Updated: May 3, 2019
It's one thing to say that it's better to bypass generic calorie suggestions and find your unique calorie baseline. But how do you figure that out? And how do you adjust your calories to complement your body and your goals?
You already broadly understand how to manipulate the different components of your metabolism and the benefits and limits of BMR calculators. (If you've missed these earlier blogs, read them first!) Now it's time to put all of this into practice.
How to set up your calorie baseline
Here's five simple steps that you can use to help you set up a personalised calorie baseline. I use this approach to optimise my competition prep and often to structure an off season diet. (Sometimes I prefer to just use my intuition for the mental break.) I also apply it to my clients to help me customise their meal guidelines and suggest small, smart adjustments to suit them.
This infographic contains all of the prompts and basic information you'll need to make a start. If you're ready to delve into the details, read on!
Are you eating for your goals?
The traditional rules of thumb apply here. To build mass or lose fat, the basic formulas are:
Calories in > calories out (a.k.a. caloric surplus) = gain
Calories in < calories out (a.k.a. caloric deficit) = lose
Calories in = calories out (a.k.a. caloric balance) = maintain
Sometimes you want to be in a surplus, ie, to build muscle, fuel training performance or promote recovery.
Sometimes you don't want to be in a surplus but your lifestyle facilitates it, ie, you eat too much and you have a sedentary job.
Sometimes you want to be in a deficit, ie, to lose body fat.
Sometimes you are in a deficit but you really shouldn't be because it's not optimal for your goals, ie, your aim is to be as strong as possible, put on muscle or perform at your best, but you find it difficult to make time in your hectic schedule to cook and eat.
Sometimes you just want to maintain where you're at - in this case, you'd ideally find a calorie balance that's easy for you to maintain. This should be simple and natural to do, but it's far more common to for modern life to cloud our intuition around eating.
Gain, lose or maintain what?
Most people don't set out purely to lose or gain weight - they want to lose fat or gain muscle. Would you really be pleased to see the scales drop 2 to 3 kgs in a couple of weeks if I told you that most of it was water, muscle, tissue, even bone mass? Not so much.
The number on the scales is alluring but deceptive. Your body weight is just one of many tools that you can use to measure outcomes - there's also your body shape, muscular definition, performance, etc. Your metrics will depend on your goals and priorities. It's not all that helpful to obsess about your weight if you abandon all rationality in the process. If all you see is the number on the scales, it's easy to neglect other, more useful signs.
Know your foods
An app neatly categorises all foods into one, simple tap. But the amount of calories and macros in foods is more complicated than that.
Real foods are not identical. That potato you logged into My Fitness Pal? The amount of carbs and other micros in it will depend on lots of things. For example, did it grow in nutrient-dense or depleted soil? How did the farmer cultivate, fertilise and harvest that potato? How fresh is it? How did you cook it? How much did you eat, and what metrics did you use to measure it? Often, your taste buds and your stomach will send you clues. You may bite into an apple and notice that it is unusually delicious - it probably has a higher natural sugar content, perhaps due to the conditions of the soil or temperature in its region. Or, you'll feel really full from a particular food, maybe due to the way it's cooked, or because you measured it cooked but your calorie count of choice is based on an uncooked weight. An app can't capture any of this information.
Ultimately, it's not the numbers that matter but the system you use to add or reduce foods from your diet.
Here's the truth - it doesn't matter how many grams of carbs are in that apple. Think about it. Why do we count calories and monitor macros at all? It's not because we actually need to know the precise amount of calories or macros that we eat. It's impossible to know that. We do it because it's a tool that helps us to track our foods and - importantly - the changes that we make to our foods.
Ultimately, it's not the numbers that matter but the system you use to add or reduce foods from your diet. If you start to understand the foods you eat, the way you prepare different foods, the times that you eat, it won't take long until you can better predict your body's responses. You will be able to assess your calorie needs and manipulate your food choices and eating patterns to steadily inch closer to your goals.
Hold on ... isn't 'calorie talk' too simplistic?
Yes and no.
Calories are overrated. People talk about calories like it's all that matters. And that's just not the case. But while calories certainly aren't the be all and end all of body composition and performance, they still matter.
Your body has an entire story to tell. And calories alone don't do it justice.
Think of calories as setting the scene for your broad goal to gain, lose or maintain. But that's really all that calories do - just set the scene. As soon as you call 'action!' and things start rolling, all the other little things that you do will dramatically alter the way your story unfolds. Will you cast nutrient-dense foods in the lead roles, or processed and artificial ones? And how about the nuances of your story? There's other intricate plot lines in play - the state of your hormones, your brain function, and your digestion. Your body has an entire story to tell. And calories alone don't do it justice.