13-Feb 2015, by Lee Sandwith
If you’re trying to lose weight, the chances are you may be a bit confused by the amount of misleading, contradictory information out there!
For me, this is the single most irritating thing about the weight loss industry as, in reality, it’s extremely straightforward.
‘How Many Calories Should I Eat To Lose Weight’?
…it’s one of the most common questions I’m asked and it’s unbelievable how many people get it wrong!!
In my humble opinion, the problem is borne from human nature as we’re constantly looking for a quick fix and that something new.
Businesses jump on the back of that by constantly providing new information, schemes, diets, products and services – all with the single objective of making a profit.
This is crazy as the simple science behind weight loss has not changed for years!
Granted, there are some complexities when you get into some specialist areas – for example, if you’re looking to get down to competition level body fat percentage, or you’re training for a special event – but if you’re just looking to lose a few pounds it’s extremely straight forward.
When it comes to weight loss, the most fundamental thing to understand about your body is how many calories it needs.
In the next few sections I’ll explain, in simple language, exactly what you need to know and, more importantly, how to calculate how many calories you need for weight loss and weight maintenance.
To start off, it’s worth reminding ourselves what a calorie is.
What is a calorie?
Expressed as either ‘Cal’ or ‘kcal’ (large calorie or kilo calorie), a calorie is essentially a unit of energy. In the context of food, therefore, the calorie is a measure of how much energy foods contain per unit, commonly called food energy. The most common measure used today is the kilocalorie, or kcal, which is provided on the nutritional information found on most food packaging.
Where does food energy come from?
When it comes to food and nutrition, calorie content comes from different sources, namely macronutrients and micronutrients. Our main concern when it comes to nutrition for weight loss is the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. In terms of the relative amount of energy, 1g of fat is equal to about 9 kcal compared protein & carbohydrates which are equal to about 4 kcal.
Everyone knows that if you consume lots of calories then you’re likely to gain weight and if you consume fewer calories you’ll lose weight. However, it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ type of thing as everyone is different: different heights, ages, different exercise levels, body fat percentage, different metabolic rates etc. As such, everyone has their own personal threshold that determines at which point their calorie consumption exceeds the body’s needs and, therefore, at what point they start to gain or lose weight.
Base Metabolic Rate
The important factor in all of this is called ‘Base Metabolic Rate’, or BMR for short. BMR is the number of calories your body burns in a steady state, i.e. without factoring in any additional calories burned through exercise, strenuous work and through the process of food digestion (the thermic effect of food). By factoring in these other activities you can calculate your daily calorie burn which is essentially your BMR + calories burned through exercise and food digestion.
Simply put, if you consume more calories than your calorie burn you gain weight, if you eat less calories than your calorie burn you lose weight.
There are many other factors at play, however, this basic principle is the most important factor to consider as it helps you to calculate your daily target calorie intake. If you get this right you can lose weight easily and maintain your ideal weight for the rest of your life.
How to Calculate Your BMR
There are several methods for calculating BMR and, as with lots of things related to weight loss, it’s a bit of a mine-field. Essentially, there are two different approaches, depending on whether or not you have a body fat percentage reading, and several different formulas beyond that.
There will inevitably be variation across all methods making it difficult to work out which is most accurate but my preference is the Mifflin St Jeor Equation which does not require a body fat reading.
If you want to research some other methods you can read up on the Katch-McArdle (KA) formula or the Harris Benedict Method. If you want to do this manually you can check out the equations found through the above links but if you want to save time you can use our free weight loss calculator.
Calorie burn is simple to calculate as it is simply your BMR + exercise, however, as with BMR, there is more than one way to do it and it can be a bit of a headache. In my opinion, the best way to calculate your calorie burn is to use an activity multiplier with the below being the most accepted formula as used in the popular Mifflin St Jeor, Harris Benedict and KA BMR calculation methods:
How to Use This Information to Lose Weight
To apply this to weight loss, if you’re looking to maintain your current weight then your daily target calorie intake should be close to your daily calorie burn. If you’re looking to lose weight then you should aim to consume less calories than you burn, and if you’re looking to gain weight you should aim to consume more calories than your calorie burn.
For weight loss, my recommendation is to aim for a 20-30% calorie deficit as it’s not too uncomfortable and you should see weight coming off at a steady pace. If you try to go much faster than that, in all likelihood you’ll be losing muscle, not fat which is not good!
Use our free weight loss calculator to establish your daily target calorie intake.
Arguments Against the Calorie In/Out Method
Interestingly, there seems to be lots of counter views as to whether the calorie in/out model works and lots of websites have posted convincing arguments against this theory such as Healthy Enough and Authority Nutrition.
In my opinion it’s important to consider every possible angle but bold statements which completely reject the calories in/out model are extremely unhelpful to the average person looking to lose weight.
It is completely undeniable that the best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more and this has been proven time and time again by thousands of people the world over and ratified by hundreds of studies into the subject.
If you need to see firm, scientific evidence in favour of calories in/out just spend a few minutes on the Harvard Gazette website and browse the plethora of articles on the subject. It’s true that there are complexities within this model but fundamentally the most valuable advice available to anyone looking to lose weight is to get a better understanding of your body’s calorie needs and the calories in the food and drink you typically consume.
Are All Calories Equal?
When it comes to weight loss, calorie management is king, which means you can pretty much eat anything you want as long as you consume less calories than you burn. However, eating the right foods can help your body to burn fat much more efficiently due to the thermic effect of food.
As such, what you put into your body matters, not only for weight management but for overall health and wellbeing so while it is possible to eat anything you want and still lose weight, the best way to maintain a healthy, strong body is to choose healthy foods.
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