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Calories in vs Calories out, the great debate…


Ok, we’ve heard all of this before. You need to burn more calories than you expend. Old news isn’t it? Before I start, I need you to accept that this is a fact with most of the population but not all. For the vast majority of people changing your overall weight or body composition starts with calories.

“But I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work” I hear you cry! 

Well, and this is a massive assumption, if you did try it you either A) didn’t do it properly or B) didn’t do it for long enough. Option C) however is the caveat for calorie alteration diets: the “in vs out” method doesn’t account for hormonal changes. So, if you have a health issue or are taking medications that may affect your metabolism, then this method won’t work as well as others. I didn’t say it wont work, but just not as well. Now even if it doesn’t work as well, there are a few myths about calories and dieting I’m going to try and clear up here and now and hopefully provide a pathway you can follow. 

Nailing your nutrition, Step One…Figure out your calorie intake

This is a simple one. No maths equations here. No recommendations to download “MyFitnessPal” although it is very helpful. What I ask clients to do is to take the daily recommended intake of 2500 Cals for men and 2000 Cals for women and start there. Save time by not working out the exact numbers as to be perfectly honest the calorie estimates of some foods on the shelves, particularly those that are packaged, are wrong by up to 20%. Which in some cases is as much as 100g – 300g (FDA, 2015). Considering that one gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories if you were to smash that “fruit and nut bar” after a workout and the estimate was out by nearly 90 calories it makes a big difference over the course of a day. 90 calories is nearly 10 minutes moderate effort on an exercise bike. 

General recommendation for weight loss and weight gain works here too, so remove 100 calories from your daily allowance if you wish to lose weight or add 100 to gain weight. If it doesn’t feel like its working after a few weeks then add/remove more calories. And yes, I did say a few weeks, in my experience those clients who I’ve had for 3 years and are still losing weight are most likely to keep that weight off long into later life where it can really do some damage to your health. 

So how do we get the right calories in? Step two: Food choice

This is a very simple rule to note, but the behaviour of which are incredibly difficult to manage for some. I’ve seen clients adapt quickly, some I’ve coached for years and still they don’t adhere to the ideal…or they just don’t want it badly enough. So, here goes…

Stick to the outer rim of the supermarket. That’s where all the fresh produce is. If its fresh it means it has a short shelf life which generally means all the loose vegetables are there, along with the animal products, eggs and milk. Of course remember, the bakery is there too if fresh bread is too big a temptation to turn down. But the ice cream isn’t. The confectionary isn’t. The pre packaged and processed meals aren’t either. Avoiding these aisles is the first step. 

Make sure your plate is colourful. Plenty of vegetables, some fruit, little starch and hardly any sugar with a protein source. Easy peasy. From a portion size perspective there is a cool little rule I follow if you are struggling:

1 fist = protein source, be it animal or vegetarian

1 hand = vegetables, boost to 2 hands if you are looking to lose weight.

1 thumb = fat choice. That’s not a lot of avocado people…

1 palm = carbohydrate source. That’s probably around half a small jacket potato, add 2 palms if looking to gain weight. 

If you stick to the outer limits of the supermarket and fill your plate with colours you won’t need to count calories. 200 calories of bacon is 2 rashers of bacon, not a lot of fibre or nutrients there. 200 calories of broccoli is 588g of broccoli (calorific app, 2018) which is a very large head of broccoli, its half a kilogram of broccoli! The bag of spinach that you’ve picked up but never managed to finish? You know the huge one that’s only a pound to purchase? There are 70 calories in that whole bag. 70 calories is roughly one egg (or roughly 3 breadsticks) 

You see what I’m getting at here? If counting isn’t your thing then these very simple rules could change things for you for the better. And with your meals, you can add sauces if you wish but I’d recommend spices. Eating like this also means that if you do, on occasion, find yourself eating an ice cream then your body should use the calories effectively, especially if you are following an exercise regime. 

One final note to be aware of for women: The menstrual cycle. I touched on hormonal changes at the start, women have two hormonal phases each month: High and Low (Sims, 2018) During the low hormonal phase, women process glucose/carbohydrate in a very similar way to men. However, during the high phase, a few other changes occur which are worth noting:

High oestrogen levels cause the body to save its carbohydrate stores and use more fat for fuel, which means if you’ve been doing interval training or going to HIIT classes then you won’t perform as well on your period (I know right, this is a shock to many of you) 

The same can be said of women with PCOS or those undergoing hormone replacement therapy. The trick to managing this is to either eat more carbs if you are HIIT training or to do more endurance activity as free fatty acid availability is rife and can be used in abundance. One study shows that during the premenstrual period, where oestrogen starts to rise the metabolism kicks up a gear by around 5-10% – about 200 calories you’ll need to adjust for but not through crisps and chocolate! 

Changing your body composition is difficult but if you create good habits regarding choice of foods then the calorie debate takes care of itself giving you time to focus on other things. And the longer the process takes the better it will be for you in the long run.

About the Author

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David has been a strength and conditioning coach for 11 years working in some of the biggest gyms in London. His background speaks for itself, a jack of all trades he runs a sub 1:45 half marathon, deadlifts twice his bodyweight and once clean and jerked 105kg at 76kg bodyweight. He takes on endurance events, is regularly on a bike, carrying something heavy or crawling under barbed wire.

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