The biggest component of nutrition planning is compliance. Before you go all Beautiful Mind on macro templates and meal plans, you’ve got to make sure you are ready and willing to make it happen. Once you’ve made the commitment, or leaned on a nutrition coach for some outside accountability, then you need to take the first step. You need to count calories. Despite what you might see on Instagram or what you might hear from other influencers, calorie balance is going to dictate what road you take on your nutrition journey. In this article, we’ll explain the finer details behind “calories in, calories out” or CICO. But first, what exactly is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. It is the exact amount of energy needed to heat 1 gram of water from 14.5ºC to 15.5ºC. When talking about nutrition or metabolism, we’re actually talking about 1000 calories or 1 kilocalorie. But when we look at nutrition labels and see a number of Calories, what does that mean? The number on the label is an average based on the use of a “bomb calorimeter”. A bomb calorimeter is like a fancy InstantPot where you can put anything inside and find the caloric content by starting it on fire and measuring the amount of heat (energy) it gives off. But again, these are just averages. Think about ground beef. The 16oz package might say it’s 90% lean, but when you take an ounce of it there might be a little more than 10% fat in that single ounce despite the entire package being 10%.
CICO: The Metabolic Bank
For some strange reason, one of the more controversial topics in the training space is the influence of caloric balance. Believe it or not, there are people who believe that this is not the most significant component of body composition and fueling your performance. Those people are wrong. But there are some points of confusion that we’ll help with. First, there’s no 24-hour reset. If you have a 10,000 calorie cheat day today, your body doesn’t just forget about it tomorrow. Your body acts more like a bank, if you make a big deposit of calories they’ll be invested and the dividends will be new tissue (fat or muscle). But your bank has some “fees” that will cost calories. So while food and drink build your bank account, there are three things that will take away from that account.
The BMR Fee
The first, and biggest fee hitting your CICO statement is your basal metabolic rate or BMR. This is the caloric cost to maintain life but nothing else (heart beat, breathing, brain activity, digestion). There are several equations available to estimate your BMR, but the important thing to realize is that it’s just an estimate. You can get your BMR measured directly in a laboratory setting, but that is still an indirect measure so it’s a slightly more accurate estimate but an estimate nonetheless. Just to make sure you’re tracking, the calories in our food are an estimate and the caloric load we assign to our BMR is an estimate. While the exact number is an estimate, we know that this fee makes up 60-75% of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The NEAT Fee
After paying the BMR fee, the next biggest hit your CICO account will take is from non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is the sum total of all physical activity in your day that isn’t part of exercise. Essentially, this is how hot your engine burns as it idles throughout the day. If you’re sedentary, working a desk job, or getting little intermittent physical activity (≤10,000 steps per day), the contribution of NEAT will be less than someone working manual labor, using a standing/walking desk, or someone getting an adequate amount of intermittent physical activity (≥15,000 steps per day). Depending on your daily activity level this can cover anywhere from 15-30% of your TDEE but it depends on so many factors (age, sex, weight, genetics, etc) that these numbers are just estimations.
The TEF Fee
The most overlooked factor in your TDEE is the thermic effect of food or TEF. You know the saying “you’ve gotta spend money to make money”? This is exactly how digestion works. As obvious as it sounds, we often forget that digestion costs energy. The interesting thing here is that not all digestion costs the same amount of energy. Most notably, the digestion of protein costs more than fats, carbs, or alcohol. Have you ever been 20min deep into a Brazillian Steakhouse trip and catch yourself a case of the meat sweats? Welcome to the thermic effect of food. Protein is so complicated that you will actually only net ~70% of the caloric content of your protein meal. Not nearly as impactful as the other two, TEF will make up approximately 10% of your TDEE. Unfortunately, because the stated caloric load of food is just an estimation of averages, we can’t say exactly how significant the influence TEF has on your TDEE.
Strategies to be Metabolically Secure
Unlike financial security, the CICO bank works best at breaking even. Long ago, when we lived in caves and bludgeoned our food sources to death with clubs, food and sustenance weren’t a guarantee. So our bodies developed some conservative banking strategies to prep for times of forced fasting. But in today’s world of globalized agriculture and supermarkets, these strategies no longer serve their purpose. They now can be detrimental to health as opposed to survival mechanisms. In this way, the CICO bank has turned into something more like trading futures than creating a savings account. Assumptions and estimations are guiding your balance sheet and the smart money is on keeping a slightly negative balance.
If you’re looking to ensure metabolic security, you can get pretty close by eating 12-15 calories per pound of body weight. That’s a safe estimate, but just like the banking world, things can get a little volatile. If you’ve got specific retirement goals, you hire a financial advisor because they’ve been trained to understand decipher trends and place your money in the right spots. In the metabolic banking world, if you’ve got specific goals, why would you try and run the market yourself? Hiring a nutrition coach as your metabolic advisor is a surefire way to get to your goals. Whether you’re in good standing or trying to work your way out of some “metabolic debt”, a nutrition coach can work with you to develop a strategy to set you up for success.
If you’re someone who is ready to make change happen, ready to take back your health, and ready to start truly unlocking your potential, hit us up and will steer you towards your goals.
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Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
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.
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