How Energy Gaps Help Maintain Weight Loss

By Mike Howard

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A recent commentary from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association outlines the concept of “energy gap” and how it relates to weight loss and weight maintenance. The term energy gap was coined to estimate the change in energy balance (intake and expenditure) behaviors required to achieve and sustain weight loss in individuals and populations. There are essentially 2 concepts discussed in this paper;

1. Prevention of excess weight gain, and
2. Maintenance of achieved weight loss.

Prevention

  • It is estimated that the energy gap for prevention of weight gain among those who have lost weight is about 100 kcal/day in adults and 100-150 kcal/day in children and adolescents.
  • Any combination of increased energy expenditure and decreased energy intake of 100 kcal per day in adults and 100-150 kcal/day for children and adolescents could theoretically prevent weight regain in 90% of the US population.
  • This suggests that this small changes approach could be very effective for preventing excessive weight gain in adults and children.

Maintenance

  • The energy gap to maintain weight loss is generally much larger, amounting to 200 kcal/day for a 100 kg person losing 10% of body weight or 300 kcal/day for the same person losing 15% of body weight.

According to obesity researcher James O. Hill, large behavioural change is required to maintain substantial weight loss, whereas smaller behavioural changes can eliminate the small energy imbalance that occurs before the body has gained substantial weight. Hill also adds;

Because the body has not previously stored this ‘new’ excess energy, it does not defend against the behavioural strategies as happens when the body loses weight.”

Application

Simple as the concept of energy gap may seem, it’s never a bad idea to get back to basics in terms of the front line interventions for both preventing and shedding excess weight. Further, this data helps formulate more specific strategies rather than a generic “eat less, exercise more” – allowing for more specific nutritional, exercise and (very importantly) behavioural strategies to combat obesity.

Weight loss (fat loss) is simple but not easy – losing fat and maintaining it are different animals. With a long term success rate hovering around 5%, it is time to look at more permanent and effective strategies for keeping weight off.

9 Comments

  1. Susan

    I’m confused too – is this “energy gap” the difference between calories consumed minus calories burned? Or does it mean the difference between calories typically eaten minus calories you’d need to eat to maintain weight?

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  2. Susan

    The “small changes” concept is kind of silly to me – if such a small change can be the difference between gaining or losing, then of course it goes EITHER way – one day you might make enough small changes to lose, but another day you might eat 100 calories too many and gain it back!

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  3. Dr. J

    “This article is extremely hard to understand.”

    Well I can agree with that! I think if we were robotic and ate the same calorie count each day, and utilized the same number of calories each day, this concept would have some value beyond a publication in a journal for the authors. The problem as I see it, is in the real world, we vary both of those factors continuously. In my opinion, it’s an individual thing as to how much less to eat, and how much more active to be. The mirror or scale will tell the tale. You’ll know if you are on the right track.

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  4. jill gray

    This article is extremly hard to understand. Prevention of weight gain for those who have lost weight and maintenance of weight loss; what is the difference?

    Reply
  5. Spectra

    When I was obese, I was incredibly lazy and I ate some pretty bad things. I probably ate at least 3000-4000 calories a day, which was enough to make me gain 10 lbs a month for 3 months. I made some major changes to my diet…I went from eating 4000 calories a day to eating 2000 and starting to be more active. When I see how food-driven our culture is, it doesn’t surprise me that most of the general population is obese or overweight. You literally can’t go anywhere without seeing food or some sort of opportunity to eat.

    I don’t usually weigh myself, but I do weigh in about once a month just to make sure I’m not gaining. If I realize that I have gained a couple of pounds, I cut back a little in the food department and do a little more exercise every day.

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  6. Jody - Fit at 51

    I agree with you & Mike too! Weight loss/maintenance is HARD work. There is no way around that. But if people just tried to keep active at things they like & maybe some they just “tolerate” & eat better, they would be on there way to better health! I once put a cartoon on my site that said it well: “What fits your busy schedule better, exercising 1 hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day”. Of course we know food is a huge part of this too!

    Reply
  7. Mike Howard

    Very well said, Lala! Preventing it in the first place by being aware of your eating is crucial but is lost on so many people.

    Reply
  8. Lala

    Ahh, this article confuses me. Many people are healthy and are not overweight simply because they watch what they eat and they exercise as much as they can. I don’t think they spend hours every day thinking about food. How do people gain weight? Lack of activity and too much of food! So start moving, don’t spend too much time being lazy and stop eating more than what you can take.

    I know it’s not easy for people who are used to eating so much and just spend hours idling, but they gotta understand that if they don’t take control of their own dietary habits, there ain’t nobody out there who’s gonna get them magic pills to lose the gut.

    Reply
  9. Matt

    If the “small changes” theory is so effective, why does everyone try it and fail?

    Reply