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 they 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? Most people have no idea. But you will soon enough!
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, Atkins plans, or anything in between. Same goes for the ‘eat more than you burn to gain weight’ mindset. 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 need to 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 roughly where you are.
Calories come in one of three varieties: Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats.
None of them are ‘bad’ for you, and all of them play key roles in various functions that our bodies perform every single day. They fall under the umbrella of ‘calories’ and are included within how many we are supposed to eat every day for optimal health, activity levels, etc.
With that said, total calories determine your weight while protein determines how you look when you get there. Too little protein and you won’t have the results to show for all the work you do. On top of that, too little protein on a bulking cycle means you will gain primarily fat, and too if you consume too little protein on a cutting cycle you will lose lean mass. In short, eat your protein, but how much is that?
Current FDA recommendations say you should eat 50g a day. Other people believe you need to eat 1 gram of protein per bodyweight pound (e.g. if you weigh 180lbs, you should eat 180g of protein a day), others say you should aim for .5g/lb, and yet others still say you should eat 2g per body weight pound. The answer, like anything else having to do with you individually, probably isn’t as black and white as people try to make it out to be.
Most negative issues occur when over 2 grams/lb are consumed daily for a long period of time. Many people have made pretty decent gains without any negative issues when they consume somewhere between 1 and 2 grams of protein for each pound in bodyweight.
Are All Calories the Same?
There has to be a difference between eating 100 calories of potato chips and 100 calories of an actual potato, right?
There is! The types of calories you intake heavily determine bodily mass makeup (lean vs not-lean).
Things like granulated sugar or white flour and foods heavily made up by it can be enormously detrimental to body composition. Whole foods, on the hand, like fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and legumes, are chock full of nutrients and are incredibly positive for our bodies.
That isn’t to say that you need to cut out entire food types, groups, or macronutrients to look and feel your best. They just should not make up the bulk of your diet.
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, nutritionists, and dieticians recommend to help you reach your desired weight are fairly simple in theory:
1. Determine how many calories you need to consume per day
Your total daily caloric needs will vary based on many factors. Sex, 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’s 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.
Keep in mind
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. Cronometer is 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!
As you eat, enter it into your journal. Add up everything you eat for the day and you know where you went well or where you could have done better.
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
After about a week of tracking, 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, consume 3500 fewer calories, or a combination of the two each week. 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:
- Increased protein intake: Protein takes a lot longer to digest than nearly everything else, leaving you feeling fuller longer.
- Focus on Whole Foods: You can eat a LOT more whole foods while staying in your daily calorie range than you can processed ones.
- Drinking plenty of water: Water takes up space in your stomach, reducing how much you can actually eat. Plus your mind thinks you are full, stopping cravings.
- Adding in more fiber to your meals: Fiber is satiating, so you feel much fuller for much longer.
- Eating mindfully: Portion control and purposely choosing what you eat according to your goals, not eating everything you are presented with.
- Meal prep: Having grab and go meals keeps you from putting together meals in a hurry, and reduces the chance you grab a lot of processed foods.
Think of how 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 fat heavy calories, but a chicken breast, vegetable, and rice meal can easily stay under 500-600.
Same for high fiber foods.
And meal prep? Taking an hour or so on an off day to prep a few days worth of food according to your needs not only saves you time before work, it reduces the chances of you grabbing processed foods on your way out the door in a hurry.
Stack some of these habits for some pretty awesome results when it comes to reducing how much processed foods you eat and how many calories you eat overall.
Remember, the closer to nature a food is, the lower calories it is, and the more you can eat on any given day. Focusing on whole foods means you can eat far more food each day while still reducing your overall calorie intake!
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 (metabolism) is thanks to all those extra muscles (more muscle = faster metabolisms = burning more calories existing) 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).
You don’t even need to run for miles and miles on end. Toss in 10-15 minutes of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), the stairmaster, box jumps, or even burpees for cardio. HITT and higher intensity cardio burns more calories than running for the same period of time.
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. Cheat days are dangerous. Entire cheat weeks lead to cheat months and, eventually, wrecked programs and derailed attempts.
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.
Let Us help You Out
At CONDITIONerd we are here to help you achieve better physical and mental health through exercise. Check out the plans we offer to our customers and see if you could benefit from working with our team. And if you have questions, you can always contact a CONDITIONerd team member.
Personal trainers, like those found here, can help guide you on your pathway towards reaching your fitness goals, whether that is getting bigger, stronger, faster, more lean, or just generally feeling better.
We can get you setup with a periodized workout plan, supplement information, and advice on nutrition to help you reach your goals.
The only thing you need is some motivation and a willingness to change some old habits.
Get into contact with us to find out what membership is right for you. In a CONDITIONerd program, you’ll be surrounded by others who can help you to get where you want to be.