Goals, Calories, and Math: Your Starting Point

I am always taken aback by clients who say that they are ready to start a diet. Starting a diet usually means that at some point they will be stopping the diet. We all need to realize that the food we eat is part of our healthy life-style and should be continued every day of our lives. This means shopping the periphery of the grocery store, making healthy selections when eating out, and avoiding the bread bowl, dessert menu, and midnight snacks. Once we have figured out how to eat healthy proteins, leafy greens, and unprocessed carbs we can start setting goals.
Setting a goal requires an endpoint such as bodyweight, body fat percentage, or a performance outcome. Once you have determined your endpoint, you can have a sense of how aggressive your life-style changes will have to be, whether it requires more or less exercise and/or food. However, the only way to make those calculations is to estimate your starting point. From there, you can make adjustments based on the measured responses your body makes from week to week.

Even at rest your body is burning calories to maintain functions like repair, digestion, breathing, body heat, brain function, etc. Your resting metabolic rate can be affected by muscle mass, previous activities, foods, supplements, hormones, genetics, and room temperature. For instance, hot pepper extracts like capsaicin have the ability to boost your metabolic rate. Decreasing room temperature helps to turn on brown fat to burn more energy. Milk proteins can boost the thermic effect of food. The list goes on and on.

There are many ways by which you can determine your baseline energy needs. You could get a very accurate measurement by going into a specialized laboratory and measuring your resting metabolic rate through a process called indirect calorimetry. Clearly, this is not very feasible. Therefore, we must rely on equations that are based on normative data. The original Harris-Benedict equation and equations based on more modern populations such as the Mifflin-St Jeor equation can be used to calculate your energy needs based on your height, weight, age, and sex. Unfortunately, these equations can be off by +/- 30%! This means that you may end up over or under eating by 30%.

Furthermore, these equations fail to take into account your lean body mass. Your muscle is “metabolic currency”. The more muscle you have and use, the more energy you burn even at rest. Equations like the Katch-McArdle Formula take into account your lean muscle mass when calculating your resting daily energy expenditure. So, get the calipers out and measure your body fat percentage to get a better measure of your energy needs. Of course, how you measure your body fat percentage also adds statistical error into your measurement.
With all of that being said, it is very important that you realize that goal attainment is a dynamic process. I recommend using a BMR calculator online or via a phone app (myfitnesspal.com/tools/bmr-calculator) to get an understandably rough estimate of your baseline calorie needs at absolute rest. After that you can use “activity factors” or calorie measurement tools to get a sense of the rest of your daily caloric expenditure. Once you have calculated your BMR in calories you can multiply this number by one of these factors:
• If you are Sedentary (little or no exercise) BMR X 1.2
• If you are Lightly Active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) BMR X 1.375
• If you are Moderately Active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) BMR X 1.55
• If you are Very Active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/week) BMR X 1.725
• If you are Extra Active (very hard daily exercise/sports & physical job or 2X day training) BMR X 1.9

There are many wearable devices that can help you to understand your daily caloric expenditure based on accelerometry. Again, there is statistical variance in any of these measures and you have to be dynamic in your goal attainment. Remember, this is just a starting point. You will have to adjust, no matter what!

Now that you have a rough estimate of your caloric needs you need to make adjustments based on your goals. The first thing I always recommend is starting with BMR calculation at your GOAL weight. So when you calculate your energy needs start by using your goal bodyweight in the equation. Thus, if you are trying to lose weight, your calculated energy needs will start with a slight deficit and vice versa when trying to build.
If your goal is to maintain your current body weight and lean mass, it is important to match up your energy intake with your energy expenditure. This requires a fine balance of protein, essential fats, and carbohydrates that goes beyond the scope of this post. Keep in mind that maintaining is the hardest way to be since we all experience age related declines in lean body mass. We must make constant adjustments and stimulate our lean muscle; if you don’t use it, you lose it.

If your goal is to build muscle, you need to consume more calories than you burn. By consuming more protein calories you decrease the possibility that those calories will be converted to unwanted fat. An interesting study by Dr. Jose Antonio showed that remarkable increases in calories through whey protein still didn’t result in any significant increases in body fat. I recommend increasing your calorie needs by 500kcal above your daily expenditure at first. You can be more aggressive if you want to gain weight fast, but realize that added fat and carbohydrate calories may lead to more fat gain.

If your goal is to get lean, the process can be a little more complex. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you may find that calculations at your goal weight will lead to enough caloric deficits to rapidly melt the pounds. If your goal is to maintain your muscle while getting lean, you need to limit your caloric deficit to less than 500kcal per day while maintaining high protein intake. If you try to burn too much, too quickly you run the risk of losing lean muscle mass and further decreasing your metabolic currency. Try starting with a calorie intake deficit of 250kcal per day with added exercise (weights and cardio) of 250kcal per day. This way you aren’t crushing your metabolism through starving yourself and you are maintaining your muscle through exercise adaptations. Consider a day or 2 per week where you eat calories equal to your energy needs to avoid stalling your metabolism. (Doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cycle carbs, just calories)
It is very important to remember that this is a very dynamic process. Revisit the equations based on your progress each week. Decide that you will revisit your diet and make measurements every Sunday (or Saturday… just be consistent) morning. Adjust your meals and your training for the following week appropriately. If you don’t know what is appropriate, hire a diet coach such as myself. I’ll do all the math, adjustments, and recommendations. Invest in your goals. Good luck!

Check out the Leucine Factor Diet app in the App store or Android Apps to simplify this process.