In Energy Balance and Your Body Weight, I explained that when it comes to losing or gaining any type of weight, it’s ultimately dependent on your calories in vs. your calories out. In this article, I will expand upon the previous article and explain how you can determine your caloric needs so that you can achieve your weight related goals. Keep in mind that determining your caloric intake will only account for your body weight. In order for optimize your overall health and fitness related goals, you’ll still need to ensure that other factors of nutrition – such as macro-nutrient ratios and vitamin and mineral intake – are taken care of. We’ll go over these topics in later articles but a good primer can be read in our article titled The 5 Step Plan to Overhaul Your Diet.
Do realize that the following methods to determine your caloric intake are estimates and to be used as reference points; it will be up to you to adjust the numbers up or down if you don’t see any results in your weight- related goals. Your individual composition can and will make your true total caloric needs more or less than the estimated numbers. What that said, for almost all of the population, when comparing individuals of similar compositions, the caloric differences will differ by only few hundred calories.
Determining Your Caloric Needs: The Simple Multiplier Method
This method is a quick and simple way to determine your caloric needs if you want to MAINTAIN your weight and is what I would recommend you use. All you have to do is multiply your body weight (in lbs) by a number based on your activity levels:
- Sedentary lifestyle – you do little or no activity: multiply your body weight by 12-14 calories.
- Moderately active lifestyle – you do about 1 hour of physical activity a day in addition to regular daily activities: multiply your body weight by 14-16 calories.
- Vigorous activity/highly active jobs: multiply your body-weight by 16-18 calories.
- Athletic lifestyle involved in heavy training – you do about 15-20 hrs a week of training: multiply your body weight by 18.5-22 calories.
- Heavy to extreme training – think Olympian like Michael Phelps: multiply your body weight by 22+ calories.
Let’s assume you’re a 185lb guy who lifts weights 3-4x a week and does 2 short runs a week. A good place start for you to estimate how many calories you need to MAINTAIN your weight would be multiply your weight (185) by 14-16 calories which would result in you needing approximately 2590-2960 calories to maintain your current weight. Individual differences will dictate if you fall under the higher or the lower range of that estimation – so just be mindful of your body weight and eat a bit more if you’re losing unwanted weight and eat a bit less if you’re gaining unwanted weight.
Gaining or Losing Weight
As I alluded to earlier, if you want to gain or lose weight, you must adjust your caloric intake accordingly:
To put on muscle and gain weight, simply add 10-20% calories on top of the caloric number needed to maintain your weight. The reason you should only add 10-20% is because there is a limit to how much muscle you can gain over a given period. Any surplus calories on top of the muscle gain will be stored as fat. Typically speaking, if you are new to training and all factors are optimized (your training, diet and sleep are dialed in), you can gain about 0.5lbs of muscle a week. As you are closer to your genetic limit, you will be gaining less muscle than that (we’ll go over the details of this in a future article). If you find that you are not gaining any weight even after you’ve added 10-20% to your initial estimate caloric needs, and all the other factors such as training and sleep are adequate, then add an additional 10-20% calories to your daily intake and reassess again in a week.
For general fat loss using a good slow and steady approach, subtract 10-20% calories from the caloric amount you need to maintain weight. This amount of calorie reduction is a decent ball park number to use in order to maintain athletic performance and avoid losing too much muscle mass while you are attempting to lose fat. Using this method, you’ll lose around 0.5lbs – 1.5lb of fat per week depending on how heavy you are (there are more “extreme” methods to lose fat faster than that while preserving as much muscle mass as possible but we’ll go over those methods and look more into fat loss in future articles). If you find that you’re not losing any weight after initially reducing your calories by 10-20%, then decrease an additional 10-20% calories from daily intake and reassess in a week.
Why Bother With Your Knowing Caloric Needs?
Those of you who are in sports where your weight matters for your weight class, you’ll already know the importance of knowing your caloric needs and basing your caloric intake off of it. But for those of you who are just looking to get into better shape and improve your overall fitness, you may be wondering why counting calories is even necessary. Well, if you achieve your fitness goals by eating whatever and not counting calories, then keep doing what’s working. However, the majority of us WILL need to be at least mindful of our calories in vs. our calories out. Recall from Energy Balance and Your Body Weight I noted the fact that is the energy balance equation: if you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight; conversely, if you consume less calories than you burn, you will lose weight; and if your energy balance equation is equal, you will maintain weight.
If you have no idea how many calories you need to maintain, gain or lose weight, then how are you supposed obtain any of your fitness goals? Many people who complain about not being able to gain muscle or lose fat simply don’t know how many calories they require in a day to achieve their goals and their eating habits are often in direct opposition of these goals. Of course, when it comes to tracking your calories, you have to find a balance between being mindful/conscientious and being obsessive. Being aware and conscientious is good and will help you achieve your goals; being overly obsessive can be unhealthy. With that said, at times in life, in order to accomplish a goal and achieve success, you’ll need to have periods of dedication reaching the levels of obsessiveness. If there is great importance placed on your goals (such as you are a competitive athlete who needs to make a certain weight) or if you’re not achieving the results you want, then you’ll need to increase your levels of conscientiousness. You’ll need to find the right balance that’s right for your goals and lifestyle.
A Final Word
Remember that you’ll have to be mindful of your body weight and adjust your caloric intake as necessary. Although the numbers generated using these caloric estimates are good guidelines, they are after all, estimates. So if you aren’t seeing the results you want and all your other fitness related factors are on point, then just eat a bit more or a bit less depending on your goals.