Take in more calories than you expend, and you’ll gain weight. Take in fewer calories than you expend, and you’ll lose weight. If you think otherwise, you’re wrong. Yes, I’ve heard the podcast debates. Yes, I’ve listened to all the lectures. But I also took high school chemistry and learned about the law of thermodynamics. The biggest component of a successful nutrition plan is compliance. So, assuming you are good with sticking to the plan, the next most important factor is caloric balance.
You Heard What I S.A.I.D.
The SAID Principle requires that a coach reverse engineer the specific task, or set of tasks, required of an athlete to properly construct a program that will best prepare the athlete.
At Power Athlete, we design all of our programming under the umbrella of the SAID principle. That is, Specific Adaptations from Imposed Demands. Why does our Bedrock program revolve around three-by-fives in the main lifts? SAID Principle. Why does the layout of our Speed Kills program look like it does? SAID Principle. As the acronym states, we’re looking to elicit specific adaptations from the demands we are imposing via sets, reps, rest periods, etc. But this principle isn’t applied to just our training; we apply it to every type of programming we have. That means our nutrition protocols follow it as well. In this realm, the SAID Principle can be seen at play in our caloric loads. Macros, micros, timing...these things matter ONLY if your caloric balance is intact. This article will go through how simple, though not necessarily easy, it is to target specific adaptations.
Our Best Guess
Before we talk about balancing calories, we need to get something cleared up. While calorie balance is the driving factor of any nutrition program, whether you are gaining or losing weight, it is really a game of estimating. We first estimate the amount of calories a food source contains. Long ago, this was done in a lab somewhere using an instrument that sounds like it’s here to party, a “bomb calorimeter”. A calorie is the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of 1kg of water by 1ºC, and someone's job was to light food on fire in this instrument and measure the heat (calories) produced.
The “calorie” we see on nutrition labels is actually a kilocalorie or kcal. At the turn of the 1900s (1897 to be exact), they started used the Atwater system (1), which uses the average caloric values of 4 kcals per gram of both protein and carbs and 9 kcals per gram of fats. These numbers are the average of a bunch of trials burning various sources of these macros. Educated guesses. To make matters even more complicated, the way you prepare your food can alter the caloric load. Maybe you’ve heard boiling an egg can increase its total calories by up to 33%? Well, that’s kind of true.
Soak It In
Caloric content of the food matters, to an extent. But what really matters is how many of those calories are available to be absorbed. Let’s take protein for example. Eggs will give you ~4.3 kcal per gram of protein whereas protein from most vegetables hover around 2.5 kcal per gram. How much of that weight loss from pea protein is from your wallet? Scientists have identified these issues, and there is now a newer set of correlations (Atwater specific correction factors). But, digestion and absorption isn’t a passive process. It requires energy as well. So how do you account for the calories BURNED while digestion occurs? Thank science for taking care of that as well(2,3,4). The correction factors, or Livesey’s Net Metabolizable Energy values are as follows:
- 3.2 kcal per gram of protein
- 8.9 kcal per gram of fat
- 3.8 kcal per gram of available carbohydrates
- 1.9 kcal per gram of fermentable carbohydrates
So, with all of this going on, how can we effectively impose demands to get specific adaptations? Well, it’s easier than it seems.
This is Your Home
Up to this point, I’ve done everything possible to show you how complicated accurately counting calories can be. Chances are, if you’re interested in this, it’s because you want to make some sort of change. Whether you want to drop a few el-bees, or pack on some functional mass, you’re looking to shake things up. But, before you get crazy, you’ve got to establish a baseline, what we’ll term your home. As the great American philosopher Happy Gilmore once asked, “Why didn’t you go home?! That’s your home! Are you too good for your home?!”. When we talk about nutrition balance, we can easily set our “home” at 15 kcal per pound of body weight. And, right now, the answer to literally any and every question you’re thinking is: “it doesn’t matter.” “Is this based off lean body mass?” Doesn’t matter. “What’s the macro split?” Doesn’t matter. Because this is just your starting point.
Eat as close to you can to this caloric load for four weeks and see what the scale says. If the scale did what you wanted, ride it out for another four weeks. If the scale went the wrong way, adjust by adding or subtracting 2-3kcal per pound, more or less, depending on which way you want to swing. If multiplication is too difficult for you, try some addition or subtraction and go with +/- 500 kcals per day instead. Wait four weeks and reassess. Rinse and repeat. But, before everything, you need to start somewhere. From personal experience, applying this approach to countless athletes, working with family and friends, and based on the feedback we’ve received from our thousands of followers, this is the most effective strategy to START with.
Regardless of what you eat, when you eat, or anything else, the starting point needs to be getting into a caloric balance that supports your goals. What we’ve done for you is simplify a highly complex process. While calorie balance is the starting point of all nutrition plans, there are several complex components that are highly individual. If you’re wanting to take things to the next level, find yourself a coach. And we’re not talking about some Instagram influencer with six pack abs selling you on the latest in diet fads. Find yourself an expert, with both the education and the experience necessary, to help you get to where you want to go.
- Atwater, W.O. & Woods, C.S., 1896. The Chemical Composition of American Food Materials. Bulletin 28. USDA. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office
- Livesey G. A perspective on food energy standards for nutrition labelling. Br J Nutr. 2001 Mar;85(3):271-87. Review.
- Livesey G. Metabolizable energy of macronutrients. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Nov;62(5 Suppl):1135S-1142S. Review.
- Livesey G. The impact of complex carbohydrates on energy balance. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995 Oct;49 Suppl 3:S89-96. Review.
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Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.