Take your diet and your physical activity, throw in some other factors like genetics and body weight, and you’ve got energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between the energy you take in as calories and the energy you use to exercise, digest food and do basic things like move and breathe.
What does energy balance mean for your cancer risk? If you consume more calories than you burn, the excess energy will be stored as fat. And that excess weight raises your risk for several types of cancer.
We spoke with two of our experts about some of the myths and truths surrounding energy balance and weight loss. Here’s what they had to say.
Myth 1: Eating certain foods will speed up your metabolism
Metabolism is the process of breaking down and using food for energy and nutrients. In other words, it’s the scale in the energy balance equation.
“Some people have a faster metabolism than others,” meaning they use more calories at rest, without really trying, says Lindsey Wohlford, an employee wellness dietitian at MD Anderson. Several things can affect your metabolism, including your age, gender, size and genetics.
While you may slow your metabolism down by eating too little, trying to speed up your metabolism with certain foods won’t work. “There are no magic foods to increase your metabolism,” Wohlford says.
If you want to burn more calories at rest and during physical activity, you do have one option, she says.
“The only way to increase metabolism is by increasing lean muscle mass with resistance training."
Myth 2: Eliminating certain foods will help you lose weight
There is no shortage of diets that call for cutting out a specific food in order to lose weight. Carbohydrates are a frequent villain.
“There is a myth that carbs make you gain weight. In truth, too much of any type of food will be stored as fat,” Wohlford says.
The key is choosing the right kind of carbs and eating them in moderation.
The carbs in whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds can help you feel fuller longer. They are also nutrient-dense. That means they have few calories in relation to their nutritional value.
Myth 3: You can binge on food as long as you exercise the calories off
Make no mistake, exercise burns calories, and staying physically active reduces your risk for several types of cancer, including breast and colorectal cancers.
However, over-estimating the role of exercise in weight loss is one of the biggest traps people fall into when trying to lose weight, says Carol Harrison, a senior exercise physiology technologist in Behavioral Health.
“The greatest factor by far in losing weight is eating less,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, exercise does help, especially in the weight-maintenance phase after weight loss. But the biggest adjustment for weight loss must be made in consuming less calories.”
Myth 4: Eating at certain times or intervals can help you lose weight
Eating frequent, small meals or avoiding late-evening meals are fine, but they aren’t easy fixes for overeating.
Eating five or six small meal may keep hunger and at bay, as long as you keep those meals small. Wohlford’s advice is to approach food mindfully. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re satisfied.
“When you eat matters less than how much you eat,” she says. “To maintain a healthy weight, you need to aim for energy balance throughout the day.”
Do what works for you
The best approach to energy balance is to eat healthy foods in moderation, and exercise for strength, endurance and flexibility.
Everyone’s energy needs are different, and what works for one person may not work for someone else.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to an individual’s calorie-in and calorie-out equation,” Harrison says. “People respond differently to food intake as well as exercise. That’s why it is important to learn what works for you.”