If you take in less energy than your body requires, you lose weight; when you take in more than you need, you gain weight. When your energy is in perfect balance, you maintain your weight. It seems so easy, but two out of three adults are overweight or obese and struggle to master this equation. Most Americans become overweight through a slow, gradual weight gain of one to two pounds per year, demonstrating that a slight imbalance of energy is all it takes to result in weight gain over time, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This can result in health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“Both sides of the energy-balance equation—food and activity—play a role in the obesity problem, and both are part of the solution,” explains John M. Jakicic, Ph.D., director of Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “By being smart about your food choices and filling up on more nutrient-dense foods, as well as getting regular physical activity, you’ll reap the rewards that come with conscious, gradual changes that add up to energy balance over time.”
Your unique energy needs. New research reveals that energy balance is a dynamic, ever-changing process, according to Jakicic. The amount of energy you need to take in and expend changes with age and hormonal and metabolic changes. The USDA offers a tool to help you estimate your energy needs by sex, age, weight and activity levels (available at http://goo.gl/PR6kJ).
Energy-dense foods. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans focuses on healthy weight, recognizing that energy (calorie) density is the essential dietary factor affecting body weight. Energy density—the number of calories per gram of food—can significantly impact your energy balance and body weight. Eating a diet high in energy-dense foods, such as fatty meats, snacks, desserts and sugary beverages, causes weight gain, but a diet low in energy-dense foods (such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables) improves weight loss and maintenance, according to a 2012 research review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And, a 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low energy-dense meals resulted in fewer calories consumed during the day. When pureed vegetables were added to entrees to reduce their energy density, subjects still ate the same amount of food by weight, and thus ate fewer calories during the day. So, the key to balancing energy on your plate is to fill it with low-energy dense foods.
Eating to balance the equation. Many dietary factors go into your energy input for the day:
Excessive hunger. Energy balance can be thrown off by excessive hunger, which can lead to overeating. Fend off hunger and cravings by eating small, frequent (every 3- 4 hours) meals and snacks, balanced with healthy sources of protein, such as lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, low-fat dairy and fish; carbohydrates, including whole grain bread and cereal, brown rice, fruits and vegetables; and moderate amounts of fats, such as avocados, olives, olive oil, nuts, nut butters and hummus.
Nutrient-rich foods. Whole foods, such as lean meats, poultry, seafood, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts will offer you more fiber, nutrients and fewer calories than a diet filled with low-nutrient, high-calorie foods, such as fatty or fried meat dishes, French fries, chips, and refined grains such as white breads, and desserts. You’ll feel more full and satisfied with less calorie input.
Mindful eating. Behavioral triggers, such as food left within reach, can increase energy consumption. Cornell University nutrition researcher, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., calls this “the see-food trap.” In one of his experiments, when a clear candy jar was placed on secretaries’ desks, they ate 71 percent more candy than those who had white, non see-through jars on their desks. This act of “mindless eating” added up to 77 extra calories per day—an estimated five pounds of weight gain per year.
Enjoy food. Although energy balance requires thinking about calories, we don’t just eat calories. We eat food, which has rich cultural meaning derived from delicious flavors, scents and textures. Food is a joyful and social part of life that deserves to be savored. By connecting with feelings of hunger and fullness, eating for nourishment and balancing energy becomes more intuitive.
Create an energy gap with small changes. Just a slight change in energy intake can result in a gradual weight change. Eating less helps create a calorie deficit every day, which is ideal for helping to balance body weight. Over time, a mere 100-calorie reduction per day may help maintain a healthy body, reported obesity researcher James O. Hill, Ph.D., from the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, in the November 2010 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Activity enters the equation. Increase your energy needs with physical activity—an important part of the energy balance equation. In order to create a successful activity plan, participate in those that you enjoy, whether it’s walking your dog, riding your bike to work, or dancing; the less your chosen activity is a chore, the more rewarding and sustainable it will be. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. Performing activity in 10-minute increments during the day also can do wonders for a healthy body weight, improved strength, psychological wellbeing, and longevity.
—Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D.N., L.D.N.