Getting Your Calories Straight

If there is one thing in fitness/nutrition that no one knows for certain, it would be how many calories someone burns on each day. We have estimations and fitness trackers that help us estimate, but getting the equations exactly right is a crap shoot. This is due to numerous factors that can be really hard to put a finger on. Hormonal, metabolic, NEAT, exercise, genetics, digestion, dieting history and many other factors all play a roll, so giving a generic prescription to everyone is not an easy task.

When giving people advice, you want to be sure that its accurate. The one calorie equation that I do think is accurate for just about everyone is their basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR in my mind should be based on lean body mass (LBM). This is especially true for overweight and obese individuals. BMR takes into account a persons age, weight (LBM), and height. If you set an obese persons BMR based on their total weight it would be very inaccurate. On the other hand, an obese persons total calories burned per day should be set on their total body weight, because that’s what their carrying around each day. If a 450lb man obese man went for a walk then he would burn way more calories than a lean 150lb person, regardless of BMR and LBM.

Even though the variation of calories is enormous, I like to keep things as simple as possible. I’m a minimalist, so it only makes sense to me to simplify complex topics down into easy to understand and follow instructions.

First step would be to find the persons LBM. To find LBM, you have to subtract the persons body fat out of the equation. Body fat is worthless tissue and contributes very minimally to total calorie burning per day (around 2 calories per pound).

Second step would be to find BMR. BMR is related to age, weight (LBM), and height. All three of these play a big factor in determining the amount of calories burned each day.

EX –

450lb person with 60% body fat

450 x .6 = 270

450 -270 = 180 lbs of lean body mass

This means this person has 270 lbs of pure fat on their body and would need to get down to about 180-190lbs to be very lean and have a low body fat.

Then BMR:

Age: 40

Weight: 180 (LBM)

Height: 5ft 9in

BMR: 1800 calories

BMR can be entered on many online calculators. The older, smaller and less you weigh the less you burn and vice versa.

This is my favorite way of determining how many calories a person should eat to lose fat. Eating 1800 calories a day for this person would be the perfect amount to feed their lean body mass and protect their muscle, but its still low enough that their overall activity would generate most of the fat loss. Stay at 1800 calories and don’t dip below, rinse and repeat for a year and reap the benefits. I also feel that a lot of the negative metabolic consequences from dieting occur when you go below your BMR and / or eat a diet that heavily restricts a certain macronutrient.

That’s the base measurement for calories. The next part is highly variable and caution must be taken into account when trying to determine the next part. I really dislike online calculators. They never worked for me and for a lot of people I know. For me, my friends and people I consult with and give plans to, all agree that the figure the online calculator gives is just too high. Some people even laugh when I tell them how many calories the online calculator gave them. That means you have to approach the situation from a different angle. After playing around with my own diet and metabolism for a long time, I think I found a multiplier that works for me and for people that are similar to me. By the way, my genes are not good. Half of my family is diabetic and most of them are overweight (I’m also half Italian, so the food is always an plentiful with my heritage). They also don’t have an extensive history of lifting or exercising. Not making excuses for myself, but I didn’t exactly win the genetic lottery. So that must be taken into account. I have also been fat in the past and have a history of restrictive diets a few years ago. None of these boosted my metabolic rate. That being said I dont like making excuses. I deal with what I have been given and use that to get results. Even though the vast majority of my family is out of shape and overweight, I am not. Genes play a role, but should not be used as an excuse. I have to work harder, but results can still come with the right approach.

The multiplier I have found that works well for me and many others is as follows:

After finding the BMR of a person, multiply it by one of these multipliers:

Sedentary (no exercise and minimal movement each day) = 1.15 x BMR

Lightly Active (1-3 workouts a week, but still largely sedentary) =1.25 x BMR

Moderately Active Individuals (3-5 workouts a week and light movement through the day) = 1.35 – 1.4 x BMR

Very Active (5-7 workouts per week and moves around all day) = 1.45 -1.5 x BMR

Athletes 1.6 or greater x BMR

Most people that are similar to me, that workout everyday with weights, but not that much cardio, besides a few miles and walking would fall into the moderately active category. The very active would be for people that run and lift for 60 minutes a day, everyday. Nothing ground breaking about these measurements, but I find them to work much better for myself and others. Most online calculators put my total burn each day around 3000 calories a day, but if I ate that amount consistently I would gain weight. I feel much better around 23-2500 calories a day to maintain my weight.

As for losing fat, I feel most people should eat right around their BMR. It makes perfect sense, because your still feeding your body all that it needs, while using all the activity to burn off fat. Eating your BMR protects against muscle loss and metabolic slow down as well. So if a person desired to lose fat faster they would simply need to increase their activity to increase the calorie and fat burning.

Also these are my general estimations for people with normal to slow metabolic rates. These are for people that don’t have genes on their side and have to work hard for results. Some people with metabolisms that are above normal would need to increase their calories to prevent weight loss. One of my good friends, lifts 4 days a week and does no cardio. He eats 4000 calories a day and has around 8% body fat. If he dieted for 2 weeks he could probably drop down to 5-6% bodyfat. His pulse rate is right around 90 beats a minute and his genes are very good as his father and all of his brothers are very strong and stay lean with minimal to no effort. Hes also never dieted a day in his life and eats largely whatever he wants. These calculations would not work for him. He has the metabolism I wish I had (and many others wish they had), but unfortunately I don’t have his metabolic rate. But he is just another example of how online calculators don’t work. He’s on the other extreme, but provides another example of how online calculators may not be the best way to find your calories each day.

I also don’t recommend the Fitbit for total calories burned. I do recommend it to track your miles and steps each day to ensure you are more active and not sitting all day long. As for the calories burned, I’d say Fitbit is off by a good 10%. There’s even an article on how people gain weight using it, even when they follow the calories burned religiously.

The most accurate way to find your individual metabolism and metabolic rate is trial and error. You have to find what works for you and use that to get results. It may take awhile, but it is a very powerful feeling to know what works and what doesn’t work for you no matter what anyone else tells you. You should know your body much better than anyone else.

A more accurate way to track your intake yourself:

Using a Fitbit to track your steps makes things much easier to track your overall NEAT calorie burn, which is the hardest to predict. Here’s how using another accurate calorie equation:

BMR (using LBM) + NEAT (amount of steps your fitbit tracks) + EAT (exercise) + TEF (thermic effect of food) = Maintenance calories or total calorie burn.


John’s BMR after finding his LBM is 1850 calories

1850 + NEAT (gathered by fitbit) was 5 miles or 10000 steps = 500 calories + EAT (since fitbit tracks cardio we will only add weight training, which is roughly 120 – 200 calories per workout; usually 30-50 grams of carbs depending on intensity = 160 calories) + TEF (which is usually 10% of total intake when eating a balanced diet)

In clear form:

1850 calories + 500 + 160 = 2510 calories + TEF (2510 x .10 = 251) = 2510 + 251 = 2761 calories a day (On a workout day)

Lets say John had very little NEAT on his workout day and besides going to the gym played video games all day:

1850 + 200 + 160 + = 2210 + 221 = 2431 calories burned ( on a workout day) – As you can see a 300 calorie difference in total burn with the same workout, but less overall daily movement.

On a rest day, lets say John does a decent amount of NEAT and no workout:

1850 calories + 400 + 0 = 2250 calories + TEF (2250 x .10 = 225) = 2250 + 225 = 2500 calories ( on a rest day)

However, this assumes the person is eating what they burn everyday. From the workout day example above, if the person only ate 1500 calories then his calorie burn would be 100 calories less. Not a huge impact, but still a difference. This example was used to show that NEAT plays a huge role in total burn. If the person was extra busy moved around a lot they could have ended up with 15000 steps or walked a total of 7-8 miles which would wave drastically increased total burn. Fitbit does make it easier to track this with better ease.

This is why when a person is looking to build muscle, less movement is recommended. By moving less and eating more the person achieves a more positive nitrogen balanced and doesn’t burn off all the food they eat. On the other hand, losing fat is about eating a small deficit and using the extra activity to burn off the fat. Adding in more NEAT when losing fat, makes losing fat easier so you don’t have to starve yourself.

In essence, total calorie burn comes down to BMR > NEAT > EAT > TEF  in order from greatest to most insignificant. Eating balanced and not starving yourself is important to make sure that these dont get heavily influenced. Because with dieting comes less NEAT, EAT and TEF, which means less calorie burning. More food then this equation predicts though isnt necessarily better as the calories just get stored as fat.

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