Fiction in Fitness: Not All Calories are Created Equal – The Truth Behind Energy Balance

In the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide, Greg Glassman introduced “The Theoretical Hierarchy of the Development of an Athlete.” Nutrition is the foundation of the Hierarchy, then it progresses to metabolic conditioning, gymnastics, weightlifting and throwing, and finally sport. 

 If nutrition is the foundation of health, fitness, and athletic performance, it is essential that as trainers we provide individuals with relevant and accurate information regarding macronutrients, hydration, and specific diets (e.g., Zone, Paleo, Keto, etc.). Contrary to what the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) proclaim to the masses, providing nutritional recommendations and resources is not beyond a trainer’s scope of practice (at least not a Certified CrossFit Trainer).

Nutrition is a rabbit hole that goes far beyond a simple blog post. However, I do want to address one of the biggest misconceptions of nutrition: energy balance. The concept of energy balance is simple, energy-in vs. energy-out:

  • Energy Consumed > Energy Expended = Weight Gain
  • Energy Consumed < Energy Expended = Weight Loss
  • Energy Consumed = Energy Expended = Weight Maintenance

The problem with energy balance and calorie counting is that not all calories are created equal. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are all metabolized differently. In an attempt to avoid scientific jargon, accurately outline the process, and summarize the information, I have provided a brief description of macronutrient metabolism below:

  • Protein
    • During digestion, proteins are hydrolyzed into amino acids, which are utilized to synthesize and repair muscle fibers
    • Excess protein consumption results in the conversion of amino acids into glucose, which is then stored as fat tissue
  • Carbohydrates
    • During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharaides (i.e., simple sugars)
    • This reaction triggers the secretion of insulin by the pancreas
    • Insulin stimulates the uptake and storage of glucose as glycogen
    • When liver and muscle glycogen reserves become saturated, the excess glycogen is stored as fat tissue
  • Fat
    • During digestion, fats are hydrolyzed into free fatty acids
    • Fatty acids are either stored as fat tissue or utilized to produce energy
    • The ingestion and digestion of fats does not effect blood glucose levels

Considering the above information, the energy balance equation appears to lack merit. Yes, energy balance may help individuals lose, gain, and/or maintain weight, but at what cost? Only monitoring caloric intake and expenditure will not prevent metabolic derangement, it simply delays the inevitable.

As trainers, it is essential that we begin providing nutritional recommendations and resources that prioritize the quality of food as opposed to the quantity. Individuals need to understand that consuming real, nutrient dense foods is the catalyst to greater health; and when leveraged with constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensities, it significantly enhances quality of life.

In the infamous words of Coach:

“What this means is that the independent variable that controls your health are the lifestyle choices of what you F*#!n’ ate and what you did for exercise…The solution is off the carbs and off the couch.” Greg Glassman, 2017 Level 1 Seminar Staff Summit

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