A Guide for determining Caloric Needs
Are you trying to lose weight? Maybe you have been following different diets and exercise plans you saw in a magazine next to the register? How about a diet you found on a health blog written by someone promising miracles? How is it working out?
Most of those fad diets don’t work, and may actually cause more harm than good. Many of the exercise regiments you find pre-built are created out of thin air or are based on a generalized idea of a person’s physical makeup. How do you know how much to eat? What it enough? What is too much?
We have a tendency to look at what others are doing without taking into account how each of our bodies differ. The only sure fire way to build your body the way you want it, is to build a diet and exercise program that fits YOU. How each of us carry our weight is unique, so it makes sense that each of us have different activity and dietary requirements.
Determining the total calories your body needs daily can be a good starting point when setting up your body composition plans and goals. The concept of ‘less in than out’ is the approach applied to any weight loss diet, regardless of if you are a vegetarian, or on the keto, flexible dieting, or Atkins plans. Finding your everyday needs will allow you to tailor your diet for anything from weight loss to muscle gain and everything in between.
What are calories?
Before you start demonizing calories as a bad thing, you should fully understand what they are. Simply put, a calorie is a unit that measures energy. It can be defined as “the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a liter of water 1/1000th’ centigrade at sea level.” All that fancy scientific jargon means is that a calorie is a unit of energy that living organisms use in order to power our metabolisms. So, maybe calories aren’t the devil after all, since they are necessary for survival.
Why do they get such a bad rap? Maybe it starts with the idea that people lose weight when they don’t consume as many calories, so the popular narrative is that they must be bad. That’s 100% the wrong approach! They just must be understood and properly utilized for positive results.
As a general rule, caloric intake controls the amount of weight we maintain, gain, or lose. In order to lose weight we need to eat fewer calories than our bodies burn each day. In order to gain weight, we need to eat more than we use. When you hear the term ‘maintenance level’ in a health blog or fitness article, they are probably referring to the general amount of calories you need to take in daily/weekly to stay where you are.
That isn’t even entirely black and white, as the types of calories you intake heavily determine bodily mass makeup (lean vs not-lean). Flexible *(macro) dieting and the ketogenic diet play heavily into the concept that what macronutrients you eat control your lean body mass vs fat stores. Other diets say you should cut out entire food groups (dairy, gluten, vegan, etc.) for weight loss or dietary needs.
How To Change Your Body Through Calorie Counting
Want to be bigger? Smaller? Stay where you are, weight/composition wise, if you are especially active? By getting a better understanding of your calorie intake and adjusting as necessary, you can start working towards your goals. The steps that fitness experts recommend to help you reach your desired weight are fairly simple:
1. Determine how many calories you need to consume per day to gain/maintain/lose mass.
Your total daily caloric needs will vary based on many factors. Gender, activity levels, age, height, mental illnesses, and overall fitness levels all play a part in what you need to consume. Figuring out how many calories you need daily might seem like a daunting task, but it’ not.
The first thing you need to figure out is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the rate at which your body uses energy just to survive. It takes into consideration vital functions, such as breathing, metabolism, brain functions, heart beat. You know, all the things that you just do while you don’t do anything else.
You can calculate your BMR by hand through this formula, known as the Harris-Benedict equation:
- Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)
- Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)
That looks like a doozy, huh! Once upon a time you would have to calculate your needs by hand, but today there are many online resources that can help you out. Calculators can be found on many sites, such as this one, to help you determine your BMR. If you are feeling extra lazy, you could have a lab figure it all out for you through testing.
BMR only considers your resting energy needs, however, so we also need to figure out our maintenance level caloric needs (BMR + calories burned through activity). This is known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure Needs (TDEE).
If you enjoy pain and want to do more than just the above calculations by hand, decide which category fits you and multiply your BMR with the below activity factors:
- Sedentary (little to no exercise + work a desk job) = 1.2
- Lightly Active (light exercise 1-3 days / week) = 1.375
- Moderately Active (moderate exercise 3-5 days / week) = 1.55
- Very Active (heavy exercise 6-7 days / week) = 1.725
- Extremely Active (very heavy exercise, hard labor job, training 2x / day) = 1.9
Of course, there are online calculators for this as well. This is a good one, for example.
2. How Many Calories Am I Eating?
Determining how many calories you are eating can be as easy as keeping a journal. MyFitnessPal has an excellent app to measure your caloric intake, among other things. It even allows you to scan items and will automatically import the calorie and nutrient breakdown of each item for you!
How much you eat is not always proportional to how many calories you take in, however. Foods like lettuce, broccoli, and other vegetables have incredibly low calorie density while a small candy bar or smoothie can have hundreds (of mostly sugary carbohydrates, nonetheless). Natural foods (things nature produces) are generally lower in calorie and better for you than any human manufactured and produced foods. A medium apple has roughly 80 pure carbohydrate only based calories while a serving of 14 potato chips (average serving size) has on average about 140 carb/fat mix calories in them. Just a comparison, of course.
3. Adjust your calorie intake to match your goal.
Compare how many calories you consume to how many you need to hit your goal and adjust. As a general rule, a 500 calorie deficit will result in losing roughly a pound a week while a 500 calorie surplus will result in a pound gain.
For the record, one pound of fat is roughly equal to about 3500 calories. In order to lose a pound of fat you have to either burn 3500 calories through exercise (that is a LOT of exercise!), consume 3500 less calories a week, or a combination of the two. If you are guessing that it is easier to cut back on 3500 calories than to burn them, you can see why diet is 80% of what your body is made up of and activity levels only makes up about 20%.
4. How Do I Cut Back On Calories?
Cutting back on calories does not have to mean a drastic change in your diet. It can be a matter of adjusting your portions and changing habits. Here are a few tips to reduce calorie intake in a healthy way:
● Increasing protein intake
● Drinking plenty of water
● Add ingredients with fiber to your meals
● Aim to eat mindfully
Pro-Tip: Protein helps you feel fuller faster and remain full much longer than carbohydrates and fat.
Think of much fuller you feel after a protein heavy meal like steak or chicken breast compared to McDonalds. The average restaurant or fast food meal can easily run up to and over 1000 heavy in fat calories, but a chicken breast, vegetable, and rice meal can easily stay under 500-600.
What Is The Best Exercise For Weight Loss?
So far, we have been focusing on the calories that are entering your body, and how to reduce them in a healthy manner. Calorie consumption plays the biggest role in bodily makeup, but burning calories is also an important part of the formula to lose weight.
Most exercise options regiments consist of either cardio routines or weight lifting. Both have their own benefits. Lifting weights prevents muscle loss, builds more lean mass, and helps to maintain healthy metabolism rates. The increased demand for calorie usage is thanks to all those muscles (faster metabolisms burn more calories) needing constant nutrition throughout the day. Meanwhile, the constant movement from cardio exercises help the body burn calories at the time of the workout, strengthens the heart and lungs, and increases circulation throughout the body.
If you hate the gym, try exercising outside or at home with your own set of weights. Walking with hand weights has proven to burn 10 or even 20 times more calories than without hand weights. If, your gym routine only focuses on lifting, you might want to consider adding cardio to it. Cardio burns more immediate calories than lifting (at the time the exercise is performed). Nevertheless, a combination of cardio and weight lifting has always been a great approach for weight loss. Together, they form a strong exercise regiment that can do wonders for you physically and mentally.
Check here for an idea on where to start building your own exercise program.
Consistency is key!
Having this foundational knowledge of what you need to power your body will help you make adjustments in a healthy way, but only if you stick with it. Persistence pays off and consistency is key. Eating within your specific caloric guidelines one day a week isn’t going to get you far. Likewise, controlling your intake 6 days a week but splurging on that seventh day with 10 thousand calories will wreck your progress.
A cheat meal is ok. A cheat day is dangerous. A cheat week leads to a cheat month and wrecked progress.
Any meaningful accomplishment in life takes time. Changing your bodily composition takes time and consistency, so keep at it. Results will come. Trust the process.