Counting calories seems scary and complicated to so many of us. And the truth is, nutritional labels can sometimes have a legal margin of error of up to 30%! But before you raise your hands in defeat, allow us to let you in on a little secret: once you know what your caloric goal is, and once you start measuring the calories and stick to your goal…it becomes a habit. And you know what humans are? Creatures of habits.
Let’s go through a calorie-counting 101.
Alright…so what is this best way to know how many calories I should eat?
Enter the Concept of Total Daily Energy Expenditure(TDEE)!
One of the best ways to determine the number of calories you should consume each day is by understanding and applying the concept of Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
What is TDEE?
TDEE is the total number of calories that your body requires to function daily.
It's the energy you burn in 24 hours, comprising your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the calories burned through physical activity, and those expended through the process of digestion, otherwise known as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Breaking Down TDEE
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – Your Body's Energy Requirement at Rest
Your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate, is the number of calories your body burns while at complete rest.
Imagine if you spent an entire day in bed, not moving an inch. The energy your body would require to perform essential functions, like pumping blood, maintaining body temperature, and supporting cellular processes–that is your BMR.
Your BMR is influenced by several factors including:
- Age: As you age, your BMR typically decreases. This is often due to a natural loss of muscle tissue as you get older, and muscles burn more calories than fat tissue.
- Sex: Men typically have a higher BMR than women due to having more muscle mass, which, as we mentioned, burns more calories at rest.
- Weight: A heavier body requires more energy to function, which leads to a higher BMR.
- Body composition: Muscle burns more calories than fat, so a person with a higher muscle mass will have a higher BMR.
Physical Activity Level (PAL) – Energy Burned Through Movement
The Physical Activity Level (PAL) refers to the number of calories your body burns through physical movement.
This includes intentional exercise, like running or weightlifting, but also daily activities such as walking to work, doing house chores, standing, and even smaller actions like fidgeting (in a podcast by Andrew Huberman, he quotes a study finding that fidgeters spend everywhere from 400 to 1200 more calories daily! All thanks to fidgeting.).
The PAL can vary greatly from person to person, depending on the nature of their lifestyle.
A person who has active work (say, a nurse or someone working in construction), will have a much higher PAL than someone who works in an office or from home and spends most of their day sitting at a desk.
Some nutritionists divide PAL into NEAT and EAT, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and Exercise Activity Thermogenesis respectively.
NEAT can be very difficult to measure, since it involves movements you sometimes don’t even notice.
However, EAT is a little easier to wrap your head around. If you have a smartwatch, or even an app on your phone, and you track your exercises - you should be able to get a rough idea of how many calories you spend during your workouts.
A thing to note, though: these calorie counting apps tend to overestimate the number of calories, so we advise you to always round the number to a lower value. For example, if the app said you spent 456 calories running, circle it to 400.
To calculate PAL more accurately, you need to have a good understanding of your lifestyle and the intensity of your activities. This is typically divided into categories such as sedentary, lightly active, moderately active, very active, and extra active.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – Energy Used in Digestion
The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), also known as Diet Induced Thermogenesis (DIT), is the energy your body expends to digest, absorb, and metabolize the nutrients in the food you eat. It is an often-overlooked aspect of your total calorie expenditure, yet it typically accounts for around 10% of your total energy expenditure.
Different types of foods have different thermic effects, primarily due to the energy required to break them down:
- Proteins: Proteins have the highest thermic effect, requiring more energy to digest than carbs or fats. Approximately 20-30% of the calories in protein are burned off during digestion.
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates have a moderate thermic effect, with around 5-10% of the calories burned off during digestion.
- Fats: Fats have the lowest thermic effect, with about 0-3% of their calories used up during digestion.
Understanding the Thermic Effect of Food can help in designing a diet plan. For instance, increasing your protein intake could potentially boost your TDEE due to its high thermic effect.
This is also why so many diets focus on adding protein and lowering fat. Protein also helps in building muscle mass, and we already spoke about how muscles burn more calories while sedentary.
How To Measure Your TDEE?
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to measure your TDEE:
Step 1: Calculate Your BMR
Calculating your BMR is a starting point. While several equations exist, the Harris-Benedict Equation and the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation are two of the most commonly used ones, with the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation considered to be more accurate by many researchers:
For Men: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) + 5
For Women: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) - 161
Step 2: Determine Your Activity Level
The next step is to multiply your BMR by an activity factor that best fits your lifestyle. These are typically categorized as follows:
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): BMR x 1.725
- Super active (very hard exercise/professional athlete/physical job & exercise 2x/day): BMR x 1.9
Step 3: Account for the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
Finally, to account for the TEF, you could increase your estimated daily calorie expenditure by an additional 10%.
Step 1…again. Find an online TDEE calculator
Numerous online TDEE and calorie intake calculators can do these calculations for you. You just have to input your age, sex, weight, height, and activity level.
Okay…You got your TDEEE. Now what?
If you want to lose weight
If you wish to lose weight, you'll need to create a calorie deficit, meaning you consume fewer calories than your body burns.
A general rule of thumb is to aim for a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. This should result in a weight loss of approximately one pound per week, considering that roughly 3500 calories equate to about one pound of body weight.
Having a balanced diet rich in protein can help you maintain your muscle mass while being in a calorie deficit.
It's crucial, though, to ensure your calorie intake doesn't drop too low – consuming too few calories can lead to nutrient deficiencies and many other health issues.
If you want to maintain weight
For weight maintenance, you'll need to match your daily calorie intake with your TDEE. That means your maintenance calories are equal to your TDEE.
This means you're eating enough to fuel your body's daily activities without storing excess calories as fat or burning stored energy, thereby maintaining your current weight.
If you want to gain weight/muscle mass
If your goal is weight gain, you'll need to consume more calories than your body burns daily.
The general recommendation is to aim for a calorie surplus of around 500 calories per day. This would lead to a weight gain of approximately one pound per week, again assuming that 3500 calories equate to roughly one pound of body weight. H
However, make sure these extra calories come from nutrient-dense food, and that you meet your protein goal to ensure you're gaining muscle and not just fat.
Remember to regularly re-calculate your TDEE, especially after significant weight loss or gain, as your caloric needs change with your body composition and age.
The Art of Calorie Counting: Aiming for Progress, Not Perfection
While understanding and tracking your caloric intake can be a powerful tool in your fitness journey, it's important to remember that calorie counting doesn't need to be perfect. Obsessing over exact numbers can lead to unnecessary stress and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Food labels and online nutritional databases can have a margin of error, and the actual caloric content of foods can also vary depending on factors like ripeness or cooking methods. Therefore, it's more beneficial to see calorie counting as a general guide rather than an exact science.
The aim is to create a consistent trend of eating in alignment with your goals, whether that's to consume less than, equal to, or more than your TDEE.
Understanding and implementing the concept of TDEE can be transformative in managing your weight and achieving your health and fitness goals.
By calculating your TDEE and adjusting your daily caloric intake, you have a straightforward, personalized, and effective tool to guide your nutritional choices and support your goals, whether they involve weight loss, weight gain, or weight maintenance.
Remember, these are general guidelines. Everyone's body responds differently, and progress may not always be linear. You may need to adjust your calorie intake as you progress toward your goal and as your body changes. Monitor your progress, listen to your body, and don't be afraid to adjust your plan as needed.
Above all, ensure your diet is balanced and full of nutrient-rich foods, irrespective of your goal. Good nutrition is crucial for overall health, well-being, and optimal body function. It’s not just about meeting caloric goals, but also ensuring those calories are sourced from good, nutritious foods. In other words, quality is just as important as quantity.
And let us leave you with this: whatever your goals are, CONSISTENCY IS KEY. Even if you have a mishap here and there, yet still get back into it–you’ll make it. Trust us, we’ve been there.