With thousands of questions like “Can I eat white bread without getting fat?” hitting the internet every day and thousands of articles with titles like “The Top 5 Fat Burning Foods” showing up after every Google search, it’s clear that the fitness community lacks basic knowledge of nutrition for fat loss. That’s why I decided to get rid of all the confusion by discussing 1 fairly simple scientific term, the “Energy Balance.”

What Is The Energy Balance?

The energy balance describes the relationship between “energy in” (calories consumed) and “energy out” (calories burned).

  • If the number of calories consumed is higher than the number of calories burned, you gain fat (positive energy balance).
  • If the number of calories consumed is lower than the number of calories burned, you burn fat (negative energy balance).

Positive energy balance

When you are in a positive energy balance, you are consuming more energy than your body needs. The scientific law of thermodynamics shows that energy can’t be destroyed, only transformed. So a surplus of energy has to be saved. How does the human body do that? By saving the extra energy as fat, which can be used as “fuel” in times of scarcity.

Simple example, a study by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center put 25 healthy male and female volunteers on several types of diets that put them in a daily surplus of 1000 calories. This means that the volunteers would eat 1000 calories more than they burned per day. Regardless of what type of diet they followed, they all gained fat. Why? Because the volunteers were maintaining a positive energy balance.

Negative energy balance

When you are in a negative energy balance, you are consuming less energy than your body needs. The scientific law of thermodynamics shows that energy also can’t be created, only transformed. So the human body has to tap into its (fat) reserves to receive the needed energy.

Knowing this, you could just eat Twinkies, Oreo’s, Nutty Bars etc. and still burn fat. Just by maintaining a negative energy balance, right? Students of Human Nutrition at the Kansas State University didn’t believe this and to be honest, I didn’t either. This goes against everything the “fitness industry” has been telling us.

Energy balance

To anecdotally proof the validity of the energy balance, a professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas University State, Mark Haub, went on a 2-month diet. During this diet, around 70% of all the calories he consumed came from junk food.

While doing this, he maintained a calorie deficit (calorie deficit = negative energy balance) of 800 calories per day. He lost 27 pounds!

A negative energy balance is essential for fat loss

The takeaway message from this isn’t that you should eat junk food to burn fat, but that you must maintain a negative energy balance if fat loss is the goal.

Remember, fat loss occurs in times of food scarcity. When you feed your body less energy than it needs.  That’s why the goal of every fat loss program should be to put you in a negative energy balance, not to make you perform extra cardio or eat less bread per se.

How Many Calories Do You Burn?

In order to know how many calories you should eat, you need to have a good estimate of how many calories your body expends per day on average. Some think that if they eat 2,500 calories a day, they need to burn off 2,500 calories with just physical exercise to maintain their physique. This is not the case. The human body is constantly using energy, even when it’s completely inactive.

The number of calories you expend is determined by 3 main factors.

  • At rest, your heart still needs to pump blood, you still need to breathe, and muscle needs to recover. Things like this cost energy, which we measure in calories. Research defines the amount of calories your body burns to function (excluding physical exercise and absorption of food) as the “metabolic rate.” The metabolic rate has the greatest effect on total daily energy expenditure.
  • The food you eat needs to be absorbed and digested. This process costs energy and is known as the ”thermic effect of food”. The type of food you eat influences the number of calories your body burns. Through research, we know that absorbing processed food costs less energy than absorbing wholesome food. Even though the differences are small (100-200 calories max), it can make a difference for a person trying to eat as many calories as possible during a fat loss period.
  • Every physical activity, from raising your hand to sprinting, costs energy. The amount of calories you burn here is completely depended on the length and intensity of your activities. If you have a very active job and train regularly, you burn many extra calories. If the opposite is true, then you burn fewer calories and generally need to eat less than a very active person to lose fat.

Energy balance

As you can see, determining the number of calories you expend in a day isn’t that simple. Things like age and height also come in to play when trying to figure out how much you should eat.

Luckily, there are calculators that help us estimate the number of calories we expend per day on average. I’ve found this calculator to be quite useful. It’s based on the Mifflin-St Jeor. equation, which has been shown to provide a good estimate.

Is The Energy Balance All That Matters?

The energy balance may sound too simple to be true, but it’s is a well-known phenomenon in nutritional sciences. As mentioned earlier, it’s even backed by a scientific law, the law of thermodynamics. Knowing how the energy balance works is important because without a negative energy balance your body won’t burn any fat.

But if you want to maximize the amount of fat you lose, there are some other factors you need to keep in mind. For example, research shows that a high protein diet forces your body to burn more fat than a low protein diet, within the same caloric deficit.

There are several other factors like this, but I don’t want to make this blog post too long. That’s why I’ve put together a free ”Fat Loss Checklist” for you. I take you through everything you need to know to start burning fat at a – faster than usual – rate. I will send you your free fat loss checklist if you fill in the form below.