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. Despite what many “experts” say, there is no disputing this.
While calories are king, many people are unaware of how to calculate their intake and set it according to their goals. And while it’s not an exact science, there are formulas and calculators out there that will get you close, and then you can go from there.
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.
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 Maintenance Calories
In order to set a deficit or surplus based on your goals, you first need to figure out how many calories you need on a daily basis. This is known as your caloric maintenance, or the number of calories you would need to eat to maintain your bodyweight.
Your maintenance calories are made up of five factors:
- Your basil metabolic rate
- Your activity levels
- The thermic effect of food
- Your non-exercise activity
- Metabolic adaptation
Let’s talk about each one individually…
Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR)
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.
A person’s BMR is largely affected by their lean body mass and total body mass, meaning that the more mass you have, the higher your BMR.
BMR accounts for a majority of all calories burned, expending approximately 60-70% of the body’s energy.
Activity levels are going to be the biggest variable for most people when it comes to energy expenditure.
It is very difficult to measure calories burned through exercise because of the factors involved, including the type of exercise, duration, intensity, and body composition, among other things. For this reason, your activity levels can account for anywhere from 0-30% of calories burned, depending on how active you are. We will talk about how to factor in activity a little bit later in this article.
The other component of activity is the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC. EPOC is the after-burn effect of exercise and is based on how much oxygen you have to consume to return to a normal, pre-exercise state. The higher intensity your workout, the more oxygen you must consume, and the higher the after-burn.
EPOC is hard to measure and usually isn’t significant enough to factor in, so just think of it as a little something extra.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
TEF is simply the number of calories you burn through digestion. This will vary based on the composition of your diet, but if you are eating a diet that has a good mix of protein, carbs and fat, TEF will average out to about 10%.
Each macronutrient has a different thermic effect. 20-35% of protein will be burned off through digestion, while carbs will be between 5-15%. Fat has the lowest thermic effect at a measly 0-5%.
(Note: This is part of the reason high-protein diets are so effective. Not only do they keep you full, but they burn more calories.)
Because TEF can vary greatly, it is generally not taken into account when calculating maintenance.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) & Non-Exercise Physical Activity (NEPA)
NEAT is the number of calories you burn through subconscious movement. NEPA is the number of calories you burn through non-exercise, yet intentional movement.
Because this is going to vary from person to person, there is no good way to measure it. Just know the more active you are during the day, whether you have an active job or are always on the go running errands, your NEAT and NEPA are going to be higher. When finding maintenance however, it is still not something we count.
Metabolic adaptation is not something that is easily measured, but know that it is a factor. Adaptation is determined mostly by over or under-eating. Eating more will increase your energy expenditure while eating less, like you would be if you were trying to lose weight, will decrease energy expenditure.
While this isn’t something you can accurately measure, it is something that you need to be aware of. As you diet, it may be necessary to decrease your maintenance calories slightly to account for adaptation.
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.
Setting a Caloric Deficit for Fat Loss
Your deficit is going to be largely dependent on how much fat you have, and how much you would like to lose. The more fat you have to lose, the larger your deficit can be.
The best way to set a deficit is to use percentages. This way, your deficit is customized a lot more to your situation. Sure you could arbitrarily cut say 500 calories a day from your maintenance, but a 500 deficit is going to have a much different affect on someone whose maintenance is 3,500 calories, compared to someone whose maintenance is 2,000.
By using percentages, your deficit is much more customized to your individual maintenance. Here is what I would recommend for deficits:
- Small: 15-20% below maintenance
- Moderate: 20-25% below maintenance
- Aggressive: >25% below maintenance
Before you set a deficit however, you need to take a few things into consideration:
Body Composition & Rate of Fat Loss
Like I mentioned above, your deficit should not just take into consideration how much fat you want to lose, but how lean you already are. Someone who is at 10% body fat is going to have a lot harder time losing 5lbs of fat compared to someone who is 30% body fat.
The leaner you are, the smaller you want your deficit. Yes, fat loss will be slower, but with a smaller deficit you will be less likely to lose precious lean mass as well. On the other side the more fat you have to lose, the bigger deficit you can get away with.
The risk of hunger is real with any caloric deficit. You are taking in less food than you are used to, and your body will respond by making you feel hungry.
The size of your deficit however, can impact your hunger levels. A larger deficit can put you at risk of feeling hungrier while a smaller deficit may not leave you feeling hungry at all.
Ultimately, this is a matter of personal preference and seeing how your body reacts. If you’re someone who doesn’t feel hunger, or knows how to blunt hunger pangs by increasing your consumption of water, coffee, tea, or eating adequate amounts of protein and fibrous veggies…and a larger deficit will help you reach your goals faster…then by all means go with the larger deficit.
When selecting a deficit, its impact on training performance should always be in the back of your mind. The size of your deficit not only will affect what you do in the gym, but also how well you recover.
This is the one area that it doesn’t seem to matter how much fat you have to lose, or how lean you are. If you drop calories too low, your workouts and recovery will suffer. Keeping up the intensity of your workouts is important because this helps you maintain strength and lean mass, while helping burn more calories.
Regardless of what deficit you select, the drop in calories is going to have an impact on your metabolic rate. When your body senses the drop in calories it thinks that food is not available and as a response, it decreases your metabolism by making you move less, thus decreasing the number of calories your body needs.
So how do you know which deficit is right for you and your situation? While you are the only person who can answer that for sure, here is a breakdown of each size of deficit to help clear things up:
Small Deficit (<20% below maintenance)
Who is if for:
- Already lean individuals
- People looking to improve or maintain training/athletic performance
- People looking to maintain muscle mass while dieting
- People who experience problems with hunger or binge eating
Easy for most people and doesn’t require major lifestyle changes
Minimal feelings of hunger
Reduces risk of muscle loss or decrease in performance
Slow fat loss
Increases length of diet
Smaller deficit means you must more diligent about tracking
Moderate Deficit (20-25% below maintenance)
Who is it for:
- Overweight individuals with a decent amount of fat to lose
- People who want faster progress while keeping most of their lean body mass
- People looking to maintain performance
- People who want faster results
- Those who can deal with small amounts of hunger
Good rate of fat loss
Sustainable workout performance
Maintain lean muscle mass
Risk of muscle loss for lean individuals
Decrease in performance for athletes
Slower progress than large deficits
Large Deficits (>25% below maintenance)
Who is it for:
- People looking for fast results
- Severely overweight or obese individuals with large amounts of body fat to lose
Large deficit provides greater margin for error when counting
Poor training performance
Can cause loss of lean muscle mass as well as fat
Risk of nutrient deficiencies
Increases risk of metabolic damage and slowdown
Not sustainable long-term
Setting the Right Deficit
Unless you have a lot of body fat to lose, for a majority of the population a small or moderate deficit will probably work best. These will allow a decent rate of fat loss while still maintaining lean muscle mass and workout performance.
More important than that however, is that small/moderate deficits are more sustainable in the long run and provide many more benefits than a large deficit. Large deficits, while great for instant weight loss gratification, are more likely to hurt you in the long run if you try to maintain them.
Like with anything, it’s all about finding a balance. Large deficits can be used effectively for short periods of time, but are ultimately more successful when mixed with small and moderate ones.
In general, you want to aim for a 1-2 pound loss per week. For a majority of people, this is the rate at which you can expect to lose fat without sacrificing muscle. Unless you are obese, any more than this will put you at risk for lean tissue loss as well.
Setting a Caloric Surplus for Muscle Gain
Like setting a deficit, setting a caloric surplus is going to be dependent on a number of factors. You generally do not want to be as aggressive when setting a surplus because you want to minimize fat gain as much as possible while trying to build muscle. The general recommendation is to set your calories somewhere between 10-20% above your maintenance level.
If you are someone who gains muscle or fat easily, you probably want to start with a surplus closer to 10%. If you are someone who has a hard time gaining weight, it may make more sense to start with a more aggressive surplus closer to 20%.
Detailed tracking is important whether you are trying lose fat or gain muscle, but is especially important when gaining muscle. You need to track your progress and adjust accordingly.
When eating in a surplus, your weight and strength should be going up every few weeks. You should be adding weight to your lifts each workout and gaining approximately 1-2 pounds every two weeks. If you’re not seeing either of those things, bump your calories up by another 10%. If you’re gaining strength, but also gaining weight faster than a pound a week, cut back on your calories by 5%.
Some fat gain is inevitable when gaining muscle, but the goal is to find that caloric sweet spot where you maximize your muscle gains while also minimizing fat gains. That is why keeping track of your progress is so important.
What Should You Do?
Whether you want to lose fat or gain muscle, it is important to take into account your own situation when setting your caloric intake. Be honest with yourself about what is acceptable progress. Set a calorie goal for yourself, hit it every day, see where it takes you, and adjust accordingly.
Now that we know how to set our calories appropriate to our goals, it’s time to talk about macronutrients and how counting macros can help you reach your physique goals a lot more effectively than simply counting calories alone. That’s coming up in Part 2.