Updated: Sep 22, 2019
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase "calorie counting” I automatically think of trendy diets, and I guess I associate that with something that doesn’t work. That’s not the case with calorie counting – it is really the foundation of achieving certain weight-related goals, as long as you stick to a healthy number of calories. Now, that can be as vague as just knowing you are either in a calorie deficit or surplus (depending on your goals), but if you really want to take control of your diet and nutrition then you can get a lot more specific! Counting calories can be used to gain, maintain or lose weight – all it takes is an understanding of what you are doing and a bit of practice. Luckily for you, we have set it out in our simple guide below!
Regardless of your goals, your caloric requirement will be determined by a number of factors. Your age, weight, gender and activity level will all factor in. Women tend to need fewer calories than men to maintain their weight (sucks to be us), and will need to eat even fewer calories in order to lose weight (sigh).
First things first, you need to figure out how many calories you burn during the day. A good way of estimating this is to find your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy (calories) your body needs while resting, multiplied by your activity factor. If you are anything like me and hate maths, I feel you! Luckily there are apps and websites that can figure this out for you, so if you would prefer to use those, you can skip the paragraph below. No test is completely accurate, but it will give you a good idea!
Calculating the calories you need for maintenance
Your BMR accounts for around 60 – 70% of the calories you need throughout the day. The Harris-Benedict Equation is often used to estimate BMR:
Adult male: 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) - (5.677 x age in years)
Adult female: 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) - (4.330 x age in years)
So putting my information into this, I get a BMR result of 1489.19. The next step to calculate your total daily calorie needs is to multiply your BMR by your activity factor:
· If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) = BMR x 1.2
· If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) = BMR x 1.375
· If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) = BMR x 1.55
· If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) = BMR x 1.725
· If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) = BMR x 1.9
I fall into the moderately active category, as I work out 4 times per week and go to taekwondo twice per week. Therefore, I need to multiply my BMR by 1.55. This gives me a total daily calorie need of 2,308.2445 (I’ll round that to 2,308) to maintain by body weight.
Once you have figured out your daily calorie needs, you can adjust your daily calorie intake to fit your goals (weight loss, maintenance or bulking).
Calorie surplus for bulking
As we have discussed in a previous article, if you want to bulk then you need to be in a calorie surplus. This will mean that you inevitably gain some fat as well as muscle, but by understanding your calorie needs you should be able to ensure that this remains healthy and balanced. A slight calorie surplus is necessary to build muscle effectively (unless you are a beginner – then you will likely gain strength while in a deficit, but that won’t last!). That doesn’t mean you need to go nuts with it! Ideally you should be looking to be in a 5-10% calorie surplus. Using my calorie needs as calculated above, if I am looking to bulk, I should aim to consume between 115 – 230 extra calories per day. That’s not loads! If I start eating much more than that, I will be gaining excess fat without there being much impact on my muscle growth!
This one is easy! If you are interested in just maintaining your weight, then all you need to do is figure out your calorie needs and just aim to consume that many calories! Simples!
Calorie deficit for weight loss
In a similar fashion to the calorie surplus, it’s important not to go nuts with your calorie deficit! While it is necessary to lose weight, you need to make sure you are healthy with it! When you create a calorie deficit, your body gets energy or fuel from stored fat. Researchers have suggested that, to lose a pound of fat in a week, you need a total calorie deficit of 3,500 calories. That is a lot! It works out to a deficit of 500 calories per day. Depending on your starting point, that could be doable but if you start from low calorie needs in the first place, that might be excessive. I really wouldn’t recommend following a very low-calorie diet, and if you are planning on doing that you should definitely talk to a doctor first! When I’m looking to lose weight, I aim to be in a deficit of about 300 calories. That means I lose weight more slowly, but it means I feel healthier and more satisfied, which I think is ultimately more sustainable!
· Do use a calorie tracking device on your phone – that way you won’t have to rely on your memory. Even if you manage to remember what you ate, you are unlikely to remember how much you ate. By having an app on your phone, you can log all of your food as soon as possible to avoid forgetting anything and to avoid logging inaccurate information. We’ve noted some apps below which are great to use.
· Do use a kitchen scale if you are able to – it helps to keep your tracking accurate if you weigh out your food. Guesswork is unreliable and won’t give you an accurate record of calories.
· Do record everything you eat or drink. Even if it is something you feel guilty about, or it was a treat. Failing to record food is a difficult habit to shift once you get into it, so avoid it from the start. Being honest with yourself will help keep you more accountable and on track with your goals.
· Don’t just focus on counting calories. It is still incredibly important to make sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. You should look at calorie counting as a tool to help you achieve your goals, but never forget that health is the most important thing. You could be eating 1,200 calories a day (I really wouldn’t recommend eating any less than this), but if you are only eating iceberg lettuce then you won’t be healthy and you will end up harming yourself (also, you would need to eat LOADS of lettuce to get to 1,200 calories… maybe this was a bad example?). Equally, if your goal is to gain weight, don’t use the calorie surplus as an excuse to eat crap – eating more high-quality food will allow you to remain healthy while you bulk!
One of the easiest ways to track calories is to use an app. There are loads of apps out there, and it might be a case of trial and error for you to find one that you like and that works for you. I personally have used both MyFitnessPal and Chronometer, but here is a list of a few others that you might like to try! I’ve found Chronometer to be better for micro nutrients, but MyFitnessPal better for user interface. So if it’s just calories at the stage you are tracking, MyFitnessPal would be my go-to.
· Lose It!
With all of this, remember to eat a healthy and balanced diet! And also remember that consistency is key. It’s much better to work slowly and steadily towards your goals than to overdo it and risk harming your health or getting fed up with the routine! You should always consult a doctor before making any drastic lifestyle changes.