Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Weight Loss Is Simple Math, Right?

There is much debate in the world of calories these days. The simplistic approach of just reducing caloric intake in order to lose weight has become scrutinized. Not necessarily because it's wrong, but because there's more to the story. Or is there? Let's take a look and see.

It has long been held that creating a caloric deficit, either by consuming fewer calories or by burning off more calories, is all that is needed in order to reduce weight. Simple math.

Calories In - Calories Out = Caloric Deficit/Surplus = Weight Loss/Gain

Take in more calories than you burn off...gain weight. Burn more calories that you consume...lose weight. In other words, regardless of what you eat, so long as you consume less calories than you burn off you will lose weight. Simple, right?

Yes, and that's the problem. Let me explain. Given that a gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrate both contain 4 calories, you would assume that consuming 50 grams of each would have the same effect on the body. After all, both would constitute a 200 calorie intake (btw, calories per gram of any given nutrient are averages and will vary from food source to food source...therefore, 2 grams of fat taken from two different food sources may actually have caloric discrepancies, even though fat in general is given a caloric content of 9 calories per gram). However, this is not the case. Data suggests that the thermic effect of nutrients will vary, with protein having the highest metabolic cost of the three macronutrients (protein the highest, then carbohydrate, then fat).

Therefore, simple math will tell you that if it takes more energy to metabolize 200 calories of protein than it does to metabolize 200 calories of carbohydrates, consuming 200 calories of each can't possibly be equal in terms of the effects it will have on weight loss efforts. In other words, simple math will tell you it's not simple math. Even within nutrients, there are differences in metabolic cost. For instance, fiber will have a higher metabolic cost than simple sugars.

So what is the message behind all of this? Counting calories is not good enough when it comes to achieving optimal weight loss. The composition of your meals will have an impact, and metabolic cost is one mechanism by which this will occur. Other factors that determine how you respond to the composition of your meals include hormonal responses, health status, and exercise habits...among others.

So while calories consumed is important, if you're not losing weight by simply cutting calories you need to consider other options. Taking a close look at the composition of your meals would be the ideal place to start.

Chad Anderson, CSCS is the owner/operator of Anderson Fitness Solutions, a personal training, fitness programming, and weight management business. He holds a bachelor's degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. You can visit his fitness information website at


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