Energy Balance


{Link to the Dutch Version @ Bell-Coaching}

In the intro to these article series I explained why nutrition is freaking important for successful body recomposition endeavors, why it requires a lot of time and effort, and why it is good to develop a mindset geared towards understanding and learning the process.

In this article I will explain why it is important to understand the concept of energy – specifically: the energy balance and the laws of thermodynamics – if your goal is to successfully recomposition your physique (adding muscle and/or losing fat) through effective lifestyle interventions (through optimizing diet, training & lifestyle) over the course of time. After providing this necessary background information, I will move on to recommendations on whether you should prioritize fat loss or muscle gain for your personal body recomposition intervention in the next article.

Understanding what goes on in the body in terms of energy balance eliminates a lot of guessing work. So before goal-setting and then determining specific calorie and macronutrient intake, let us dive into ENERGY!


Energy & Nutrition

Energy in food is commonly measured in calories. When we discuss the calories found in the foods we eat, we are actually referring to kilocalories – kcalfor short. 1 kcal = 1000 calories. So from here on, when you see “kcal” or I am talking about “calories” > I will be referring to kilocalories.

If someone wants to use joules: 1 kcal = 4.184 kilojoules (kJ). But I don’t like joules (no one does), so I will stick to kcal.

“Joules count” just doesn’t sound right. Calories > joules!

The Law of Thermodynamics

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can be converted from one form to another – but it cannot be created nor destroyed”. 

There are various forms of energy and multiple energy-processes in the body, but they are not essential to remember for successful body recomposition. The gist of it is simply this: in the body, “energy” is a closed chain system. Energy does not just “disappear”. If anything, it transforms into another form. For example, through exercise we transform chemical energy into kinetic energy, and some energy “gets lost” through sweating and heat production (which is thermal energy). So: the energy chain is closed.

Energy Balance

Why did I mention the first law of thermodynamics and that particular example of energy conversion in the body? To make the concept of the energy balance very clear.

Being in Energy Balance = Generally Maintaining Weight

The body is in energy balance when the energy intake is equal to the energy output. 

  • Energy intake = the sum of energy consumed through food (from the macronutrients protein, carbs, fats. Oh, and alcohol).
  • Energy output = slightly more complex, but basically all energy that is burned – including energy used for absorption, metabolism, “living” basically – as well as energy burned during exercise and activity.

If you are in energy balance – in other words, you expend the same amount of calories that you consume through your diet – then you generally remain weight stable. This is commonly referred to as “being at maintenance”.

For many people interested in making body-recomposition gains, “maintenance” can be jokingly seen as “spinning your wheels” because there is no sense of direction (gaining muscle or losing fat). Hovering around maintenance calories will result in just that: maintaining. Not much gaining.

A consistent imbalance of energy will result in either bodyweight loss or gain.

And this is exactly what we want to influence, if our goal is to recomposition our bodies: a structured, systematically set-up imbalance of energy!

Losing weight through an energy deficit

If you expend more energy than that you consume – in simpler words, you burn more calories than that you eat/drink = you will eventually lose bodyweight. This is important to understand if your goal is to lose bodyfat (commonly referred to as “cutting”) – you require a shortage of energy, aka acalorie/energy deficit.

Keep in mind: we mainly want to lose fat mass (adipose tissue) when we are talking about bodyweight loss as a goal. Losing muscle mass sucks for many reasons.

Gaining weight through an energy surplus

If you consume more energy than you expend – in other words, you eat more calories than you burn – your body stores that energy, generally causing you to gain weight.

If your goal is to put on quality body mass (most people wish to gain muscle mass through a “bulk”), this is optimized through an an excess of energy: a calorie/energy surplus. And obviously proper strength training and progressively getting stronger in your exercises (= an important stimuli for muscle growth).

But what about doing both at the same time? (Gain muscle + Lose fat)

Both fat loss and muscle gain can be achieved at the same time, provided your diet, training and lifestyle are “optimized” for it (if you are getting progressively stronger on a cut and eating right – both which should be goals of yours – you are providing stimuli for muscle growth). This does not mean it is very productive to consciously aim for both of those goals simultaneously though – especially if it ends up in randomly fluctuating calorie intake throughout the week without clear intent.

Like many things in life, it’s a good thing to apply focus and to set priorities. For successful body recomposition, that basically means alternating between phases dedicated to either muscle gain (achieved through an energy surplus) and phases dedicated to fat loss (achieved through an energy deficit). Oh, that doesn’t mean you should bulk for a week, cut the next, bulk again, etc. That’s silly and a waste of time and effort. Dedicate a good amount of time to each phase. Ideally, you will be spending most of your training time gaining (but more on that later in these articles).

Finally, I would encourage you to read these two article from Menno Henselmans, where he explains you can in fact gain muscle and lose fat while being in a deficit (as well as gain fat in a deficit). Very good reads that show the body is not that predictable, and that you need to carefully influence the many variables (nutrition + training) if you want to make gains over time.

Be like Goku focussing on his Spirit Bomb. FOCUS YOUR KI – ERR, ENERGY – AT THE TASK AT HAND!

In conclusion: controlling your total energy balance = your keys to successful body recomposition 

It does not matter if you follow a low carb diet, low fat diet, avoid gluten, do intermittent fasting, carb-backloading, paleo, drink bulletproof coffee, run 50 km per day, whatever. The main thing which influences your bodyweight, and through that grant you the “keys” to altering your body recomposition if you learn to master it, is your total energy balance. 

If you learn to understand energy balance: influence it, and how to somewhat control it through diet (and lifestyle) manipulation (such as tracking caloric intake) – you can set up a systematic & effective nutrition intervention for yourself. 

So, if you want to recomp successfully, it is important to get your caloric intake right! But before setting caloric intake for your goal, it’s important to ask yourself the question: what is your goal? I’ll be giving my recommendations in the next article (soon!).