and she feels like she needs to get back on track with her diet again.

By the end of the day she’s not in a calorie deficit, but a weekly calorie surplus of 181 calories.

Sound familiar? Now, we’re not saying you should never go out and enjoy ‘life’. All we’re  trying to do is give you an idea of the energy value of food and how certain habits, however harmless they may seem in isolation, can accumulate and significantly impair your progress on a fat loss diet. If you can relate to this scenario and wonder why you’re not getting the results you want, we hope you now have a better understanding of why.

Robin Swinkels
FFF Nutritionist