Weight Control Secret: Energy Balance

Learn how to balance calories in with calories out

By Kathleen Zelman MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

What do you think of when you hear the term 'energy balance' -- maybe a skateboard stunt or a yoga pose? What it really means, at least in the health care community, is the art of consuming just the right number of calories to manage your weight.

You're probably familiar with the balancing act of juggling career, family, friends, community, and personal needs. In weight control, the "balancing act" means taking in only as much food and drink as you need to fuel your body's basic functions, the activities of daily living, and exercise.

The number of calories needed for energy balance is highly individual, and it changes from day to day depending on your activity level. Weighing in once weekly (or even more often) is the easiest method to determine whether you're in energy balance. If you take in more calories than you burn, they will likely show up as weight gained, while creating a calorie deficit sends the needle on the scale counterclockwise.

Beyond Counting Calories

Counting calories can be labor-intensive, and can take all the fun out of eating. So instead of fixating on calories, think food, glorious food! Choosing foods that are high in fiber, fluid, and nutrients that fill you up on fewer calories is the secret to painless calorie cutting.

Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and small portions of lean meats and nuts are the kind of foods you should be enjoying each day. Unprocessed foods (those in their natural form) are the healthiest options at the grocery store.

If you enjoy eating refined, processed foods, do so in moderation to better control your calorie intake.

Calories and Exercise

A healthy dose of regular physical activity will boost your metabolism in two ways. Every time you move, you burn calories. Exercise also builds muscle, and the more muscle you have, the more calories you need simply to maintain your basal metabolism (the number of calories required for digestion, breathing, blood circulation, and other body processes while you're at rest).

Of course, energy balance is not the only benefit of regular exercise. That list includes weight loss, stronger muscles and bones, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a healthier heart - not to mention disease prevention and a longer life.

Exercise is a critical part of weight control and good health, but the truth is that, at least for some people, it can also send your appetite into overdrive. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that exercising gives you license to scarf down cheeseburgers and donuts. The trick is to ease your hunger with satisfying foods that taste good and are low in calories.

It's also a good idea to fuel up before your workout. Go for healthy, balanced snacks that include lean protein, complex carbs, fiber, and/or small amounts of fat (try whole-grain cereal with berries and low-fat milk; half a whole-grain bagel with peanut butter and banana slices; a smoothie made with low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, and orange juice; or brown rice and steamed veggies sprinkled with a little cheese).

It's also important to stay well hydrated so you won't mistake thirst for hunger. It's easy to overindulge in sports drinks and fruit juices that satisfy thirst but can add lots of extra calories. Try good old-fashioned water to quench your thirst before and after your workouts.

If you don't exercise each day, eat a little more on the days you work out and less on days you are less active. Some people complain they eat more on those less active days simply because of boredom. Instead of reaching for something extra to eat, lace up your sneakers and take a walk!

7 Tips for Achieving Energy Balance

Here are some more tips for striking the right energy balance:

  • Reshape your plate. Increase the proportion of vegetables, salads, fruits, beans, and whole grains to cover two-thirds of your plate.
  • Fill the other third of the plate with lean meats and poultry, fish (especially fatty fish like tuna or salmon), or low-fat dairy.
  • Make sure your portions are under control. Once in a while, get out the food scale and measuring cups to remind yourself of what a normal portion should look like.
  • Schedule your exercise first thing in the morning so it won't get crowded out of your day.
  • Alternate your exercise activities (maybe try a new class) so you won't get bored and your muscles will get a better workout.
  • Power past any weight loss plateaus by increasing the intensity of your workouts. Try turning up the incline on the treadmill, or adding speed intervals to your exercise bike routine.
  • Keep track of what you eat in a food journal to avoid unconscious overeating.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD and the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published Thursday, March 16, 2006.


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