How To Calculate Your Calorie and Macronutrient Needs
how to calculate your calories and macros
Knowing exactly how much food you should eat to meet your fitness goals can be confusing. It seems like there are a million different variables to consider, from your daily activity level, your metabolism, how much you weigh, to what type of exercise you perform, and of course, the variations of our day to day.
And it is true!
There are many variables that influence how many calories you should consume, but it is nearly impossible for us to know the EXACT amount we should eat.
Often times calculators and equations that you find online do not take into account individual differences, your metabolic set point, hormones, or your day to day non-exercise activity.
So to make things a bit easier, I am going to provide you with a step-by-step guide to help you determine your daily caloric needs based upon your current bodyweight, and any current changes you may be experiencing, such as losing or gaining weight.
But first, I think it is extremely important to have a basic understanding of calories, homeostasis, metabolism, metabolic set point, and how diet and exercise can impact your metabolism. By becoming knowledgeable about how each of these principles work together, you can better make adjustments to your calorie needs that are best suited for you and your body.
Let's talk science.
How the Body Gets Energy from Food
The body uses three macronutrients as energy to carry out its functions: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Each macronutrient is comprised of calories, which are units of energy.
One gram of each macronutrient equates to a certain caloric value, which ultimately makes up the total caloric value of a food.
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
So for example, if you were to eat 100g of apple, you would be consuming roughly 14 grams of carbohydrates, which would equate to 56 calories (14g x 4 calories).
Your physical body really only recognizes the macronutrient and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) breakdown of food.
Think about it… how would your body “know” if you ate a sweet potato or a glazed donut?
It doesn’t. We, as humans, made up these names for foods. The body doesn’t react to words, it reacts to macronutrients and micronutrients.
Of course, certain foods supply more nutritional value and micronutrients than others, but all food contains macronutrients that are recognized and utilized by the body for energy.
(*Please note that I am only speaking towards modern nutritional science. I am not speaking towards the subtle energies of foods, which Ayurveda is based upon. Yes, your body at the subtle energy level, does know if you ate a sweet potato or ice cream in relation to the three gunas – the subtle energies of foods emphasized in Ayurveda. You can learn more about the Ayurvedic diet here.)
What will influence your body composition the most is not necessarily the types of foods you eat, but how many total calories you consume.
In order to lose body fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit.
In order to gain muscle mass, you need to be in a caloric surplus.
In order to maintain your current bodyweight, you need to be in a caloric balance.
All about keeping balance
Homeostasis is the body’s natural tendency to maintain its constant internal state. To maintain equilibrium, the body adapts to any changes.
Think about when you are in extremely cold or hot weather. Your body either shivers or sweats in effort to keep your body’s temperature at 98.6 degrees F, the “equilibrium” that it seeks to maintain for survival.
In relation to nutrition, calorie consumption impacts your body’s level of homeostasis. If you eat too many calories, the excess amount will be stored as either glycogen, fat, or muscle tissue.
If you eat too little calories, your body will use tissue for energy (for instance, losing or “burning” fat).
Now, if you eat the exact amount of calories that your body needs to maintain its current state, you will essentially maintain your current body weight.
WTF really is “metabolism”?
Whenever you hear about metabolism, you typically hear two things. Either “she has such a fast metabolism, she can eat all of the carbs and gain no weight!” or, “my metabolism is sooo slow. I feel like I gain weight just looking at food.”
But what really is the metabolism?
Your metabolism is the sum of the chemical and physical processes by which the body builds and sustains itself, as well as the breakdown of substances for energy.
Basically, your body is constantly breaking down and building up energy to keep you alive.
The two processes of metabolism that occur simultaneously and constantly are anabolism and catabolism.
When anabolism exceeds catabolism, growth occurs (i.e. rebuild/repair of muscle tissue, storage of fat tissue, creation of cellular tissue, etc.).
When catabolism exceeds anabolism, net loss occurs (i.e. loss of fat tissue).
So, in order to build muscle tissue, you must eat in a caloric surplus so that anabolism exceeds catabolism.
In order to lose fat tissue, you must eat in a caloric deficit so that catabolism exceeds anabolism.
Metabolic Set Point
So you may still be wondering, what’s really up with that friend who can eat pretty much anything and not gain an ounce of body fat?
Well, we all have a “metabolic set point”, which is the base rate of your metabolism that your body wants to maintain and keep constant. In one sense, you can think of this as your body weight. Throughout our lives, our body weight fluctuates, depending on lifestyle factors, environment, nutrition, exercise, etc.
However, we typically reach a point where we always seem to hover around the same weight. This relates to your metabolic set point.
So are you forever going to be stuck at your body weight, or forever going to have a “slow” metabolism?
Nutrition and exercise can play huge roles in your metabolic set point.
Since the body is extremely adaptive to change, you can affect your metabolic set point (and in turn, your body composition) by eating a certain amount of calories and following a certain exercise regime.
For example, when you are dieting (eating in a caloric deficit), your metabolism will slow overtime to preserve the body’s efficiency. It will adapt to receiving less energy (food), by lowering your metabolic rate so that it requires less energy to survive. However, this is not permanent.
If you start consuming more calories, your body may put on additional tissue in the form of fat or muscle (increasing body weight) to return to equilibrium. Yet overtime, your body may adapt to the increase of calories, actually increasing your metabolic set point. So in simpler terms, you will be able to eat MORE food without gaining weight. Sounds awesome, right!?
Exercise can also increase your metabolic set point. For one, your body will require more energy (calories) to perform the exercise, so your caloric needs will increase. Additionally, exercise stimulates numerous metabolic responses that can all impact your metabolic set point, as well as your body composition, anatomy, physiology, and biological makeup.
Now that you have more knowledge about how metabolism works and how your body responds to changes in diet and exercise, you can better calculate your caloric needs and make adjustments when necessary.
How to Calculate Your Calories and Macros
Step 1: Get clear on your goal
Are you wanting to lose body fat? Gain muscle? Or maintain your current bodyweight?
Step 2: Calculate how many calories you are currently eating daily
Most people have no idea how many calories they are eating a day, let alone what macronutrient breakdown they are following. Before you make any changes to your diet, you need to understand where you are at to know your true starting point.
I recommend tracking your calories/macros for one week. DO NOT make any changes to your diet or eating patterns. You can use an app like MyFitnessPal or LifeSum, or download the Daily Food Journal here.
After tracking your calories for one week, then take the average of the seven days. That would be your daily calorie total to work off of.
I also recommend weighing yourself for one week, and averaging out your daily weight. You could assume the average weight to be your starting point.
Step 3: Focus on your goal to calculate daily calories target
If your goal is to lose weight, subtract ~250-350 calories per day from your daily calorie intake.
If your goal is to gain weight/muscle, add ~150-250 calories per day from your daily calorie intake.
If your goal is to maintain your current body weight, keep your calories the same.
Step 4: Calculate your macros
Remember the three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, fats.
1g protein = 4 calories
1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
1g fat = 9 calories
For protein, I recommend everyone to get 1g per lb of bodyweight. So if you weigh 130lbs, you would eat roughly 130g of protein daily, which equates to 520 calories coming from protein sources daily.
The rest of your calories would then be filled with carbohydrates and fats. Depending on your body type (or if you follow Ayurveda, your dosha) and preferences, you can play around with the ratio of carbs and fats. Just stay in your daily calorie target.
130lb female with a daily calorie target of 2000 calories
130g protein (520 calories)
225g carb (900 calories)
65g fat (580 calories)
Step 5: Track progress and adjust as needed
If you hit a weight loss plateau, where you aren’t losing 0.5-1.5lb per week, drop ~100-200 calories from your daily intake.
If you are working to gain weight/build muscle, and you aren’t gaining 0.5-1lb per week, try adding ~100-200 calories to your daily intake.
Additional calories can come from either carbohydrates or fats.
(*Please note these are all general, estimated recommendations. Everyone’s body is different, and it may take some trial and error!)
Note on tracking food (and not going crazy)
Like everything we experience in life, tracking calories is a neutral action we have the choice of doing.
You can perceive tracking calories as “obsessive”, mental exhausting, and unhealthy if you choose it to be. Or, you can perceive tracking calories as a tool for achieving your fitness goal, improving your health, and increasing your knowledge of food.
It’s all perspective, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way.
Tracking your food will give you a sense of how many calories you are currently eating, the ratio of macronutrients you eat, and what kinds of foods you select. You can also gain a whole lot of awareness for your eating patterns, and how certain foods make you feel physically and mentally.
If you find yourself becoming obsessed with tracking your food.. Stop. Breath. Get off the food tracking app. Take a damn break.
Your mental sanity is WAY more important that how your body looks.
Healthy mind = healthy body
Download the Daily Food Journal
Track calories, macros, Ayurvedic “Gunas”, and reflect on how food makes you feel physically and mentally.