Do you know how many calories your body burns each day? Do you know, on average, how many calories you eat each day? You have to eat less calories than you burn in order to lose weight. It should make sense then, that you need to know how many calories you’re consuming and burning in order to be sure that you are in a calorie deficit. In this article, we’ll talk about whether or not calorie counting is necessary, how to figure out how many calories your body is burning each day, and how many calories you should be eating in order to lose fat or gain muscle. Don’t worry – it’s not as difficult as you might think!
Do I Have To Count Calories?
Some of the most common questions that I hear when someone wants to lose fat or build muscle are “do I have to count calories? It’s so much work!” or “can’t I just eat healthy foods?“. Let me put these questions in a different perspective. Imagine that someone told you that they were getting ready to drive across the country and they ripped the fuel gauge out of their car. For the entire trip, they were just going to get as much gas as they wanted whenever they felt like it. I’m sure you would look at them as if they had lost their mind. How are they going to know when their car needs more fuel without the fuel gauge? How do they know how much fuel to put in it if they don’t know how much is left in the tank? It’s the same idea when someone wants to lose fat or gain muscle without paying attention to calories. If you don’t know how much “fuel” you’re eating or burning, then how do you know if you are in a calorie deficit or surplus?
The short answer is yes, you do have to count calories in order to effectively lose fat or build muscle. Fortunately there are lots of tools that I’ll tell you about to help make calorie counting much easier. And once you do it for a while, you’ll be able to accurately estimate the calorie content of foods you eat regularly and you’ll be able to keep a running total in your head with very little effort. So let’s get started by figuring out how many calories your body burns each day.
How Many Calories Do I Burn Each Day?
The term used to describe how many calories your body burns each day is referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE. Your TDEE includes any physical activity from exercise as well as the calories that your body burns just to digest food, keep your heart pumping, your lungs working, and all other bodily processes operating properly. The number of calories that your body burns just to perform all of it’s normal processes (i.e. keep you alive) is referred to as your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. So, your TDEE is just your BMR multiplied by an activity factor. Don’t worry if this still seems confusing, I’ll break it down further.
The first step in calculating your TDEE is calculating your BMR. Fortunately there are equations to help us figure out this number. The equation that I recommend is the Harris-Benedict equation because it takes into consideration your weight, height, and age. Here are the equations for both men and women:
- BMR for men = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)
- BMR for women = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)
Now that you know your BMR, you know how many calories your body needs every day just to keep your bodily processes functioning optimally. When dieting, I don’t recommend dropping your calories below your BMR.
The next step in calculating your TDEE is to determine your Activity Level. You can use the following chart to determine your Activity Level:
- 1.1 = Sedentary (little or no exercise
- 1.2 = Light Activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
- 1.35 = Moderate Activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
- 1.45 = Very Active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
- 1.6 – Extra Active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 per days per week and physical job)
Finally, to calculate your TDEE, multiply your BMR by your Activity Level
- TDEE = BMR x Activity Level
Now that you know your TDEE, you know exactly how many calories to eat each day to stay exactly the same weight as you are now (also known as maintenance level). But what if you want to lose fat or gain muscle? How much should you decrease or increase your calories?
How Many Calories Should I Eat Each Day?
Some people may advocate a “slow cutting” approach where you use a mild calorie deficit (5% to 10%) to whittle down fat stores over the course of months. The common reasons for this approach are preventing muscle loss, being able to eat more food, and not having to do as much exercise. While this can make sense for some people, I’d recommend a much more aggressive approach to fat loss for most people. Being in a calorie deficit sucks, so why not get through it as fast (but safely) as possible rather than dragging it out? I recommend a calorie deficit of around 20% of your TDEE. It’s aggressive enough to lose fat quickly, without being reckless and causing your metabolism to drop. If a 20% calorie deficit takes you below your BMR, then you can either increase your TDEE by exercising more, or have a less aggressive cut and stay at your BMR.
Gaining muscle is equally important for both men and women. Many women are afraid of gaining muscle for fear of looking “bulky” or “manly”. Rest assured, it’s very difficult for women to become “bulky” without testosterone supplementation or drugs. So, everyone should strive for muscle gain in addition to fat loss. For muscle gain, I recommend a calorie surplus of around 10% of your TDEE. You need to be more careful about fat gain when trying to gain muscle, so you don’t want to be as aggressive with your bulking as you can be with your cutting. You will gain some fat when bulking, but your goal should be to minimize fat gain while maximizing muscle gain.
How Do I Track My Calories?
There are many different ways that you can keep track of the number of calories that you eat each day to help ensure you maintain your calorie deficit or surplus. You can write them down in a notepad, enter them in a spreadsheet, or use websites and apps. One website and app that I highly recommend is call MyFitnessPal. Once you create a free account, you enter in each food that you eat and the website/app will keep a running total of your calories for the day. MyFitnessPal also contains a huge database of popular foods as well as their calorie and nutrient breakdown. All you do is search and select the food. Then, the calories and nutrients for the food are automatically added to your total for the day. The app even takes advantage of your phone’s camera to scan the barcode of foods so you don’t even have to search for them.
If you are keeping track of your calories manually through a notepad or spreadsheet, I recommend using websites like CalorieKing to look up the foods that you’re eating to make sure that your calorie estimates are accurate.
I hope this article has helped you understand how to ensure that you are effectively meeting your nutrition goals. Now that you know how many calories you burn, how many you should consume, and how to track them, you have all of the tools that you need to start changing your body.