In general, we have an oversimplified understanding of our energy intake and our energy expenditure. Only thinking about calories in and calories out does not assess your daily energy needs from a complete point of view. There are many nuances that go into the energy balance discussion for athletic women, and this episode is the place to start.
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If You Want to Understand Your Daily Energy Expenditure Better, You Should:
- Remember that energy balance is a more nuanced concept than just saying calories in and calories out
- Pay attention to your protein energy and non-protein energy rather than your total calorie intake
- Work to understand your total energy expenditure from a complete daily point of view
Where Women Athletes Go Wrong
Often times athletic women get into trouble by trying to match a low daily energy calorie intake with a high energy output of training. This approach to fueling is where athletic women tend to go wrong and see negative outcomes.
Your metabolism and your energy consumption need to work together in order to find the energy balance that is right for you and your training. Understanding how your energy is influenced when you are at rest when you are breaking down your food, and when you are engaging in non-exercise and exercise activity is the key to getting into balance and moving past oversimplification.
The 4 Pieces of Total Daily Energy Expenditure
There are four key pieces that affect your total daily energy expenditure. How your body processes energy during these four phases is the key to being in energy balance and avoiding an energy deficit. Your resting energy expenditure, the thermic effect of food, your non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and your exercise activity thermogenesis, or purposeful activity, all play a role in how your metabolism works together with your body. Maintaining an appropriate energy balance is the only way to see the improvements you are looking for in a sustainable and healthy way.
Do you feel as though your energy is in balance? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.
In This Episode
- The problem with applying basic principles of thermodynamics for athletic women (5:58)
- Understanding the difference between energy intake and calories (9:59)
- Which numbers are the most important to pay attention to as a female athlete (16:02)
- How your total daily energy expenditure is impacting your metabolism (19:45)
- Why you need to stop listening to the mindset of eating less and moving more (27:27)
“Of course, you are a biological system, and when we strip biological models of all of their complexity and nuance and strip them down to pithy one-liners like ‘eat less move more,’ this simplicity at best can lead you astray as an athletic person, and even at worst, do some harm to your health and wellbeing.” (9:03)
“Saying a calorie is a calorie is like saying an inch is an inch or a pound is a pound. It quantifies things, but it doesn’t qualify things.” (11:29)
“It is important to understand how metabolism and energy balance and so on work together, specifically when we are talking about why building muscle is so freaking important, and how does that affect our basal metabolic rate.” (20:44)
“I am not here to teach you intentional fat loss. What I am here to highlight is some of the ways we go astray in our thinking.” (22:01)
“I think it is important for you to understand how some of these factors are going to affect your training and why my primary goal here is to get you to understand that eating enough food is so incredibly important to your training and your health and well-being.” (30:42)
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FYS 388: Why You’re Struggling with Motivation to Workout
FYS 391: What is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)?
FYS 351: Strength Training Risk vs Reward
Understanding Total Daily Energy Expenditure Transcript
It should come as no surprise based on the name of this podcast, that one of my top missions is to help women athletes fuel better for better performance. One of the things that get tossed around so often is eating less moving more and really an oversimplified understanding of energy intake and energy expenditure. On this podcast episode, I want you to feel empowered to understand what we really mean when we’re talking about energy in energy out, and some more of the nuances that go into the energy balance discussion, especially for athletic women. If you’re an athletic 40, something woman who loves lifting weights, challenging yourself, and doing hard shit, the Fuel Your Strength podcast is for you. You’ll learn how to eat, train, and recover smarter, so you build strength and muscle, have more energy, and perform better in and out of the gym.
I’m strength nutrition strategist and weightlifting coach, Steph Gaudreau. The Fuel Your Strength podcast dives into evidence-based strategies for nutrition training and recovery, and why once you’re approaching your 40s and beyond, you need to do things a little differently than you did in your 20s. We’re here to challenge the limiting industry narratives about what women can and should do in training and beyond. If that sounds good, hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And let’s go.
Welcome back to the podcast. Thanks so much for being with me today, make sure you hit subscribe on your podcast app before we go any further. All right, today we’re going to be talking about energy in energy out and a little bit more about some key factors and nuances in energy balance, especially when it comes to women, athletes, again, athletes or whole real people who experience different pressures and different challenges in the application of these topics. And at the same time, we’re very much exposed to and can be vulnerable to messages that aren’t actually tailored for us or do not take our context as athletic individuals who are training hard into mind. So let’s just say up front, that the topic of energy is one we cover a lot on this podcast.
We also look deeper into some of this nuance. And so I just want to say that in looking at this topic today, more of, you know, what are some of the things to consider with energy in and energy out? This is not a perfect discussion. And, of course, as science and our understanding of these things change, we may have to amend some of the things that we talked about today in due time. All of that being said, recently, as I’ve covered more of these sub-topics, I’ve heard from more and more of you that this is really helping your understanding of some of the common recommendations that you often see in terms of sports and performance nutrition. So I think we’re on the right track here.
And I just want to point you back to Episode 388, where we sort of started to take a look at some of the deeper nuance with energy intake and how that episode was talking about motivation. It was talking about overwhelm, and some of the reasons why low energy intake can affect those aspects of what you might be experiencing. We’ve also recently talked about red S, which is a relative energy deficiency in sports. That was episode 391. So I highly recommend you go back and listen to that one. as well. Of course, if you’re realizing that you need some support with this coaching, you want a streamlined and focused framework to follow as well as coaching and support. I would love to chat with you more about this. So you can go ahead and book a call to chat more about Strength Nutrition Unlocked over at StephGaudreau.com/apply.
Alright, so just some preface on this episode. Athletes and athletic people are not immune to wanting to change their bodies for different reasons. Some of you may compete in weight class sports, or you’re just feeling pressure from the outside world or internal pressure to look or show up a certain way to be a certain body weight or body shape or conform to certain ideals or standards even within a sport. So, again, we just want to acknowledge that those pressures can be absolutely felt. And I can say personally, I absolutely felt this way more specifically when I was racing mountain bikes and I just wanted to be As a skinny cyclist, so all of that said, there is, of course, a lot that’s wrapped into this and diet culture. And beauty and body standards are a completely separate but related conversation. And we’ve had lots of discussions about that in the past.
So it’s just important to mention this because a lot of people think, well, athletes are only focused on performance. However, body shape, size, appearance, etc, can actually be a pretty huge pressure. And many athletes will often turn to unhealthy diets or overtraining because there are pressures to look a specific way. And we know that those unhealthy ways of approaching nutrition and training are not sustainable, typically in the long term, and can actually lead to far more problems than benefits. And we talked a little bit more about that in the recent episode on Red-S.
So I want to approach this episode from a point of view of how athletic women often try to apply basic laws of thermodynamics to their own situation. And why this oftentimes lands you in more bother than good. So what we hear is, of course, the old adage, eat less move more that could be removing or restricting food groups, or just overall shrinking the size of our meals, cutting out snacks, there are many ways that this can be accomplished. And what tends to happen is, in many cases, also simultaneously increasing your exercise frequency or intensity, or duration, so you have more energy going out, and less energy coming in. And of course, there is truth to the central tenets that underpin these calories in calories out model.
There are some limitations to using this general, or very broad idea, especially if you are athletic and your training and performance are important to you. So my intention here is not to teach you about how to approach weight loss or fat loss, or even necessarily body mass changes, if we just want to use those terms, to mean slightly different things. I don’t actually teach that to my students, I teach how to increase muscle, how to improve your energy, how to build your strength, and how to have better performance. But this is obviously on some people’s minds. So let’s kind of wade through this together. When it comes to very simply understanding how we might gain mass. This is where we think, okay, we need an energy surplus.
And usually, that’s accomplished by eating more calories. For most people, it could be via decreasing movement or a combination of both. And then on the flip side, to lose mass, you would need an energy deficit. Again, the basic laws of physics and the basic laws of thermodynamics have to apply. However, let’s talk about the limitations of this and why if you have gone very hard into the energy deficit side of things, the caloric deficit side of things, it doesn’t always work out so well. So here are some of the limitations of just the general calories in calories out model. Of course, you are a biological system.
And when we stripped biological models of all of their complexity and nuance and reduce them down to pithy one-liners, like eat less, move more, this simplicity can, at best, lead you astray as an athletic person, and you know, even at worse, do worse, do some harm to your health and well being. So building back some of this nuance is gonna take a little bit of explanation. So let’s talk about what’s happening here. So athletic women get into trouble. And I’m seeing athletic women here because you’re the audience that I talked to, does this apply to males as well, of course, but I need you to hear me. So I’m going to talk about athletic women a lot here.
Where you get into trouble is trying to match whether intentionally or otherwise, a low daily calorie intake with a high energy output of training. So if that’s you, then definitely listen carefully. So let’s back up a little bit and explain what we mean by energy and what we mean in terms of calories. So the energy that we consume or quote unquote burn is most commonly measured in the unit calories, which is technically kilocalories or kg cow. This is, especially with reference to food. So we turn over a food label and we see calories.
Those are technically kilocalories but for sake of ease, we’ll just call them calories here. So technically, calories are a measurement of heat, they’re in the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius, you probably learned that in chemistry class. And maybe you forgot that’s okay. That it really is just a measurement of actual energy. protein and carbohydrates contain around four kilocalories or calories per gram. Well, fat is much more energy dense and contains about nine kilocalories per gram, which is more than two times the energy of protein and carbohydrates, respectively.
So fats definitely pack a more energy-dense punch. So yes, a calorie is a calorie. For example, one calorie of fat and one calorie of protein are equal in terms of their energy density, the calorie of fat and the calorie of protein will likely have a slightly different effect on the body. So they might be equal in energy density, but not in their consequence. And saying A calorie is like saying an inch is an inch, or a pound is a pound. it quantifies things, but it doesn’t qualify things. And this is where the nuanced part of this discussion comes in. So again, yes, we could talk about calories in and calories out as a general model for understanding energy balance, however, we need to be more nuanced. And yes, you are smart.
And you can understand this and how it applies to you and why blindly following calories in and calories out without consideration of some of these other nuances can have negative impacts, especially for you as an athletic woman. So now we’re going to start to think about protein energy and non-protein energy. And I referenced this in Episode 391, about what is red s, and I felt like it was important to go into it a little bit more. So now we’re going to move to think about protein energy and non-protein energy. So nonprotein energy, protein energy is pretty self-explanatory is the energy that we consume through protein foods. nonprotein energy is energy that comes from predominantly carbohydrates, fat, or technically, alcohol, alcohol is a macronutrient, though we don’t usually talk about it in that regard.
So nonprotein energy would be all of the energy that we’re taking in through carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol. This is especially important when considering the broad consequences of undereating or overeating, each form of energy. So let’s play a thought game here. And say that you consistently eat at a 500-calorie surplus each day, right? If your calorie surplus is mostly coming from protein-energy than the extra mass, you may gain will more likely be a majority of lean mass. What we mean by that is muscle connective tissue, bone, etc. You may also have a small amount of fat mass increase. However, if there is a surplus, then most of the extra mass will likely come from that lean mass category.
However, if your calorie surplus is non-protein energy, either fat or carbohydrate, then everything else being equal, the mass gain you may experience is more likely to be partitioned into fat mass. Put another way, if you’re attempting to run an energy deficit by cutting caloric intake, the consequences of that will really depend on the kind of calories that you have removed. Again, my goal here is not to teach you intentional fat loss. I’m using these examples to illustrate some of the places where athletic women really go wrong with fueling and why they see negative outcomes. And then we’re going to kind of tie it all together. So let’s just kind of think about this.
Research shows that diets that cut or reduce fat or carbohydrate, so either the low-fat paradigm or low-carb paradigm, broadly have roughly the same effect on body fat mass over long-term periods of time. So we’re talking about six months or more, especially if protein energy is equivalent between these different dietary paradigms. So people always ask which one is better low carb or low fat? The answer is as long as protein is kept relatively consistent, right, we’re not doing low protein in one and higher protein in the other, the effects are relatively the same, that one is not superior to the other.
Okay? However, if you run a calorie deficit by cutting a lot of protein-energy, you will tend to lose more muscle mass in the mixture of body mass that is lost. So body weight might reduce. But yes, you are experiencing, typically more muscle mass is lost. And there can be a compounding effect of that right we see small changes to potential metabolism, how much energy is used, during neat activities, how much energy is used during purposeful exercise, we have a lower thermic effect of food, and so on. So it does compound. So let’s illustrate this concept with some numbers. And again, my aim here is to show you where as a female athlete, you might be going wrong.
So a common approach is to start with a number of calories in mind that you want to eat, and then divide this into protein, carbohydrate, and fat using percentages. I don’t do this with my clients and students, because you’ll see why in a minute. But there are better ways to do things that are more appropriate to account for things like body mass, but let’s say you’re currently eating 2000 calories, and 15% of that is coming from protein, this would be about 300 calories a day of protein. And if we divide that down by four, because protein has four calories per gram, now we’re at about 75 grams of protein per day, then let’s say you decide you’re going to cut to 1200 calories a day. And you might think, Oh, come on stuff.
Nobody still does that. Yes, they fucking do. And here’s why it’s a problem. This is a very common target amongst women who are dieting, and it is very low energy availability, especially when we’re considering energy output in training. So you believe that you’re still going to keep eating 15% of your calories as a protein because that’s what you hear out in the world. But now 15% of 1200 calories is only 180 calories worth of protein energy. If we divide that by four, we get about 45 grams of protein a day, which is a very low protein intake, insufficient to meet your basic needs, period. And of course, your basic needs plus the training, that you’re the recovery from your training, right? So this is why percentages are tricky and can be problematic.
If you consider the example, above the first example, 75 grams of protein would be unlikely to be optimal for an athletic woman. Now you’ve cut it down even further. So for a female athlete, you may need more in the realm of us just throwing out a general number of 122 to 150 grams of protein a day, and potentially even more than that. So with your non-protein energy in that 1200 Calorie example. So that’s the energy coming from carbs and fat also having been cut quite drastically by this theoretical deficit. More of the protein that you’re eating is generally needed for producing actual energy protein tends to be that macromolecule of construction, however, it can be used for energy production, especially when your carbohydrate intake is quite low.
This can leave even less protein available in the system for repair and recovery, let alone basic and essential functions that your body requires protein for and if your body needs to pull protein out of quote-unquote storage, we get that from largely our large pool of lean muscle tissue in our muscles. So this is a situation where now you’re sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Okay, what I last want to do here is talk a little bit more about metabolism, specifically total daily energy expenditure and the different factors involved in that and yes, metabolism is very complex, biochemically, all the moving parts, all of the cellular pathways are not something that you would understand unless you have a degree in this and you’re studying this at a very, very high level.
So we need to put it into terms you can understand without, again, also overly simplifying. So let’s use a definition of metabolism as how your body turns the food, you eat into energy, and focus on how we can move those Levers as athletic women who are training hard, it’s important to understand how metabolism, energy balance, and so on work together. Specifically, when we’re talking about why is building muscle, so freaking important, and how does that affect our basal metabolic rate or our resting metabolic rate? Why do we need to eat enough as athletic women? So let’s just start by saying that a common trap to fall into is thinking that you only use energy when you’re exercising, I know this sounds silly, but a lot of people are like, well, I didn’t do anything today. So I really don’t need to eat.
That is not true, you are using a significant amount of energy, just to keep your body and your basic functions, alive and going. Another mistake in thinking is that the only thing that matters is how you create an energy deficit, through exercise. Again, eat less, move more, eat less, move more, right, we see the effect of that. So yes, there is going to be energy expenditure through exercise. However, that’s not the only way to increase the energy deficit that you’re experiencing. If and there’s a big asterisk here, if that’s even appropriate for you, right?
So again, this kind of goes back to some of the stuff I said at the very beginning, I am not here to teach you intentional fat loss. What I am here to highlight is some of the sorts of some of the ways we go astray in our thinking. So that if maybe even you were an athlete who is in a weight class sport, and you’re thinking that you just have to increase the energy deficit that you’re experiencing to see results that you want, that your only way to do that is through exercising more, that could be a problem. Another mistake is thinking that the only thing that matters is the size of the calorie deficit, instead of the size of the deficit compared to how much energy comes in and goes out. That’s called energy flux.
And we’ve actually covered that in a previous episode, which is episode 351. So I would definitely recommend you go back and check that out. So let’s kind of think about this in terms of total daily energy expenditure, and a few truths. First of all, until you expire, and you’re no longer with us on planet Earth. In the bodily form, you never stop expending energy. So when you say things like my metabolism is broken, or my metabolism does not work, that is not true. However, your metabolism may have adapted to what you have chosen to do, your inputs and outputs are going to cause your metabolism to potentially adapt. So if you’re curious about how we increase metabolism, potentially over the longer term, then I want you to stay tuned for a future episode on this.
But suffice it to say all of these, like metabolism boosters, and you know how we rev our metabolism, a lot of that stuff that you see on social media, it’s just bollocks to use the term that my husband would say, it’s just bullshit, it doesn’t work, it’s stuff that doesn’t have a meaningful impact. And the reality is, a lot of the time getting your metabolism to adapt back upward in a positive direction, is working on the basics and being consistent, it’s nothing sexy. So we’re going to cover that in a future episode. So the first thing that we need to do is to really look at our four-part model of total daily energy expenditure. So there are four pieces to this.
The first one is resting energy expenditure. This is the amount of energy that you use across the 24 hours of your day, from all of your non-activity, we’ll call it but that’s like sleeping, sitting, quietly breathing, and simply existing. This is usually either called basal metabolic rate or resting metabolic rate, although they are very similar. One is generally tested in a lab, the other one can be estimated. However, when we’re just using this in terms of general terms, that’s just what I’m going to use potentially interchangeably. resting energy expenditure, your body keeping itself alive, even if you weren’t moving accounts for roughly 70% of your total daily energy expenditure.
70 percent, 70%. That’s a significant portion that’s a majority. So You need to provide enough energy to keep your body alive and doing its basic bodily functions. So yes, even on those rest days, you still need to eat, and you probably need to eat more than you think you do. Alright, number two, we have the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food is the energy required to digest, absorb assimilate the nutrients that you eat. Protein, interestingly enough, requires the most energy out of protein, carbs, and fat to digest. It has a higher thermic effect on food compared to carbohydrates and fat.
The thermic effect of food generally, and we’re just using approximates here is about 10% of your total daily energy expenditure. So about 10% of your daily energy expenditure comes from digesting your food. Number three, your non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT. This is all of the movement and activity you do, which isn’t generally considered intentional or structured exercise. A lot of people lump walking into meat, and some don’t. And I’ve seen some pretty heated debates about this amongst professionals about like, what is neat, and what counts and what doesn’t count. Suffice it to say, I just think of neat as like unstructured training, or movements, right? So things that you’re doing, I’m right now I’m moving my hands as I’m talking, that’s technically NEAT.
Walking around your house, fidgeting, putting a fork in your mouth, all of that takes energy. And that need is one of the things that you have the power to influence. If, again, a big if you’re trying to introduce some kind of energy deficit in your life. We don’t always have to do that by cutting food. Hello, I hope we’re getting the message here. Right? Anyhow, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but NEAT is generally greater than the energy that I would say the average person expends through exercise and accounts for again, roughly 15% of total daily energy expenditure, though, it can go higher, it can go higher, much higher. Okay.
So that’s a potential place to look to increase your movement in the day for example, and see an effect. Last but not least exercise Activity Thermogenesis or what is sometimes called purposeful activity. This is the energy you expend when engaging in intentional exercise. So again, along with eating last, this is one aspect that people try to manipulate, to create a calorie deficit. So the move more component in eating less move more oftentimes is applied to this idea of intentional exercise. However, the amount of time you actually spend exercising in the day for most people is still fairly small compared to the rest of the day. And that’s why exercise Activity Thermogenesis or purposeful exercise tends to account for the smallest percentage of your total daily energy expenditure at about, again, approximately 5%.
So what can we see by this, is that there are several factors that affect energy balance, energy balance, and our daily energy expenditure? By now you’re hopefully making progress into understanding that again, energy balance is more nuanced than just saying calories in and calories out. Because energy is influenced by, among other things, your ratio of protein energy to non-protein energy, right, we talked about why it’s important to eat enough protein energy, so you’re sparing lean tissue. energy out is influenced, among other things, by the energy you use at rest, the energy you use during the metabolism or breakdown of your food, and the energy burned.
Again, I hate this word, but I’m using it in air quotes here, energy burned during nonexercise activity, and the energy burned during formal exercise. And each one of these factors can influence and compound on the other. So for example, if we add more muscle tissue, muscle tissue is metabolically quite active. So what that means is we’re actually using more energy while we’re sitting around while we’re out, doing our daily things. So we’re walking down to the store, we’re carrying more muscle, so we’re actually using more energy because that muscle is metabolically quite active.
And the energy that we’re using during formal exercise is because we have more muscle mass, so we’re using more tissue to do things like our squats and our overhead presses. And as long as our protein energy is kept, you know, on a realistic level to support our training, we actually have a higher thermic effect of food. Go figure right So that is just a little bit more about those, those four different parts, right, those four different pieces that make up your energy expenditure.
Again, my goal here is not for you to take a look at and see, well, how am I going to manipulate this to cause intentional fat loss? There are I’m sure other coaches that will do that I’m not one of them. But I think it’s important for you to understand how some of these factors are going to affect your training and why my primary goal here is to get you to understand that eating enough food is so incredibly important to your training, to your health and well-being. So let’s summarize where we’ve been in this episode because we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Alright, so the first thing I would say, number one, energy balance is a more nuanced concept than just saying calories in calories out. Number two, you’d be better off thinking about how much protein energy versus non-protein energy you’re getting, and not just focusing on total calorie intake. So considering protein versus non-protein energy, meaning carbs and fat, we need to keep that in mind. Number three, if you cut your energy intake, without considering protein energy, you run the very real potential of losing a significant amount of muscle mass. And over time, this can have negative consequences on both performance and health and well-being.
Number four, when considering your total daily energy expenditure, it’s really important to understand it from a complete point of view, you use energy to exercise but you also use it at rest, use it to digest and absorb food, and through all the nonexercise activity that you do. In a day, the energy used, typically, by nonexercise activity and basic bodily functions is greater than what you expend during your workouts. However, there can be a high variability here, especially if you’re doing high volume, long duration training, or very intense training, you may expend more energy during that than doing less intense training. So I hope this has given you some food for thought in this episode, we explored a bunch of different directions here.
But more specifically related to why is it important that we move past an oversimplification of just saying calories in and calories out, we also talked about why it’s important for athletic women to not cut their caloric intake or their energy intake too low or in other terms to maintain an appropriate energy balance. And if there is a need for an energy deficit that is done in a very smart and considered way, so that we preserve performance, as well as health and well-being, I hope that you’ll also appreciate that this discussion is nuanced and that it’s imperfect.
And that science is still continuing to understand and gather really important observations about things like sports and performance, nutrition, metabolism, and more. And lastly, look for a future episode when I consider how we can start to pull some of the levers in the total daily energy expenditure equation, so to say, to see more positive metabolic adaptation, I think you’re going to want to hear that episode. Thanks so much for being with me today on this podcast, I really appreciate it. Please hit Subscribe on your podcast app. If you’re looking for the show notes, head over to StephGaudreau.com. And please share this episode on social media. Instagram Stories is a great place to do that. And you can tag me at @Steph_Gaudreau. I really appreciate that you’re here with me today for this discussion, and I hope that you learn something. Until next time when we’re back here together on the podcast. Stay strong.