I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: calories are king.
It is very difficult to make significant, long term, fat loss or muscle building progress without having an idea of your caloric intake.
The only way to lose weight is to create a negative energy balance; consume fewer calories than you burn.
The only way to gain weight is to create a positive energy balance; consume more calories than you burn.
That said, many people believe counting calories is too hard, or don’t know how to do it. But I’m here to tell you that 1). It’s not hard, and 2). It’s something that everyone can do in just a few minutes…and I’m gonna teach you!
Tracking Your Intake
Before you can count calories, you need to have a way of tracking your intake. Sure you could carry a pen and notebook with you everywhere, reading every food label, and adding up your calories…but this isn’t 1999. We have technology now.
IMO, the best way to track calories is by using an app like MyFitnessPal. Not only does this take nearly all the work out of tracking calories, but the food database is huge and has almost everything imaginable.
It is extremely easy to use and once you get into the habit of it, it takes less than 5 minutes a day to track your intake. And the payoff of tracking calories compared to not tracking is worth it.
Finding Your Maintenance
The first step in setting calories for fat loss or muscle gain is finding your maintenance calories; or how many calories you need to eat in a day to remain the same weight.
There are a number of factors that go into your caloric expenditure, but the two we are going to focus on are your Basil Metabolic Rate and your activity levels. Together these make up a majority of the calories you burn on a daily basis
Your BMR is the number of calories you burn at rest on an empty stomach. Basically if you woke up in the morning, stayed in bed, and didn’t move for the rest of the day, your BMR would make up all the calories you burn.
The calories you burn through activity are largely based on how active you are, what kind of exercise you do, how much, etc. This is highly individual and we’ll talk about how to factor this in in a second.
There are a number of formulas out there for calculating BMR and most will produce pretty similar numbers. The two I like best are the Mifflin St. Jeor equation and the Alan Aragon BMR equation.
Mifflin St. Jeor
Men: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) + 5
Women: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) – 161
25.3 x Lean Body Mass in kg OR 11.5 x Lean Body Mass in pounds
As you can see one equation uses bodyweight and the other uses lean body mass. I like using formulas that take into account LBM because muscle has a higher metabolic cost than fat. As you’ll see though, the numbers actually end up being quite similar.
Lets do an example. Here we have a person, male, who:
– is 200 pounds
– with 15 % body fat
– has 170 pounds of LBM
– is 6 ft tall
– and 26 years old
Here’s what their BMR looks like with each equation:
Mifflin St. Jeor – 1,959
Aragon – 1,950
Since the equations are virtually similar, we’ll use the Aragon equation because requires less math
Now that we have our BMR, we need to factor in our activity levels. Again this is highly individual. To do this, simply multiply your BMR by the appropriate activity multiplier below:
Little to no activity/desk job – x 1.1-1.2
Light exercise or activity 3-5 days/week – x 1.3-1.4
Moderate exercise or activity 3-5 days/week – x 1.5-1.6
Hard exercise 5+ days/week – x 1.7-1.8
Intense activity daily or active job – x 1.9-2.0
Lets say our guy is moderately active, resistance training 4 days per week. For this we would probably go with a multiplier of 1.6. When you multiply this with your BMR you get what is called your TDEE or Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
1,950 x 1.6 = 3,120 calories per day
It’s usually better to start with the higher multiplier, because it’s always easier to take away calories than it is to add them back in.
Now that we know how to find our maintenance calories, we need to set a deficit or surplus depending on our goal. In part two of this article, we’ll discuss the factors to consider when setting a deficit or surplus, as well as the best way to do it.