Have you ever felt really excited about making healthier lifestyle choices only to find yourself lost on where to start? Sometimes, a simple internet search leaves you feeling completely scatter brained because there is so much information out there.
So how much am I supposed to be eating? How do I lose these stubborn pounds? If I exercised today, is that enough to justify eating a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Icecream?
With access to so much online information, feeling lost is a common experience.
To help shed some light on this issue, today’s post will help set the record straight on where to start in your lifestyle journey. This includes calculating your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, tracking your food intake, and adjusting your caloric needs. If some of these terms are totally foreign to you, no worries! You are in the right place. Follow along with my step by step guidance to evaluate your nutrition intake and figure out what steps to take in order to reach your goals.
Just a quick heads up: this post is long and we’re about to dive into some technical jargon so grab a cup of tea and find a comfortable place to sit. You ready? Great!
Let’s get started!
First things first: What is TDEE?
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE, is the total amount of calories your body burns each day. This includes the calories you burn while eating, talking, exercising, sleeping, or any other daily activity. Keep in mind, this is a little different from BMR, or basal metabolic rate. BMR refers to the total amount of calories you burn at rest and does not factor in exercise.
What’s great about both of these terms is how they allow us to objectively examine our metabolic system and its response to physical activity over time. For the purpose of this post, we’re going to stick with TDEE since it encompasses more day to day activities and establishes a realistic and accurate starting point.
So how does TDEE relate to my weight goals?
Understanding your TDEE is essential to figuring out where to start in your nutrition journey so you can adjust from there. You can’t measure your progress if you don’t know where you started. For simplicity’s sake, think of your TDEE as your daily caloric intake level, or how much you eat in a day.
Assuming that you are currently maintaining your current body composition (not gaining or losing weight), your TDEE is essentially the amount of calories your body needs to maintain your current body composition. In other words, you eat the same amount of calories that you expend and your calories in roughly equals your calories out.
So, if you’ve ever heard someone use the term “maintenance level”, they are most likely referring to the amount of calories they need to consume in order to not gain or lose weight. In this case, this person’s TDEE is equal to the amount of calories they consume each day. They are not in a caloric deficit OR surplus. Rather, they are maintaining.
So how do I find a rough estimate of my TDEE?
Luckily, there are many ways to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure. While some methods are more accurate than others, using both an online calculator and a calorie tracker is usually pretty reliable and can generate a close estimate that will help you create a starting point.
Follow these steps to estimate your TDEE:
Find an online TDEE calculator:
Among the many available TDEE calculators available, this one has always been my go to due to its unique calorie adjuster for cutting and bulking. After selecting a site, you’ll be asked to enter factors like your age, weight, height, sex, and exercise intensity. From there, you’ll get a TDEE estimation like this one:
Bear in mind there are multiple things to consider when entering your information:
- Not all calculators use the same formula. You might visit one website whose result is completely different from another website. For the most part, many of the online calculators will rely on a reputable formula like the Harris-Benedict equation, the Mifflin-St Jeor equation or the Katch-McArdle equation. Regardless of which one you choose, it is important to keep in mind that this is only an estimate. The best thing to do is try a few different websites and compare answers to get you in the ballpark.
- This tool is NOT to be used as an “end all-be all”. It’s a close estimate. The key idea here is to use the TDEE calculator as a starting point to gradually adjust your caloric intake over time and record the effect it is having on your body.
- Not all websites offer the same exercise intensity scale. What you consider “moderate” could be considered “difficult” by someone else. Be wary of some websites, as not all provide a clear description of exercise intensity. Feel free to play around with the intensity level as you enter your information and compare to other websites. Exercise intensity can have a drastic effect on your TDEE and might cause an over/underestimation.
To show you what I mean, take a look at the results I got using 3 different websites with all identical input :
If you’ve played around with multiple websites and calculated a variety of numbers, feel free to take an average. The next step will help us gain even more insight to get a more accurate picture.
Track your food and beverage consumption
Now that you’ve calculated your TDEE, it’s time to start tracking your caloric intake! (Hold the TDEE number aside for now-we’ll come back to this later)
Start by downloading a free food tracker app.
If you haven’t tried it yet, I’d highly recommend the MyFitnessPal app. It is highly compatibility with other fitness apps and makes tracking a breeze when you’re on the go.
Keep a record of everything you eat using your food tracking app. You’ll need to keep a daily food log for at least 3 days minimum in order to calculate an accurate average. By default MyFitnessPal will set your calorie goal to 2,000 kcals/day. This number is an estimated average that is used for most clients but can be adjusted in the settings. To prevent this number from influencing your daily consumption habits, feel free to simply ignore it for now. Eat like you normally would and be sure to record EVERYTHING!
Here is my food log to show you how I tracked my meals:
Find your average calories per day
Once you’ve logged 3 days worth of eating, take a look at your total calories consumed each day (highlighted in red).
To find your average, add your total calories from all three days then divide this total by 3 (or divide the total amount of days you logged your food).
2,076 + 2,268 + 2,302= 6,646
6, 646/3= 2215.3 ≈ 2,215 kcal/day
This is the average amount of calories that you eat per day.
Now that you know your average daily caloric intake, you can now compare your TDEE calculation to your average (as shown below).
After doing a quick comparison between my two numbers and noting that my body composition had not changed much during this time, it is with confidence that I estimated my maintenance level to be around 2200 calories per day.
The purpose of this comparison is to objectively identify what is currently going on with your body so we can figure out where to go from here.
As a general guideline:
- If you are currently maintaining: Your caloric intake will likely be close to or the same as your TDEE
- If you are currently losing weight: your caloric intake will likely be lower than your TDEE
- If you are currently gaining weight: your caloric intake will likely be higher than your TDEE
Remember, these are only general guidelines and represent typical trends relating to weight loss and weight gain. Everyone is different and experiences different metabolic reactions to food and exercise.
For most people, our bodies will naturally compensate for calorie depletion by signaling hunger when you’ve done an intense workout and burned a lot of calories. In other words, you tend to eat more when you are active.
This influx of calories should be reflected in your average from My Fitness Pal, but on the off chance that you tend to overeat on a normal day without exercise, it’s nice to use a TDEE calculator to compare numbers. This is why we did a 3 day log AND used a TDEE calculator. It pays to be thorough!
If you don’t fall into any of these categories, there is no need to worry!
You can still adjust your daily intake and track your progress over time (as discussed in the next steps).
Evaluate and make adjustments as needed
Before getting into the bulk of this, I want to remind you that I am not a registered dietician or doctor; it is STRONGLY recommended that you ALWAYS consult with a licensed professional before making any drastic changes to your diet. See full disclaimer here.
However, when it comes to changing your body composition, a minor adjustment to your daily caloric intake and/or energy expenditure is needed. If you guessed that I’m referring to “calories in vs. calories out”, you are correct. Despite there being so many other claims to weight loss, there’s a reason people return back to this tried and true principle: it’s rooted in the law of thermodynamics and we have decades worth of research to back it up.
However, because our body is not a perfect system and can be heavily influenced by outside factors like environment, temperature, and genetics, losing or gaining weight will be a different experience for everyone. It is for this reason that I encourage you to always check in with yourself as you progress on your caloric adjustment.
For example, let’s say you reduce your calories by 500 calories right off the bat and you feel hungry all the time. It’s okay to have a quick snack to satisfy the hunger (preferably something that is satiating, not just empty calories). Instead of a 500 calorie deficit you might bring this deficit to 250 calories. You will still be eating slightly below your TDEE but in a gradual manner that will help you not associate hunger with progress.
Under no circumstance should you ever starve yourself in hopes of becoming lean. The emotional, physical and mental turmoil this can cause can be catastrophic and if you are ever in that situation, please feel free to reach out.
Bottom line: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and actively be aware of what you are putting in your body.
It’s okay to adjust your calories in order to achieve a goal, but you want to be sure you are going safe and slow. Changing your body composition is possible but needs to be done gradually and safely.
Okay, now that we’ve gone over the important stuff, let’s circle back to those numbers we calculated earlier.
So we’ve got our daily caloric intake and average TDEE.
How do we use these numbers to reach our goals?
Well, you’ve got two options:
Option #1) 250-500 kcal adjustment
Whether you are looking to lose body fat or put on more mass, this method will utilize the kcal adjustment method as follows:
If you’re looking to maintain your current body composition: keep caloric intake the same as your TDEE
If you’re looking to lower your current body composition (lose body fat): reduce caloric intake by 250-500 kcals/day
If you’re looking to increase your current body composition (gain mass): increase caloric intake by 250-500 kcals/day
Option #2) Percentage method
Again, depending on your goals, you can calculate a caloric deficit or surplus percentage based on the amount of food you eat each day. With the percentage method, the adjustments are as follows:
Small: 10-15 % of TDEE
Medium: 20-25% of TDEE
Large: 25% + of TDEE
When choosing a percentage, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each level and how they relate to your goals. To help you decide which percentage is right for you, I suggest you take a quick gander at this fantastic article that thoroughly goes over the benefits and drawbacks of each percentage.
The smaller the deficit: Minor and manageable diet changes / Longer time it takes to lose fat
The larger the deficit: Quicker results / Not to be sustained for long periods of time and higher effort required to make diet changes.
In continuation from our example before, here is a screenshot of my caloric deficit to give a better representation of how this should look on a daily basis:
In this example, my total calories in were lower than my calories out, thus putting me at a deficit of 393 calories for the day. For me, this is a reasonable number to sustain on a daily basis. This amount puts me within the deficit range without ever feeling hungry.
Side Note: While it’s not necessary to have a wearable tracking device, it does make this process a lot more convenient.
Ultimately, whichever method you choose is completely up to you and dependent on what you can realistically manage with your lifestyle. Just remember, whether you are in a surplus or deficit, it’s important to stay within a reasonable limit so you don’t shock your body as your progress to your goals.
While a slight increase or decrease in your daily consumption can be beneficial over time, anything above the 500 kcal limit can pose detrimental effects. Under most circumstances, professionals within the fitness industry are within their scope of practice to discuss a 250-500 kcal fluctuation. However, anything above that 500 kcal threshold should be planned out with a registered dietitian.
Put this into practice
There is currently a lot of debate about whether the content of your food matters as long as you are consistent in your deficit or surplus. While I won’t be diving into this subject too much as I would not consider myself an expert, the main consensus (and my two cents) seems to be this:
Your body recognizes food as calories.
It doesn’t care if those calories came from a pizza or an apple, a carb is still a carb and will be digested as such. What your body does pay attention to is the amount of carbs, proteins, and fats you consume in the total number of calories.
This is why there are so many different dieting plans out there similar to IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). These diets are governed by the principle that you can eat practically whatever you want as long as it fits within your macronutrient distribution and caloric intake needs. However, the drawback here is that you might be missing out on key micronutrients that are essential for growth, repair, maintenance and cellular function.
This is why eating a clean diet is so important. You can still enjoy the delicious food that nature has provided all while budgeting your calories in a meaningful way.
All in all, eat the best you can and exercise often. With a little extra effort, tracking and patience, you can work your way to your desired goals.
I wish you all the best in your journey!