The Truth About Energy Balance: Why It’s Not as Simple as Calories In vs. Calories Out

One in 5 Americans experience heart disease risk factors that can lead to metabolic syndrome. 

Metabolic syndrome affects the lives of more than 40% of people in their 60s and 70s. Usually, these people experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Too much fat at the waist 
  • High triglyceride levels
  • High blood pressure 
  • High blood sugar
  • Low HDL cholesterol 

As a result, they are at increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, or stroke… or all three. 

But how do people become at risk? 

It’s often because of the unhealthy foods and drinks we consume each day.

You see, food marketing relies on the classic propaganda principle: if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. 


That’s why all our favorite food and beverage brands use a pseudoscientific concept called “energy balance” — which is just a myth — to deceive people that what they’re selling is healthy even if it’s not, thus increasing their sales and profits. 

What is the myth of energy balance?

Energy is another word for “calories.” 


Your energy balance refers to the balance of calories you consume through eating and drinking versus the calories you burn through physical activity.


Simply stated:


Energy in (E+) — Energy out (E-) = Change in Body Fat Stores


Myth #1: The same amount of ENERGY IN (calories consumed) and ENERGY OUT (calories burned) over time = body weight stays the same. 


More IN than OUT over time = weight gain. 


More OUT than IN over time = weight loss.


On the surface, this sounds like common sense. However, it’s simply not true, even though people commonly believe this false assumption. 


Let’s examine our metabolic health using real science, not myth.


E Is for Energy, F Is for Fuel


Let’s begin with the big E: energy.


In reality, when the industry says “energy,” they are actually referring to food. However, food simply contains chemicals that can be converted into energy. 


So is food energy? No! Food is fuel, not energy. 


In physics, energy is a property of objects that can be transferred to other objects or converted into different forms but cannot be created or destroyed. 


For example, there is kinetic and potential energy.


Kinetic energy is energy that is in motion. Moving water and wind are good examples of kinetic energy. 


Potential energy is stored energy. Fuels are any materials that store potential energy in forms that can be released and used for work. 


Examples of potential energy are oil sitting in a barrel – or food on your plate. If the right reactions are performed, these things will release a lot of energy and do a lot of work.


In physics, work is the transfer of energy. This sounds a little tricky, so here is a good illustration of this: a pitcher throwing a ball.


The baseball pitcher does “work” on the baseball by transferring energy from his arm to the ball. 


What fuels the pitcher’s work? The food he ate.


The processed food industry wants us to call food energy rather than fuel because they don’t want us to think about the complex biological and chemical reactions called nutrition and metabolism. 


That’s why it is critical to understand that energy and fuel are not the same.

Dropping the Bomb

Again, calories are units of stored energy; the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water is 1 degree centigrade. 


The device that measures calories, or the units of energy contained in food, is called the bomb calorimeter.


The bomb calorimeter measures calories when the heat generated is transferred to the water. The increase in temperature of the water determines the heat released by the food. 


This central unit of measurement, the calorie, is derived from a device invented 234 years ago that burns things in a small oven. 


This highlights another false assumption in the energy balance myth. 


Myth #2 The human body is an oven

The human body is not an oven.

The process by which potential energy is released from food isn’t combustion – it’s metabolism. 

Metabolism includes all the biological and chemical reactions involved in maintaining our living cells. Metabolism is only as efficient as its fuel.


Myth #3: “You are what you eat.” 


If you understand how the metabolic system functions, you’ll realize that “you are what you do with what you eat” or “you are what you metabolize.” 


What you metabolize depends on many variables – the quality and contents of the food you eat, the status of your metabolic system, the bacteria in your gut, your stress levels, and even how much sleep you got last night. 


Understand that the same amount of calories from a glass of milk or a sugary soda are metabolized in very different ways in the human body. 


While the milk provides nourishment, the soda delivers excess energy to cells that are usually stored as fat. 


The second pathway also triggers a cascade of negative consequences that damages the liver and impairs the efficiency of your metabolism. Combined, these events promote weight gain and metabolic disease.


The processed food industry would like you to believe that a handful of Reese’s Pieces is the same as a handful of almonds.


In a bomb calorimeter, they’re the same, but in the human body, they’re not, because we’re not ovens.


Food is fuel, not energy. Food is a substance that contains energy as well as other values (positive and/or negative) that can be transferred to a living organism (with harmful and/or helpful effects). 


Actually, “real” food is even more than fuel. 


“Real” food is alive and complex, as it contains bioactive macronutrients like fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber, micronutrients including vitamins and minerals, beneficial phytochemicals, and millions of microorganisms, some bad, but most of them good.

The Truth About Processed Foods

Processing food removes many of the beneficial components of food (fiber, nutrients, and microorganisms) to increase shelf life and “palatability.” To make matters worse, the processed food industry uses thousands of “additives.” 


Look at the online databases called EAFUS (Everything Added to Food in the U.S.) and GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). 


Once, there were only 180 items that were GRAS. Now there are 10,000. Do you really think there are 10,000 things you can safely swallow?


The most dominant industrial additive in the global food supply is sugar – but not the intrinsic sugar found in fruits and vegetables and packaged with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 


Instead, it’s factory-produced sugar from commodity crops such as beets, corn, and sugar cane. 


The average American consumes 17 teaspoons (71.14 grams) every day (about 57 pounds of added sugar each year, per person), half of which is in the form of fructose— the sweet molecule. 


And many Americans consume more than twice this amount. This level of sugar has a very different impact on the human body than the sugar you get from eating an orange, and it’s a leading cause of diet-related disease.


At the core of every human life is a metabolic system – a cellular engine that can be transformative and uplifting or degenerative and debilitating, killing us slowly and painfully over the course of our (shortened and degraded) lives. 


While the metabolic system can help digest, absorb, process, transport, and excrete the constituents that are essential to life…


When this system becomes faulty because of the fuel you feed it, your health is compromised. 


This is the difference between wellness and illness. 


The food industry says, “Calories in – Calories out.” They say, “We eat too much and exercise too little.” 


Propagandists bank on you accepting these false assertions as truth. They sound logical – but they’re not. 


The idea of “energy balance” is a powerful marketing myth that leads the public to accept a false assumption as science. 


The processed food industry side-steps science and uses big-budget marketing as a tool for deception. 


It’s been working for over 50 years, since the start of our processed food culture. 


The question is whether these myths will continue in the future. Can good science debunk 50 years of deceit? And will people start eating real foods to stay healthy and live long lives?