Burn, Baby, Burn (Calories)

Burn, Baby, Burn (Calories)

When we think of burning calories most of us think about exercise. But thinking of calories burned only in terms of exercise neglects other ways our bodies burn calories. If the goal is to take off weight and keep it off for good, everything we do to help our bodies burn calories can make the difference between weight loss success and failure.

Here's a look at the three ways a body burns calories. 

15%-30%: Exercise!

Number 1. Exercise accounts for 15% to 30% of the calories our bodies burn for energy. This 15% to 30% is the only type of energy use that we have some control over. The remainder of our total energy expenditure, or TEE, comes from two other sources: basic metabolism, and food processing.

60%-75%: Basic Metabolism

Number 2. A surprisingly high 60% to 75% of our our TEE goes toward basal energy expenditure, or BEE, which is all that stuff that keeps our bodies working properly. It takes energy to pump the heart, maintain temperature, build bones, breath, and all those other good things. There are several variables that can either increase or decrease our basal energy expenditure:

  • Happy birthday. Our basal energy expenditure gets lower as we age -- but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. BEE likely decreases because we lose lean muscle mass (which burns more calories) and put on more fat mass. The good news is that studies show that those of us who have seen more than a few birthdays are just as capable of building muscle as younger folks. We just have to work at it. BEE can also decrease if our caloric intake gets too low. Yes, that means if we don't eat enough calories to fuel our basic body needs, basal metabolic rate (BMR) adapts by lowering, and weight loss slows. So unless you're medically supervised, don't be tempted by ultra-low calorie or fasting diets if you want real long-term weight loss. 
  • Decaf, please. BEE can increase in extreme temperature (hot or cold), during pregnancy (usually not a big issue for us over-fifties!) and because of stimulants like caffeine or nicotine. But don't start smoking just to raise your BEE - it's not a fair trade off!
  • The other stuff. Some things cause BEE to go either way: gender, sympathetic nervous system, and thyroid hormones. No much you can do about any of them, but I tossed them into the list to be thorough. 

5% - 10%: Digestion

Number 3. The third way the body burns calories is by processing food. It takes a lot of energy - 5% to 10% of TEE - to digest and process food into forms that our body can use. It takes more energy to burn protein than carbohydrates or fats, but don't go getting on the low-carb meat-eating crazy bandwagon. Also, every once in a while someone comes out with a crazy "eat these foods to burn more calories" diet that will have us all eating raw onions and garlic for every meal.  Don't be tempted. A balanced diet, perhaps increasing healthy lean protein choices, is tried and true. 

The Take Away

  • Of the three ways our bodies burn energy, we have the most control over the 15% to 30% of calories burned by exercise. Aerobic activities -- the ones that make the heart beat faster and use one or more major muscle groups -- are the best way to burn calories. At the very least, we should follow the minimum Exercise Guidelines for Americans (EGA). For active adults (ages 16 to 64), that means 150 minutes (2½ hours) of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly. Older adults (65+) and adults who are inactive or have chronic conditions, follow similar guidelines with some if-thens and modifications. Work with a personal trainer to develop goals and a program to optimize your efforts.
  • We can influence the 60% to 75% used for basal energy expenditure by working to keep our lean muscle high through resistance training, again, following the Exercise Guidelines for Americans (EGA) and working with a personal trainer.
  • We can influence the 5% to 10% required for processing and digesting food by eating a balanced diet, perhaps moderately increasing lean protein, which studies show keep us feeling fuller and also help us in the ongoing quest to avoid regaining lost weight.

When we're talking about taking our weight off and keep it off for life, the more we know, the more successful we can be.


Source: ACE Health Coach Manual 2013.


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