I will start by saying that I am not a nutrition expert (see the legal disclaimer down below). Everything I know about exercise and nutrition has been learned through personal experience and self-education. With that said, I have maintained a lean and well-balanced physique as I have gotten older, and the older I've gotten, the leaner I have become. No gym memberships or fancy fitness trackers have been required.
Look, I get it. All this talk about "hitting your macros" and the science behind gaining or losing weight can hurt our brains and become wildly overwhelming. This article aims to answer the fundamental questions about losing, maintaining, and gaining weight, and I'll attempt to present the information in a straightforward manner.
The first thing to understand is that we are all unique. Some of us are tall, some of us are short, some of us work jobs that require us to be on our feet for multiple hours each day, and some of us never leave our desks while at work unless it's for brief breaks during our regular working hours (i.e., coffee, lunch, using the restroom, etc.). The point is that we are not only biologically unique, but we also live our lives differently for a variety of reasons.
CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT
None of us is unique regarding energy balance, otherwise known as "calories in, calories out." There is a man out there by the name of Michael Matthews who wrote a book called Bigger Leaner Stronger. A fundamental idea that Michael discusses is "energy balance," which he defines as the relationship between energy intake (calories eaten) and output (calories burned).
Think of your body as a simple science equation. You (as does everyone else) have a Total Daily Energy Expenditure (a.k.a. the number of calories that you will personally burn in a single day). What you need to know is that there are three parts to this:
- Your personal Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
- Food digestion (your body's thermic effects on the food that you eat)
- Your level of physical activity (how much you move your body)
Your BMR is a "magic" number that follows you throughout life, and it can change as your body changes over time. It is assigned to you at birth and is based on various factors, like your genetic makeup, ancestry, height, weight, etc. This is the number of calories your body burns in a day (or a single 24-hour period) simply by regulating itself.
Think of calories as energy. One way a calorie is defined is as a unit of energy.
Let me ask you something; did you ever feel so hungry that you lacked the strength to perform specific actions?
This is because we need to eat to expend energy, but not all calories are created equal (more on this later).
Let's use an example...
If you look on the back of most nutrition labels for food, you will see that the recommended amount of what is presented is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The number of calories you need may differ from the number of calories that I or someone else needs (I require about 2,400 calories each day to maintain my weight).
If you consume that "magic" number (again, for me, it's about 2,400 calories) each day, then your body will not gain or lose weight because it needs that specific number of calories to regulate itself. When I say "regulate," I'm talking about the body performing essential vital functions such as moving, blinking, breathing, our heart pumping blood, and then that blood moving throughout our bodies, etc. This is all a part of our BMR (a.k.a. the "magic" number).
There are several reasons for all of this. Just as I stated at the start of this article, we are all unique to a certain degree. When writing this, I am a 5-foot, 11-inch, 26-year-old male who makes a point to exercise each day and rides his bicycle to and from work (the pedaling kind, not the cool kind). My metabolism (and, by extension, my BMR) will naturally be higher than the hypothetical "average" person that those nutrition labels suggest, primarily due to my age and overall activity level.
This leads me to my next point. Your BMR is approximately 75% of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
That is a combination of your body's digestive effects on food and how many calories you burn in a day.
Sticking with myself as an example, I burn a lot of calories each day because I choose to work out and pedal my bicycle to get to work and back home. This activity adds up, just like if you worked a job that required you to be on your feet all day.
Digestion, in and of itself, is pretty self-explanatory. Our body has to break down food to use it to fuel and nourish our bodies, much like an engine requires fuel for a car. Though it may be small, it is undoubtedly a crucial part of our Total Daily Expenditure.
So everything that we just covered explains how we maintain our bodies; now, we can begin to address how we lose or gain weight.
To understand this, however, we have to tackle the topic of calories and their relation to macronutrients. As previously stated, calories are units of energy. We need them to live and move. Macronutrients are what make up those calories, of which there are three:
All macronutrients are essential for our body because they provide various benefits to our health.
Carbohydrates are our ultimate source of glucose, which helps to give us energy and regulates our blood sugars. Our fast-twitch muscle fibers use glycogen, a carbohydrate storage form, to fuel intense exertion periods.
Additionally, fiber is a carbohydrate that the body cannot digest and thus can't be broken down into sugar molecules. Fiber passes through the body undigested and is well known for assisting our bodies by helping push food along and regulating our use of sugars, therefore keeping hunger and overall blood sugar in check.
Fat is a macronutrient that has been most misunderstood due to its complexity for decades. Fats help us on a multitude of levels, such as absorbing essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also aids in the production of chemicals that are essential for sexual development and reproduction, immune defense, blood clotting, circadian rhythm, as well as mood and concentration.
I'll link a few books down below by Dr. Catherine Shanahan, whose work and research have informed me of what I am sharing in this article. She sheds particular light on the subject of fat across all of her published works, and her findings are pretty enlightening.
And finally, we have the protein macronutrient. This macronutrient is essential for repairing damaged muscles/tissues and further growing and developing them. We need protein for healthy skin, hair, and nails, as well as to regulate a multitude of additional functions for our bodies. Our need for protein increases when we become more active, regardless of the form it takes, so be mindful of that fact.
HOW CALORIES MAKE UP MACRONUTRIENTS, MATHEMATICALLY
To adequately answer this question, we need to do a little bit of math...
- Every (1) gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories.
- Every (1) gram of protein equals 4 calories.
- Every (1) gram of fat found in food equals 9 calories.
- If we have a food bar containing 15 grams of protein, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and 9 grams of fat, we know that the total calories will equal 249.
- Because 4 calories multiplied by 15 grams of protein gives us 60 calories of total protein.
- 4 calories multiplied by 27 grams of carbohydrates yields 108 calories of total carbs in the food item.
- 9 calories multiplied by 9 grams of fat equals 81 total fat calories.
Notice that the fat starts to add up. When you hear people talk about how some foods (fat-heavy ones in particular) are more "calorie-dense," this is what they are usually referring to, resulting in more calories altogether (thus more energy).
To lose weight, we must ultimately generate a caloric deficit.
We need to burn more calories than we take in on a consistent basis. This can be achieved in three ways:
- Eat fewer calories.
- Burn more calories.
- A combination of eating less and burning more.
That might work, but I would argue that this approach isn't sustainable because it isn't enjoyable. A calorie is a calorie, yes, but the quality of your diet is also significant for a variety of reasons outside of simple weight management.
Getting into the weeds of this is beyond the scope of this particular article, but you can bet that we will discuss more in future posts. For now, you need to understand that you will lose weight by fulfilling any of the above methods in a consistent manner. For anyone who swears that they have restricted calories for long periods of time and have seen no results, I would be willing to bet that you aren't paying close enough attention to the human errors which are undoubtedly holding you back (i.e., underestimating the number of calories you burn in a day and/or your overall energy expenditure).
Sure, you may have additional health issues that are irregular and not representative of the average person, to which I would recommend consulting a medical professional. But understand that the body is designed to work in a straightforward fashion, and energy balance is indeed the primary factor in weight loss, maintenance, and gain.
I, for one, have a huge appetite (that has admittedly shrunk a little over time). I love to eat, so you can imagine that I make a point to abstain from eating calorie-dense foods because I want to prioritize larger volume meals to fill my stomach better and satisfy my usual hunger.
Because I recognize this about myself, I choose to structure my life in specific ways and opt for better quality foods. Eating better quality foods isn't the deciding factor for weight management; however, it is often more conducive to weight loss because nutrient-dense foods are less calorie-dense.
I also make a point to burn many calories by staying active each day in one form or another. This adds to my ability to enjoy more food than the average person, but we need to know ourselves, establish the right goals, plan, and then make our choices based on these factors.
If you haven't read my article, which introduces you to developing your fitness and nutrition routine, you can access it here.
Gaining weight is just the opposite of losing weight. Consume calories to create a caloric surplus.
Often, we are unaware of how many calories we take in over a prolonged period. Just because you ate very little for a day or two does not mean that you will lose weight over time. Our bodies don't think about 24-hour periods; instead, they recognize and react to what we give it (or don't give it) and then decide how best to respond. However, consistency is paramount.
If we end up overeating for more days in, say, a week than we under-eat, then there is a solid chance that, depending on our "magic" numbers and physical requirements, we wind up gaining some weight, often leading to frustration or stress.
Our body's ultimate goal is to achieve homeostasis, its built-in desire to maintain equilibrium (a balance of sorts). In other words, the body will naturally drive us to stay the same. A real example of this is the sensation that comes over us when we begin to feel hungry and crave food. The senses kick in to pick up on scents of food, and now all we can seem to think about is consumption.
Just remember that if you want to gain weight, you need to remain consistent in creating a caloric surplus. Lucky for anyone looking to accomplish this, it often isn't too difficult unless you find it challenging to put food down...
IT'S ABOUT BALANCE
Maintaining, gaining, and losing weight can be easier or more complicated, depending on who you are. Again, I have linked some great books by Dr. Catherine Shanahan, which I read as a means of getting "smart" for this article. Like her, numerous authorities know a lot about this topic and who, more importantly, are much smarter than I am.
Take comfort in knowing that if I can do any of this, so too can you. I'll help you along the way as best I can.
For workout ideas, visit my blog's Workout Videos for access to full-body cardio and resistance workouts performed and led by me. For a detailed explanation of how those videos are organized, please read my other article here.
Recommended Reading From Dr. Catherine Shanahan & Mr. Michael Matthews
As with all exercise and nutritional programs, you need to use common sense when watching exercise videos or reading articles about fitness and health. To reduce and avoid injury, it is advised that you check with a medical professional before beginning any fitness or nutritional program. By performing any fitness exercises or adopting specific diets, you are performing either at your own risk; I will not be responsible or liable for any injury or harm you sustain due to my fitness videos or written articles. Thanks for your understanding.
Shanahan, Catherine, and Luke Shanahan. Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. Flatiron Books, 2018.