Do you want to lose fat? Do you want to gain muscle? No matter what exactly is your body composition goal, you have to know how much you need to eat.
There are dozens of different equations and calculators you can use to determine your needs. Which one should you trust?
If you want to hear my opinion: none of them.
Equations are great to make estimations, good estimations for the average of an entire population. However, you aren’t the average of the entire population. You are unique. Do you want to know how much you should be eating or all the people in your neighborhood with the same body weight; the marathon runner who lives next door or the granny who walks her chihuahua up and down the street every day?
Another reason why I think equations are not ideal is that in order to use one of the more precise equations, you have to know your body composition; your lean body mass and your body fat, not just body weight.To determine your precise body composition, you need to do a DEXA scan or another type of a higher precision body composition measurement (btw. your bathroom scale doesn't cut it). But even then, the chance is high that you get errors due to inter-individual variability. Some people eat naturally more or less than it is in theory appropriate for their body composition. A big part of the differences comes from variations in activity levels; some people move more, some move less. I mean even subconscious movements we don't notice. No equation can precisely predict how much energy you burn when you sing and dance under the shower every morning.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need an equation to find out how much you should be eating for your goals. Everything you need is to live your live, collect your data and make adjustments based on it.
This is what you need to do:
Track what you eat for at least 3 days, however, the longer the better. One week is ideal. It is improtant that during this time you eat what you normally eat. Don’t decrease your serving sizes, just because you think you eat too much or increase, just because you think that you eat too little. Don’t try to be extra healthy by replacing the chocolate bar you snack on during the day by apple slices. What you need is an honest baseline assessment. You need the point you are at now.
This is how you do it:
- Download a food-tracking app: The easiest way to track your intake is using myfitnesspal or any other food-tracking app (download the app on your phone or use it on your computer).
- Log your food intake: You can search for the food you eat, set the amounts, you can even scan the barcode to make it faster. It is really simple. However, there is one important thing to consider. When you set up your account, myfitnesspal asks you for your data and makes suggestions on how much you should eat. Please, completely disregard the recommendations! Just eat what you normally eat and log it. I made the experience that in the majority of cases myfitnesspal targets are imprecise. If you realize that you eat more than the app suggests, then it is a good sign.
Want a real life example why not to use the app recommendation? The app gave me a target of 1200 kcal a day! This is ridiculously low for me, even for a weight loss diet.
- Measure the food as precisely as possible: If you have a food scale to weigh out the food you eat, it is great. If not, don't worry, just use standard measuring devices (e.g., measuring cups, measuring spoons) to estimate the food quantities you eat.When you enter your data into the app, pay attention to the entries in the database. Check if they are complete and no data is missing. Also, don’t forget to distinguish between raw/dry or cooked food. Especially for starchy carbs, such as rice or pasta, it makes a big difference.
- Calculate your average calorie intake after 3-7 days: Go to the daily summary under the "nutrition tap" or turn your phone by 90 degrees. Write down your calorie intake for every day you tracked, then add all numbers and divide them by the number of days.
Here is an example how to calculate the average energy intake:
Let's say I tracked for 3 days. My energy intake was 2120 kcal the day before yesterday, 2038 kcal yesterday and 1961 kcal today.
My average calorie intake is
2120 kcal + 2038 kcal + 1961 kcal = 6109 kcal
6109 kcal / 3 days = 2036 kcal per day on average
Now, you have to adjust your energy intake according to your goal:
If you want to lose weight, you need to decrease your energy intake. However, your energy intake shouldn’t be so low that it becomes very painful to diet and difficult to sustain the energy deficit. In the ideal case, your energy intake shouldn't fall below your basal metabolic rate.
If you are a beginner and/or have a higher body fat percentage, you can tolerate a higher energy deficit than an advanced lifter without losing lots of muscle.
People who are overweight and beginners to resistance training can target a drastic energy deficit of up to 50%. A smaller energy deficit of only 5% is more appropriate for very advanced and lean lifters. If you are somewhere in the middle between these extremes you need to adjust the percentages accordingly. For example, for an intermediate lifter with a body fat percentage in the normal range, an energy deficit of 20% is reasonable.(1)
For weight gain, similar guidelines apply. If you are advanced, your energy surplus shouldn’t be as high as for a beginner. A beginner can build more muscle, as he or she is further away from his or her genetic potential. A beginner can gain muscle without gaining lots of fat consuming an energy surplus of 20%, whereas an advanced lifter should not exceed a surplus of 2.5-5%.(1)
For more info and cool tips on this topic get your free copy of the 'The ultimate Meal Plan Guide'
One thing to keep in mind is, that everyone responds differently. Some people adapt quickly to the increased energy intake and start expanding more energy by moving more. Then it is necessary to increase energy intake even further if there is no weight gain after 2-3 weeks. Others, however, can adapt to lower energy intake and have difficulties losing weight even though they have already reduced their energy intake. Then it is necessary to decrease the energy intake even further. Also, individuals who aim for a big weight change, not only 2-5 pounds, have to do re-adjustments on a regular basis. As the body weight changes significantly, so does the energy expenditure.
What to do if I can’t eat that much:
- Shakes: if it is too much food for you, just make a huge and drink it. In my experience, many people who struggle with eating lots of food, have fewer problems 'drinking' it.
- High-calorie low-volume food: Prefer whole food that is higher in calories, but lower in volume; nuts, seeds, oils, fruits like bananas or mango, or even dried fruits in moderation are good options.
- Don't eat too much fiber and protein: Both fiber and protein are incredibly important, but eating too much of these can fill you up too quickly and in some cases even cause digestive issues. This doesn't really motivate to eat more.
What to do if I am constantly hungry:
- Increase your fiber intake: All veggies that are green are great for it!
- Increase your protein intake (if you consume less than 1.8 g/ kg bodyweight)
- Eat less sweet foods: Sweets often increase appetite and make us craving more
- Focus on whole food and cut out as much processed food as possible
- Drink more: Thirst is often confused with hunger
- Find something entertaining to do: Watch a movie, read a book, have sex...just do something that is more rewarding to you than eating
- You will get used to it: Don't forget, when you start a new diet, a new lifestyle or have a change in your life, it takes some time to get used to it and to create new habits. Of course, if your diet starves you, you won't get used to it. However, a well-planned diet shouldn't starve you. A well-planned diet is sustainable, easy to follow and motivates you to continue because of the progress you make!
Need help with meal planning? Get your free copy of the 'The ultimate Meal Plan Guide'
Reference: Guidelines for weight loss and weight gain are based on the info from the Bayesian PT course. Honestly, the best PT course I have ever seen, because all of its content is based on science and evidence!