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Does More Energy In And Out Make It Easier To Maintain Energy Balance?

sharma-obesity-caloric_balance_scaleFrom every thing we know about obesity, the simplistic model of energy-in-energy-out (or Eat-Less-Move-More) approach to managing weight has not led us to any meaningful advances in obesity management. The number of people who can successfully manage their weight by this approach in the long-term is so minuscule, that every “success story” is considered “newsworthy”.

Now, a provocative paper by Gregory Hand and Steven Blair, published in US Endocrinology, suggests that what matters for good health is the amount of energy flowing through the system rather than the state of energy balance.


“Recent findings suggest that a high energy flux, maintained by increasing energy expenditure, can improve an individual’s metabolic profile without changing weight.”

This, essentially, is a fancy way of saying, that simply moving more calories through your body by burning more calories (even if you instantly eat them back) benefits the organism irrespective of any impact this may have on body weight – or that exercise is good for you even if you do not lose weight.
Anyone familiar with Steven Blair’s work (fat and fit is better than skinny and unfit) – will recognize the theme – but couching it in a concept of energy flux is a novel and interesting spin to this idea.

Apart from providing a theoretical model for how exercise may benefit you even if you don’t lose any weight doing it, the model may also have implications for weight management.


“The significance of the model of energy regulation is twofold: First, the model suggests that energy balance, and maintaining a stable weight is more easily achieved at a high energy flux. Second, a high energy flux can be achieved by matching a high energy intake with equivalent high energy expenditure, or by increasing energy stores (gaining weight). Of note is that these two characteristics of the model suggest that the biological system was designed to maintain a high energy flux, and increasing energy stores is a quite viable mechanism to achieve this level of energetics. An extensive body of research indicates that multiple and redundant mechanisms regulate the ‘drive’ for energy intake. The high energy flux is attained by matching the intake with expenditure and/or a change in energy storage. Weight gain is consistent with high energy flux combined with low energy expenditure, and it follows that attempting to achieve energy balance at a low energy flux (sedentary behavior combined with food restriction) is not a long-term strategy for weight maintenance.”

The biological question that pops into my mind of course is as to how exactly the body would sense this “flux”. While it is easy to see how the body would sense energy stores (e.g. through hormonal signals such as leptin), it is not clear how the body would monitor flux (after all, to regulate something, it needs to be measured).

This is not something that the authors delve into, thus leaving a somewhat unsatisfying gap in what otherwise makes for an interesting hypothesis.

Toronto, ON


  1. Regarding the “Eat Less Move More” plan:
    ” The number of people who can successfully manage their weight by this approach in the long-term is so minuscule, that every “success story” is considered “newsworthy”.

    When the ELMM approach is evaluated, does the research include people who use this approach to lose small amounts of weight?

    I’m thinking about people who monitor their weight, and if they gain a certain amount, say 5 pounds, they immediately go on the ELMM plan, until they are back to what they consider their “normal” weight.

    I know several people who do this. None of them would be considered the least bit overweight. They take deliberate corrective action before a weight gain is evident to anybody else.
    Everybody does the Eat Less part, the few athletic types also increase workouts to Move More.
    These people would never show up at an obesity clinic.

    So, my question is …
    Does the research on the effectiveness of ELMM include people who use it to lose small amounts of weight whenever they need to?

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  2. Consider HGH as one monitor of activity, or energy flux. We know that when we exercise we put out spurts of HGH, this increases IGF-1. IGF-1 facilitates the use of energy (calories) by muscle rather than storing it as fat. We also know that IGF-1 levels decrease with age, and this energy flux pattern, and weight maintenance in general, becomes more difficult as every decade passes. This theory makes sense on many levels.

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  3. Perhaps increased energetic expenditure could be signalled by higher electron flux through the ETC? There is evidence that in athletes production of antioxidants is increased, so presumably the body is capable of detecting the increased ROS production from increased aerobic metabolism. The more difficult question I think is *why* high energy flux might be a good thing–saying the body was “designed” to work like that doesn’t really offer much explanation. My guess is that the higher energy in/energy out, the less effect a given amount of calories has (e.g. 100 calories out of 1500 is a much greater overshoot of energy balance as a percentage than 100 calories out of 3000).

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  4. Actually, this resonates. I remember when the NWCR came out with the declaration that we were eating, on average, 1300 cal./day and I thought, “Well, how do the heck do they know? They don’t ask us.” The forms have changed some over the last decade, but they still ask us about broad categories of food over a period of time (now a shorter period than when I first started filling the forms out). From this incomplete information they INFER that we eat 1300/cal. per day. That’s ridiculous. At the time I saw that proclamation, probably eight or nine years ago (3 or 4 years into my maintenance) I was running 27 miles a week and taking in 1800-2200 cal/day. I thought, wow, if they’re estimating my calories right, then there has to be someone else on the registry balancing my intake by eating less than 650 cal/day. That’s the only way we’d come up with an “average” of 1300. That made me scratch my head.

    When I couldn’t run anymore I went through a horrible transition period trying to figure out what to do that was comparable. I found I just couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t maintain by managing intake alone, or even managing it while using milder aerobics. I had hard-to-describe “eat impulses” all the time. Not gnawing hunger, but just a continual driving, raging desire to eat, accompanied by distracting, intrusive thoughts about food. Moreover, my weight was sliding up, very slowly, and it was depressing. After a lot of trial and error, I have dug my heels in about 13 pounds up from my lowest plateau but still 55 pounds under my highest established weight. The routine I do now has me averaging 1800 calories a day intake against 50 minutes of aerobics wearing a weighted vest, ankle weights and hand weights totaling just under 30 pounds. That gets my sweat pouring at the necessary rate to create maintenance, and the food intake quells the eat impulses. I also limit my starchy carbs to less than 200/day.

    I disagree with you on one thing. Maintainers are NOT considered newsworthy. Unless you’re pushing the yippy zippy, “If I can do it anyone can” mantra, no one’s interested. If you say, “well, it’s complicated,” then they tune you out. Also, in the People magazine annual “half their size” issue, if you read the stories, very few of them are true maintainers. Most are at less than a year of maintenance, or are even still in loss mode. Likewise all the other “newsworthy” people who have lost weight. Maintenance, when it’s honest, is the least sexy topic one can write on, I guess.

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  5. One anecdotal observation that I can’t explain. I find it easier to maintain weight when I add a fair amount of exercise (90m aerobic – mostly rowing at about 200 watts of work into a flywheel) and an hour of fast walking every day. I’m eating more, but the cravings I get at lower levels of consumption and exercise almost vanish. The effect is strong enough that it motivates the exercise. It is almost as if the regulation system is working again.

    A different example of human energy in/out balance that amazes me is a friend who was a professional indoor and beach volleyball player. She’s never been overweight in her life and her appetite closely tracks the amount of exercise she does. Exercise sessions were sx hours plus of intense workouts a day and her food bill was frightening. Off season and in retirement her body smoothly shifted to an appetite that keeps her trim – she still exercises regularly but an hour a day at much lower intensities. Perhaps never getting overweight is a critical point, but her ability to match appetite and energy requirements over a range where the requirements vary by as much of a factor of three seems remarkable.

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  6. One aspect of this hypothesis that does not sit right with me is when we consider oxidative stress. So important and necessary for the body, but both higher energy consumption and higher energy expenditure generates more free radicals and oxidative stress for the body….so why is that increase not having a detrimental effect on metabolic processes?

    From a macro/behavioral level, I can see how having high energy intake and expenditure can make it easier for long-term weight maintenance if it is the higher activity level that is driving the energy intake (versus having an energy intake that is not really coupled to activity levels).

    Really interesting article, thank you for sharing!

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  7. The human body is not magical. It is subject to the same laws of the universe (including thermodynamics) as everything else. Yes, the human body is complex and hormones/etc will have an impact on weight gain and weight loss, but generally speaking over a long period of time these things will also balance out. No condition or hormones will allow you to create energy from nothing (and if you can demonstrate this in any obese person, please step forward to collect your Nobel prize as perpetual motion and infinite energy have finally been discovered!).

    If a person who is attempting to balance calories-in and calories-out and they do not achieve weight loss, the problem is not with thermodynamics or their body. It’s with the person.

    Maybe it is a simple truth that humans are incapable of having the will power and self-control necessary to be vigilant and honest with themselves for a long enough period of time to see weight loss. Maybe human nature makes counting calories unsustainable. But again, that is not a problem with thermodynamics or calories. That is a problem with humans.

    People need to stop acting as if there’s something magical about the human body that makes weight loss impossible even on restricted calorie diets.

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