What is calories in vs calories out?
The concept of calories in calories out has been around for as long as people have been trying to lose weight. If you have been looking into dieting or weight loss tips in general, there’s no doubt that you have come across multiple articles and videos stating that minding your food energy intake is among the best and most effective ways to lose weight.
However, despite all the information stating that watching your food energy intake will lead to weight loss, the debate of calories in vs calories out remains to be a heated one in fitness and health communities. Some people believe in this concept while others believe that in terms of effective weight loss and long-term health, the type of food you eat matters much more than the number of calories it contains.
In this article, we are going to look at what are the facts. Is calories in calories out true, or is it just another weight loss myth? Should learning how to calculate calorie in and out to be on your to-do list, or should you disregard it and just focus on clean eating alone? Let’s find out!
‘Calories in’ refers to the energy that you consume through food and drink while ‘calories out’ alludes to the food your body burns. Thus, the calories in vs calories out concept is based on the notion that for you to maintain your current weight, the number of calories you consume must match the number of calories that you use or burn (3). Following this logic, if you burn more than you consume, you will lose weight and if you consume more than you burn, you will gain weight.
Calories in calories out: How does it work?
As stated above, ‘calories in’ just depends on how much food and drink you consume in a day. The more you eat, the greater the number of calories you ingest, and vice versa. But how does ‘calories out’ work exactly? How does the body burn off any extra food? There are several ways (6)
1. Through working out
If you ask anyone the best way to burn excess food/fat, the first thing they will tell you is that you need to start exercising. The amount of energy that you burn during your workouts depends highly on the intensity and duration of the session. It is important to note that not everyone burns food energy at the same rate even while doing the same workout. i.e., 3 people weighing 125 pounds, 155 pounds and 185 pounds running at a steady pace of 5 mps for 30 minutes will burn 240, 298 and 355 calories, respectively (1).
2. Through non-exercise activity
This includes daily activities like washing dishes, typing on your computer, cooking, reading, or walking around your office. While they do not count as physical exercise, your body still uses energy while you do them. Working out and non-exercise activity accounts for about 15% to 30% of your total energy expenditure.
3. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
This is the rate at which your body burns energy when it is at complete rest. This means that your body uses energy through basic functions like breathing, circulating blood and building cells. Your body’s RMR is determined by weight, gender, age, and body composition. This accounts for 60% to 75% of the total number of food energy intake that you burn each day.
4. Thermic Effect of Food
You might not realize it, but your body uses energy as you chew, as it digests the ingested food and as it later stores it. The body uses different amounts of energy to digest different foods i.e, it uses more energy to digest proteins than it does either fats or carbohydrates. This accounts for about 10% of the total number of calories you burn each day.
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Should calories in equal calories out?
This depends on your intended goals (7).
- To maintain your current weight, then your calories in calories out equation must be equal
- To gain weight, you will need to create a positive energy balance. This is done by consuming more food than you need. For example,
2500 cals – 2100 cals = 400 calories remaining
The remaining 400 create a positive energy balance which will eventually lead to weight gain.
- To lose weight, you must create a negative energy balance. This is done by consuming less food than your body general needs on a day-to-day basis i.e,
1500 calories in – 1800 calories out = -300 ,which creates a negative energy balance leading to weight loss.
An important fact to note is that not all calories are created equal. When trying to lose weight, or live a healthier life in general, it is advised to consume foods with a low glycemic index like whole-grain pasta, wheat bread, fruits, beans, and nuts, as opposed to those with a high glycemic index such as candy, sweets, and baked goods (13).
Low-glycemic foods are recommended because they contain carbohydrates that take the body longer to break down than high-glycemic foods and raise your insulin levels at a slower pace, thus keeping you for longer. Feeling satiated makes you less likely to overeat and thus you will easily maintain your negative energy status (8).
It has also been suggested that you should consume more protein in your diet. This is because protein has a higher thermic effect on food, making your body expend significantly more food energy as it digests, absorbs, and distributes it inside your body. Protein also helps keep you feeling satiated and will help you maintain or build muscle when combined with exercise.
Calories in Calories out science behind it
To anyone who believes that this concept does not work, here are some studies that prove that overeating and not minding your food/energy intake can lead to weight gain and obesity
- In 1995, a clinical trial showed that overfeeding carbohydrates and fats in humans lead to storage of 75% to 85% and 90% to 95% of excess energy in carbs and fats, respectively (5).
- A review done in 2004 showed that increasing your total energy expenditure through non-exercise physical activity will still lead to weight gain if you are overfeeding (9).
- In 2005, an overfeeding experiment involving 14 healthy female subjects showed that increasing their food energy intake by 50% more than what was recommended led to a total body weight gain of 1.45 kilograms and fat increase by 1.05 kgs in just 14 days (10).
In 2014, a review showed that weight loss programs that included calorie counting led to an average of around 3.3 kilograms more weight lost than those that did not (4).
How to calculate calories in and out
Here are the different ways which you can use to calculate how much calories you need to burn a day
There are many websites that offer online calories calculations. These websites require you to enter your gender, age, height, current weight and amount of physical activity done per day. Once you have imputed this, the website will go ahead and estimate how much energy you will need to consume to maintain your current weight and to lose the weight.
Also known as activity monitors, these devices, mostly worn on your arm as a watch, will monitor your daily movements to determine an estimated amount of energy burned each day. With this number, you can determine if your current calories in calories out plan is providing you with either a positive or negative energy.
Please note that some studies have shown that these fitness trackers do not always provide a correct estimate (14). Despite this, these fitness gadgets are great as they provide motivation to get you moving, helping you burn calories.
Calorie Counting apps
They help you keep track of how much food you consume in a day. Some apps go a step further and include an option to add your exercises into your day. This helps you keep track of your eating and workout plan, which tells you if you have eaten enough or used up enough energy to create a negative energy status for weight loss.
Metabolic tests measure the rate at which your body burns energy and uses oxygen during rest or during different activities. The three most common tests include (11)
1. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) test – This measures your resting metabolic rate (RMR), which provides an estimate of how much energy you burn when your body is at complete rest.
2. VO2 max test – Also known as an aerobic capacity test, it involves testing your metabolic rate during different stages of exercise. The results reveal how much oxygen your body uses and how much fat you burn as you work out.
3. Lactate threshold test – This method is primarily used for professional athletes and it determines the intensity level at which your body can no longer supply enough oxygen for maximum performance.
Unlike the other methods, metabolic testing is quite expensive and cannot be done at home, but only in a hospital or at a lab. Please note that when calculating how much food energy you need in a day, your final amount of food energy intake should not fall below 1,200 a day in women or 1,500 a day in men (2).
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Calories in calories out, myth or fact?
No matter how much people try to state that the concept does not matter, the bottom line is that when trying to lose weight, the number of energy intake per day matters. While you might not need to obsess over food energy intake for the rest of your life, at the beginning of your weight loss journey, it may be helpful to learn how to calculate calories in and out.
This helps you understand how much food your body needs to help lose or maintain your final weight goal in the near future. Without calculating calories in vs calories out weight loss efforts might be wasted or not even achieved.
Remember that even as you consume more whole foods or clean up your diet, most people who are obese or overweight do not know how to eat well for their bodies. Limiting or restricting your food/energy intake is a stepping stone that teaches you how to do this. Healthy calories are still calories and at the end of the day, they too count.
How to maximize calories in vs calories out for weight loss
1. Make better food choices
Just because you eat less does not mean that you are making the best food choices for weight loss. A diet of high fat and high sugar will stall your weight loss efforts. Even worse these foods end up being digested too fast by the body which means that you get hungrier sooner. This means that at the end of the day, you will end up consuming more food and thus taking in more calories than you need.
2. Check your food labels
While healthy pre-packaged foods can come in handy on busy days or nights, they can come with extra hidden calories, fats and carbs. Food labels help with tracking your macros and portion sizing.
3. Watch your portion sizes
People gain weight by eating more than they need to. To prevent this, take a look at your plate and cut down your typical serving size by half. You should also make sure that your plate is full of mostly vegetables.
4. Replace your drinks with water
Most people at mealtime will end up having their food with some alcohol, sodas, juice concentrates or a cup of sweetened tea or coffee. These drinks have a lot of hidden calories that many of us do not consider while tracking food.
5. Skip condiments and sauces
Many pre-made sauces and condiments are full of sugar and unhealthy fats. If you are unable to get rid of them completely, be sure to opt for low-fat, no-sugar options. You should also avoid creamy sauces to further cut down your calories and fats.
6. Walk more and take the stairs
You increase your daily physical activity and use more energy, thus burning more fat by doing this.
7. Incorporate a workout routine in your days
You do not have to go to a gym or hire a personal trainer to start working out. You can find a quick and easy, beginner workout plan on YouTube that you can easily do at home with just your bodyweight or incorporate some small weights.
8. Remove temptation
Always carry healthy snacks to keep you from buying unhealthy snacks. You should also get rid of the junk food in your house and replace them with healthier options, which too may be lower in calories.
9. Sleep more and reduce your stress
Lack of enough sleep and increased stress levels will negatively affect your stress and hunger hormones, making you eat more than you should and prompting your body to hold on to fat.
10. Eat more nutrient-dense foods
They provide your body with vitamins and minerals, fiber, lean protein, and unsaturated fats—but are not excessive in food energy. They also better your health as they have been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
How many calories in and out on fries? According to the IN-N-OUT website, one serving (which is about 125 g) has about 370 of them: 14 g of fat, 52 g of carbs, and 6 g of proteins (12).
The Bottom Line: Should you consider the calories in calories out method for weight loss?
While some people believe that this is not an effective method to help you lose weight, we believe that it is very important, especially for beginners. While calories in vs calories out is in no way a perfect method for weight loss, you can adjust how you do it to fit both your weight goals and health needs.
In the beginning, counting calories can be quite tedious and annoying, but over time, it teaches you how to eat mindfully. It helps prevent under and overfeeding and eventually, you can stop this counting practice altogether. Please note that if you are interested in trying this method for weight loss, please be sure to speak to a doctor or dietitian. They can advise on the best way to do it by ensuring that you are consuming the right healthy and nutritious foods, are not under eating and that you are in good physical shape to attempt this.
If you want your weight loss plan to be efficient, don’t forget to do some exercise on the regular basis. Check out this 20-min Full Body Workout at Home.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights (2018, health.harvard.edu)
- Calorie counting made easy (n.d, health.harvard.edu)
- Does ‘Calories in vs. Calories out’ Really Matter? (2019, healthline.com)
- Effect of behavioural techniques and delivery mode on effectiveness of weight management: systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage (1995, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- How Many Calories Do You Burn Every Day? (2020, verywellfit.com)
- Is “Calories In, Calories Out”: A Weight-Loss Myth Or The Truth? (2018, bodybuilding.com)
- Keep your weight down and your energy up with the glycemic index (2014, health.harvard.edu)
- Metabolic consequences of overfeeding in humans (2004, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Metabolic efficiency and energy expenditure during short-term overfeeding (2005, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Metabolic Testing for Weight Loss and Fitness (2019, verywellfit.com)
- NUTRITION INFO (n.d, in-n-out.com)
- There’s no sugar-coating it: All calories are not created equal (2016, health.harvard.edu)
- Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: A systematic literature review (2019, sciencedirect.com)