Energy Balance for the Desk-Bound Workforce
Updated: Dec 18, 2019
In our Core Principles, we established that Calories are King – and that loss, gain or maintenance of body weight is determined by energy balance (the amount of calories in vs calories out).
We know being overweight and obese is a huge indicator of poor health, and often a precursor for the ‘modern’ diseases of Type II Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Hypertension etc.
We also know that maintaining our bodyweight is one of the best things we can do for our long term health. The following tips are therefore applicable for individuals wanting to lose weight, or maintain weight.
So how can the deskbound, corporate individual use the principles of energy balance to fit their habits to their lifestyle, and ensure performance at work, long term health and achieve goals for bodyweight, fitness or performance?
Here are some helpful starting points:
Let’s start with Energy IN – ie. What we eat and drink
How do you know how much energy you need on a daily basis?
This is not an exact science, but the starting point is a calculation of your RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate) For males, the calculation starts with bodyweight in kilograms multiplied by 24. Then we multiply this figure by an activity factor of between 1.2 (sedentary) and 1.8 (extremely active during the day and exercise multiple times per week, and trying to add mass). For females, we start by multiplying the bodyweight in kilograms by 22, then multiply this by the activity factor of between 1.2 and 1.8.
For example, a person with a desk job who gets their 10k steps a day and is looking to lose body fat would probably fall at a 1.4 activity factor. For a 70kg female, this would mean a starting point for calorie intake of (70x22 = 1,540)x1.4 = 2,156 kcals per day.
Of course, this is not an exact science, but is a useful starting point. After several weeks of sticking to such a caloric intake, we would be able to tell whether the person was losing, maintaining or gaining body fat, and how they felt, and could adjust the intake accordingly.
So what does this look like in food?
Tracking Calories is not crucial, but is a useful tool, particularly if you are trying to manage your bodyweight.
If you are trying to save money, it’s useful to know what you are spending on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Likewise if you are trying to manage your energy levels, body fat levels, or health, then knowing how much energy you are taking in is pretty useful!
Apps such as MyFitnessPal or Evolve (others are available) are really useful for calculating food intake, and let you see how much food you can eat to match the requirements outlined above.
These are not entirely accurate (the UK Government allows a 15% variation in actual calorie value from labelling – DoH 2016).
A huge advantage of tracking your calorie intake is that you get a clear idea of the foods that you regularly consume that are most and least calorific, which you can fit more of into your diet, and which you need to keep a close eye on.
Bear in mind your own biases when it comes to reporting your food intake – under-reporting is very common (30% of people across 37 studies were found to have under-reported – Posulusna et al 2009).
Tips for calorie control if you don’t want to count calories
If fat loss is your goal, you need to find ways of reducing your calories, such as:
· Use your hands for portion sizing – women use one ‘serving’ as below, men use two.
· Track your behaviours. For example, you could start with eating one extra serving of vegetables per day. See how this changes your daily and weekly eating patterns, make it automatic, then build in a new health-seeking habit.
· Make an easy food swap. For example, try swapping your regular lunch for lentil soup – a satiating, simple, low-calorie high-fibre meal.
Have one carb-free meal per day. Cutting carbs isn't essential for fat loss, but can be useful, even just for one meal. For example, if you prefer to eat your carbs in the evening with the family, you could reduce carbs in your lunch.
· Prioritise protein – get a decent serving of protein at each meal, then fill the rest of your plate with vegetables. Protein is satiating, and will therefore reduce hunger between meals.
· Skip breakfast – particularly if you don’t feel hungry in the morning. Breakfast, contrary to myth is not the ‘most important meal of the day’ – some people feel much better when they don’t eat breakfast.
All of the above methods rely on the principle of energy balance, but do not require the direct ‘calorie counting’ that is sometimes seen as ‘obsessive’, and which can be difficult for some. As we’ve explained, none of these methods are 100% accurate when it comes to measuring energy in, but serve as a really good basis for behavioural change.
One potential pitfall of office work for those looking to manage their energy intake, particularly when weight loss is the goal, is the office environment itself.
Cakes, biscuits, sweets etc seem an ever-present within some offices, and are often brought out as ‘rewards’ for hard work, for birthdays, or special occasions, or just because it’s Tuesday.
Avoiding these can be difficult, and can require ‘willpower’, which we know is a finite resource!
One way of mitigating this is to brink in your own snacks which you know will fill you up without being too calorific. That way, when Sally brings round yet another Victoria sponge, you can say ‘no thanks Sally, you stick to your cake, I’ve got my protein shake’.
Greek yoghurt / skyr pots
Another pitfall of the office working, particularly in city centres, is the ease of access to numerous delicious, but often deceptively high-calorie, lunch options.
Education about calorie intake will be a good starting point for determining your choices in these establishments, and often places like Pret, Eat, Itsu etc will have nutrition information on their products.
However, when shopping for food, hunger and habit often take over, leading to you reaching for the old bacon triple sarnie, bag of crisps and fizzy drink.
One way of avoiding this is to bring in your own lunch, prepared the night before (left-overs from the previous night’s dinner) – meaning that you know what you are getting, and do not have to rely on willpower or judgement to pick your lunch – it’s already there waiting for you.
A small investment in some Tupperware boxes can pay huge dividends for your health.
The second part of the equation is energy out – aka Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
There are many tasks within the body that require energy. Firstly, there are the basic tasks that are required for survival, such as brain function, breathing, organ function etc.
There is also what is known as DIT (Diet Induced Thermogenesis) or TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) – it takes energy to digest a meal – the higher the energy value (calories) of the food eaten, the higher the Thermic effect. Protein has the highest thermic effect of the macro nutrients (often exhibited in the ‘meat sweats’ after the Brazilian Rodizio!).
These first two are largely out of our control (though eating more protein may have a small beneficial effect on TEF, it’s unlikely to make a huge impact).
Let’s concentrate on what is in our control.
This brings me to NEAT and EAT.
Now I know what you’re thinking. EAT? Now that’s something I can do!
EAT stands for Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – aka the calories we burn doing exercise. This is not something that can be very accurately measured (despite the best efforts of FitBits), but again, estimates are useful in assessing the degree of intensity in our sessions. While not directly measurable, it is in our control – we can increase the intensity, duration and frequency of our sessions.
While these increases will increase calories used, we also need to bear in mind that an increase in intensity, duration and/or frequency will place higher demands on the body, which will require increased recovery in order for the body to continue to function effectively.
Often, therefore, when people’s only lifestyle change is to exercise more, their hunger goes up, and they find themselves unable to shift the weight that they wanted.
There are many benefits of exercise, and we definitely advocate regular exercise, but increases in intensity, duration and frequency should be gradual, and be coupled with dietary change. Sometimes, when we increase people’s calorie intake, they are more able to exercise at higher intensity, meaning their body weight remains consistent.
This brings me on to NEAT.
NEAT is ‘the energy expended for everything we do that does not include sleeping, eating or sports-like activity’. While we can’t control the ‘unconscious’ bit of this (fidgeting, posture control, facial expressions), we can certainly control the rest.
This includes walking, shopping, cleaning, gardening – basically anything that requires movement (but isn’t sports-like).
For the desk-bound population, NEAT is something that suffers. Sitting at a desk all day means that you are not moving around a great deal. But this is a huge area of opportunity, particularly when we see the relative contribution of NEAT compared to, say, EAT.
If we can consistently increase NEAT, we can make a huge impact over time to the ‘Energy Out’ part of the Energy Balance equation, and it’s one of the simplest ways of benefiting our health.
Tips for increasing NEAT
· Take the stairs in the office. Every time.
· Walk to meetings, rather than getting taxis
· Walk to see colleagues in the office, rather than emailing or calling
· Take a break every 45 minutes to walk around, get a drink of water, use the bathroom.
· Get off your bus or train one stop early and walk.
· Use your lunch break to walk – not only will you increase NEAT, but you will feel far more energised for the afternoon.
· Go to the park at the weekend with your kids / dog
Here’s the best bit
There are a lot of practical tips here, and you don’t have to jump in at the deep end and start them all at once.
You can start slowly. Try one new habit for a week. Master it, make it permanent. Make it a rule: ‘when I get into the office, I head for the stairs, not the lift’, or ‘after I’ve eaten lunch, I go for a 20 minute walk’, or ‘when I cook dinner, I cook extra so I know I’ve got a healthy home-cooked meal for lunch tomorrow’. Etc, etc.
As a corporate individual, you are probably familiar with the concept of compound interest. The idea is that the initial value that you deposit does not simply increase by an interest rate of x% of the deposit value each year, but by x% of the deposit value PLUS the interest that has already accrued. As the years go by, the amount that interest is payable on increases, and your pot grows exponentially (as demonstrated in the graph above).
The same principle applies to building new habits one by one, cementing each one as you go along.
The beauty of building habits in this way is that they compound. The product of all these habits becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to health and nutrition habits, you start to notice benefits in your health, your productivity, your performance at work and in exercise, and you become a better version of yourself.
In the same way that your initial deposit increases in value exponentially with compound interest, your first new habit sows the seed for this improved version of yourself that seemed a million miles away when you started out.
Small changes, over time, can make a huge difference. Every journey starts with a single step, and your first step into taking care of your nutrition could set you on a path that you never thought possible.