What is a Caloric Surplus? Plus, Why Your Diet Isn’t Working..

Posted on October 17th, 2022 By in Diet and Weightloss Read Time: 20 mins.

Chances are that if you’ve attempted a diet lately, you’ve probably heard the term ‘caloric surplus’ thrown around. But what is a caloric surplus, anyways? And how does it impact your ability to lose weight? Let’s find out.

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Protein Shakes Help Prevent a Caloric Surplus

Dieting information has never been more accessible than it is today.

Between Instagram health coaches, trendy podcasters, and even Tik Tok trainers, we are basically bombarded with diet advice at all times.

It’s sort of helpful, sort of stressful.

Over the course of your browsing such dieting content, you’ve probably heard the term ‘caloric surplus’, and also the term ‘caloric deficit’.

These terms are super important when it comes to the science of losing weight, but before we break down each phrase, let’s get some of the basics out of the way.

Let’s brush up on what a calorie really is.

We all know calories are essentially a measure of how dense, or light a food is, but it’s important to drill down a little deeper.

Why Our Diets Fail…

In a nutshell, our diets often fail when we wrongfully fear, and avoid the wrong things.

Some people avoid protein powder when dieting, (falsely) assuming it will make them gain weight

But will keep the nightly glass (x2-3 if you’re like me) of red wine, or calorie-laden cocktail.

Take note of how I used ‘calorie‘ above with a negative connotation associated with it.

There’s a reason that even just the word ‘calorie’ sounds negative when it comes to dieting.

We live in a world where many so people are dieting or want to lose weight…

But many of those people are under the false assumption that losing weight has to be difficult.

Maybe they’ve tried a fad diet or two, and didn’t get the results that they wanted.

Or maybe they followed a certain weight loss program that they found online, without success.

There could be any number of reasons for a diet to fail (here 14 of the most common reasons why a diet fails).

But the number one most common reason why a diet fails, is that it ignores the core principle of losing, or gaining weight.

You need to eat less calories than you expend, or burn.

Recommended Reading: How Much Weight Can You Lose in a Month?

It sounds simple, right?

Because it is.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to follow this principle with regularity and consistency!

Human beings are prone to being inconsistent, and un-disciplined with, well, everything that is inconvenient and hard.

So a lot of times, we fall off the wagon.

The binge foods come out.

We skip the workouts.

And we end up back to square one.

“Those darn calories!”, we cry as we try to purge our cupboard of junk foods for the millionth time…

And while we just blame all calories, we sort of lose sight of what a calorie actually is…

The truth is, that there is nothing negative about calories.

What Are Calories, Anyways?

Calories are just a measurement of a unit of energy.

They are found in the foods and beverages you drink every day.

They give your body the energy that it needs every day to perform many functions from breathing, digestion, and blood circulation, to thinking, daily activities, and, of course, exercise. 

Your body needs a certain amount of calories to function properly.

The more active you are, the more calories you need.

The more sedentary you are, the less calories you need.

A professional athlete who trains 4 times per day needs significantly more calories to support their body than someone who works at a desk for 8 hours. 

Similar to our individual protein requirements, our caloric requirements also vary based on age, sex, weight, and physical activity level.

If we eat exactly the amount of calories that our bodies need every day, we are in an energy balance, and we will not gain (or lose) weight.

Let’s Talk Energy Balance…

Many of us end up eating to what we call an ‘energy balance‘ each day, without even realizing it.

An energy balance is when you burn the same amount of calories as you take in on a given day.

There has been research showing that humans have a unique ability to take in, give or take, roughly the same amount of calories as we burn.

And our bodies burns calories through many different means.

The total amount of calories your body burns is called total energy expenditure (TEE).

The TEE is made up of your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and the thermic effect of activity (TEA). 

Weight loss, weight maintenance, and weight gain all come down to energy balance.

Positive/Negative Balance

  • If you want to lose weight: You need to eat less calories than your body burns…i.e. you need to be in a negative energy balance, or ‘caloric deficit’.
  • If your goal is to gain weight: You need to eat more calories than your body burns…i.e you need to be in a positive energy balance, or ‘caloric surplus’.
  • If you want to maintain your weight, then your calorie intake needs to match your expenditure.

This is called a neutral energy balance, and again, is what most of us will do unless we are actively trying to change our weight through either a surplus or deficit.

Since it is most common these days in our somewhat ‘cushy’ lives that we end up wanting to lose weight, let’s focus on dieting.

Specialty Diets Over-Complicate Things.

Many people who want to lose weight turn to fad diets because they are looking for an easy, quick fix to get them from where they are to where they want to be.

This often leads to following eating patterns that they can’t maintain, and they either lose no weight, or they lose some weight and quickly gain it back.

When people follow fad diets, they also tend to emphasize things that aren’t important.

Let’s consider the keto diet, as an example.

People who follow the keto diet eat high fat foods and limit carbohydrates.

Fat is the most calorically-dense macronutrient.

Fat contains 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram.

If someone is following the keto diet but not keeping track of their calories, they can very easily end up in a caloric surplus before they know it.

This can prevent weight loss, and even result in weight gain. 

Again.

Keep it Simple.

In order to lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit.

You don’t have to eat low-carb, keto, vegan, paleo, or any other fad diet.

All you need to do is eat fewer calories than your body expends.

There is no need to eliminate food groups or certain foods.

You want to make sure you eat plenty of lean protein, and plenty of healthy vegetables for your overall health….

But in order to lose weight, all you need to do is eat less than you burn

Creating small caloric deficits is more effective and more sustainable than starting off with a huge deficit.

A caloric deficit is essential in order to lose weight.

If you are having success in your diet, you are probably doing a good job of maintaining a caloric deficit.

Conversely, if you find yourself gaining weight, more often than not, the culprit is a caloric surplus.

What is a Caloric Surplus?

As we outlined above, a caloric surplus occurs when you eat more calories than your body burns.

So if you consume more calories in food or drink (yes, alcohol counts, and contains a sneaky amount of calories!) than your body’s total energy expenditure, it will cause you to gain weight. 

Sometimes, people restrict their food intake too drastically.

They maintain a caloric deficit for several days at a time.

But because this is not sustainable, they end up binging and consuming a huge surplus of calories in one day.

If over the course of a week, your average caloric intake is more than your average energy expenditure, you are still in a caloric surplus!

This is one of the most common dieting pitfalls that I see in my private practice…

A client will follow a strict diet for 5 or 6 days a week, but end up having one big ‘cheat day’ that negates all the hard work and sacrifice of the previous days!

I’ve seen it time and time again.

If you are consistently in a caloric surplus, whether it be on a daily or weekly level, you will not lose weight.

This pitfall often comes from being too extreme with the calorie deficit, in an attempt to lose weight fast.

The better option is to go slow, steady, and consistent.

This will lead to healthy weight management.

The Healthy Weight Management Checklist

The best way to approach weight management, whether you want to lose weight or maintain your weight, is with small lifestyle changes that you can maintain long-term. 

Here are 5 actionable tips that you can use to ensure that your diet is not only effective, but sustainable for the long run:

  1. Focus on eating a balanced diet that includes all macronutrients including protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but don’t neglect your micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are critical to keeping your body and mind healthy and capable of staying on track.
  2. If your diet mostly consists of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, then you’re on a good path to reaching a healthy weight.
  3. It’s okay to sprinkle in those enjoyable foods that are less nutrient dense and higher in calories – but they shouldn’t make up the whole of your diet. And remember – a big cheat day can cancel out a week’s worth of hard work!
  4. Rather than focusing on eating less, you can add more high-fiber, low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods to your diet. These foods will help keep you full, and energized while slowing digestion.
  5. Keeping in mind that you’ll need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight, you can either reduce your caloric intake (eat and drink fewer calories), increase your calorie expenditure (move your body more), or a combination of both. Take more walks throughout the day. Take the stairs over the elevator. Make your life a little harder, and you’ll reap the rewards.
  6. Supplements are not a shortcut, but they can help you lose weight. A low-calorie protein powder can help build muscle while keeping you full, while some probiotic strains are also optimized for weight loss

Remember, our main goal, and the criteria for inclusion on this check-list, is that it all has to be sustainable.

Sustainability is Key

It works best if you choose something you can continue doing over time.

Don’t commit to running 3 miles 7 days per week if you don’t even walk right now.

If you’re someone who currently exercises 2 times per week, try adding another day if your schedule allows for it.

If your schedule doesn’t allow for another day at the gym, figure out where you can fit more movement in throughout your day.

The bottom line?

Set realistic goals for yourself.

Don’t set yourself up for failure!

Summing it all up…

  • A caloric surplus occurs when you eat and drink more calories than you burn throughout the day. If you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight, a caloric surplus will prevent you from reaching those goals. 
  • To lose weight, you need to create a caloric deficit, which can be accomplished by eating less calories, expending more energy, or a combination of both. 
  • It’s best to approach weight management through sustainable lifestyle changes you can make long-term. Focus on healthy eating habits and regular physical activity. 

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