How to Count your Calories for Weight Loss
Alright, let’s get this straight once and for all.
When it comes to changing your weight, this is the one equation you should commit to memory.
Calories consumed - calories expended= Weight gain/loss
That means, eat more than you expend (calorie surplus), and you will gain weight. Eat less than you expend (calorie deficit), and you will lose weight. It’s that simple.
Uhhhh not exactly. Obesity epidemic anybody?!
I want to lay it out that while the equation is as simple as ABC, when it comes to sustainable long-term weight management, there remains much more to be considered, like our habits, behaviors, individual needs and preferences, and mindset, among other factors.
But… for simplicity sake, let’s just say you have all those things squared away, and you just want to know once and for all “how many damn calories should I eat?!”
I got you. Let’s get into things.
Understanding Body Weight
First of all, I think it’s important to understand what constitutes our total body weight.
Total body weight = lean body mass (organs, skin, bones, water, muscle mass) + fat mass
So by right whenever you are in a calorie deficit, you will end up losing weight, and you will lose both lean body mass and fat mass.
If you are reading this, it’s highly likely your goal is not just weight loss, but fat loss with maximal retention of lean mass. Listen to this podcast where I go into detail on the strategies you can adopt to not lose muscle while in a fat loss phase.
Alright, now that we understand what our body is composed of, and that a calorie deficit will bring about changes to both lean mass and fat mass, we know that there are ways to control and manipulate it such that the majority of the weight is lost from fat mass… We need to figure out our Maintenance calories.
Somebody define Maintenance calories please.
Maintenance calories are the amount of calories you need to maintain your current weight.
That means if you are 60kg right now and consuming 2000 calories on average across the week daily. If you continue to eat 2000 calories, your weight will maintain at 60kg.
So to set things straight, if you claim to be eating at a deficit below your maintenance calories, but aren’t losing weight, then by definition you were not in a calorie deficit at all.
Not to overcomplicate things, but “maintenance calories” is misleading because it seems like it’s just one number, static.
Meaning any slight deviation means your weight will yoyo.
Maintenance is more a range, and less a static singular number.
As odd as it sounds, it actually makes sense.
That’s because your activity level, daily movement, calories burned from exercise, food consumption etc, is not a copy-paste every single day.
So it’s bound to fluctuate, hence the range.
But that’s not something you should stress about, what is important is just to determine your starting maintenance calories and work from there.
Determining Maintenance Calories
There are two main ways you can do this.
Method 1: Using Fancy Equations
Step 1: Calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate using the Revised Harris-Benedict Equation
For men, it’s 88.362 + (13.397 x body weight) + (4.799 x height in cm) - (5.677 x age) = BMR
For women, it’s 444.593 + (9.247 x body weight) + (3.098 x height in cm) - (4.330 x age) = BMR
Or for simplicity you can just type in your details here and refer to the number it throws out for BMR.
Step 2: Determine your Activity Factor
Next, the total calories you burn in a day is going to differ not just based on your BMR but also based on your activity level.
So now that you have found your estimated BMR, you need to determine your activity factor.
This is going to differ based on your average activity level.
If you don’t exercise at all, and you work a desk job, I recommend sticking to 1.1-1.2x.
If you hit the gym consistently 3-4 times a week but still work a desk job and are otherwise quite sedentary, I would stick with 1.3x.
And for individuals who are training very intensely, say 5-6 times a week, I would use a multiplier of 1.4x.
And if you train almost daily, maybe with double sessions, I would consider this athlete level and use a multiplier of 1.5x.
Step 3: Multiply BMR x Activity Factor
The last step is straightforward, now that you have these two numbers, multiply them together to give you your estimated maintenance calories.
Method 2: Using Your Current Calorie Intake
Now, the next method that you can use to determine your maintenance calories is by measuring your daily weight and calorie intake over a period of 2 weeks.
Measuring your current intake and watching how the scale fluctuates is actually the far more accurate approach of the two to determine maintenance calories.
While it is more work upfront and takes a slightly longer timeframe, it is more true to life.
That said, it requires accurate data collection to be telling, the keyword being accurate.
And if you are new to tracking, it is highly likely your first two weeks of tracking are not going to be the MOST accurate, so that is also something to keep in mind.
When I bring on coaching clients, I like to have the estimates derived from equations, however, if someone has experience tracking and can give me numbers off the bat, I would much rather look at the numbers they provide to me. This can always be followed up with how their weight has been trending the month before.
If you have read this far, and you have not tracked your calories before, and are thinking like whatttt I have to freaking track my calories, weigh my food forever just to lose weight?! Neurotic much?
I get it. I felt that way too when I first got started.
But I want to reassure you. Tracking your calories is not something you need to keep up for the rest of your life.
If, however you are a control-freak haha, no judgement, or just simply love having numbers to play with, can’t live without logging your intake into MFP, who am I to judge, go right ahead!
But if you just wanna achieve your goal, and cruise (until you decide to take things up a notch again)....
I want you to realise you can do that too!
That said, I still believe in tracking your food for a period of time, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, to really gain a solid understanding of nutrition, eating habits, food quality, food choices, calories and macros in foods, satiety to list a few.
Also, did you know that humans also have a tendency to underestimate the amount of calories we eat by up to 50%, while overestimating the amount of calories we burn by up to 50% as well?!
No wonder we think we are doing everything right and still not making progress.
This is not something we are taught in school, and if you think about it, is critical to the success of our health, aesthetic goals, wellness.
So why not take some time to learn the skill that would set you up for life? There is no downside really.
On that note, here’s the challenge- Track your calories for a whole month. Not one day. Not 1 week. One full month.
How to get started?
Download Myfitnesspal now, it’s free and begin inputting your food as you go.
Determining Fat Loss Calories
Now that you have determined your maintenance calories. The next thing you need to do is to determine fat loss calories or how many calories you will be eating in the diet.
And I want to drive home one point here- There are no magic numbers.
If you are in a deficit, you will lose weight.
The more aggressive the deficit, the faster the weight will come off.
This comes with a greater tradeoff in terms of the leeway you have with your diet, you need to be much more spot on most of the time.
The reverse applies, the less aggressive the deficit, the slower the reduction in weight you will see.
With that expectation set, I would start anywhere between a 15-45% calorie deficit (usually 15-25%).
So if you are eating 2000 calories at maintenance, dropping calories to 1750 calories for at least a two-week time frame before reevaluating.
It is also important to go into this with a plan, you are not dropping calories indefinitely, again this is gonna depend on the amount of body fat you are carrying, but anywhere between an 8-16 week time frame is feasible.
That said, a person with a higher degree of body fat, say 40-50% bf, could actually go into a deeper deficit, and maintain that for a much longer time horizon without any negative physiological repercussions, in fact this could be the most healthy thing for her to do to bring her weight into a healthy range.
During this time frame, it’s important to continue to
Be prioritizing protein
Continue strength training
Be hitting your step goal consistently too
Taking daily weight
Pictures and measurements every 2 weeks
If after 2 weeks of doing this and adhering to a tee and there is no drop in scale weight or measurements, you would need to reevaluate to see if there is a further tweak you need to maybe reduce calories further or introduce more activity through steps or cardio.
The point is, don’t freak out, your body is not evading the laws of thermodynamics.
Calories in calories out still applies, you just need to troubleshoot and find a new calorie target that if executed consistently for 2 weeks minimally would result in a drop in scale weight.
There is a lot that can be covered here, I just want to leave off by saying, there are many different factors that could be impeding fat loss, and not all the time should the approach be to just drop calories further or increase activity level.
There is a practical science element to coaching but there is also the art of coaching that comes with experience.
There are times when someone is adhering to a tee, and body weight and measurements are still not budging, but I decide to hold on for a few more weeks, and there is a sudden catching up that these metrics take. Not making rash coaching decisions is key here.
There are also certain times when clients may need more frequent adjustments for various reasons- psychological, physiological, or purely for adherence purposes.
I hope that from this article you at least took away the basic understanding of what leads to changes in body weight, body composition, how to find a good starting maintenance calories, and fat loss calories.