Why You Need to Know How Many Calories to Eat
Imagine someone tells you that he wants to drive across the country without paying attention to his fuel tank. He plans on stopping for fuel whenever he feels like stopping and pumping or adding as much as he feels like at that time without regard to the guage.
How would you respond?
I don’t know about you but I would probably laugh and ask how the hell he came up with such an insane idea. Imagine you did the same and he snapped back with one of the following replies:
- “I hate feeling like a slave to the oppressive fuel meter. I should be able to drive as far, and as fast as I want before refueling and only refuel as much as I want at that time before driving again!”
- “I read this book that said you don’t have to watch your fuel if you use organic, gluten-free, low-carb, non-GMO, #HolyFuel. It doesn’t clog your engine like other fuels and burns more efficiently.”
Again, I don’t know about you, but this would be me:
And I would calmly gather up my toys and go play with someone else.
When someone says he or she wants to lose or gain weight without paying attention to his calories…or says that caloric intake and expenditure have nothing to do with it…they are being just as stupid.
Is it possible to lose or gain weight without counting calories? Sure…to a degree.. Is it likely to work well over the long term? Absolutely not.
The bottom line is calorie planing and tracking is the most reliable and effective way to lose fat and build muscle in the long term.
And if that statement has specters of starvation dieting and food deprivation flashing before you…
I’m not talking about starving or depriving yourself. I’m talking about freeing yourself. I’m talking about getting the body you want eating foods you actually like. I’m talking about guaranteed progress toward your goals each and every week. No more hoping that you can make it happen. Knowing. And yes, it all starts with calories.
Well, actually, with how the calories you eat relate to the calories you burn…otherwise known as energy balance.
Understanding Energy Balance
Energy balance refers to the relationship between the amount of energy you eat and the amount you burn.
Think of it like your body’s energy checking account.
- If you eat more energy than you burn, you’re in a positive energy balance.
- If you eat less than you burn, you’re in a negative energy balance.
This energy that you eat and burn is measured in calories. And when we’re talking food and metabolism, a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. Thus, foods with a lot of calories (fatty foods, for instance) contain a lot of potential energy and foods with a fewer calories (green beans) contain less. Now, the unsexy truth that many people just don’t want to hear is this:
Meaningful weight loss requires eating less energy than you expend and meaningful weight gain requires eating more.
This isn’t an opinion. This is scientific fact. This isn’t news, either. After a century of metabolic research and anecdotal evidence, there’s no room left for argument. Energy balance is the most significant indicator for weight loss and gain, not food choices or even eating schedule or any other factor.
Thus, in this sense, a calorie is a calorie, and if you eat too much of the “cleanest” foods in the world, you’ll gain weight.
Maintain a calorie deficit while following a “gas station diet” of the most nutritionally bankrupt crap you can find, however, and you’ll lose weight. This is why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks. He simply ate fewer crappy calories than his body burned and, as the first law of thermodynamics dictates, this resulted in a reduction in total fat mass.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you should try to do the same thing. When the goal is to lose fat and not muscle, you need to consider more than “calories in versus calories out.”
Beyond Calories In vs. Calories Out
When it comes to improving body composition, a calorie is not a calorie. Eating like Professor Haub did in his experiment won’t cut it.
When you want to build muscle and lose fat (or minimize fat gain), your food choices matter.
Well, not the specific foods per se, but how they break down macronutritionally. You see, people say they want to lose or gain “weight,” but that’s not what they mean. The goal is never to just lose or gain weight–it’s to lose fat and not muscle and gain muscle and not fat.
And when that’s the goal, some types of calories are now much more important than others.For example, one gram of protein contains the about the same number of calories as one gram of carbohydrate (~4), but is far more important for building muscle and losing fat. Now, what I’m getting at here is the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) style of dieting, which is built upon the idea that getting your “macros” right is just as important as getting your calories right.
A macronutrient is any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
(Most people think of “macros” as just protein, carbohydrate, and fat, but technically it includes the macrominerals as well.)
When it comes to diet and meal planning, the macronutrients you pay most attention to are protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Let’s take a quick look at each.
The Most Important Calories: Protein
The calories you get from protein are, in many ways, far more important for your body composition than those you get from carbohydrate and fat.
There are several reasons for this:
- A high-protein diet is better for building muscle.
- Protein helps preserve muscle while in a calorie deficit.
- A high-protein diet is better for losing fat, including abdominal fat in particular.
- Protein is very filling, which helps you better stick to your diet.
High-protein dieting is even more important for people that exercise regularly because their body needs more for recovery and repair.
Carbs Are Your Friend, Not Enemy
If you don’t know whom to believe in the “carbohydrate wars,” I understand.
It’s easy to get lost in the crosscurrent of debate, namecalling, and general hysterics.
What it boils down to is this:
Many “experts” say that low-carb dieting is the only reliable way to get lean and muscular…and people like me say the opposite–that a higher-carb diet is probably going to suit your needs better.
In fact, here’s my position:
If you’re healthy and physically active, and especially if you lift weights regularly, you’re probably going to do best with more carbs, not less.
That advice applies to both building muscle and losing fat, as well. High-carb dieting offers many benefits for both.
IMO High-Fat Dieting Is Overrated
One of the many ways to sell products and ideas is to be contrarian. When everyone is leaning left, lean right and people will take notice. Well, not so long ago, low-fat dieting was the undisputed champion of weight loss nutrition.
“Eat fat and get fat” was the mainstream mantra.
Well, with everyone leaning left, it was only time before smart marketers started leaning right. And we now see the fruits of their labors: mainstream diet “gurus” praising dietary fat as “slimming” and vilifying carbs as “fattening”–the real culprit behind our ever-expanding waistlines.
Well, the truth is all forms of dietary extremism are inherently and inevitably flawed.
Black and white, binary thinking is easy on the ol’ grey matter but isn’t conducive to good decision making. And especially when we’re talking diet.
You see, there is no “One True Diet” that is best for everyone under any and all circumstances.
There are non-negotiable fundamentals like energy balance that must be observed and there are flexible guidelines that can be molded to fit personal needs. And dietary fat intake is one of those malleable factors. You see, there’s no denying that dietary fats play a vital role in the body.
They’re used in processes related to cell maintenance, hormone production, insulin sensitivity, and more. This is why the Institute of Medicine recommends that dietary fat should comprise 20 to 35% of an adult’s daily calories.
That said, those percentages were worked out for the average sedentary person, who often eats quite a bit less than someone that exercises regularly (and especially if that person has a lot of muscle).
For example, a 190-pound sedentary male with a normal amount of lean mass would burn around 2,000 calories per day. Based on that, the IoM’s research says he would need 45 to 80 grams of fat per day. That makes sense.
Now, I weigh about 176 pounds…but I also have more muscle than the average person and I exercise about 6 hours per week.
Thus, my body burns about 3,000 calories per day and if I were to blindly apply the IoM’s research to that number, my recommended fat intake would skyrocket to 65 to 115 grams per day. But does my body really need that much more dietary fat simply because I’m muscular and burn a lot of energy through regular exercise?
No, it doesn’t.
Based on the research I’ve seen, if dietary fat comprises 20 to 35% of your basal metabolic rate (around 0.3 grams per pound of fat-free mass), you’ll be fine.
How to Determine How Many Calories You Should Eat
Now that you understand the fundamentals of proper dieting (energy balance and macronutrient breakdown), let’s talk about how to determine how much you should be eating.
Well, it revolves around how much energy you’re burning every day, which is referred to as your “total daily energy expenditure,” or “TDEE.”
Once you have a good handle on your TDEE, you can adjust your caloric intake down or up to lose or gain weight respectively.
Your TDEE is comprised of your basal metabolic rate (BMR) plus additional energy burned through physical activity and the food you eat.
Let’s review each of these points separately.
1. Your basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body burns at rest.
It’s the minimum amount of energy it costs to stay alive.
2. When you move your body, it costs energy.
No matter how large or small or long or short an activity is, it burns energy.
3. When you eat food, it costs energy to digest and absorb.
This is known as the thermic effect of food, or TEF.
Research shows that TEF accounts for about 10% of total daily energy expenditure, with amounts varying based on the macronutrient composition of your diet. So…when you sum the energy your body burns to stay alive (BMR) and the energy burned through physical activity and digesting and absorbing food…you arrive at your TDEE.
And if that sounds complicated, don’t worry. It’s not. You don’t have to dust off your college algebra or take an Excel tutorial. Metabolic researchers have already done all the heavy lifting for us and boiled it down to simple arithmetic.
The first step in calculating your TDEE is calculating your BMR.
There are several equations for that but I recommend the Katch-McArdle variant, which looks like this:
(where LBM is the lean body mass in kg)
The reason I recommend the Katch-McArdle over other formulas such as the Harris-Benedict or Mifflin-St Jeor is it accounts for differences in body composition.
This matters because muscle is metabolically active whereas body fat isn’t. That is, two people can weigh the same but if one has a lot more muscle, his basal metabolic rate will be quite different.
Once you have your BMR, you need to account for the additional energy expenditure as noted above.
Instead of tracking every step you take and noting readouts from cardio machines (they’re inaccurate anyway), the Katch-McArdle equation includes multipliers that you can apply to your BMR based on your general activity level.
This will give you a good starting point for determining how many calories you should eat, and then you can adjust based on how your body actually responds.
Now, here are the standard Katch-McArdle multipliers:
1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
1.55 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
1.9 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
There’s something you need to know about activity multipliers, though:
They will probably overestimate the actual amount of energy you’re burning.
I don’t have any research to directly back that statement up but I’ve worked with thousands of people and consistently found it to be the case. It’s also common knowledge among experienced bodybuilders.
Simply put, if you use the above multipliers, you’ll probably place yourself in too small of a calorie deficit when cutting (resulting in less-than-optimal fat loss) and too large of a surplus when bulking (resulting in more-than-optimal fat gain).
And that means generally diminished returns on your efforts over time. This is why I recommend you just use lower activity multipliers when calculating your TDEE.
Here’s how I do it:
1.1 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
1.2 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
1.35 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
1.45 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
1.6 to 1.8 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
Those multipliers should give you a more accurate starting point, and they are what are built into the calculator below.
Then, as noted above, you adjust intake based on how your body actually responds.
Putting it all together
- The most important aspect of dieting is energy in versus energy out (energy balance).
An energy deficit results in weight loss and a surplus in weight gain.
- Next in importance is how those calories break down into protein, carbs, and fats.
You want to eat enough protein and tailor your carbohydrate and fat intake to your circumstances and goals.
- Last in importance is the actual foods providing the calories and macronutrients.
The reason to eat “clean” foods is not to help with weight loss or gain but to provide the body with vital micronutrients. This supports and preserves health. Thus, an overall strategy emerges:
Calculate your caloric intake, break it down into “macros,” and build a meal plan that provides the majority (80%+) of those calories and macros from nutritious foods.
This is the heart of “flexible dieting.” Do it and you can’t lose.
The Bottom Line on How Many Calories You Should Eat
Many people find counting and tracking just calories burdensome enough. The thought of keeping tabs on three different quantities sounds insufferable. It’s really not, though. With a little “practice” it just becomes second nature.
And, more importantly, the payoff is huge:
- You get to eat foods you actually like.
- You improve body composition.
- You don’t have to battle with overwhelming hunger or cravings.
- You don’t have to cross your fingers and hope that it will work.
So, even if you’re still skeptical, give it a go. Follow the advice in this article and within a couple of weeks you’ll see real results in the mirror and on the scale.
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