How to Count Your Calories

After a lifetime of losing and gaining weight, I get it. No matter how you slice it, weight loss comes down to the simple formula of calories in, calories out.

-Valerie Bertinelli

Calorie counting is the foundation of any fat loss or muscle building program. Certain foods are healthier than others, but at the end of the day, it's about calories in and calories out; failing to recognize this will frustrate you to no end.

Counting your calories is easier said than done though. Through trial and error, I've learned the dos and don'ts of estimating the calories you need from day to day.

So how DO you count your calories?

Tracking Your Foods

The first step in counting your calories is to get in the habit of tracking the food you eat each day. Foods likes eggs and slices of bread are often identical units, making it easy to determine how many calories they contain. Eating 3 eggs from a carton today will be the same as eating another 3 eggs from it tomorrow.

One great website for looking up food information is Self Nutrition Data. This website has information for every kind of food you could imagine. Food scales are also relatively cheap; buy an electronic one at your local shopping center.

The convenient part about weighing your food is you get in the habit of eyeing it. If you eat some of the same meals each day, you'll grow accustomed to what their portions look like.

Online Calculator

Another way would be to use an online formula. One approach, which is the most accurate in my experience, is the Katch-Mcardle formula. Since it uses your body fat percentage, it is more accurate than any other method I've come across.

The calculation from above gives you your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), which is the resting metabolism of your body. In other words, if you slept for 24 hours straight and did nothing else, this is how much energy your body would burn to maintain your metabolic and other biological processes. This is all hypothetical of course.

When you're awake during the day, you burn energy in everything you do. Talking, exercise, walking… everything you do contributes to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).

To convert your BMR to your TDEE you need to apply a multiplier, which will vary depending on how active you are:

  • Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (desk job, little or no exercise)
  • Lightly Active = BMR x 1.375 (fitness enthusiast)
  • Moderately Active = BMR x 1.55 (gym rat)
  • Very Active = BMR x 1.725 (…wow you really like exercise)
  • Extremely Active = BMR x 1.9 (are you ****ing nuts?! Who are you trying to be? Michael Phelps?!)

If you don't play sports and mainly do lifting outside of a sedentary job, I would go for the Lightly Active calculation. If you work in a job with daily exercise like construction, you might need the Extremely Active calculation.

Now that you have your TDEE, adjust the number accordingly depending on whether you're trying to gain muscle or lose fat.

There's a chance, however, that these numbers won't quite do it. Sometimes your metabolism is faster than the average person, which makes these calculators inaccurate. Blame it on your genes or hormones, but for whatever reason, you struggle with eating the right amount.

So how do you figure out how many calories you ACTUALLY burn from day to day when a calculator won't cut it?

At that point, just adjust the diet tediously. Add or subtract 200 calories from your daily diet and monitor the effect it has on you. If your waist is going up every week, you're eating too much. If your strength in the gym starts to plummet, you're not eating enough.

Wrap Up

Counting calories can be tedious, but doing so will make your fitness goals much easier.

Once you have a rough idea of what your daily intake is, small caloric adjustments (a piece or 2 of candy) won't make much difference.