By Chris Zinn
When people attempt to lose weight and report zero progress, I often hear many different reasons why it isn’t working. One of the most common things I hear though is, “I’m eating x number of calories every day and I’m still not losing weight. I even track the calories I eat!”.
Similarly - and maybe even more commonly - I hear this when people try to gain weight: “I eat so much all day long and I’m not gaining any weight! Help!”.
Now for some of you, problems gaining weight seem like less of a problem and more of a gift. But again, it happens on both sides of the spectrum.
When people come to this conclusion, they just assume their body must be a medical marvel, and it has cleverly found tricks to avoid the laws of thermodynamics and normal human metabolism.
I hate to break it to you, but nobody… and I mean nobody, can evade the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
“Okay, Mr. smarty pants, what’s going on then? Why, despite meticulous tracking of every gram of broccoli and every ounce of chicken, can I not lose weight?”
While it is true that nobody can defy physics, your body has plenty of tricks up its sleeves and is pretty good at making it seem like it can. Your body is pretty smart. Even if you did get a C in math… your body got an A+ in “evasive techniques to trick the body”.
A big part of losing weight is reducing the amount of food you eat and placing yourself in a negative energy balance. Or on the other end of the spectrum, if you want to gain weight, you should eat more food and place yourself in a positive energy balance.
What is energy balance and how does it apply to losing weight?
Energy balance is the equation that accounts for energy in and energy out. Eat less energy than your body burns, and your body will use stored energy as its fuel, and you will lose weight. Eat more energy than your body burns, and you will store the excess calories and gain weight.
So, at first glance, the equation looks like this:
Changes in Body Stores = Energy In - Energy Out
Well if it’s that simple, losing and gaining weight should be easy as pie, Er… sorry… easy as spinach, right?
Like I mentioned earlier, the body is smart, and it adjusts how it uses fuel when necessary.
Energy is typically measured in either Calories or Joules. Each one of those contains energy that can be used when our body breaks down food: also called potential energy.
There are a few ways we can measure Calories, some being more accurate than others. The methods of measuring Calories span from bomb calorimetry - which is more accurate and utilizes a device that combusts the food in order to measure the exact heat output from combustion - to fitness wearables - which are less accurate; generally relying on equations and simple biometrics such as heart rate.
So, it isn't always easy to determine the EXACT amount of Calories in a given food. What's more, even if we have the exact number of calories, it becomes more complicated when the food is ingested.
This part of the equation is the number of calories you ingest. Even though you might be tracking your calories you might not be getting as close as you think you are. This is because "energy in" can be affected by a lot of different factors.
Types of Foods
The type of food will affect how much energy you are taking in, simply because different foods contain different amounts of calories.
If you look closely on any food label, the calories are disclosed as:
1g of carbohydrate = 4 Calories
1g of protein = 4 Calories
1g of fat = 9 Calories
Additionally, I don’t want to ruin anyone's day or anything, but 1g of alcohol contains 7 Calories.
How Foods are Prepared and Absorbed
The way foods are prepared affects how they are handled by the body.
For example, eating minimally processed whole foods such as steak or sweet potato will result in less energy being absorbed than eating highly processed foods such as pre-made frozen burgers or sweet potato fries.
The reason for this is simple. Since the fries and the burger have been highly processed, there is less work for your body to do when you ingest it, as the processing has broken down a lot of the natural bonds and this results in more calories total calories absorbed.
Compare that to a minimally processed meal such as steak and sweet potato. After ingesting, your body needs to break apart more molecules than the burger and fries, and this results in more work and more calories burned during the process of digestion. In turn, you absorb fewer total calories.
Why do I say minimally processed and not completely unprocessed? Well, processing refers to the manipulation of the food in any way. This even includes cooking the food, because cooking the food starts to change its molecular structure and break it down.
Theoretically, if you opted for a raw steak and an uncooked sweet potato, you would absorb even fewer calories because of the larger amount of work your body would need to do to break it down compared to their cooked counterparts.
Thankfully, millions of years ago our ancestors discovered things taste much better when cooked.
Hunger, Appetite, and Satiety Signals
Hunger, appetite, and satiety all affect what we end up eating. If we’re hungry often, we’re more likely to eat often. If we feel full often, we’re less likely to eat.
This is why it’s important - especially if you're trying to lose weight - to eat slowly and allow your body time to send signals to the brain that let it know it is full.
Alternatively, if you're goal is to gain weight, it may be a good idea to eat quicker and try and bypass your body’s satiety signals.
Sleep, Recovery, and Stress Levels
It’s been shown that the amount of sleep you are getting correlates with the amount of food you consume.
Regardless if you’re working the night shift or the day shift, your body runs on a rough 24-hour circadian cycle that controls your hormones: leptin and ghrelin.
These hormones regulate appetite. A high amount of leptin signals your body to decrease appetite and higher levels of ghrelin signal your body to increase appetite.
Studies show that even a single night of reduced sleep can decrease leptin levels and increase Ghrelin levels. 
Environment and Culture
Simply the environment or culture we are a part of can influence the types and amounts of foods we consume.
Despite how complicated the “energy in” portion of the equation seems, “energy out” can seem even more complicated.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) & Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
BMR is the bare minimum number of calories your body burns to stay alive. Think of laying still for the entire day, no eating, just breathing. This number is heavily influenced by age and the amount of lean mass someone has.
RMR is similar to BMR, but a more realistic version. It would more closely portray the calories needed if you were to be a couch potato all day, than BMR since it accounts for some movement.
Younger people tend to have higher BMR and RMR which means more calories are being burned, and people will lose BMR and RMR efficiency as they age.
Thermogenesis refers to the amount of energy expended as heat. Different people will give off different amounts of energy as heat.
This is why some people seem to be able to stay leaner much easier than others. They most likely have more of their consumed energy given off as heat instead of being stored.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
TEF can be placed in the thermogenesis category, but it’s a little more specific. It refers to the amount of energy given off as heat from food. Some people tend to have higher TEF than other people.
Different macronutrients also have varying levels of TEF. Protein has the highest TEF, and if you’ve ever experienced the “meat sweats” you will be familiar with the feeling.
Exercise is an important one because it’s one of the ones we can control pretty easily, and it can affect energy out by a significant amount.
Physically active people may have 30% of their daily energy expenditure from purposeful movement.
Growth and Healing
Injuries, sickness, and damaged muscle tissue all increase caloric outage because your body is expending energy to repair these things,
This is why strength training can aid in fat loss, as your body works to repair your muscles even after you’ve stopped exercising.
Not to mention strength training causes muscular contractions that burn energy and causes an increase in lean muscle mass which affects BMR and RMR.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
This includes carrying groceries, playing with your kids, and doing housework.
Are you a fidgeter?
Chances are you probably have high NEAT.
NEAT also includes things like tapping or wiggling your feet at your desk, fidgeting with your hands, or wandering around your house aimlessly in quarantine.
Fidgeters tend to have higher NEAT than usual because of this.
And of course, we can always blame genetics on energy needs. This deserves an entire post; so look for that in the future!
MyFitnessPal or MyFitnessEnemy?
So, as you can see, after looking at all of those factors influencing energy in and energy out it's much more complicated than it seems.
Remember the equation from earlier?
Let's take a look at it now:
Changes in Body Stores =
(Actual Calories Eaten - Actual Calories Absorbed) (RMR + TEF + Physical Activity + NEAT)
This is a much more complicated equation and much harder to manipulate.
This is a good demonstration of why you shouldn’t obsess over tracking every little bit of food you eat or worry about the total number of calories you consume, or the number on the scale, because in the end…those numbers aren’t as meaningful as they seem.
And you might just end up stressing yourself out more in the long term.
What you *should* focus on is trying to play into some of these ideas.
If you want to lose weight
Eat more minimally processed foods so your body has to do the work to break them down instead of Nabisco doing that work for you.
Choose lean proteins to eat at most meals to increase satiety and burn more calories via TEF.
Get enough sleep to aid in recovery and regulate hormones in charge of your appetite.
If you want to gain weight
Decrease NEAT when you can to keep some calories.
Eat until you are full, and then eat a little more each meal.
Get enough sleep to aid in recovery and regulate hormones in charge of your appetite.
Drink some calorie-dense beverage such as shakes to get in extra calories.
Want to find out more about how to craft an approach to eating that will fit in with your needs, goals, and lifestyle? Well, starting today you can work with Med Gym's own Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Chris Zinn, in our brand new Nutrition Coaching Program!
If you've tried diet after diet and struggled to reach your goals, nutrition coaching may be the answer you need. Working with a qualified nutrition coach to find, craft and stick to the plan that is the right fit for you can be game changing!
Contact us here to learn more about the nutrition coaching program and how you can get started.