I will start by saying that I am not a nutrition expert (see the legal disclaimer above). I learned everything I know about exercise and nutrition 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 as straightforwardly as possible.
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 various 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 you will personally burn in a single day).
- 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 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.
This is because we need to eat to expend energy, but not all calories are created equal (more on this later).
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 current weight).
If you consume that "magic" number (again, for me, it's about 2,400 calories) each day, 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 I mentioned before).
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 of exercising daily and riding 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 daily.
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. In fact, I'm usually at a caloric deficit because I'm trying to shed a few pounds (but more on this concept in a bit). 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 small, it is undoubtedly a crucial part of our Total Daily Energy 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.
All macronutrients are essential for our body because they provide various benefits to our health.
Carbohydrates are our ultimate glucose source, which helps 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 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 for decades due to its complexity. 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.
And finally, we have the protein macronutrient. This 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 many additional functions of our bodies. Our need for protein increases when we become more active, regardless of its form, so be mindful of that fact.
HOW CALORIES MAKE UP MACRONUTRIENTS, MATHEMATICALLY
To answer this question adequately, we need to do some math...
- Every (1) gram of carbohydrate found in food equals 4 calories.
- Every (1) gram of protein found in food 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 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.
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, but the quality of your diet is also significant for various reasons outside of simple weight management.
Getting into the weeds of this is beyond the scope of this particular article. For now, you need to understand that you will lose weight by fulfilling any of the above methods consistently. For anyone who swears that they have restricted calories for long periods and have seen no results, I would be willing to bet that they aren't paying close enough attention to the human errors that are undoubtedly holding them back (i.e., underestimating the number of calories they burn in a day and/or their overall energy expenditure).
Sure, you may have additional health issues that are irregular and not representative of the average person, which I would recommend consulting a medical professional. But understand that the body is designed to work straightforwardly, and energy balance is 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 I make a point of abstaining from eating calorie-dense foods because I want to prioritize larger 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 often less calorie-dense.
I also make a point of burning 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.
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) over time 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 (BMR) and physical activity, we wind up gaining some weight, often leading to frustration or stress.
Our body's ultimate goal is to achieve homeostasis, which is its built-in desire to maintain equilibrium (a balance of sorts). In other words, the body will naturally drive us to stay the same. An example is the sensation that comes over us when we feel hungry and crave food. Our senses kick in to pick up on food scents, and now all we can think about is consumption.
Remember that if you want to gain weight, you must consistently create 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. 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 the blog's Workout Videos to access full-body cardio and resistance workouts performed and led by me. No gym membership required.