The Key to Your Goal is Energy Balance

I was a scrawny kid from birth into my early 20s. Growing up I always wanted to be buff, but no matter how much time I spent in the gym I couldn’t get there.

College changed things. The non-stop liquid calories and late night fast food excursions started to catch up with me. I hadn’t been exercising so now I was what we in the fitness industry affectionately refer to as “skinny fat.” I wasn’t a large person, but I had little muscle and too much bodyfat. I felt the urge to lose weight for the first time in my life. I tried being more active, but that didn’t help either.

Looking back now, I want to smack younger me. I had leap-frogged the simplest solution to managing my weight.

As a seasoned fitness professional who has helped countless people take control of their weight, I know the truth. Whether you’re a scrawny person who wants to build muscle, or someone who would like to burn some fat, the answer is the same.

At the end of the day, the concept that will decide whether you reach your weight goal is energy balance.

Balancing Act

Energy balance is a simple equation of calories in vs. calories out.

Don’t be fooled by those needlessly complicated calorie counters on the internet. It isn’t that serious.

Taking in fewer calories than you burn will result in a negative energy balance, causing weight loss.

Taking in more calories than you burn results in a positive energy balance, causing weight gain.

Taking in the same number of calories as you burn results in a neutral energy balance which causes no change in weight.

Know the Variables

There are several pieces to each side of the equation.On the side of energy intake, there are a few things to consider:

  • Total calories consumed

  • Rate of absorption (usually 90-99% of calories are digested and absorbed)

  • Appetite

  • Psychology/Habits

On the side of energy output there are more factors:

  • Exercise

  • Thermogenic effect of food/digestion

  • Non-exercise activity  thermogenesis (NEAT)

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR – maintaining homeostasis)

  • Genetic factors

  • Health History

In practice, not all these factors can be accounted for nor do they need to be given equal attention. We can reduce this equation to a few basics.

Total Calories Consumed = Basal Metabolic Rate + Activity

Basic Math

Keeping track of the calories you eat or drink is the easy part. Knowing how many you need requires some basic math.

Figuring out your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is as simple as multiplying your lean body mass by 13.8 calories (the amount of calories needed to maintain lean mass).


200lb man at 12% bodyfat, sedentary

200 x (1-.12) = 176 (lean body mass)

176 x 13.8 = 2,429 calories (BMR)

The simple way to calculate your activity calories is by using an activity multiplier. Based on how active you are, use the multiplier with your basal metabolic rate.

Sedentary              x 1.1

Lightly Active        x 1.2

Regularly Active   x 1.3

Very Active            x 1.4

Example: 2429 x 1.1 = 2672

Adjusting for Goals

Once you have the number of calories it takes to maintain your current weight  you can adjust your intake for the changes you want.To lose weight subtract 500 calories. That 500 calorie deficit will add up to 3500 calories over the week. A pound of fat is 3500 calories, so you should lose roughly a pound of fat per week.

To gain muscle without storing a bunch of fat, add 150-250 calories per day. You’ll have to be on top of your exercise and will gain muscle slowly. Stick to the plan and don’t give up if you’re not huge in a month.


Take all this math with a grain of salt. Nutrition science isn’t perfect. This will get you in the ballpark, but  you still won’t have a perfectly exact calorie target.

The number of genetic, individual, and health history variables make any form of exact calculation for calories in or out absolutely impossible.

In addition to these variables, we have to acknowledge that a calorie is also a unit of measurement for heat. We measure energy balance in calories instead of Joules because the calorie content of food is measured by combusting it. Digestion does not work by combustion. While this is an imperfect comparison, it’s by far the most accurate way we can measure energy balance with modern science.

I recommend tracking your calorie intake. You don’t have to track for the rest of your life, but track a couple weeks every few months. Keeping a fresh idea of portions in your mind is insanely helpful.

I use MyFitnessPal to accomplish this as easily as possible. It’s an imperfect but important process. Check your progress every 2-4 weeks to make sure things are working as they should be.

Make necessary adjustments to your energy balance to keep moving toward your goals.

For troubleshooting, contact me. I’m happy to set up a call to get you on track.