The TRUTH About Calories In vs Calories Out
Hopefully The Last Time We Have To Beat This Dead Horse
(I really wanted this out before the craziness and “debate” last week, but that proved a huge distraction and I wanted this to be even more thorough + have additional talking points so I decided to hold off until after. Given how it went, I have A LOT of dogma and logical fallacies to now dismantle. I’ve noted where this gigantic “debate” started so those will be even more relevant talking points).
Also, if you enjoy this post or prefer audio content more, we have a podcast going out 30 minutes after this that also touches on this topic and gives more context to the “debate” and subject at whole… we’re also pretty funny…
On To Business…
It seems that the fitness industry always reaches a place of regression and for every good piece of fitness information and every good fitness educator we have, exponentially more people giving half-baked, sometimes even harmful, advice to your goals (and even health in some cases).
This is just the way things are and have always been, for every 1 step forward we take 1 or 2 steps back. This is the way the pendulum swings unfortunately and why it’s important to vet good sources of information.
This is NOT to say we don’t discover great information and grow in our collective knowledge, but more often than not we are actually just overcomplicating simple things or even just completely misinformed.
Ironically, many people at face value will say exactly that about this post, however, we are going to be going over why some laws of physics simply exist whether we accept it or not—we do a little thing called “nuance” around these parts.
That topic that brings up so much contention (oh I had absolutely no idea how much and true this was as I wrote this before the initial “situation”), as you can guess from the title, is the principle of Calories In vs Calories Out.
This is a conversation that could be left as simply put as “Calories In vs Calories Out is all that matters for fat loss”, but instead we are going to address many of the arguments, which have validity, that do not negate this statement at all.
Brief Overview of Calories In vs Calories Out
Before we dive too deep into this, let me first explain briefly what we mean by Calories In vs Calories Out (which I will now exclusively refer to as “CICO” because that is a lot to type out every time) to those who might not be familiar with the concept.
Essentially, what CICO means is that for us to have some type of change in our weight, whether it is gaining it or losing it, comes down to which side of this equation we are in.
If Calories In is greater than Calories Out then we will see weight gain.
If Calories Out is greater than Calories In then we will see weight loss.
This is a simple equation known as energy balance. A calorie is a measurement of energy, and things like body fat are stored energy. So for us to use that stored energy (lose fat), we must be in a net negative energy balance so that our bodies have a reason to use that stored energy (fat). This is the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, a very basic law of physics which like all things in the universe, our bodies are also subjected to.
The human body has evolved over millions of years to become an extremely efficient machine to ensure our survival. Throughout history, food has been at the forefront of our survival so we have become very efficient at using that energy from food because if not we would have ceased to exist. Meaning, that if we have any additional calories over our net equal caloric balance (or maintenance) we will store that to ensure we can survive if our next meal isn’t for a long time.
Although it is an extremely efficient system, like almost all things, it isn’t perfect so alas some factors of nuance come into play, which is why I’m writing this.
In a perfect scenario, if you eat 3000 calories but burn 3000 calories, your net caloric balance is equal so the result would be zero weight (fat specifically as water weight can fluctuate) gained, and zero weight lost.
In this same scenario, if you were to eat 2500 calories and burn 3000 calories, you would be in a net negative caloric balance (caloric deficit) of 500 calories and thus lose 500 calories of weight which roughly translates to around 1/7th of a pound of fat (if all the weight lost in theory was pure fat).
Now being overly redundant, if you eat 3500 calories and burn 3000 calories, you will be in a net positive energy balance (caloric surplus) and gain 1/7th of a pound (this is where things get a tad more complicated because if training, some of this weight gain will be muscle).
It truly is this simple on paper and in many cases reality if and when you understand your caloric demands and eat to those numbers.
Now, we have to address what exactly Calories In and Calories out and what they entail. (I have 2 paid posts going into detail on these—Metabolism 101 and Caloric Expenditure 101—but here I’ll give a brief rundown of both).
This is just how it sounds, these are the number of total calories you consume during the day. While self-explanatory and to a certain degree wouldn’t matter how/what was consumed, this is one of those nuances as there are better ways to do this to improve the CICO/metabolism and promote better health.
This will be the total amount of protein, carbs, and fat eaten a day—the “macronutrients”
Protein is 4 calories per gram
Carbs are 4 calories per gram
Fat is 9 calories per gram
Within this, we have the “micronutrients” which are vitamins and minerals. While themselves having no direct caloric impact, if we are to be deficient in certain micronutrients our bodies will not operate properly which can then negatively affect part of the CICO equation, usually by decreasing the Calories Out part.
We will get deeper into this, but at a base level, self-explanatory.
This is the part of the equation where things get complicated and 95% of the nuance/misunderstanding of CICO arises.
Where Calories In is fairly self-explanatory, Calories Out gets tricky because even how we get those “Calories In” can affect how many “Calories Out” occur.
Numerous aspects go into Calories Out such as:
Your base metabolic rate
How active you are during the day
The macronutrient breakdown of your diet (During digestion we burn 20-30% of the calories from protein, 5-10% of the carbs, and 0-3% of the fat)
How much exercise you get a week
Even further, we can get extremely into the weeds of this:
Your total hormone health and how that affects your base metabolic rate (BMR)
Your sleep quality and how that affects your leptin/ghrelin profiles
Your relative insulin sensitivity and how well your body can process insulin, glucose, and blood sugar levels
Your relative body composition and how much of that is muscle mass vs fat mass—200lbs can be a completely different metabolic situation depending on if that is 200lbs at 12% body fat vs 200lbs at 30% body fat
This list could go on and on into minutia
Essentially, as you can see your total health and fitness profile will determine just what outputs you have with “Calories Out”.
Take everything I just said above and how that might affect your total metabolic/calorie out rate. Regardless of how great or bad this situation is, basic laws of physics say there WILL be a number that will be your average net energy balance and BELOW this number you will see weight loss—full stop.
Just because we might have some hormonal or other health issue reducing the rate of Calories Out, this does not mean that the entire equation is irrelevant and suddenly a “scam” as I have seen on social media.
It exists and it is the determining factor of weight loss or weight gain regardless if we observe it or accept it. Like gravity or other laws of physics, it just “is” and will continue to be regardless of how you try to ignore or spin the definition.
Again, this is not to say things like your hormone health or food choices don’t affect this and can make it very hard to achieve the right net negative energy balance/caloric deficit to lose weight. These issues will play a big role in some cases in affecting your success with your goals. However, in most cases, we can take the right steps or even get the right medical treatment to improve the odds in our favor.
Because even though there will in fact, be a number of calories a day where you will lose weight if you consume those numbers, this can be very impractical if those numbers are extremely low or if we have certain health conditions making the process inefficient.
One Big Valid Argument
A really common, and pretty valid to a degree, argument against CICO is not whether it exists or not but rather that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to calculate accurately.
This is both true or false depending on semantics and application.
While yes, day-to-day it would be nearly impossible to know EXACTLY how many calories we burn and it would be very unlikely you burn the EXACT amount of calories day-to-day (even if nearly exact same routine), we fortunately can get a very good estimate if we follow trends and good calculations.
For most people, our day-to-day and week-to-week when looked at from a long enough time scale will be very similar. Humans are creatures of routine, especially in the modern world. This means that if we take a look at our week, we can likely come to a good average estimate of how many calories we burn on average a day.
To calculate this we can either run some experiments or use a much more efficient method and use a TDEE calculation based on our inputs to give us a good guess on what our outputs are. I have been doing this for a while and with a TON of people and can confidently say a good TDEE calculator is going to be either accurate enough to run with or give us a good point from where to adjust our caloric intake up or down to find where our rough average is by looking at weight trends.
This works well for the majority of people who have any semblance of a typical life from an activity standpoint. However, if you are some type of outlier who has massive variability with extreme activity levels, then we might have an issue… fortunately, that is like .001% of the world, I was even able to use estimated calorie calculation when Army SOF so if it worked well for me then I’m going to assume it’s going to work well for the overwhelming majority of people.
(I’ve used this calculator for about 7 years now).
Let’s Cover The Nuance (This Portion Was Written After Last Wednesday’s Twitter Drama, This Will Be Fun)
If you are wise and not on social media, you will have missed that I was unprovokedly “attacked” on Twitter for my stance on the grounds that Calories In vs Calories Out is “worthless” because “knowing that information doesn’t help people actually lose weight” or something along those lines.
The counter-position to CICO is that as a model it doesn’t work as well as people just lowering their carb intake (and thus total caloric intake AND/OR helping improve Calories Out via better hormonal/insulin response). Which, yes, lowering carb intake will, in fact, result in weight loss if lowering those calories from carbs results in a net caloric deficit… This is where my confusion really took off because basically it acknowledges at its core a caloric deficit MUST exist for fat loss but CICO is bad because knowing so doesn’t help that happen… I understand if you’re confused, I was too, and if you didn’t listen to this debate… I’m happy for you hahahaha. I digress…
While we won’t dwell on this, we will dwell on a nuance here, one I absolutely agree with. That is we should make food choices that support our bodies’ current condition, meaning that if we have insulin issues maybe we should create our caloric deficit and help rebuild our metabolism by lowering carb intake in order to create a better, healthier hormone environment.
Another aspect here is our food choices, we want to replace highly palatable processed food with natural whole foods that are going to have more favorable outcomes on our health on a holistic level which will then improve our metabolisms through various means like:
Giving the body better nutrients than it is likely getting from processed foods
If we go from lower protein intake to adequate, higher protein intake we will increase our metabolism via the thermic effect of food
Lowering inflammation which can positively influence our metabolism
Reduce/fix improper hunger and satiation hormones/signaling that processed foods can cause
The list goes on, this is just an example of the In affecting the Out
When we are putting a ton of garbage into our bodies, we will eventually start to feel like garbage. People will often try to “debunk” CICO by saying “Well is 2000 calories of pizza and beer going to have the same effect as 2000 calories of beef and eggs” they are actually missing a huge point of CICO. No, it will not end in the same result because
If we are consuming more protein with beef and eggs vs pizza and beer then we will be burning more calories just to digest it—positively impacting Calories Out
If we repeated these exact same meals over time the negative effects of junk food will have negative effects on inflammation and other hormone responses thus reducing Calories Out
This is an extreme example I see thrown out all the time that is rather silly because they reduce CICO to a point that is far too simple when CICO is a living, breathing equation that changes depending on what variables are applied to it.
This leads us to an often overlooked but highly important aspect of CICO which is how we can in fact GREATLY improve the Out through our own efforts.
We absolutely can control how much we exercise & how much we move throughout the day. Not only is this exercise and activity increasing our Calories Out, but the direct health benefits of both adequate exercise* and daily activity levels are going to create conditions where our health/hormones/metabolisms are in a much healthier place thus improving Calories Out even more.
*(Side note: I actually like the key guidelines that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends, it’s pretty based and obesity rates would be a fraction of what they are now. I’d add at least 1 more lifting day but not bad considering the government put this out…)
On top of all the above, we need to look at things such as sleep quality and even frequently overlooked things like light-viewing behavior. These types of activities, when done well, are going to improve things from how well we make decisions on Calories In via better hormone signaling and mental states as well as influence Calories Out by leading to more energy thus movement during the day and again by the more optimal hormone signaling.
While I’m not going to list out every single minutia that would positively or negatively influence CICO, I’m trying to make a very key point, actually 2 key points:
Calories In Vs Calories Out is objectively true and we have a big say in how this equation plays out, either in our favor or working against us
Arguing over best diet models and focusing on diet only for fat loss is somewhat silly because we should be focusing on ALL aspects of health and doing what we can to improve the system as a whole because if all we focus on is diet, we’re missing the BIG PICTURE on what will actually constitute good health
The latter is something I often think to myself when I see comments like “Well of course you can eat carbs, you are active and workout, someone who doesn’t is going to have issues with those carbs”… which very well could be true…
…BUT, aren’t they saying the quiet part out loud? Couldn’t (and shouldn’t) we be making the argument that one of the biggest issues is that they AREN’T active and working out?
While yes, I’ll agree that not being obese without working out is healthier than being obese without working out, isn’t that a low standard and bar too many set for themselves and others?
The reality is, if you’re doing everything right in other health departments, you can get away with A LOT in terms of bad diet before running into the health issues posed by being obese… We say being obese is unacceptable for health but why don’t we make the same case for not exercising being unacceptable for health when the data is clear and it would make people’s struggle with obesity MUCH easier and even eliminate or at the least prevent it for many?
Now I understand and empathize that this gets much harder and diet plays much more of a role when we are already obese, it is still extremely important and going to solve the issue much quicker than diet alone. This will play a huge role only if and when someone does reverse their obesity and rebuilds their health but for those who aren’t there and still have time to fix the course before life gets exponentially harder (the worst thing is losing your mobility because of obesity, your fight to reverse it will get near infinitely harder).
Reeling It Back In and Concluding This Debacle
If people could stop being pedantic and misunderstanding or miscategorizing what CICO/Net Energy Balance/Law of Thermodynamics is then we could probably have world peace and already be a multi-planetary species… but unfortunately, they won’t so I have to write silly posts like this instead of the new actionable and informative posts + programs I have coming out over the next couple months…
Instead, we have to make simple things complicated and oversimplify complicated things—it’s human nature.
The facts of the matter are that CICO exists, we must be on the right side of the equation to reach whichever result it is we’re after which could mean a deficit if the goal is fat loss or potentially a surplus if the goal is muscle growth.
We can ignore this and try to achieve these things through various methods and strategies, but the fact of the matter is these conditions have to exist in the background to happen.
So while maybe it’s true that telling people and having them try to track these concepts doesn’t help them, it doesn’t make it any less true that it’s happening behind the scenes.
Regardless, I’ve always been of the position that giving people as much *relevant* knowledge and tools to help them get to their goals is always a net positive because knowledge is POWER and my role as a health and fitness professional is to emPOWER people to reach their goals and best results.
Furthermore, just because something isn’t as “esoteric optimally healthy” as a Twitter Guru states, it does not somehow negate the reality of CICO, as I’ve seen many times in regard to some posts about how avoiding seed oils and various unhealthy chemicals make CICO “a scam”… again… it all plays a part of it as explained.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t make better choices and avoid things that aren’t good for us, we should, but we can’t avoid the fact of the matter which is we must burn more calories than consumed for weight loss.
So, depending on how you go about this, whether it is cutting out carbs, maybe seed oils, tracking or not tracking, whatever it is, we must be aware, and if not aware we must BE in the right net energy balance to produce the result we are after.
P.S Don’t forget to check out the new episode of the In Gains We Trust Podcast dropping later this morning (30 minutes).
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.