How To Find Your Starting Point For Counting Calories

JakeArticles, News/Main, Nutrition

How many calories should you eat when you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle or both? 

First things first. The most important thing to understand when you’re beginning this journey is knowing where your calories currently are, so tracking for a week is necessary. You might also want to invest in a food scale as it’s more accurate when you weigh your foods rather than using measuring cups or generic measurements in My Fitness Pal

While tracking, it would benefit you to get your weight the day you start tracking and again after a week of tracking. Take note of how many calories or macros you took in and if you lost weight, maintained, or gained. 

The next step is to calculate your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate. Your BMR calculation gives you a great starting point. BMR is basically how many calories you need without activity or  the calories needed JUST for your body to function, meaning organs, breathing, etc. To calculate your BMR, you need to know your height, weight, age, and sex. There are some easy calculators online.  Here is the one I use. 

Activity Factor

Once you know your BMR, you need to determine your activity factor. How active are you throughout the day? Does your job involve sitting all day or are you on your feet all day? Here is a chart I use for determining where you fall in this category:

Sedentary: little to no exercise – 1.2

Lightly Active: 1-3 days – 1.375

Moderately Active: 3-5 days – 1.55

Very Active: hard exercise 6-7 days – 1.725

Once you’ve determined where you fall into this category, you simply multiply your BMR by your AF (Activity Factor). This will give you an estimated number of calories to start in order to maintain your weight. Compare this number to what your current calories came out to be when you tracked for a week. See how different or alike they are.  

Next, decide what your goal is: are you trying to lose weight, maintain weight or gain weight to build muscle?  

Once you determine your goal, then you can move forward to make a plan for yourself.  

To lose weight: you must eat in a caloric deficit (according to your calculations above) consistently.

To gain weight: you must eat in a caloric surplus ( according to your calculations above) consistently.

To maintain weight: you just eat the same calories (according to your calculations above).

One VERY important thing I’d like to mention is a lot of us continue to eat in a deficit over a long period of time, because this is what we think is the right thing to do.  However, this will only end up stalling your progress towards weight loss. The simple reason for this is our bodies adapt to these lower calories and they become your new normal. As a result, this is no longer a deficit. Your body now sees what “should be” a deficit as its new “maintenance” even though you really should be able to eat more. 

The only way to kick start things again is to either decrease calories again or increase them.  When your calories are already very low, it wouldn’t make sense to keep lowering them to a point where it wouldn’t be beneficial (i.e. lower than 1200 calories for an extended period of time). Keep this in mind as you’re moving forward with your goals of fat loss!  Nutritional periodization is, in my opinion, the #1 rule to stay on the progress train. 

Here’s an example of a typical client scenario I see on a regular basis: 

Kim’s BMR is 1601 and her AF comes in at 1.55 because she’s pretty active. 1601 Kcal  x 1.55= 2481 Kcal. This tells us she would need 2,481 Kcal in order to maintain her weight. Kim tracked for a week and her current intake average came in at 1,351 Kcal. So according to her BMR and AF calculations, she is eating WAY under where she needs to be. Unfortunately, this is really common. With this scenario, the only answer for Kim is to put her in a reverse diet moving toward her end goal of 2,481 Kcal.

I’d start with meeting her somewhere in the middle while using the information from her intake form and feedback. If I had to guess, she’s probably feeling low energy, low hunger, trouble sleeping, along with a whole list of other issues. This is unfortunate, but it’s pretty common. I would bump her up by 400kcal right off the bat, and if she’s open to macros, I would really encourage her to track them since  macros can be pretty magical when working to change body composition over time and with some patience.   

Once a plan like the above scenario has been followed for 10 -14 days, it calls for increased calories (reverse dieting) people generally start to have some positive feedback like increased energy, feeling stronger in their workouts, hitting PR’s, and improved sleep along with increased hunger.   

If you have questions or need more assistance meeting your nutritional needs, contact me for a free nutrition consultation and we’ll come up with a plan together putting you in a position to better reach your goals.