Energy balance is the term used to describe the energy we consume in our food and drinks in relation to the energy we expend. Energy is measured in calories and if we consume more than we ‘burn’ then we will be in positive energy balance and, over time, we will gain weight. Conversely, if we ‘burn’ more energy than we consume, we will be in negative energy balance and, over time, we will lose weight. It sounds incredibly easy, so why do so many of us get it wrong?

Unfortunately, in today’s so-called ‘obesogenic environment’, each side of the energy balance scale is too easily tipped one way or the other. This is largely blamed on modern urban environments. On one side of the scale, there is the increased availability of calorie-dense foods and drinks —due mainly to a rise in restaurants, takeaways, and convenience foods. On the other side of the sale cars are preferred over walking; lifts and escalators over stairs and, of course, there’s the workplace —where sedentary jobs have replaced — energy consuming — physical labour. It’s no wonder that many of us consume more energy than we expend without even realising it.

One thing we at ECF are often asked is, “how many calories do I need to eat each day?” Is there a definitive amount that we can advise people to consume? The short answer is no. Daily calorie requirements are based on many aspects, and no two people are the same across all of these factors. If we all followed exactly the same diet and calorie intake as each other, some of us would gain weight while others would lose some.  Genetics play a small part but more significant are gender and body composition. Lean body tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue, therefore, requires more energy. Men generally have a greater percentage of lean body mass than women and, therefore, require more energy. Physical activity can increase lean body mass which too can lead to requiring more energy. This is where weight bearing exercise and increasing our muscle mass can be really beneficial when it comes to energy balance. It’s also worth remembering that the rules differ for children who are in energy balance when the energy in and out supports natural growth without promoting excess weight gain.

Dietary guidelines broadly recommend a daily intake ~ 2,500 calories for men and ~2,000 calories for women. But these figures are general and there are many factors that should be taken into account when assessing personal needs in maintaining a healthy body weight. One thing often forgotten is that these guidelines for calorie requirements are coupled with physical activity guidelines. Adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and include at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week along with two or more days per week of strength exercises. Only then does the 2,500/2,000 number fit.

To do this, you don’t need to count every calorie, but be more mindful of the calorie content of the foods and drinks that you consume. Drinks are particularly important and although the obvious culprits are sugar-sweetened drinks, others such as fruit juices or milky coffees can also increase our daily calorie intake, especially as they all now come in larger sizes.

Your energy in and out doesn’t have to balance every day. It’s about having a balance over time (weeks and months) that will help you stay at a healthy weight for the long term. We could think of energy balance as “lifestyle budgeting” where if we know we’re going to be consuming lots of high-calorie food, then we might eat fewer calories during the days before. Or, we could increase our physical activity level for the few days prior or after to burn off that extra energy.

Knowing the calorie content of foods can be a useful tool and this is stated on the packaging in the nutrition label under the “Energy” heading. But take care, the manufacture’s idea of “one portion” may differ from yours, and there could be many more calories in the portion you serve yourself.  Often restaurants and takeaways publish energy information on their menus or websites although this can sometimes be tricky to find so don’t be shy about asking them.

Preparing your own food and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can help reduce the energy we consume. Thinking about what we’re eating in relation to our whole diet. While eating starchy foods should make up a third of our overall diet, where possible, we could go for slow-burning wholegrain or wholemeal varieties. These release energy gradually which can reduce between-meal-snacking. The same can be said for fruits and vegetables, eat more and eat it complete (don’t juice). Again, the nutrients and energy will be released slowly while the fibre will keep us sustained.

If you are gaining weight, or if you find your clothes are getting tighter, then you’re consuming more calories than your body requires. Therefore, to prevent further weight gain, you need to either cut your energy intake or increase your energy output by ‘burning’ calories via physical activity, preferably both. It’s much easier to nudge both sides of the energy balance scale rather than significantly change one.

This article was written for The Speaker Paper, Edinburgh, April 2016.