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  • Writer's pictureScott Pettey

Calorie Balance

Of all the nutritional priorities, calorie intake will have the biggest effect on the outcome of a diet. You can eat the “healthiest” foods, time your meals to the minute, take the best supplements at GNC, and have your hydration spot on—but if you chronically overeat or undereat calories you will experience changes in your bodyweight and body composition.

A calorie is a unit of energy. Calories ingested through food and drink are used for energy to keep your organs functioning and to fuel physical activity. Once your daily needs are met, excess calories are either burned through physical activity or stored mostly as body fat.

Bodyweight and body composition are directly associated with health. There’s no “ideal” bodyweight for everyone. There’s a range of bodyweights considered healthy based on your height—found using body mass index (BMI). BMI is a useful screening tool, but doesn’t tell the whole picture. Excess body fat, not necessarily the number on the scale, contributes most to negative health outcomes. A waist circumference measurement, in addition to BMI, is a better indicator of your overall health risk.

Some important points concerning bodyweight and health:

  • Being chronically underweight or overweight both come with increased risks of certain diseases and poor health.

  • Outside the elderly population, being underweight is far less common than being overweight.

  • Having extra muscle isn’t nearly as unhealthy as having extra fat—the leaner and more muscular you are, the better for health.

  • Having excess body fat and being under-muscled still puts you at higher risk of disease even if you’re in a healthy bodyweight range.

So what is calorie balance? Calorie balance is the ideal end point of all diets. You can’t diet down to weighing zero pounds and you don’t want to do the yo-yo diet—lose 10 pounds, immediately put 12 back on. Eventually you’ll get to your goal weight. Then the goal is to consume roughly the same amount of calories you burn throughout the day or week—maintaining your healthy weight. Ideally, this is achieved through a combination of regular physical activity and controlling your calorie intake.

If you do find yourself outside your healthy weight range, particularly if you have excess body fat, it’s best to use a short-term calorie deficit to achieve steady and sustainable weight loss. In general, it’s best to aim for a 10-15% cut of your daily calorie intake for an 8-12 week diet. You can make small adjustments to these numbers based on how you’re progressing through the diet, but this is a great starting point for someone looking to lose body fat and keep it off. For more on diet sustainability, check out Part 2 of my article on diet adherence.

It’s also important to set your expectations on a realistic rate of weight loss. For the best chance of losing weight and keeping it off, aim to lose about 0.5% to 1% of your total bodyweight per week. Meaning if you weigh 200 pounds, aim to lose about one to two pounds per week. It’s possible to lose at a faster rate—many people do—unfortunately, most people who lose at a faster pace end up regaining the weight they lost, or more.

The above recommendations are the same for someone trying to gain weight—yes, there are some people who need to gain weight for health. Shooting for a 10-15% increase in your daily calorie intake for an 8-12 week diet and looking to gain about a half percent to one percent of your total bodyweight per week.

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