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A strange phenomenon with people who are new to the fitness world. They’re willing to grind for hours in the gym, but they refuse to spend even 10 minutes tracking their diet.
These newbies spend countless hours on the treadmill trying to sculpt their bodies, yet when I talk to them about tracking their calories and macros, all I get are lame excuses.
Here are some of my favorites:
- “I’m serious about fitness, but I don’t want to be obsessive about it.”
- “I’m too embarrassed to bring out a scale at a restaurant. It looks ridiculous.”
- “You just don’t understand—food is my weakness!”
- These poor souls will forever spin their wheels with fitness. Trust me, I used to be one of them.
I learned after years of struggle that fitness is 85% diet and 15% exercise. You simply cannot outwork a bad diet no matter how many hours you spend in the gym.
I know that counting calories and tracking macros seems scary, but the whole process is actually quite straightforward and manageable once you know a few basic numbers.
I’m going to walk you through all the ins and outs of calories and macros, and by the time we’re finished, you’ll see that a proper diet doesn’t have to be complicated.
Let’s start with a simple science lesson that explains why calorie counting is necessary.
Why You Must Count Your Calories
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement for the potential energy that food contains.
All food contains calories that provide our bodies the energy that is necessary for us to survive.
Proper nutrition starts with first understanding the law of energy balance, or as it’s more commonly known, the rule of calories in vs. calories out:
- If you consume more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
- If you burn more calories than you consume, you’ll lose weight.
- It’s that simple. To maintain a desired body fat percentage or body weight for a prolonged time, you must avoid a caloric surplus (consuming more than you burn).
Determining How Many Calories You Need
Fair warning: We’re about to get into some math in this section. The good news is that these equations are simple and there are tons of online calculators out there if you need help.
As much as you might hate math, I’m sorry to say you cannot skip this section. Counting calories requires precision. You won’t see results if you simply eyeball your food and try to estimate your calories.
Here’s why: Humans grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume.
When you eat more calories than you realize, your energy balance will be out of whack without you knowing why. This is the fastest track to spinning your wheels with fitness.
Save yourself the frustration (and years of wheel spinning) by developing and sticking to a calorie budget. It’s that simple.
Basal Metabolic Rate
The first step to knowing how many calories you need is to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the minimum number of calories you need just to live.
Here’s an online calculator if you need one, but the BMR equation for men looks like this:
Men’s BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
For women, the equation looks a little different:
Women’s BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
I’m 37 years old, weigh 155 lbs., and my height is 69.5 inches, so my BMR = 1596.70.
Maintenance Calories and Activity Factor
Now that we have our BMR, we can use it to calculate our maintenance calories (MC). You might also see this number called your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The equation for MC is dead simple: BMR x Activity Factor.
There are five activity factors to choose from:
- 1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
- 1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
- 1.55 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
- 1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
- 1.9 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
- These activity factors have been known to overestimate true activity, so for the purposes of determining your MC, I suggest starting with an activity factor of 1.2.
It’s better to err on the side of caution if your goal is to shed body fat.
My math works out to 1596.70 x 1.2 = 1916 calories per day. Not a whole lot.
If I eat 1916 calories every day, my weight will stay the same. If my activity stays the same and I eat more calories than that, I’ll gain weight; eat less and I’ll lose weight.
Just knowing this one number is powerful in that gives you a broad sense of your calorie budget each day and puts you miles ahead of your peers in the gym who have never done these simple calculations.
The next step to fine-tuning your nutrition is tracking your macros.
Why You Need to Track Your Macros
Every calorie you consume is comprised of three macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. They are “macro” nutrients because your body needs them in larger quantities than micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals.
Hitting your macros is crucial to making sure your body functions properly. For example, if you’re cutting and only eating 1500 calories a day, but you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll actually lose muscle and end up skinny fat.
Some foods skew heavily toward either proteins or carbs. For example:
100 grams of skinless chicken is pure protein: 31g protein, 0g carbs, 3.6g fat.
100 grams of white rice, meanwhile, is all carbs: 2.66g protein, 28g carbs, 0.28g fat.
Macronutrients are listed on every nutrition label, and once you know the numbers, you can deploy the 4-4-9 formula to determine the approximate caloric density of food items:
- 4 calories for every gram of carb.
- 4 calories for every gram of protein.
- 9 calories for every gram of fat.
When you understand that fat is more than twice as dense as protein or carbs, you can see why fatty foods like pizza have more calories per serving than “clean” foods like chicken breast.