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Losing Fat or Building Muscle - It's As Simple As High School Physics

Updated on March 10, 2017
Nikhil Moorthy profile image

I help people transform their bodies without losing their minds. I approach fitness and nutrition with a scientific, fact-based approach.

Introduction

Remember how we were taught 'Energy can neither be created nor destroyed - It can only be transformed'?

"Energy balance refers to the tendency for total energy in a system to stay in equilibrium.

Any difference or delta between total energy input and total energy expenditure, over a set period of time, will change the energy stores of the body by an equal amount."

Mathematically speaking,

Energy Input = Energy Output + Stored Energy

  • If Energy Input is GREATER THAN Energy Output, then Stored Energy increases.
  • If Energy Input is LOWER THAN Energy Output, then Stored Energy decreases.
  • If Energy Input is EQUAL TO Energy Output, then there is NO CHANGE to Stored Energy.

Whew. Easy, right?

So what does this have to do with losing weight or building muscle?

Actually, it has everything to do with it. Your body's appearance - the muscle and fat distribution on your body, is heavily influenced by your state of energy balance.

When your energy input is higher than energy output...

You are in an energy surplus or a caloric surplus. What does your body do with this surplus energy? Any energy that it cannot burn off through activity or body heat - will be stored on the body for use at a later time. It can be stored either as muscle or as fat, or a combination of both. We'll get back to this in a second.

When your energy input is lower than energy output...

You are in an energy deficit or a caloric deficit. This means, that your body is not receiving enough energy or calories to support all the calorie-expending-activity that is being asked of it (exercise, physiological functioning, fidgeting, flicking the remote, etc.). In these cases - the body looks to it's existing reserves - the fat and muscle that is stored on your body - to supply the extra energy that is required to make up this deficit.

So, basically, now you begin to see why energy, and therefore calories (the basic measure of energy, for those of you who forgot your Physics), are so important when it comes to changing the way your body looks. I've said it before and I'll say it again - if you want to make a change to the way you look, you HAVE to start manipulating calories.

You don't have to count them - You don't even have to know what they are all the time - but you sure as hell have to ensure you're managing that calorie balance, or you're just wasting your time.

Energy Input

So - Energy Input - is basically all the energy that you consume, in the form of food and beverages. This includes anything and everything that you ingest - so we're talking food, juice, beverages and alcohol. Every single thing that you consume contributes to the total energy intake - everything except water. Water has NO calories and therefore you could drink a billion liters of water and have no added calories on the Energy input side.

All the food and beverages that you consume basically come from one of four components, or a combination thereof.

  • Carbohydrates, which produce 4 calories per gram
  • Proteins that produce 4 calories per gram
  • Fats that produce 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol that produces 7 calories per gram.

So if you were to analyze the macros (that's what the components above are) in everything you ate, and added up the calories produced by each of them, you'd get your total energy intake., or Energy Input.

Energy Output

Energy Output - refers to the total energy that is burnt by the body, expressed in calories. There are four major ways in which the body burns calories.

1. Body Maintenance - called BMR or RMR: The body is the biggest consumer of calories - no surprise - and this is referred to as BMR (basal metabolic rate) or RMR (resting metabolic rate). This is basically the energy that is required by the body to stay alive and keep standard physiological functions running. It makes sense, right? Your brain, your heart, your kidneys, etc - even the blood flow through your arteries - all of this requires energy, nothing happens automatically - and all of this energy consumption is collectively referred to as BMR/RMR. The bigger your body, the more your RMR - again, this makes sense - because bigger things require more energy to perform the same function.

2. Digestion of Food: The process of breaking down food requires enough energy to be called out on it's own. Basically, the body will require energy to facilitate the breakdown, digestion, absorption and excretion of food - and the amount of energy required varies quite a bit depending on what you eat. This is referred to as the Thermic Effect of Food. Typically, highly refined and processed food requires very little energy for digestion, and so they get absorbed quite easily. Natural food has more fiber and therefore requires more energy to process. And, among macros, fat has the lowest thermic effect while protein has the highest thermic effect. What this means is that you can manipulate the amount of energy you expend - simply by controlling what you eat. This is why when you try to lose weight, you are told to eat natural food that's high in protein, because you are forcing your body to burn more energy to digest the food - and therefore leaving less energy for storage as fat.

3. Exercise Activity: This is the most straight-forward component - it refers to the energy that you burn off during exercise. Any form of exercise - whether running or swimming or lifting weights - will burn calories - and this is what most people focus on when trying to lose weight.

4. Non-Exercise Activity: This is the fourth and final part of the energy output side of the equation. And it's the most commonly overlooked piece of the puzzle - it refers to all the energy that we burn outside the gym! We tend to forget that before and after we're at the gym or wherever it is that we exercise - we still have lives to live. And all of that requires energy - this could include walking up stairs, cleaning the house, doing things at the office - and many unconscious activities like fidgeting, shaking your legs while reading a book, etc. This varies tremendously from individual to individual - some people are fairly sedentary and don't burn a whole lot of calories this way, but small, hyperactive, skinny people tend to burn MASSIVE amounts of energy this way - these are the people who seem to eat a lot of food, don't work out, but seemingly NEVER PUT ON WEIGHT. It's because their non-exercise activity levels are through the roof.


Okay, Great - So What?

So now that all the theory is out of the way - what this mean for you? Simple. If you want to change the way your body looks, you need to make changes to the energy balance.

If you want to lose weight - decrease energy input or increase energy output or do both. So that means eat less food (energy input) and/or move more (energy output). Doing this will force the body to use it's existing stored energy (stored as fat & muscle tissue) to restore energy balance.

If you want to gain weight - increase energy input or decrease energy output or do both. What does that mean? - Eat more food (energy input) and/or move less (energy output). Doing this will force the body to convert the extra/excess energy as stored energy (stored as fat & muscle tissue) to restore energy balance - because energy cannot be destroyed or created, just transformed!

Now, when losing weight, you only want to lose fat, not muscle. I mean, you could lose both if you wanted to but:

1. It's less aesthetically pleasing to be just skinny - most people want to be lean and look fit, not like a bag of bones.

2. The more muscle you maintain on your body, the higher your RMR (energy output) will be, which allows you to eat more, which is always nice, right?

So, in order to get your body to focus on burning fat instead of muscle - you have to let your body know that the muscle is important - you do this by exercising and by eating protein. Exercising requires muscle tissue, and your body will realize that it needs to keep the muscle tissue intact to keep lifting loads (exercise) - and any muscle that IS lost to energy, will be replaced with the protein you consume. Now, you begin to see why people say it's so important to LIFT WEIGHTS when trying to lose weight, and not just do cardio all the time. It's to preserve muscle tissue.

Similarly - When gaining weight, you want to gain muscle, not fat.

You do this by exercising and eating protein. Same principle at work - the energy surplus that comes into the body will be preferentially directed towards muscle growth, to support all the heavy lifting you're trying to do with your body.

Exceptions to the rule

Okay - so remember how, at the beginning of the article, I said the energy balance rule would work for 99% of all people? Who does it NOT work for?

Typically, the only people who seem to have an issue with losing/gaining weight while manipulating the energy balance - are people with some sort of larger issues with their hormonal functioning. One of the biggest culprits is improper Thyroid functioning, but there are others as well. For example, when people are subject to high levels of stress, they produce a hormone called cortisol, which also messes up stuff. Having said that, it's not that the Energy Balance equation doesn't apply to them (because it does, it's a basic law of thermodynamics) - it's just that there are other factors at play that alter the efficiency of the energy in/energy out model.

Another situation is where you see extremely obese people who seem to eat very little and still get bigger. Why? Because they're special snowflakes, like their Mamas always told them?

Nope - it's because these people are so sedentary and their bodies are covered with so much fat, that their energy output is STILL lower than their seemingly small energy input. Think about it. If you ate 1000 calories in a day (not a lot) and burnt only 800 calories during the day through the various channels (RMR, digestion, etc.) - YOU WOULD STILL GAIN WEIGHT.

To quote someone who's work I read recently,

"Physics isn't just a good idea, kids. It's the Law."

Final Words

So - if you're trying to lose weight in the new year - before you try any new-fangled diet or supplement or shell out big bucks for some special program or spend hours at the gym...

  • Think about your energy balance. Are you staying in a deficit?
  • Are you working out (and burning 200-300 calories) but eliminating that deficit by eating shit that adds up to 1000 additional calories?
  • Are you paying lots of money for special supplements and protein powders and fat-loss pills, but still eating so much food that you are staying calorie neutral?
  • Are you swapping out 1 glass of cola (140 calories, primarily from sugar carbs) for 2 glasses of orange juice (220 calories, also from sugar carbs) and still not losing weight? What a surprise (sarcasm, in case you missed it)

For the guy who's trying to build muscle...

  • Are you killing it in the gym and pounding protein shakes but staying in calorie deficit or neutral? Remember that protein, in addition to only providing 4 calories per gram, is also very expensive to digest and so your body is burning more energy just digesting it - thereby impacting your calorie balance.
  • Are you constantly complaining about how you're eating a lot but actually it's all low calorie high volume food?
  • Are you eating enough and working out - but then you're burning a bunch of calories cycling around the place or playing basketball for 2 hours after the gym - and then wondering why you're not growing?

So - to summarize - if you're trying to lose weight or build muscle - your first goal should be to get your energy balance in the right place - in a place that supports your goal.

Once you have that under control, THEN and ONLY THEN should you start to think about the other stuff like type of food, type of exercise, frequency of workouts, supplements, etc.

And even then - when it comes to food and exercise - there's an order of importance to things - don't focus on the small stuff and ignore the bigger, more important things. Read the articles I have written (links in the resource box, below) so you can learn exactly what you need to focus on to get results.

That's it - this is the simple math behind physique transformation, and it's what works for 99% of you.

And chances are that you're in the 99%, even though your mom told you you were special.

Peace.

© 2017 Nik Moorthy

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    • MJRN profile image

      Maria Jones 6 months ago from Lake Worth

      Great article. Made me want to take a second look at my exercise and diet plan. Thanks!