What are Calories?
Calories play a crucial role in our daily lives as they are units of energy our bodies obtain from consuming and metabolizing food and beverages. They are the fuel for our bodies, and they are not created equally. Some foods contain more or fewer calories, and the amount we consume is the main determinant of whether we gain, maintain, or lose weight.
It's also important to point out that we can't rely solely on calories, as some foods may be low in calories but provide no nutritional value, such as diet soda and other "diet" or "low-calorie" processed foods. Meanwhile, certain fruits and vegetables may be high in calories but should not be avoided as they provide essential nutritional value for the body.
The point we're making, which we'll only mention here, is that although weight gain and weight loss are determined by being in a caloric surplus or deficit, the macro- and micronutrients within the food we consume should not be neglected. They play a crucial role in bodily functions and activities, and they go hand in hand with calorie intake.
If you want to learn more about the importance of macronutrients, you can read our blog post titled "Macros 101: Understanding Carbs, Protein, and Fat with Your Fitness Goals."
Lastly, it's worth noting that 3,500 calories make up 1 lb of body weight. We'll revisit this number later.
Understanding Maintenance Calories
Before understanding calories and what it means to be in a caloric surplus or deficit, we must first grasp the concept of maintenance calories.
Maintenance calories refer to the amount of energy or calories required to maintain your current weight. This includes the calories needed to sustain basic bodily functions at rest, such as breathing, circulation, and organ function (Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR), as well as calories burned through physical activities (Physical Activity Level or PAL), everyday activities like walking and standing (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT), and calories burned during digestion and nutrient utilization (Thermic Effect of Food or TEF).
BMR + PAL + NEAT + TEF = TDEE Total Daily Energy Expenditure
In other words, Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is equivalent to your maintenance calories. Understanding your TDEE is important because it serves as a baseline for determining the number of calories you should consume to either gain or lose weight. If your goal is to gain weight or muscle mass, you would consume more calories than your TDEE, creating a caloric surplus. Conversely, if your goal is to lose weight, you would consume fewer calories than your TDEE, creating a caloric deficit.
The recommended range for a surplus or deficit is typically between 250 and 500 calories. Going higher than that can lead to more aggressive weight changes, which may not always be desirable as it can result in significant fat gain or muscle loss.
As mentioned before, 3,500 calories equates to 1 lb of body weight, so being on a 500 caloric surplus should increase your weight by 1 lb per week.
500 calories per day x 7 days = 3,500 calories = 1lb.
Although it makes sense on paper, the way our body reacts is not as precise as what the calculation spits out.
Calculating Your Maintenance Calories:
There are several methods to calculate your maintenance calories. We will give you 3 methods you can do. The first one we will use is the Harris-Benedict Equation. This calculation is found to be the most accurate calculation online.
Step 1: Find your BMR
For Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 × weight in pounds) + (12.7 × height in inches) - (6.8 × age in years)
For Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 × weight in pounds) + (4.7 × height in inches) - (4.7 × age in years)
Step 2: Finding TDEE
Multiply estimated BMR by an activity factor that corresponds to your activity level.
Sedentary (little to no exercise): BMR × 1.2
Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): BMR × 1.375
Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): BMR × 1.55
Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/week): BMR × 1.725
Extra active (very hard exercise/sports and physical job): BMR × 1.9
For example, let's calculate the TDEE for a sedentary man who weighs 180 pounds, is 6 feet (72 inches) tall, and is 35 years old:
Calculate BMR: BMR = 66 + (6.23 × 180) + (12.7 × 72) - (6.8 × 35) BMR = 66 + 1,121.4 + 914.4 - 238 BMR = 1,863.8 calories
Calculate TDEE for a sedentary activity level (BMR × 1.2): TDEE = 1,863.8 × 1.2 TDEE = 2,236.56 calories
Therefore, the estimated TDEE for this sedentary man would be approximately 2,237 calories per day.
The Book of Muscles by Ian King & Lou Schuler
If you're looking for more simplicity then this calculation is for you. We like to use the number we find here in addition to the current caloric baseline number we find by next method of calculation.
Step 1: Find Basic Calorie Needs
Basic calorie needs = 11 x weight in pounds
This calculation tells you the amount of energy you’d burn without eating/exercising.
Step 2: Find your Metabolic Rate
Metabolic Rate = Basic calorie needs x Caloric cost of activity level percentage (refer to graph below)
30 years old >
30 to 40 years old
40 years old <
Highly Active / Athlete
Step 3: Maintenance Total
Maintenance Total = Basic calorie needs + Metabolic rate
For example, let's calculate this for the same 35 years old sedentary man mentioned in the last example:
Calculate basic calorie needs: 180 x 11 = 1,980
Calculate metabolic rate: 1,980 x .25 = 495
Find Maintenance total: 1,980 + 495 = 2,475
Therefore, the estimated maintenance calories or TDEE for this highly young adult man would be approximately 2,475 calories per day.
Most of the time, our current caloric baseline (the number of calories our body is accustomed to without gaining or losing weight) is often different from the maintenance or Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) numbers calculated using standard equations.
For instance, if we use those calculations for an obese and sedentary individual, such as a 35-year-old man weighing 360 lbs, the calculation may suggest a maintenance calorie intake of over 4,000 calories. However, in reality, that person is unlikely to be consuming 4,000 calories every day to maintain their weight. In most cases, if we track their actual calorie intake for 4-5 days, we'll likely find that they are consuming significantly fewer calories, perhaps around 2,000 calories or even less. Their weight gain is primarily due to inactivity and a gradual accumulation of excess weight.
Similarly, a person who has reached a weight loss plateau may also experience differences between their actual caloric intake and the calculated maintenance calories. For example, let's consider a moderately active individual who started at 190 lbs and has successfully lost 20 lbs, bringing them down to 170 lbs. They initially began their weight loss journey by consuming their calculated maintenance calories of 2,900. However, during the process of a caloric deficit, they have reduced their intake to 1,800 calories. If we recalculate their maintenance calories based on their new weight of 170 lbs, it would suggest a value of 2,616 calories. However, the fact that they are not losing or gaining weight at an intake of 1,800 calories indicates that their true maintenance level may be lower than the recalculated value.
It's crucial to recognize that the calories we are accustomed to can differ from the standardized numbers obtained through equations such as the Harris-Benedict Equation and The Book of Muscles. Therefore, it's important to assess your current caloric baseline before relying solely on the calculated maintenance calories. Failing to do so may result in weight gain instead of weight loss for individuals trying to reduce their weight, or vice versa for those aiming to gain weight.
Tracking Current Caloric Baseline
Plug in each meal in MyFitnessPal according to their portion size
Track for 3-4 days
Take average and you will find your current caloric baseline
If you have hit a plateau or discovered that your current caloric baseline is significantly lower than your calculated maintenance calories while attempting to lose weight, you may consider implementing a process known as metabolic optimization or "reverse dieting." This method involves gradually increasing your caloric intake after a period of calorie restriction or dieting. The goal is to help your body adapt to higher calorie levels while minimizing the likelihood of weight regain.
During the reverse dieting process, you would systematically add calories back into your diet at a slow pace over a specified period of time. A common approach is to increase your caloric intake by 100 calories per week while closely monitoring your weight. The objective is to find the point at which your body maintains its weight without further gain or loss. You can determine this point by referring to the calculated maintenance calories obtained from one of the equations, or you may stop the reverse dieting process if you no longer feel comfortable consuming that amount of calories.
Once your body has adjusted to the higher calorie levels and you have reached your calculated maintenance calories, you can then return to a caloric deficit to stimulate weight loss effectively. This process of metabolic optimization allows your body to recalibrate and respond to the new calorie levels, potentially overcoming plateaus and promoting further progress towards your weight loss goals.
Understanding calories and finding your maintenance level is key to maintaining a healthy weight and achieving your fitness goals. By estimating your maintenance calories, you can ensure that your energy intake aligns with your energy expenditure. Remember that these estimates provide a starting point, and you may need to make adjustments based on personal factors and individual responses. By tracking your intake and paying attention to your body, you'll be on your way to finding the right balance for your health and well-being.