Calories In, Calories Out.
Ask somebody to name something they can’t live without, and they’ll probably say Netflix. While Netflix certainly has its place on the hierarchy of human needs, it still doesn’t outrank food. We all eat. We have to–without food, we die. As human beings, we can survive on a huge variety of diets, but for most of us, mere survival isn’t the goal. We want to thrive, whether that means being fiercely athletic, looking great naked, or just not feeling lifeless and drained by the time our afternoon meeting rolls around.
You might be reading this because you’ve decided to take a positive step in improving your health and well-being. As Jack LaLanne says, “Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.” Whether you want to shed some fat or put on muscle, a combination of an intelligently-designed exercise program and an improvement in your diet will get you where you want to go.
Our body weight will always be determined by a simple formula: calories in, calories out (CICO). When we burn more calories than we consume, we lose weight. When we consume more than we burn, we gain weight. Things obviously become more complex than that the deeper down the rabbit hole we dive, but that formula will always hold true. If you’re currently consuming 2500 calories a day and your weight is remaining constant and you want it to go down, you need to consume fewer calories, burn more calories, or some combination of the two. Burning more calories than you consume is sometimes called being in a (caloric) deficit, and the opposite is being in a (caloric) surplus.
None of this information is particularly groundbreaking, but it’s important to understand it completely. Acknowledging this formula will get you a long way, actually, because it helps you see trendy diets through a place of more understanding. If somebody cuts out gluten and loses weight, it wasn’t the lack of gluten that did it, it was the deficit that was created. If somebody eats only meat and vegetables and loses weight, it was because they were in a deficit. You get the idea.
Let’s go back to that example of 2500 calories per day. If weight is remaining constant, we know that both sides of the formula are even, so this individual must also be burning 2500 calories per day. If we want to create a deficit of 500 calories per day, there are a few ways to do that. A few examples are:
Continue consuming 2500 calories, but burn 3000
Decrease consumption to 2000 calories, but continue burning 2500
A combination: consume 2250 calories, and burn 2750
All of these are viable options, and there are myriad factors that will help you determine which path is right for you. That being said, I would contend that it is much easier to create a deficit (if not entirely, mostly) through a change in nutrition than through increased caloric expenditure. If you weigh 200lbs (90kg) and you run three miles in a half hour, you will burn under 500 calories. Not bad, but it’s much easier to cut out 500 calories from your diet. To give you an idea, ten Oreos is over 500 calories. Two slices of a large pepperoni pizza from Dominos is 580 calories. Many of the foods we eat are incredibly calorie-dense, so cutting out even a small amount of food can make a significant difference in our consumption.
Similarly, if you want to gain weight, exercise will help ensure that the weight you add is muscle, not fat. The fact that you’re exercising means that caloric expenditure will increase (exercise does burn calories, after all), so consumption must increase to meet the demands of exercise and then some. I know this from personal experience–when I was a seriously underweight high school student, I started lifting weights to try to put on size, but to no avail. I was doing the right thing by exercising, but it was all wasted because I wasn’t giving my body what it needed to add healthy body mass. It was only when I made a conscious effort to eat more that I was able to realize noticeable muscle gain.
Taking the step to get in shape can be daunting, but gaining an understanding of the principles that guide our progress can make the process both more approachable and more effective. Caloric balance is paramount to anybody’s success in fitness. There’s certainly more that goes into it, but it’s certainly a great place to start.