Nutrition can be complicated. Is the answer low carb, high carb, plant based only, meat only or a mix? However, before you even touch the topic on macronutrient distribution, there is a concept that is central to all decisions around nutrition planning, and that is energy balance.
Energy balance refers to the simple scientific truth that in order to maintain a stable weight, the amount of energy we consume must be equal to the amount of energy we expend. If we eat more than we expend during the day, we will gain weight, and if we eat less that we expend, we will lose weight. It might sound simple, however within the topic of energy balance requires some nuance.
To start, the amount of energy (calories or kilojoules) each person requires will be different, depending on their weight, age, health status, body composition and activity levels. There is a minimum amount of energy humans need in order to maintain normal life and bodily functions, like organ function, cell function and maintaining body temperature, at rest - this is referred to as our basal metabolic rate. So that is just before we get out of bed in the morning. Once up and moving, further energy is required to fuel daily activities like standing, sitting, driving the car, and to cover the energy cost of digestion and absorption of food and any planned exercise. These are all the ‘energy out’ part of the equation - the things are what the food we eat fuels. So, what can influence the amount of energy we consume?
It’s clear we do not just simply eat what we need in order to survive. We humans are multifaceted creatures and eat for a range of reasons, this might include eating for good health, but also incorporates eating for enjoyment, due to stress or boredom or for celebration. Our food environment also plays a major role in what and how much we eat. There was once a time when calories were only available if they were grown by the hand of the person consuming them, and there was a risk of low food availability if the environment was not abundant in food. These days, we have 24/7 access to food from all over the world. We can easily obtain foods outside of their natural growing seasons and can have almost anything delivered to the door with a few minutes notice. For this reason, the ‘energy in’ end of the equation has trended towards surplus to need and, because of reduced requirements to spontaneously move throughout the day, our ‘energy out’ has in most cases decreased.
A major reason nutrition can be confusing for people is that there is a range of ways we can eat in order to stay in energy balance. Methods for achieving energy balance are numerous! An individual who is well tuned to their body may not need to pay too much attention to the process and use general intuitive eating (rolling with your body’s hunger and satiety cues to drive what and how much food is consumed), in order to keep their body at maintenance. However, there are a number of other methods, some more successful or useful than others, that are touted to help those struggling to achieve this balance including calorie counting, macro counting, fasting, cutting out food groups, cutting out or reducing one of the main macronutrients groups and low energy meal replacements. Now is a good moment to point out that none of these methods tell us about the quality of the foods being consumed, which will ultimately play a major role in the health outcomes on the individual, and something that also needs to be considered in combination with energy requirements. Further, it is important to work with a qualified health professional when seeking to make changes to your diet to find an approach that works for you.
At the end of the day, energy intake is highly variable across individuals, and finding balance can take more work sometimes. What works for one individual may not suit the lifestyle or personal preferences of another person, which is one of the reasons why nutrition can be polarising. However, with qualified advice and practice, it is possible to achieve a balanced approach to eating which allows you to feel good and make the most of your day.