The following article was written by ChestRockwell of Team Stacking Plates – you can find his website along with a load of other useful information here
Two of the questions I get asked most often are “what should I eat” and “how much should I eat if my goal is (insert goal here)”. This is a very complex topic and one that I have a tough time answering in casual conversation due to the depth in which I want to take it. I’m going to try and address this topic in greater depth here, realizing that I will likely only scratch the surface.
When designing any diet, it always helps to understand how much energy intake is required to maintain a stable body composition (note: I did not use the term weight on purpose and we may or may not delve into why I didn’t later). Most folks do not have access to use the more scientific methods such as doubly labeled water and respiration chambers so we are left to other methods that are accessible to everyone. Luckily, finding a fairly accurate energy expenditure rate isn’t too difficult at all.
For those that are gadget geeks, there are products on the market that are advertised to do most of the work for you. Some of the more popular and complete gadgets include BodyBugg and BodyMedia. These products are worn on the skin, often via armbands, and measure various data points related to the body to calculate caloric expenditure – such as skin temperature, movement via accelerometer, and heat flux (the rate at which heat leaves the body). Although they have been proven to be pretty accurate, most cost a fair amount of money up-front and also require a subscription fee to take full advantage of all their features. Because this post will be geared towards those not wanting to pay this high cost for something you probably will only need a few times, I will not refer to these products beyond this point.
Fortunately for frugal individuals such as myself, there is no need to plunk down money on a gadget if the individual is up for a little legwork. Before we get too far into this, there are some terms I might be using throughout these posts that are important to understand.
Basal metabolic rate – this is the amount of energy intake required if you were in a coma.
Non-exercise associated thermogenesis – fancy way of saying all the energy you use living life (think walking, tapping your foot, talking, watching TV, etc).
Exercise associated thermogenesis – this is the amount of energy used during planned exercise such as resistance training and aerobic activities.
Thermic effect of feeding – relates to the amount of energy required during the feeding and digestive process.
Total energy expenditure – the combined sum of the previous items.
It is also worth mentioning at this point that no two individuals will be exactly the same and the intended audience of this article is adults; pubescent teens are out of scope. Teenagers should largely not focus on minute details such as caloric allowance anyway in most cases.
So, now that we understand some of the basic terminology, we’ll want to put it to use. In other words, how would an individual calculate their total energy expenditure so that they have a good baseline figure which will allow them to design their diet to match those requirements (also sometimes called maintenance calories)? There are many schools of thought but I always recommend creating a baseline intake figure and then potentially adjusting that intake figure as required after a few weeks of careful monitoring. So how do we derive the initial baseline intake figure?
Fortunately for us, some smart science-types have already created formulas that allow us to take our first swag at it. Some of the more popular formulas you’ll run into include the Harris-Benedict, the Mifflin-St. Jeor, and the Katch-McArdle. I’m going to focus on the Katch-McArdle formula as it is the most accurate of the three and what I personally use when helping individuals. To get an accurate Katch-McArdle figure, you’re going to need a reasonable guess as to your current body fat percentage. For anyone not familiar with calipers, become familiar before reading on.
Finding Your TEE & TDEE
To get the process started, I’ll be using myself as an example. If you are following along, you can use the same steps however some of the numbers will likely differ according to your own figures. The Katch-McArdle formula is as follows: BMR = 370 + (21.6 x LBM) – where LBM = [total weight (kg) x (100 – bodyfat %)]/100. Seems pretty easy to calculate free-hand, right? Okay, okay – maybe not. Fortunately, there is another shortcut available to us so you don’t have to do much arithmetic. I frequently will share this site with folks I’m working with; it just requires that you have a pretty good initial grasp on your current body fat percentage. As we’ve already mentioned in part one, calipers are an easy way for beginners to get a rough estimate for our purposes here.
The first choice you will be presented with is asking how active you are. This is also known as the “activity factor” but I will leave it at “little or no exercise” for this example to keep it somewhat simple. Hopefully this will accomplish our goal of simplifying things for first time diet designers without adding the extra complexity of exercise. We will likely talk about exercise’s effects on required intake in a later post within this series. Next, I will enter my current weight of 190 pounds and my current body fat percentage as 10 percent (I fluctuate between 7-12 depending on whether I’m eating in excess to gain size or in a deficit to reduce body fat but we’ll take the middle ground here to again keep the example simple). You can also enter your desired body fat level but we will be doing this calculation ourselves so the output would simply be for the sake of seeing how close the calculator tool comes to being accurate, nothing more.
The Katch-McArdle calculator came up with the following output based on the numbers I used:
- Estimated Base BMR: 2045 Calories
- Estimated TDEE: 2454 Calories
From the first post, you now know that BMR is simply the amount of energy the body requires in basically a comatose state but it’s the TDEE we’re especially interested in here. This will be our baseline number we’ll use for designing phase one of our diet plan; 2454 calories.
Now that we have our TDEE number, we know how many calories we would be required to consume in order to keep weight at a steady figure. I will likely say this many times so I may as well start now – the human body does not necessarily work on a 24 hour clock in the sense that missing your target one day will ruin your diet. That is a great oversimplification of how things work so try not to become focused simply on day-to-day intake goals. In fact, I often design plans that call for weekly caloric intake goals specifically for more advanced folks as many prefer to do calorie cycling (eating more on days in which they need it – think intense training). We won’t jump ahead though as this is a more advanced topic that we’ll talk about later.
Tracking Calorie Intake
The next tool we’ll need in our toolbox is a way to track our calorie intake so it doesn’t become overly cumbersome to a first time dieter. I would urge you to read up on the many free calorie counting applications that exist in the market. Many folks have their own favorites; some of the more popular versions that I’ve used include MyFitnessPal, FitDay, Livestrong, and others. At this point, familiarize yourself with the various apps and choose one that feels the best to you as logging your dietary intake will be one of the most important tasks we’ll be doing and these apps do most of the heavy lifting for you. It’s also a good time to mention food scales. Although advanced folks can usually “eyeball” their food, I’d highly recommend the use of a food scale at this point so that you learn the difference between various weights of foods. For example, there can be a pretty big caloric difference ounce per ounce of certain foods. As we dial in our caloric needs, it’s good to be as accurate as possible. There are many great digital scales that can be had for under $25.
To find the individual’s TDEE we need to design a diet that works out to ~2454kCals/day and begin carefully monitoring both weight and body composition for changes (either positively or negatively). Many folks simply measure weight but I feel that can paint an incomplete picture of what is going on (for instance, simple changes in water weight can cause spikes and drops of pounds per day and give false hope and/or anxiety). For completeness, I would highly urge the individual to grab a tape measure and log measurements in addition to weight. The more data points, the better – but, at a minimum, measure the waist, chest (around nipples), and glutes (at widest point). It would be even better to also measure arms, quads, calves, and shoulders but that isn’t an absolute requirement. Just remember, the more data the more complete the progress picture you can paint.
I don’t intend to dive deeply into macro and micro-nutrition since that would, in itself, be an entire article series however a brief overview will be required at this time. Generally, there are three major recognized macro-nutrient groups and they are Protein (PRO), Carbohydrate (CHO), and Fat (FAT). One could argue that there are more (think water, alcohol, fiber, etc) but that is beyond the scope of this article. Micro-nutrients are generally vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other essentials required to maintain healthy being. Further reading on the topic can be found here for those inquiring minds.
Designing Your Diet
As we design our 2454kCal diet, we must focus on macro/micro nutrition and then fill the rest of our intake with intelligent food choices which we’ll take about in more depth later. Of the macro-nutrients listed above, there are two essentials (PRO and FAT) and one non-essential (CHO). To quote Lyle McDonald, to be considered an essential nutrient, it must meet these two criteria:
- Nutrient is required for survival
- Nutrient cannot be made in sufficient quantities (or at all) by the body
CHOs are actually not required in the dietary sense as the body can convert other nutrients to glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis, but I really don’t want eyes to start glazing over at this time so we won’t get further in depth than this. Just realize that two of the macro-nutrient families are required via dietary intake and one is not (again, this isn’t entirely true in certain cases but for the rest of this series it will be referred to as such).
The first thing we’re going to do is take care of the essential macros (PRO and FAT). In general, when designing a diet where calorie intake will be restricted (assuming if you are reading this then that is the case) then higher PRO intake generally becomes more important. Besides PRO being a very satiating macro, it also has been shown to help retain lean mass during long-term dieting as well as many other benefits. General recommendations would be 0.5-1.0g of PRO per pound of body weight. In my case, continuing to use 190 pounds as our example, this would equate to 95-190g/day of PRO.
FAT is our other essential macro and maintaining FAT intake is crucial as it relates to hormonal processes, protecting against inflammation, etc. General guidelines would indicate that it is optimal to shoot for 0.3-0.8g of FAT per pound of body weight. Again, using the example of 190 pounds, this would equate to 57-152g/day of FAT.
Assuming we hit our bare minimum requirements of 95g PRO and 57g FAT, this puts us at 893kCals for the day; well short of our 2454kCal target. One gram of PRO = 4kCal and one gram of FAT = 9kCal. This leaves us with well over 1500kCals to play with. This 1561kCal bucket can be filled with either more PRO, more FAT, or you can introduce CHOs (which also have a relative value of 1g = 4kCals).
- 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram of carbs = 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Putting It All Together
Most likely, if you’ve spent any time researching this topic online, or watching television, you’re already well aware that a new fad diet is invented, seemingly, every few minutes – eat this, don’t eat this, don’t eat at all, cleanse this, detox that, etc. They all range in their level of absurdity but the fact remains that dieting is not a complex endeavor, no matter how hard these celebrities and Internet marketers want you to believe that it is. Want to skip the rest and go right to the punch-line? Eat less than you require (TDEE) and you will lose weight. Conversely, if you eat more than you require then you will gain weight. Quite an astonishing concept, isn’t it? Now let’s expand upon that principle so that you, Educated Reader, will not be miserable when you start.
My, admittedly oversimplified, mantra has always been that your goal with food intake should be that the majority of your calories come from whole, minimally processed foods while limiting potentially harmful agents such as trans fats. So what does this mean exactly? I’ve explained it to folks in numerous, comparative ways such as asking yourself “would my great grandparents recognize this food item I’m about to ingest”. Does this mean that you can never have that slice of pizza, cake, or other treat which you thoroughly enjoy? Absolutely not, and we’ll talk more about this after a brief recap from a topic discussed in part three of this series.
As mentioned earlier, there are generally three recognized macro-nutrient groups and they are PRO, CHO, and FAT. Two of these (PRO and FAT) are required and the third is a non-essential macronutrient (CHO). The first goal is to ensure that your essential (required) macro requirements are fulfilled and then we can continue filling the rest of our caloric budget largely with whole, minimally processed choices.
To continue using myself as an example, I’ve already determined that my TDEE is 2454kCals and in order to hit my minimum recommended PRO intake levels, I will need at least 95 grams (~380kCals). To hit my minimum recommended FAT intake levels for the day, I will need at least 57 grams (~513kCals). This leaves me with around 1561kCals to do with what I please. At this point, let me take a step back and say that the person who knows you, Educated Reader, the best – is you. If you have been largely subsisting on a diet of Cracker Jack and root beer then it may shock the system to eat chicken, broccoli, and rice all day, every day. In addition, if you currently have a diet that consists of primarily processed carbs then going full-blown Ketogenic might not be the best idea for you either. The reason is that the key to any diet is long term compliance, success, and yes – even enjoyability. I often see folks who dive into a new diet headfirst only to begin hating life within a week or two. I’m writing this shortly after New Year’s and continue to see this every day with folks who have resolutions related to new and healthy lifestyle choices. Remember, results does not equal sustainability
I used the word “budget” a few paragraphs back for good reason. I see caloric intake very analogous to financial budgeting. Although there are arguably right and wrong decisions, these are largely subjective. For example, even though you may be craving that Quadruple Bypass Burger doing so may be about as intelligent of a choice as buying that gold plated iPhone 5 when you don’t have enough extra cash left over to pay the rent/mortgage.
The best budget choices in the dietary context are those that allow you to hit macro, micro, and caloric goals while leaving you satisfied, happy, and healthy.
My first phase of the diet will be constructed of predominantly whole, minimally processed food sources while simultaneously being sure to hit both my micro and macro-nutrient goals. My diet will consist of essentially 200 grams of PRO, 200 grams of CHO, and 100 grams of FAT for a total of 2500kCals (remember, these are averages and if you go slightly over or under from day to day that is not a problem). The breakdown of macro-nutrients is as follows:
- Protein – 200g x 4kCals/gram = 800kCals
- Carbohydrates – 200g x 4kCals/gram = 800kCals
- Fat – 100g x 9kCals/gram = 900kCals
- 2500kCals (total)
Over the course of the week, I try my best to weigh all food selections on a nice digital food scale and log everything in within FitDay. FitDay makes tracking caloric and macro/micro-nutrient goals much easier. I will elaborate on the specifics at a later time if there is interest.
Tracking & Logging
In parallel to this effort, I’ve started a detailed spreadsheet and have made sure to weigh myself first thing in the AM once I get out of bed. I ensure that I control variables such as bathroom usage and weigh-in times so that consistent readings can be had each day. Obviously weighing myself in the morning and evening could differ by multiple pounds so this is an important step to remain consistent. After the first week, I average my weight measurements over the course of those seven days and see see that my weight has only changed by -0.2 pounds versus the prior week which tells me that the calculated TDEE was pretty much dead accurate. So, what do we now do with this newly acquired data?
We simply adjust our dietary intake and continue the weekly process of measuring actual weight loss. It is not recommended to go on crash diets nor use hard numbers for your deficits. I like to stick to a 5-15% caloric reduction strategy, typically starting on the low side and adjusting as necessary. The reduction of calories should primarily come from the CHO macro-nutrient group as opposed to either the PRO or FAT group. If you recall from earlier in this series, CHO is an optional macro-nutrient whereas the others are not. I also recommend trying to keep PRO high when combining a caloric deficit and lower CHO intake. In my specific example, this would reduce my daily caloric intake somewhere between 125-375 kCals/day. Just as before, maintain your food and weight log consistency so you can adjust intake as necessary; strive for no more than a 1-2 pound weight loss per week goal.
I think we’ll stop there as this should give you, the Educated Reader, a high level primer on what it takes to start designing your own diet strategies. It can take some trial and error so don’t be discouraged, good luck!