Does Calories In Calories Out Still Work In 2021?
By: Zack Mathews
Yes, calories in vs calories out still works year after year, but most people don't understand what it really means.
While browsing Reddit one afternoon, I came across a post from a women who recently hired a personal trainer. She was extremely excited from her initial consultation and it seemed like they hit it off and she was given an In Body scan (a somewhat accurate determiner for body fat percentage).
As a personal trainer myself, I was happy for her enthusiasm and wished her the best of luck on her journey. I gave her one piece of advice based on some additional information she gave and that is what this article is going to address.
From her In Body scan, she was told by her new trainer that her basal metabolic rate is 1300 calories and that’s the calories for weight loss that she should be consuming. It made sense to her that she had been gaining weight because she was eating above the 1300 calories, aka her basal metabolic rate!
Here’s a few things you might be thinking.
What the heck does basal metabolic rate mean?
1300 calories doesn’t seem like much!
What should I make for dinner? (Maybe that's just me right now)
While her trainer was not wrong that 1300 calories will more than likely make her lose weight, there are other factors that her new trainer didn’t bother mentioning to her that she should know and understand.
That’s what I want to teach you here today.
By the end of this article you will have great understanding of what your metabolic rate is, what factors go into determining it, and be able to explain calories in calories out with confidence.
In it’s most simplified terms…
ENERGY BALANCE = ENERGY IN - ENERGY OUT
When ENERGY IN < ENERGY OUT = weight loss occurs.
When ENERGY IN > ENERGY OUT = weight gain occurs.
If they equal each other that is your maintenance level and no weight gain or weight loss will occur.
Sometimes looking at these in a picture is helpful for some. If you’ve read any of my other articles, you may have seen this before, but if you are new, check these out!
As you can see from the pictures above, the energy in is the food you consume. That side of the equation is the easy part because you can find the amount of calories of any food you eat on labels, websites, or tracking apps.
Energy out is the more difficult part of the equation that most people never take the time to understand, like our friend in the introduction section. We can’t blame her though since her trainer gave her somewhat false information.
But not you! It’s time for you to know all about calories in calories out so next time you are out at a bar with friends and the conversation of energy balance comes up, you’ll know exactly what to say.
Because we all know that’s normal conversation at a bar…
To explain energy out, there are four different components that go into it, and together they are called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Your total daily energy expenditure consists of your basal metabolic rate (BMR), your thermic effect of food (TEF), thermic effect of exercise (TEE), and your non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
Lot’s of strange words right? Not to worry, they are actually easier to understand than you might think!
We will start with your basal metabolic rate which makes up the majority of your energy out. It is often referred to as your resting metabolic rate (RMR).
According to Science Direct, “The BMR is enough energy for the brain and central nervous system, heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, muscles, sex organs, and skin to function properly”. (LINK)
Essentially, BMR is the energy your body uses to keep you alive.
Your BMR can make up roughly 60-70% of your TDEE. Quiz time! Do you remember what TDEE stands for? Hopefully you got it, but it stands for total daily energy expenditure.
Everyone's basal metabolic rate will be different based on numerous factors. If you are overweight, you actually might have a higher BMR because your body has to work harder to maintain all those vital organs in your body. On the other hand, someone with a lot of muscle might also have a higher BMR since muscle is part of the systems that need energy.
As I stated in the beginning of this section, your BMR is often referred to as your resting metabolic rate (RMR), and it’s important to discuss that since you might only hear people reference RMR.
In order to actually determine your total BMR, you need to be asleep. Since most people are doing these tests awake at their gyms, your RMR might be the better way way to approximate your TDEE.
In order to find your RMR, most people can generally multiply their weight by 10 - 11 and be somewhere in that range.
For example, if you weigh 165 pounds, you would have a RMR estimate between 1650 - 1815 calories.
Time to move onto food, everyone's favorite subject!
You might not have known this, but your body is burning energy while it processes and digests your food.
Of the three macronutrients; proteins, carbs, and fats, protein is the highest user of energy when you body digests it.
This means that technically the more protein you eat, the more calories you are burning. Although this is true, it’s not by much and it’s not worth obsessing over it. Your calorie deficit or surplus, depending on your goal, is the most important factor for change, and manipulating the types of foods you eat to help burn more calories isn’t going to move the needle that much.
In our grand calculation to find your TDEE, TEF will make up roughly 10% of that total.
To put that into numbers again, let’s say eat 2500 calories a day.
That means that 250 calories would be going toward TEF. This number could be slightly higher or lower depending on types of food you eat and insulin sensitivity, but it’s a good average.
2 down, 2 to go!
When it comes to exercise, this is the one that many people think is the most important.
They feel like they need to go kill themselves on a treadmill to burn enough calories to get into a calorie deficit when their goal is to lose weight.
Contrary to the previous two parts, it’s extremely hard to give you an accurate percentage of your total daily energy expenditure from exercise. Someone that never exercises could be at 0% while a world class athlete may be burning thousands of calories a day.
Since most of us fall somewhere in the middle to middle bottom half, we should know that burning calories from exercise is good for us, but that you shouldn’t be exercising for the main goal of burning calories.
Your goal with exercising should be for overall health, better cardiovascular health, build muscle and strength, and to move and feel better.
Imagine you go running for 60 minutes and your watch tells you burned 400 calories. We will actually say it’s probably closer to 300 calories since the calorie burned on watches is extremely inaccurate.
Sorry to burst your bubble if you didn’t know that...
Anyways, you burn 300 calories for 60 minutes of cardio. Now think about how quickly you can eat 300 calories. You could grab 300 calories of Oreos and have them eaten in 2 minutes.
For myself, I would be at 600 calories in 2 minutes.
For most of us, you can’t out train your diet so it’s more important to focus on your food choices rather than doing all this exercise for the goal of burning calories.
To give you a rough estimate for your TEE for TDEE, we will say it’s between 0 - 10% daily for the average person.
The main takeaway from this is that you should be exercising for overall health, you understand that exercise makes up a small percentage of your TDEE, and that you shouldn’t obsess over burning calories for exercise.
We’ve reached the final piece of your TDEE puzzle, and this is an interesting one.
Lyle McDonald sums up NEAT perfectly, with a great example to visualize it. He said, “NEAT more or less refers to fidgeting, moving around, basically weird spontaneous movement that burns off calories without really accomplishing much. If you remember back to high school, there was always that one skinny guy who was always fidgeting his hands, bouncing his leg, that kind of thing. He was burning calories at a much greater rate than you might expect. Even chewing gum all day can burn up a lot of calories.” (LINK)
I love this example, because that’s me! I’ve always been the skinny kid and it’s tough to sit still sometimes. Which is why I am tapping my foot on the ground as I write this…
Mr. McDonald goes onto explain that there is a huge variation in the amount of NEAT that each of us has each day, ranging from 200 - 900 calories! Most of it is entirely genetic so you can’t really change it.
Think about that though, two people could exercise and eat the same way, but one might have a NEAT of 200 calories/day while the other is 900 calories/day. If they had the same goal of weight loss, the person burning 900 calories would be losing weight at a much faster rate than the other.
Similar to TEE, because of it’s wide range depending on the person, we can approximate NEAT to be around 5-15% of your TDEE.
Now that we’ve gone through your 4 components of TDEE, here’s an easy summary to review our main points.
Now we also know that…
- Energy in is easy to calculate as it is the food you consume.
- Your BMR or RMR makes up about 60-70% of your TDEE.
- TEF makes up about 10% of TDEE.
- TEE can be drastically different based on how much you exercise but normally is around 0-10% of your TDEE.
- Your NEAT is also dependent on the person so we will say roughly 5-15% of your total daily energy expenditure.
Now that you understand TDEE, anytime you have a calorie target that you are trying to hit, you can understand the meaning behind it.
If you have a weight loss goal and are told to eat 1800 calories, that means that the sum of your BMR, TEF, TEE, and NEAT is estimated to be above that 1800 calories. Since your goal is to lose weight, that 1800 calories will put you in a calorie deficit and you will lose weight.
The inverse is true as well. If your goal is to gain weight and run a calculator or meet with a trainer and they say to eat 2000 calories, that means they are estimating that your TDEE is less than 2000. Since they are having you eat above your TDEE, you will gain weight.
Although this article is to help you understand how calories in calories out works, you might be interested in getting an estimate for how many calories you should be consuming.
Depending on your goal, I have different articles that will help guide you.
If your goal is to lose weight, check out Macros For Weight Loss.
Want to gain weight? Check out Ectomorph Weight Gain guide.
If you feel like you might be skinny fat, where you need to lose some belly fat, but are also skinny, check out Skinny Fat to Fit.