The Power of 100 Calories to Close the Country’s Energy Gap, Battle Obesity

It doesn’t sound like much, but there appears to be a lot of power in 100 calories.  In fact, some of the country’s leading obesity experts believe 100 calories may hold tremendous potential to stem the obesity epidemic.

In an excellent commentary in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association titled Using the Energy Gap to Address Obesity, James O. Hill and colleagues make a case for the “energy gap.”  This term was coined to estimate the degree of change in the energy balance point that’s required to prevent weight gain or maintain weight loss.  It’s a calculation based on “calories in” vs. “calories out.”

The researchers begin the article with evidence showing how our country got into the mess we’re in.  Our collective poundage happened gradually over time — with the average American adult gaining 1 to 2 pounds per year. To prevent this weight gain, the researchers estimate that 100 calories a day change in the population energy balance could theoretically prevent weight gain in 90% of the U.S. adult population.  That’s powerful stuff for such a small number.


To lose weight, the energy gap goes up — but not that significantly.  The energy gap for weight loss is estimated to be 200-300 calories per day.  The researchers suggest having a specific and achievable goal for changing diet and physical activity may be more beneficial than generic advice to eat less and exercise more.

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This chart from the article shows the energy gap at work. For a 100-kg (220 lb.) person to lose 10% of body weight the energy gap is 190 to 200 calories per day.  For the same person to lose 15%of body weight, the energy gap is 280 to 300 calories per day.

The continued rise in obesity rates makes you think that something isn’t working.  I like the argument that Hill makes in the article. Do people feel overwhelmed by the thought of drastic lifestyle changes to lose weight?  He’s been a  major champion of the small-changes approach, aimed at helping people make small changes in lifestyle behaviors, which was the focus of a recent report of a joint task force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists and International Food Information Council.

There has been little long-term success in treating established obesity through lifestyle change, perhaps because of the large permanent changes in diet and physical activity required to keep weight off.  An alternative strategy to address the obesity epidemic involves not focusing on weight loss but promoting small changes in diet and physical activity to initially prevent further weight gain.  With the use of this strategy, obesity rates could first be stabilized in most populations and then, over time, decrease gradually.  Supporting data show that small reductions in conscious energy intake and increases in physical activity can reduce excessive weight gain.  The opportunity exists to use the small-changes approach to bring different stakeholders together to create a national initiative to address the global epidemic of obesity.

310DAFE8K4L._SL500_AA280_In the “energy gap” article, Hill and colleagues outline multiple ways to implement the energy gap and small changes concept. Research indicates that a small change focused on 100 calories is something that people can achieve and sustain.  It’s a specific goal and people feel like they can do it.  That may translate to eating 100 calories less (as easy as skipping that giant smear of butter on your bread, drinking water instead of a soda, or foregoing a second glass of wine).  Or it could be increasing physical activity — such as taking 2,500 steps a day counted by a pedometer. Starting small is at least starting, and even little lifestyle changes can jump-start other healthy behaviors. But beyond preventing weight gain, taking an energy gap approach can make the task seem more achievable.  Setting your sights on a 300-calorie deficit (to lose 15% of body weight) is a specific daily target that can be broken down between diet and physical activity changes.

The article ends with a call-to-action:

A small-changes approach must be included in public health strategies and in public policies to address obesity.

I agree.  Let’s don’t overlook the power of small changes. Once again, less is more.

To get you started, here’s an excellent article on 10 easy ways to cut 100 calories every day.

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  • This approach is extremely feasible and beneficial especially to those who are having trouble losing the weight. It shows that weight loss doesn’t have to flip one’s life upside down. Plus, once small steps are made towards a healthy lifestyle, more healthy efforts are likely to follow.

  • It is often overwhelming (for me!) to think about “giving up” everything which is why, I think, people put off going on a “diet” until Monday. On the other hand, we have to accept that by reducing caloric intake (and/or increasing activity) to equal 100 calories per day means the weight loss will be slow. And that’s, of course, not what people want. They have to be persuaded that losing slowly and steadily is the way to go especially if they want to sustain that loss. So what will I give up today for 100 calories?

  • I tend to doubt that the “small change” strategy will work for most people. If it did, it work for cigarette smokers and alcoholics. It doesn’t. “Cold turkey” works better for them.

    But maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges.

    I’d suggest overweight people try this “large change”: eat only natural, whole foods, not man-made ones. Instantly eliminate soda pop, Ding Dongs, Oreos, and Doritos.

    -Steve

  • Jim Hill’s research has motivated me to move a bit more than I normally would and to eat slightly less for a long time. I love that doing just a little bit goes a long way to better health. It’s a concept that we need to teach children, too. In addition to what Janet is discussing here, there is also research suggesting that curbing (needless) calorie intake in younger children by 110 to 165 calories a day is an effective way to keep them on track for a healthy weight. This is really important since most overweight 12 year olds go on to become overweight adults.

  • I am a big supporter of Jim Hill’s extraordinary work over the years. As a registered dietitian, I am also a big believer in the small change approach he espouses–it’s less daunting, overwhelming, and challenging and may prove, in time, to at least be as effective if not more so than other strategies to reduce the incidence of obesity. At least, it may prove to prevent weight gain with increasing age that more and more people struggle with around the world. Personally, I have lost more than 30 pounds and kept it off for years and years– not from making tremendous changes, but from making several small realistic and doable changes in my eating and fitness habits–cutting portions by even a few bites, stopping when I’m full, consuming fewer liquid calories (yes, I do not drink alcohol–but I prefer to eat my calories, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything!), using more healthful cooking methods and limiting fried/breaded foods. On the fitness front, I have made exercise a priority– but not just the kind you do in a gym, but the movements you make each day–just the other day at the book store, I was one of the few who walked up the stairs (about 20-30) to exit the store instead of taking the up escalator….small steps like these (literally and figuratively!) have made a tremendous difference in my life, not only in terms of my weight, but in terms of my energy level and how I feel each day. As a registered dietitian, I encourage consumers to not discount the baby steps, and to know that if they start small and gradually shift their eating and physical activity habits, they will feel and notice the difference….it’s hard, in the Biggest Loser type all-or-none environment in which we live, to convince people that the little things do matter. But I know anecdotally and from some (albeit not much!) of the research out there that you don’t have to work out 8 hours a day, or cut calories drastically to achieve significant beneficial results. Now if only we RDs and PhDs can find a way to make the small changes/baby steps approach sound sexy, I’m sure we could millions change their lives for the better in a safe and sensible way. Any ideas out there for how we can do this???

  • I don’t really think it’s about counting calories at all. People are eating the wrong proportions of foods. They’re eating far too many refined grains, sugar and other carbohydrates (even whole wheat things, fruit juices, potatoes etc…) and not enough fats and protein. I was there this summer…counting my calories until I drove myself crazy..but there isn’t really a way of ‘knowing how many calories you need’ in a day. I was trying to do the whole 60 – 65% carbs, 20% fat and 15% protein thing. I didn’t even eat bad carbs…it was all whole grains and lots of fruit. But now I’ve totally switched that up, eating around 50-60% fat, 20% carbs and 20% protein. The result? Over a course of 2 months or so (without ever counting calories, just eating until I’m satisfied…) I’ve lost roughly 8 pounds….and this is coming from a guy that started off with around 10-11% body fat. Another thing I’ve cut out is all the long hours of cardio I was doing. Now I’m leaner than ever, think more clearly, and don’t get hungry nearly as often. We’ve been told by ‘the experts’ to eat less fat….and that’s exactly what’s been making us fat.

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