One of the most frequent questions I see in the forums is "how many calories should I eat?"
In regards to weight loss, I think this question is a very important one. People tend to concentrate too much on cutting calories back every time their weight loss slows. Some take off huge chunks right at the very beginning which can be a huge mistake, particularly if you're going to be losing weight over a good period of time. The reason why is that, as well as our general lowering of caloric needs as we lose weight - for most of us, our bodies are very smart and adapt to what we eat pretty quickly. When you cut out huge chunks of calories straight off the bat you leave very little room to account for this during the course of your weight loss. Before you know it, you have nothing left to cut and you're stuck between a rock and a very hard place. The same can be said for exercise, when you go all out doing an hour of daily intensive cardio from the very beginning, where do you go once your body adapts to the exercise your doing?
Not only that, eating below your basal metabolic rate (BMR) can be bad for your health. I have been compiling a page on the research into the health risks involved with VLCD's (Very Low Calorie Diets): Research on the Risks of Very Low Calorie Diets. We also have a thread discussing BMR, calories, as well as discussion on how to increase calories after eating too little here and how to work out your minimum protein intake as well as some posts on how to reset your metabolism after excessive dieting: BMR and Calories
I also did a series of articles on some of the risks associated with these diets: Low Fat and Very Low Calorie Diets.
With this is mind, I thought it would be a really good idea to provide information on how to work out how many calories we should eat for safe weight loss. You will find there are a few different calculations here. The one called Katch-McArdle formula which uses lean body mass is said to be more accurate particularly for people whom are athletic or with an athletic build, are resistance training or have good muscle mass. For these people, the calories on the Harris-Benedict formula are said to fall short - which I think looking back, ties in with my own experience when I was losing weight, as I ate above my BMR but it still seemed to fall short.
I have taken this information below with permission from the Gwent Medical Journal whom unfortunately no long appear to exist online so I have removed the dead link. I should add that my son has helped me with writing the code for our own calculators to make it easier. We have a calorie calculator using a more recent formula and we also have a calculator that will help you work out your protein, fat and carbohydrate amounts. Check it out here: Low Carb Calculators
Basal Metabolic Rate
Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, is the minimum calorific requirement needed to sustain life in a resting individual. It can be looked at as being the amount of energy (measured in calories) expended by the body to remain in bed asleep all day!
BMR can be responsible for burning up to 70% of the total calories expended, but this figure varies due to different factors (see below). Calories are burned by bodily processes such as respiration, the pumping of blood around the body and maintenance of body temperature. Obviously the body will burn more calories on top of those burned due to BMR.
BMR is the largest factor in determining overall metabolic rate and how many calories you need to maintain, lose or gain weight. BMR is determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, as follows:
- Genetics. Some people are born with faster metabolisms; some with slower metabolisms.
- Gender. Men have a greater muscle mass and a lower body fat percentage. This means they have a higher basal metabolic rate.
- Age. BMR reduces with age. After 20 years, it drops about 2 per cent, per decade.
- Weight. The heavier your weight, the higher your BMR. Example: the metabolic rate of obese women is 25 percent higher than the metabolic rate of thin women.
- Body Surface Area. This is a reflection of your height and weight. The greater your Body Surface Area factor, the higher your BMR. Tall, thin people have higher BMR's. If you compare a tall person with a short person of equal weight, then if they both follow a diet calorie-controlled to maintain the weight of the taller person, the shorter person may gain up to 15 pounds in a year.
- Body Fat Percentage. The lower your body fat percentage, the higher your BMR. The lower body fat percentage in the male body is one reason why men generally have a 10-15% faster BMR than women.
- Diet. Starvation or serious abrupt calorie-reduction can dramatically reduce BMR by up to 30 percent. Restrictive low-calorie weight loss diets may cause your BMR to drop as much as 20%.
- Body Temperature/Health. For every increase of 0.5C in internal temperature of the body, the BMR increases by about 7 percent. The chemical reactions in the body actually occur more quickly at higher temperatures. So a patient with a fever of 42C (about 4C above normal) would have an increase of about 50 percent in BMR.
- External temperature. Temperature outside the body also affects basal metabolic rate. Exposure to cold temperature causes an increase in the BMR,so as to create the extra heat needed to maintain the body's internal temperature. A short exposure to hot temperature has little effect on the body's metabolism as it is compensated mainly by increased heat loss. But prolonged exposure to heat can raise BMR.
- Glands. Thyroxin (produced by the thyroid gland) is a key BMR-regulator which speeds up the metabolic activity of the body. The more thyroxin produced, the higher the BMR. If too much thyroxin is produced (a condition known as thyrotoxicosis) BMR can actually double. If too little thyroxin is produced (myxoedema) BMR may shrink to 30-40 percent of normal. Like thyroxin, adrenaline also increases the BMR but to a lesser extent.
- Exercise. Physical exercise not only influences body weight by burning calories, it also helps raise your BMR by building extra lean tissue. (Lean tissue is more metabolically demanding than fat tissue.) So you burn more calories even when sleeping.
Short Term Factors Affecting BMR
Illnesses such as a fever, high levels of stress hormones in the body and either an increase or decrease in the environmental temperature will result in an increase in BMR.
Fasting, starving or malnutrition all result in a lowering of BMR. This lowering of BMR can be one side effect of following a diet and nothing else. Solely dieting , i.e. reducing the amount of calories the body takes on, will not be as affective as dieting and increased exercise. The negative effect of dieting on BMR can be offset with a positive effect from increased exercise.
How to Calculate Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
The first step in designing a personal nutrition plan for yourself is to calculate how many calories you burn in a day; your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). TDEE is the total number of calories that your body expends in 24 hours, including all activities. TDEE is also known as your "maintenance level". Knowing your maintenance level will give you a starting reference point from which to begin your diet. According to exercise physiologists William McArdle and Frank Katch, the average maintenance level for women in the United States is 2000-2100 calories per day and the average for men is 2700-2900 per day. These are only averages; caloric expenditure can vary widely and is much higher for athletes or extremely active individuals. Some triathletes and ultra-endurance athletes may require as many as 6000 calories per day or more just to maintain their weight!
Calorie requirements may also vary among otherwise identical individuals due to differences in inherited metabolic rates.
Methods of determining caloric needs
There are many different formulas you can use to determine your caloric maintenance level by taking into account the factors of age, sex, height, weight, lean body mass, and activity level. Any formula that takes into account your lean body mass (LBM) will give you the most accurate determination of your energy expenditure, but even without LBM you can still get a reasonably close estimate.
The "quick" method (based on total bodyweight)
A fast and easy method to determine calorie needs is to use total current body weight times a multiplier.
- Fat loss = 12 - 13 calories per lb. of bodyweight
- Maintenance (TDEE) = 15 - 16 calories per lb. of bodyweight
- Weight gain: = 18 - 19 calories per lb. of bodyweight
This is a very easy way to estimate caloric needs, but there are obvious drawbacks to this method because it doesn't take into account activity levels or body composition.
Extremely active individuals may require far more calories than this formula indicates. In addition, the more lean body mass one has, the higher the TDEE will be. Because body fatness is not accounted for, this formula may greatly overestimate the caloric needs if someone is extremely over fat. For example, a lightly active 50 year old woman who weighs 235 lbs. and has 34% body fat will not lose weight on 3000 calories per day (255 X 13 as per the "quick" formula for fat loss).
Equations based on BMR.
A much more accurate method for calculating TDEE is to determine basal metabolic rate (BMR) using multiple factors, including height, weight, age and sex, then multiply the BMR by an activity factor to determine TDEE. BMR is the total number of calories your body requires for normal bodily functions (excluding activity factors). This includes keeping your heart beating, inhaling and exhaling air, digesting food, making new blood cells, maintaining your body temperature and every other metabolic process in your body. In other words, your BMR is all the energy used for the basic processes of life itself. BMR usually accounts for about two-thirds of total daily energy expenditure. BMR may vary dramatically from person to person depending on genetic factors. If you know someone who claims they can eat anything they want and never gain an ounce of fat, they have inherited a naturally high BMR. BMR is at it's lowest when you are sleeping undisturbed and you are not digesting anything. It is very important to note that the higher your lean body mass is, the higher your BMR will be. This is very significant if you want to lose body fat because it means that the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn. Muscle is metabolically active tissue, and it requires a great deal of energy just to sustain it. It is obvious then that one way to increase your BMR is to engage in weight training in order to increase and/or maintain lean body mass. In this manner it could be said that weight training helps you lose body fat, albeit indirectly.
The Harris-Benedict formula (BMR based on total body weight)
The Harris Benedict equation is a calorie formula using the factors of height, weight, age, and sex to determine basal metabolic rate (BMR). This makes it more accurate than determining calorie needs based on total bodyweight alone. The only variable it does not take into consideration is lean body mass. Therefore, this equation will be very accurate in all but the extremely muscular (will underestimate caloric needs) and the extremely over fat (will overestimate caloric needs).
Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 X wt in kg) + (5 X ht in cm) - (6.8 X age in years)
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 X wt in kg) + (1.8 X ht in cm) - (4.7 X age in years)
Note: 1 inch = 2.54 cm.
1 kilogram = 2.2 lbs.
- You are female
- You are 30 yrs old
- You are 5' 6 " tall (167.6 cm)
- You weigh 120 lbs. (54.5 kilos)
- Your BMR = 655 + 523 + 302 - 141 = 1339 calories/day
Now that you know your BMR, you can calculate TDEE by multiplying your BMR by your activity multiplier from the chart below:
- Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
- Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/wk)
- Mod. active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk)
- Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/wk)
- Extr. active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports & physical job or 2X day training, i.e. marathon, contest etc.)
- Your BMR is 1339 calories per day
- Your activity level is moderately active (work out 3-4 times per week)
- Your activity factor is 1.55
- Your TDEE = 1.55 X 1339 = 2075 calories/day
As you can see, the difference in the TDEE as determined by both formulas is statistically insignificant (2075 calories vs. 2033 calories) because the person we used as an example is average in body size and body composition. The primary benefit of factoring lean body mass into the equation is increased accuracy when your body composition leans to either end of the spectrum (very muscular or very obese). factoring lean body mass into the equation is increased accuracy when your body composition leans to either end of the spectrum (very muscular or very obese).
Adjust your caloric intake according to your goal
Once you know your TDEE (maintenance level), the next step is to adjust your calories according to your primary goal. The mathematics of calorie balance are simple: To keep your weight at its current level, you should remain at your daily caloric maintenance level. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit by reducing your calories slightly below your maintenance level (or keeping your calories the same and increasing your activity above your current level). To gain weight you need to increase your calories above your maintenance level. The only difference between weight gain programs and weight loss programs is the total number of calories required.
Negative calorie balance is essential to lose body fat.
Calories not only count, they are the bottom line when it comes to fat loss. If you are eating more calories than you expend, you simply will not lose fat, no matter what type of foods or food combinations you eat. Some foods do get stored as fat more easily than others, but always bear in mind that too much of anything, even "healthy food," will get stored as fat. You cannot override the laws of thermodynamics and energy balance. You must be in a calorie deficit to burn fat. This will force your body to use stored body fat to make up for the energy deficit. There are 3500 calories in a pound of stored body fat. If you create a 3500-calorie deficit in a week through diet, exercise or a combination of both, you will lose one pound. If you create a 7000 calories deficit in a week you will lose two pounds. The calorie deficit can be created through diet, exercise or preferably, with a combination of both. Because we already factored in the exercise deficit by using an activity multiplier, the deficit we are concerned with here is the dietary deficit.
Calorie deficit thresholds: How low is too low?
It is well known that cutting calories too much slows down the metabolic rate, decreases thyroid output and causes loss of lean mass, so the question is how much of a deficit do you need? There definitely seems to be a specific cutoff or threshold where further reductions in calories will have detrimental effects. The most common guideline for calorie deficits for fat loss is to reduce your calories by at least 500, but not more than 1000 below your maintenance level. For some, especially lighter people, 1000 calories may be too much of a deficit. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that calorie levels never drop below 1200 calories per day for women or 1800 per day for men. Even these calorie levels are extremely low. A more individualized way to determine the safe calorie deficit would be to account for one's bodyweight or TDEE. Reducing calories by 15-20% below TDEE is a good place to start. A larger deficit may be necessary in some cases, but the best approach would be to keep the calorie deficit through diet small while increasing activity level.
- Your weight is 120 lbs.
- Your TDEE is 2033 calories
- Your calorie deficit to lose weight is 500 calories
- Your optimal caloric intake for weight loss is 2033 - 500 = 1533 calories
- Your calorie deficit to lose weight is 20% of TDEE (.20% X 2033 = 406 calories)
- Your optimal caloric intake for weight loss = 1627 calories
Positive calorie balance is essential to gain lean bodyweight
If you want to gain lean bodyweight and become more muscular, you must consume more calories than you burn up in a day. Provided that you are participating in a weight-training program of a sufficient intensity, frequency and volume, the caloric surplus will be used to create new muscle tissue. Once you've determined your TDEE, the next step is to increase your calories high enough above your TDEE that you can gain weight. It is a basic law of energy balance that you must be on a positive calorie balance diet to gain muscular bodyweight. A general guideline for a starting point for gaining weight is to add approximately 300-500 calories per day onto your TDEE. An alternate method is to add an additional 15 - 20% onto your TDEE.
- Your weight is 120 lbs.
- Your TDEE is 2033 calories
- Your additional calorie requirement for weight gain is + 15 - 20% = 305 - 406 calories
- Your optimal caloric intake for weight gain is 2033 + 305 - 406 = 2338 - 2439 calories
Adjust your caloric intake gradually
It is not advisable to make any drastic changes to your diet all at once. After calculating your own total daily energy expenditure and adjusting it according to your goal, if the amount is substantially higher or lower than your current intake, then you may need to adjust your calories gradually. For example, if your determine that your optimal caloric intake is 1900 calories per day, but you have only been eating 900 calories per day, your metabolism may be sluggish. An immediate jump to 1900 calories per day might actually cause a fat gain because your body has adapted to a lower caloric intake and the sudden jump up would create a surplus. The best approach would be to gradually increase your calories from 900 to 1900 over a period of a few weeks to allow your metabolism to speed up and acclimatize.
Measure your results and adjust calories accordingly
These calculations for finding your correct caloric intake are quite simplistic and are just estimates to give you a starting point. You will have to monitor your progress closely to make sure that this is the proper level for you. You will know if you're at the correct level of calories by keeping track of your caloric intake, your bodyweight, and your body fat percentage. You need to observe your bodyweight and body fat percentage to see how you respond. If you don't see the results you expect, then you can adjust your caloric intake and exercise levels accordingly. The bottom line is that it's not effective to reduce calories to very low levels in order to lose fat. In fact, the more calories you consume the better, as long as a deficit is created through diet and exercise. The best approach is to reduce calories only slightly and raise your daily calorie expenditure by increasing your frequency, duration and or intensity of exercise.