The single best argument against energy-balance theory
A short tale of omelets and six-pack abs
In some corners of the internet (and in gyms every here and there), a heated debate is taking place. It’s a debate which brings quite an interesting blend of people to the table. On one end, there is this group of people, mostly from the fitness industry. Coaches, trainers, and athletes. All with quite some lean muscle mass (and hefty PRs) to show for them.
With them, they have a handful of medical or health professionals: doctors and dieticians. What’s interesting, however, is that at the other end of the table, there are more of those.
The two camps argue about this statement:
Losing weight is all about calories in versus calories out. Burn more than you eat, and you will lose weight.
This theory is called energy balance. It’s a very easy to grasp concept: your body is a storage unit for energy. If you take out more energy than you put in, it will become lighter. It’s easy to see why this is appealing.
The fitness group is mostly in favor of the statement. And, when it comes to followers, they are winning by a landslide. Ask anyone random person how to lose weight, and the answer you will get will almost certainly be: eat less, move more. Ergo: tip the energy-balance scale so that you burn more than you consume.
But that’s not what the other group believes. They say that the human body is a much more complex system, regulated by hormones. As a result, they state that when you eat and what types of food you eat are much more important than just the amount of calories.
So who’s right? The fit, or the smart?
(Yes, fit people can be smart too. Calm down.)
“Once the eggs set, top with the seasoned cream-and-butter mixture and the diced onion. Enjoy.”
A quick note on evidence
It’s quite easy to understand why most people take the energy-balance theory for truth. Apart from the fact that it just makes sense on a macro level, it’s also hard not to believe people with a body to kill for when it comes to nutritional advice.
If I want to learn how to run faster, no matter what a doctor tells me: I’m doing what Usain Bolt tells me. So if I want to shed some pounds and get leaner, who am I believing? A very wise, but very unathletic doctor, or this ripped dude that deadlifts the weight of my entire family?
However, we must be mindful not to put too much trust in anecdotal evidence. Everyone has this one aunt or grandmother who has smoked since 1921, but is still alive and well. This, however, does not mean that smoking isn’t bad for you. It’s anecdotal.
The same goes for ripped guys and instafamous booty-models. Yes, they might look incredible — but they’re also likely to A) spend most of their time on their health and body and B) have incredibly favorable genetics to look that way.
Back to energy balance
Whenever the argument takes off, the doctors and dieticians are quick to take out their textbooks and start pouring facts and papers all over the place, proving energy-balance is at least partly wrong.
The problem with this is that people don’t relate to those papers and research in general. They are just numbers and graphs. Moreover, they don’t understand half of what’s being said.
Sixpack abs, however, they understand. And two hundred thousand Instagram followers, too. So most of the time, they go with the fitness community — and energy balance.
But not anymore
There is, however, another way to look at it, without resorting to research that you’d need a Ph.D. in biology to fully grasp.
Image this simple recipe for an omelet. It has butter, eggs, a splash of cream, some diced onion, sliced bell peppers, basic seasoning, and grated cheese. To make this omelet as tasty as possible, you first heat a skillet and melt the butter in it. When the butter has melted, you lower the heat a bit and glaze the onions with the bell peppers. Meanwhile, you whisk up the eggs and cream in a separate bowl, season those lightly, and add them to the pan, stirring occasionally.
Slowly, the eggs start to set, nicely surrounding the onion and pepper. A few minutes in, you spread your grated cheese over the omelet, and you put on a lid for the cheese to melt. Once the cheese has gone soft, you fold the omelet in half and transfer it to a plate.
When you cut into the folded omelet, the inside will still be velvety soft, and some of the cheese will flow out. Super simple, but heavenly good.
According to energy-balance, this works too:
Put the pan on the heat. Put in the cheese and wait for it to melt and stick to the bottom of the pan. Put in one egg and stir to loosen all the cheese. Once the first egg has set, add the bell pepper and wait for it to dry out a bit. Season the cream and the butter in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the eggs to the skillet, and stir while they solidify. Once they do, top with the seasoned cream-and-butter mixture and the diced onion. Enjoy.
This is what energy-balance tries to sell you on. It basically says that timing and composition don’t matter. As long as you get the main ingredients in, at the end of the day the results will be the same. Calories in, calories out.
If, for something as simple as preparing an omelet, the timing and composition are so crucial that you’d end up with an inedible dish if you screw it up, then how can it be that to the incredibly complex human body, timing and composition don’t matter?
Well, turns out it does matter. Massively.
Cooking is a great metaphor for diet, that is easier for people to understand than graphs, numbers and citations.
Your body is a hormonal machine which responds almost solely to timing and composition. It’s not a tank that you fill up with gas whenever it runs empty. Instead, it’s more like baking an omelet. Minor adjustments in timing and food composition can have a major impact on the end result.
However — that’s not to say that calories don’t matter. To stick to the omelet metaphor: if you add five times as many onions, your omelet will still suck, no matter how nicely you try to prepare it.