This is the first chapter in my five-part guide on nutrition for fat loss and muscle growth. You can read the introduction (which gives important context) and download the full PDF version of the nutrition setup guide here.
This chapter covers the calorie part of the nutrition puzzle. This is the exact system that I have used and refined from working with clients over the last 9 years. Here’s what it covers:
- Why calorie intake comes first and what you’ll hear from those who make money by denying it.
- How to calculate maintenance calorie needs
- Adjusting your calories for your specific goal: fat loss, muscle gain, or gradual body recomp.
- Why calorie calculations are estimations that will need adjusting.
- How to tweak things to stay on target when they don’t go as planned.
Calorie Intake For Fat Loss: The MOst Important Thing
Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, or weight maintenance, the single most critical piece of the nutritional puzzle is getting your calorie intake right.
- If you consume more calories than your body needs, you will gain weight.
- If you consume the same amount of calories that your body needs, you will maintain your weight.
- If you consume fewer calories than your body needs, you will lose weight.
The calories in, calories out equation (often referred to as CICO) is a simple one, but each side affects the other and there are a few things in and out of our control on both.
Things That Impact Calorie Intake
The energy intake side of the equation looks simple but is actually quite nuanced.
The specific foods we eat and when we eat them impacts how much we eat. This means the macro, micro, and timing sections of the pyramid influence our ability to adhere to this first layer.
While getting our food choices and timing right can help with feelings of fullness, our feelings of hunger are affected by the energy intake side of the equation.
If we overeat, we get less hungry and tend to eat less.
If we undereat, we get more hungry and tend to eat more.
Those who are naturally skinny and struggle to gain weight have a stronger pull the one way than those who are naturally overweight and struggle to lose it.
When you consider we consume nearly one million calories each year, it’s quite remarkable that our weights fluctuate by a mere 1–2 lbs each year on average. This shows how strong a self-regulating mechanism this is.
This is good for life preservation, but terribly inconvenient for those of us who want to change the status quo. We need to override this mechanism, which is why counting calories becomes the necessary next step for people who have made all the obvious lifestyle changes but are still not successful.
Our environment also impacts our choices. This is partially in our control. We can make sure the fridge is stocked with the foods we want to eat and clear the junk out of the house, but we can’t control all the fast-food restaurants and how frequently Betty decides to bring banana bread into the office.
Things That Impact Calorie Expenditure
The two primary factors on the energy expenditure side of the equation, are our metabolic rate and our activity levels. Both of these are affected to some degree by the energy intake side.
Metabolic rate drops when we diet and then returns to normal when we come back to maintenance. This is out of our control. This is out of our control.
Activity levels are partially under conscious control (like how much we exercise) and partially not (how much we fidget and move around throughout the day).
This latter part is particularly interesting because it seems to vary from person to person and can make a big difference in energy expenditure. — Some people get way more lethargic than others when dieting, and some move around a lot more when they overeat. This is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (nicknamed NEAT) and includes things like the energy expended walking to work, typing and texting friends, shaking up a protein shake, performing yard work, and fidgeting.
So, sharp readers may be thinking, “Ahh, but couldn’t I exercise more rather than restrict my food intake if I want to lose weight?”
Technically, yes, you could. However,
- It’s more time-efficient to control energy balance with your diet, i.e., eating more or less, rather than moving more or less.
- Adding extra weight training will interfere with your recovery. This is not only inefficient but a common way people get injured.
- Cardio should be used sparingly, if at all. Reliance on it is unsustainable and sets people up for failure.
Therefore, dietary changes should be the primary driver of an energy deficit or surplus.
Beware Those Who Deny The Importance Of Calorie Balance
The focus of this guide is on what to do, instead of what not to do. So I won’t spend much time debunking ideas. However, there is one notable exception worth addressing immediately — that is the idea that low-carb diets are superior (or necessary) for weight loss.
The Carbohydrate-Insulin Hypothesis of Obesity
There are a few legitimate-seeming doctors who continue to push something called the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis of obesity.
The idea is when insulin levels are high, we can’t lose fat because insulin shuts down fat burning. And as carbs are supposedly the biggest thing that stimulate insulin release, if we eat a high-carb diet, we can’t lose fat.
(The argument is more nuanced, but this is the general gist.)
I could point out that protein (whey, dairy, animal protein, etc.) spikes insulin just as high as sugar and all sorts of other mechanistic shortcomings with this theory.
And people love to argue all kinds of biochemical pathways and hormone regulation loops.
But the fact is, when you put two groups on a calorie-matched, high vs low-carb diets, studies show that there is no difference in fat loss outcome.
So why does this idea persist?
- It’s easy to understand and share.
- It makes people who talk about it a shit-ton of money in book sales and speaking gigs. (Gary Taubes and Jason Fung are two names, in particular, to steer clear of.)
- There is an element of truth in the idea that cutting carbs helps with weight loss.
I do not deny that a low carbohydrate diet can be effective for fat loss. But it’s important to note that people lose weight because they eat fewer calories overall, not because of any effect on insulin or because it burns more body fat.
If you are trying to lose fat, you will likely need to reduce your carb intake to create a calorie deficit (and probably your fat intake too). But, if someone tells you that you need to remove carbs almost entirely, or that calorie balance is not the key to sustained weight loss, ignore them.
Lastly, sugar is demonized by the media but is not inherently ‘bad.’ It depends how it fits with the rest of your diet. However, limiting sugary foods is a good idea if you are trying to diet, and you find yourself easily overeating them.
How To CALCULATE Your Daily Calorie Targets
Step 1: We must estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Step 2: We must adjust this figure based on your daily activity levels.
Step 3: We must adjust this calculation based on your goal.
Before proceeding, it is essential to understand that the final calorie number you calculate is only an estimation. The equations are derived from group averages, the activity multiplier used will be an estimation, and there are individual differences in how people respond to a calorie deficit or surplus.
Therefore, consider your calculation as a starting point from which to adjust based on how you progress. I’ll come back to this later.
Step 1. BMR Calculator
The first thing we need to do is calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
There are a variety of formulas designed to estimate basal metabolic rate. I like the Harris-Benedict formula because it’s just as effective, yet simpler to do.
(The Katch-McArticle formula, for example, requires people to estimate their body-fat percentage first. But as all the methods we have available of assessing body-fat percentage have accuracy issues, I don’t see the point of using it.)
The Harris-Benedict Formula for Calculating BMR
For those who use pounds and inches:
- Men: BMR = 66 + (6.2 x weight in lbs) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age)
- Women: BMR = 655 + (4.4 x weight in lbs) + (4.6 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age)
For those who use kilograms and centimeters:
- Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age)
- Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age)
Step 2. TDEE Calculator
The second thing we need to do is to make an adjustment to your BMR for activity levels to find your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
I like to use the following four categories:
- Sedentary (little or no exercise) [BMR x 1.15]
- Mostly sedentary (office work), plus 3–6 days of weight lifting [BMR x 1.35]
- Lightly active, plus 3–6 days of weight lifting [BMR x 1.55]
- Highly active, plus 3–6 days of weight lifting [BMR x 1.75]
The majority of people reading this will find that the second or third options are the best fit. If you are an office worker who drives to work and walks around little, I’d suggest the second option.
This will give you a number known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
Example TDEE Calculations
I find examples to be exceptionally helpful, when I am learning new things, to solidify what I am learning. So, I’ll give four examples throughout this guide which fit four common avatars: Fat Freddie, Shredded Sam, Thicc Thelma, and Noobie Natalie.
Fat Freddie is 5’9, 31 years old, weighs 180 lbs, and works in an office so is “mostly sedentary.” His TDEE is estimated to be 2499 kcal.
Shredded Sam is 6’1, 37 years old, weighs 175 lbs, and is lightly active. His TDEE is estimated at 2844 kcal.
Thicc Thelma is 5’4, 44 years old, weighs 190 lbs. Having an office job, her current activity level is sedentary, but she will choose “mostly sedentary” because she’s about to start to lift. Her TDEE is estimated at 2109 kcal.
Noobie Natalie is 5’7, 21 years old, weighs 135 lbs, and works filling shelves at Costco. Up until now, she has enjoyed 3x a week spinning classes with the occasional weekend trail run. She is completely new to strength training, and will drop the spinning class to once per week. Therefore, her activity level is set at “lightly active.” Her TDEE is estimated at 2254 kcal.
(Test these numbers or enter your own using the calorie and macro calculator.)
STEP 3. Calculate YOUR DAILY CALORIE INTAKE BASED ON YOUR GOAL
In this section, I give recommended rates of body weight loss and gain during cut and bulk phases, explain the math used, and give example calculations for Thicc Thelma, Fat Freddie, and Shredded Sam.
Noob Natalie will choose to chase simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss, which is known as a ‘body recomp’ phase.
If you need help deciding what you should do, read my related guide on Bulking vs Cutting.
HOW TO ADJUST Calorie Intake FOR A Fat Loss GOAL
When your goal is primarily to lose fat, we call this a cut. I recommend a weight loss rate between 0.5–0.75% of body weight per week.
High rates of weight loss are motivating, but they are hard to sustain. The leaner we are, the higher the chances of muscle mass losses.
Slow rates of weight loss are easier to sustain, but hard to stay motivated for, difficult to track, and they can become an increasing mental burden.
For busy individuals who can’t afford the lethargy and brain fog, 0.5% seems to be the sweet spot per week. I’m basing this on my years of client work.
You can go up to 1% if you have a lot of fat to lose, but most clients didn’t find this to be sustainable. Above 1%, your diet will be very hard to sustain and muscle loss is likely.
As you close in on seeing your abs for the first time, I would recommend you stay closer to 0.5%. If you get into the single digits of body fat %, the whole curve shifts to the left and you want to lose at or slightly under a rate of 0.5% to maximize your chances of holding onto muscle mass.
Cutting Math & Example Calculations
It requires an approximate 3500 kcal deficit to burn 1 lb of fat (7700 kcal per kg). Therefore, to lose 1 lb of fat per week, you need a 500 kcal daily deficit (1100 kcal for 1 kg).
The calculation to adjust your calorie intake for a fat loss goal is as follows:
Target daily calorie intake (TDCI) = TDEE – (Bodyweight x target weekly fat loss rate x 500*)
*1100 if you use kg
However, our metabolisms adapt to fight a caloric deficit, which means that if we use the calculation above, it will not likely lead to the 0.5% of body weight loss per week we are hoping for. Therefore, I have set the calorie and macro calculator to use 0.75%.
Fat Freddie’s target daily calorie intake = 2499 – (180 x 0.0075 x 500) = 2499 – 675 = 1824 kcal
Thicc Thelma’s target daily calorie intake = 2109 – (190 x 0.0075 x 500) = 2109 – 712.5 = 1397 kcal
Even if you wish to cut faster than 0.5% of body weight per week, I suggest you use the calculator as I have it, wait, then adjust after a few weeks based on the outcome. This will teach you if you can sustain 0.5% first. Again, for most people, attempts at faster fat loss rates rarely end well.
HOW TO ADJUST Calorie Intake FOR A MUSCLE GAIN GOAL
The goal of the bulk is to maximize our rate of muscle gain while gaining the least amount of fat. Therefore, it is important to estimate our rate of muscle growth potential if we’re to set weight gain targets and calculate the calorie surplus appropriately.
The newer you are to training, the faster the rate you can gain muscle; the more advanced you get, the slower this will happen. Therefore, it is best to set weight gain targets based on your level of training experience. If you ignore this, you’ll either gain too much fat or make slower progress than you could have.
Categorizing training advancement is tricky, but here is my preferred method along with the monthly rates of weight gain I recommend:
- Beginner: 2% (Totally new to training.)
- Novice: 1.5% (Still able to progress most training loads in the gym on a week to week basis.)
- Intermediate: 1% (Able to progress most training loads in the gym on a month to month basis.)
- Advanced: 0.5% (Progress is evident only when viewed over multiple months or a year.)
These rates of weight gain purposefully skew to the upper boundary of the recommendations we have in our Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition book.
As I often say to online coaching applicants, when it comes to goal setting, it is imperative that the outcome is measurable if we are to manage it. When results are hard to measure, it is both tough to coach for and tough to stay motivated for. This is why I have a preference for slightly higher numbers.
There is also a genetic component to the rate at which people gain muscle. This will work out better for those more genetically blessed.
Bulking Example Calculation
It takes roughly ~2500 kcal to build 1 lb of muscle and ~3500 kcal to burn or store 1 lb of fat.
As people typically gain fat and muscle in a 1:1 ratio in a bulk phase, and if we assume a 30 day month, this means we need a 100 kcal daily caloric surplus to gain 1 lb of weight per month (~220 kcal for 1 kg).
However, like the additional downward adjustment I made for metabolic adaptation when cutting, I believe we should make an additional upward adjustment when bulking. This is because as we raise calories, some of that calorie increase will be eaten up by NEAT and not result in a caloric surplus.
The NEAT increase will be different from person to person and is impossible to predict, but I suggest we add 50% to these numbers, which gives the following heuristic:
To gain 1 lb of weight per month, add 150 kcal each day (330 kcal for 1 kg).
Therefore, the calculation to adjust your calorie intake for a weight gain goal is as follows:
- Target daily calorie intake (TDCI) = TDEE + (Bodyweight x target monthly gain rate x 150*)
*330 if you use kg
Shredded Sam is an intermediate trainee, so his target monthly gain rate will be 1%. His calculation is as follows:
Shredded Sam’s target daily calorie intake = 2844 + (175 x 0.01 x 150) = 2844 + 263 = 3107 kcal
Why CALCULATIONS ARE ESTIMATIONS
It’s essential to realize that any calculation will just be an estimation. This are three primary reasons for this:
1. The BMR calculation in step 1 was developed based on group averages, but people can vary up to 15% either side
2. The activity multiplier is an estimation.
3. Reactions to a calorie surplus or deficit vary – some people get more fidgety and move around more throughout the day when in a calorie surplus, some people get very lethargic when in a calorie deficit. This is the NEAT I referred to earlier.
This means two 6 ft, 200 lb dudes of the same age and training schedule could find their maintenance calorie needs 700 calories apart.
No calculation can take into account these differences. Therefore, tracking after the initial calculation and then making refinements is essential.
How to Adjust CALORIE INTAKE WHEN Your WEIGHT DOESN’T CHANGE AS PLANNED
I literally wrote a book and video series (The Last Shred) on this topic, but here are the fundamentals.
How To Track Progress
To know how to adjust your calorie intake, you need to have data on which to base decisions. At the very minimum, I recommend that you track your weight each day and measure your stomach in three places once per week.
Your weight will fluctuate from day to day and vary depending on the time of day, so stepping on the scale a few times a week is not enough.
Note your weight each morning, immediately after using the bathroom after you wake, and write down the average at the end of the week.
What you’ll likely see if you switch to a cut, is a large drop in weight in the first week, and then a more steady rate of change each week thereafter. The opposite will be true when bulking.
This is due to the change in gut content, water, and muscle glycogen in your body, which happens whenever you change the number of carbs you eat or total food intake in general.
Use a tape to measure at your navel, and then 3 finger-widths above and below. This will help you to keep tabs on fat gain when bulking, fat losses when recomping, and confirm that fat (rather than muscle) is being lost when cutting.
So, before deciding you need to adjust, track for several weeks first, taking the average scale weight each day and your stomach measurements once per week, and ignore the first week of data.
How To Adjust
For a Cut
- If weight is lost too quickly, there is a risk of muscle loss. Increase calorie intake.
- If weight is not lost quickly enough, decrease calorie intake.
- Suggested incremental change: 200–250 kcal per day
For a Slow Bulk
- If weight is not gained quickly enough, increase calorie intake.
- If weight is gained too quickly, you’ll have put too much fat on, so decrease calories.
- Suggested incremental change: 100–150 kcal per day.
Remember to take into account water weight fluctuations, and always consider 3–4 weeks’ worth of tracking data before making any changes.
The Weight Loss Stalls And Whooshes You Can Expect
It’s not uncommon for some people to find that the scale weight suddenly stops moving and stays there for several weeks. This is due to water retention — the fat loss is still happening, but as the fat cells empty, they fill back up with water.
I’m not sure exactly why this happens, but potentially due to rises in cortisol, which happen when we are stressed. (A calorie deficit is a stressor, training is a stressor.) All you can do is sleep well, work to reduce other stress in your life, then just wait it out.
A gradual decrease in the rate of fat loss over the weeks is to be expected and does not indicate water retention (in this case you’ll make an adjustment to your calorie intake downwards to bring up the rate of fat loss), but a sudden stall indicates that it is water retention marking the fat loss, as there is no physiological mechanism whereby your body will suddenly cease to burn fat if you are in a calorie deficit.
This has the potential to drive everyone crazy, but there is little you can do but wait it out. One morning you’ll wake up to find yourself a couple of kilograms lighter. This is known as a whoosh. It happens with both sexes but is especially common with women.