Calories. Macros. Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). With so many terms, measurements, standards, and methods out there, how are you supposed to know how to find your daily calorie needs in order to reach your goal?
It doesn’t need to be this difficult! I don’t care if you are trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain where you are, there is truly only one method for figuring out how many calories you need to eat.
As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, this is what I have my clients do. In fact, this is the first thing I have my clients do before we ever meet!
It’s not some magic equation or tool that you put a bunch of numbers into and get a number of calories spit back at you.
Even though there are equations available (Harris-Benedict, Mifflin St. Jeor, or Katch-McArdle formulas, which I’ll add to the bottom of this post for your reference and use), the method I’m going to teach you is the one that makes the most sense to me and has netted my clients the best results.
Table of Contents
- The Best Calorie Calculation Method
- How to Complete a Food Log to Find Your Calorie Needs
- Setting Up Your Calorie Tracking App
- Now It’s Time to Start Tracking What You Eat in Your Food Log
- How to Be Successful With Your Food Log
- What to Do After You’ve Completed 3 to 7 Days
- Setting Your Daily Calorie Goal
- How to Account for Outliers
- Now That You’ve Set Your Calories
- Conclusion: How to Find Your Daily Calorie Needs for Any Goal
- Most Common Caloric Need Calculations
The Best Calorie Calculation Method
I want you to complete a 3, 5, or 7-day food log.
Think about it. The way you have been eating, good or bad, is what has earned you the body and performance that you currently have. For any goal you’ve ever set you have always had to start at Today. Where are you today, and what is the next step in the right direction.
Using a calorie calculator or one of the calculation methods is okay. The calculations you can use are listed at the bottom of this article and help you find your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). BMR is the number of calories you burn at rest. So, if you stayed in bed all day, that is how many calories you would burn.
Once you know how many calories your body needs to stay alive you have to account for your daily activities. Things like work, playing with your kids, and exercising. The calculations use a multiplier between 1.4 and 2.5 to account for your activity level. Spoiler, most people get this Activity number wrong! But, once you have done both pieces you have a number that represents your daily calorie needs.
Calorie calculators do the BMR calculations for you, so that’s nice. But then they rely on you accurately entering the activity adjustor number.
There is additional information that can help some calculators be more accurate, but most people don’t know their actual body fat percentage, percentage of fat mass, or percentage of lean mass.
Your body composition makes a huge difference as well. 5 foot 10 and 165 pounds can look very different! If you are lean and have a lot of muscle you are going to burn more calories at rest (BMR) than a person at the same weight with less muscle mass.
All of this is why I like competing a Food Log instead of using the calculators.
Completing a food log of the foods that you actually eat, and figuring out your current caloric intake, is the best method for finding your starting point. We can adjust from there to meet your goal, and there are a few methods for doing that.
This is truly the only way to personalize calorie intake. And personalizing your daily calorie intake for your goal is all that matters!
A food log also gives you insights into how you eat, which can be tremendously helpful. as well as showing you what portion sizes really look like and starting a new habit.
I’m going to show you the easiest way to complete a food log.
How to Complete a Food Log to Find Your Calorie Needs
You can grab a pencil, download a food log form, and go to town.
I did this for years as a bodybuilder and powerlifter. I would write down every food I ate for every meal. The exact amounts in grams. I’d look at nutrition labels and calculate (by hand) how many grams of protein, carbs, and fat that food counted for, along with how many calories it was.
Then I’d add up all of the foods that made up the meal and come up with a total. And then I’d add up all of my meals.
And I didn’t want to hope that I met or didn’t exceed my calories for the day, so I’d have everything planned out ahead of time. The worst part about this was how boring it made eating! it was simply easier to eat the same foods and the same meals every single day instead of having to figure out all of the macros (proteins, carbs, and fats) and calories for a different combination.
Now I get that that example is a bit intense. Some of you may know exactly what I’m talking about, but most of you are probably just looking to figure out an easy way to know how much to eat, and what I just described seems absolutely ridiculous.
And it was. Ridiculous. But that was my life for a long time.
Enter MyFitnessPal. This was like a gift from the gods. This tool made everything so simple! I had one of those moments where I wished I could go back and be the one that thought of this!
This is what I ask my clients to do before we ever meet. Even if counting calories isn’t something I’m going to have them do (and most of the time it isn’t). This gives me so much information!
I can see how many calories they eat on average. How many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fat do they get. How much fiber. How much saturated fat. Are they consistent with their meals and daily calorie intake? Do they have a day or days each week that differ greatly from how much they normally eat? The list goes on and on. And this is the kind of information you can see about yourself!
You can scan most foods instead of manually entering them into the app. Which is still way easier than doing it by hand! And it’s so easy to be specific because the app will do the calculations for calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients for you, instead of having to figure out each one by hand.
So, let’s walk through exactly how to set up MyFitnessPal (or any calorie tracking app you’d like), and figure out how much you tend to eat on average.
Setting Up Your Calorie Tracking App
Start by downloading and signing up for your chosen calorie tracking app. For this tutorial, I’ll be using MyFitnessPal (MFP).
The app is going to take you through a small series of questions designed to figure out roughly how many calories you currently burn, what your goal weight is, and how fast you want to achieve your goals. It’s then going to calculate how many calories you should eat each day, along with recommendations for carbohydrates, protein, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.
We’re going to ignore all of this and set our own benchmark goals for each day.
Step 1 – MORE
From your Home screen or Diary page, click on the MORE button on the bottom right. This is how you will access all of your settings.
Step 2 – Goals
Select the Goals category and you will see your current weight, end goal, weekly goal, and your Activity Level (more on this button in a bit!).
Step 3 – Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals
To make adjustments to your Goal, click on the Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals tab under Nutrition Goals. Now you can make your own personalized adjustments!
Step 4 – Settings for creating a food log
Your purpose right now is not to know how many calories you need to eat each day. You have to do figure that out by learning how many calories you are already eating. I want you to set your Calories to 3,000. 3,000?! That may sound like a lot, or a little. I hope it sounds like a lot. If you find, after a day or two or tracking, that you are eating more than 3,000 calories a day, I want you to change that number to 4,000. You want a number that you don’t go over, but is obviously more than you should be eating. Heck, set it to 5,000! I want it to be a bit ridiculous 🙂
Here you will also see how I personally set up the percentage of calories from carbohydrates, protein, and fat I eat each day. These three numbers combined can’t be more than 100 percent.
You can set these percentages to anything you want. Right now, it doesn’t matter! All that matters, for tracking a food log, is the number of calories.
For most people I recommend 55 percent carbs, 20 percent protein, and 25 percent fat.
Now It’s Time to Start Tracking What You Eat in Your Food Log
Every time you eat, you track it in your food log. Go to your Diary and simply ADD FOOD to the appropriate section.
In the beginning, you won’t have any food items saved by MFP, so you’ll have to do a bit of adding. If you are eating any food item that has is packaged and has a bar code, simply SCAN it!
That will take you to a screen and you can adjust the number of servings to match how much you are eating of that food. Simple! And, MFP will save that food item for easier access later thumbs up
If the food doesn’t have a bar code, like a piece of fruit or leftovers, or if the item cannot be found in the directory (this happens mostly with the little stickers individual stores put on pieces of fresh fruit), then you will need to search for a food (found at the top of the screen). Again, MFP will save the food you choose for later.
Here are some tips when using Search for a food
- use the food name and brand if you know it
- if you don’t know the brand, enter the food name and then write the word grams after it.
- food items in the search will come up with a lot of different measurements, and I find that grams is the most accurate way track your food.
- words that show up like cups, medium, large, etc. have way too much variability, and can add up to literally hundreds of extra caloreis eaten each day wide eye emoji
Going out to eat and have no idea how many calories are in the meal you’re about to consume? use the Quick Add function to add a number of calories meal. This won’t allow you to add carbs, fats, and protein, but you can account for calories. Many restaurants will have the number of calories for their meals on their menu or online. Otherwise, look up how many calories on average that time of meal in a restaurant usually has and use that number.
How to Be Successful With Your Food Log
I want you to be as specific here as you can be. You’re only going to track for 3 to 7 days. More days is better as you’ll get a better picture of your eating habits, but don’t go more than 7 days. Here are some tips for success:
- Be accurate! Use a food scale if you have one. I know, that may seem like a lot. But you want to have as much information as possible, and the more accurate you can be, the better. If you don’t have a scale, don’t worry about it. You’ll still get a great idea of where you’re starting, which you will use for success later on.
- If it goes in your mouth, it gets eantered into the log. The only exceptions are plain tap water and black coffee.
- Start during the middle of your work week and include at least one weekend day. You definitely want to include a weekend day. That is when you are going to be the most off your schedule, and you need to see how you eat on those days! So, if you start on the first day of your work week, you are now roped into tracking for at least 6 days. If you follow a normal work week, start on Wednesday and make Saturday your last tracking day.
- Don’t use the Exercise function of MFP! Adding exercise is a whole other set of information you will you have to set up, and when you add it to a day it will adjust your goal calories for the day. We are going to set your calories for every day, regardless of whether or not your workout, and shoot for those.
- Don’t add Water. Again, this adds another step, and if you are new to using a calorie traking app, this will add too much to your plate. Drink when you are thirsty and call it good. If water intake becomes something you need to focus on later on, then you can start adding. But not now.
What to Do After You’ve Completed 3 to 7 Days
Now that you have tracked for a couple of days, it’s time to analyze.
Start by adding up the total calories eaten each day and dividing by the number of days. This will give you your daily average.
Check for any days that are obvious outliers. If you are looking at your days and you typically eat around 2,200 calories each day, but one day you only 1,100 or 3,700, those are days that you really want to pay attention to!
- Why were your calories so far on that day? Is that normal for you each week?
- Were they high because you went out to eat on that day?
- Were they low because you missed some meals?
If you have one major outlier, your best bet is to remove it from your calculations. Add up all of the other days that are similar and use that as your maintenance calorie number. Call this your baseline. We’ll come back to how to account for outliers later in this article.
Now you have your baseline! You know how many calories you actually eat each day during an average week! This is huge!
Now we need to adjust for your goal and figure out how many calories you should shoot for each day.
Setting Your Daily Calorie Goal
Let’s use a nice round number and say that your baseline calories for each day were 2,500. This means that 2,500 calories on average each day have created the body you currently have. And our bodies are very good at maintaining our current appearances! That’s why it is so hard to gain or lose weight.
You want to either add or subtract calories from this number and that’s what you’ll shoot for each day. Or, maybe you’ll want to stay the same! Here’s how to know:
Trying to Lose Weight
How much physical activity are you getting? Are you currently exercising? If you aren’t, leave your baseline calories alone and start exercising! By exercising you are going to be burning more calories, so that will put you in a calorie deficit. So eat the same amount you have been, and start moving more.
Already exercising? You have a couple of options:
- Use your baseline calorie number during the work week and drop your calories by 30 percent on the weekends.
With our 2,500 baseline calories example, this would have you eating 2,500 calories during the week and 1,750 on the weekends
- Drop your daily calories by 10-15 percent and use that number every day.
So a 2,500 calorie baseline would become 2,125 to 2,250 calories each day. This will put you at a nice calorie deficit.
These are great numbers to start with!
Trying to Gain Muscle/Weight
A weight or muscle gain goal is very different from a weight loss goal. The big question is, how do you want to gain weight? Would you mind putting on some body fat, or would you rather gain muscle but keep your body fat near your current levels?
If you want to keep your body fat in check, try these options:
- Add 10 percent to your baseline calories during the week, and drop your calories by 20 percent on the weekend.
- Zig-Zag Method – add 10 percent to your baseline calories on days you workout, and subtract 10-20 percent on the days you don’t workout
These should put you at a calorie surplus on the days you workout, but allow you to lower calories a bit on non-workout days, keeping your total weekly calories just above baseline.
This is not an efficient method for gaining muscle or weight! It will take you longer! But this is a way I like to go.
Not worried about adding a bit of body fat? Add 20 percent to your baseline for every day as a starting point and see what happens over the next month.
How to Account for Outliers
There are a couple of ways to deal with any outliers you may have found when completing your initial food log.
Did you have an outlier that was way under the calories for your other days? Like, you normally eat about 2,500 calories each day, but one day you only ate 1,200? Here is how to handle those:
- Add it into your calculation, along with all of your days, and shoot for that number every day.
- Remove the outlier and only use the other days to come up with your average. Use that number every day, except one. On one day a week, eat fewer calories, more in line with what you found on that outlier day. This works well if that outlier day was pretty typical for you.
Did you have an outlier that was way higher?
- Remove the outlier to figure out your average daily calorie intake. Use that number as your daily calorie goal. This will work as long as you avoid any huge meals throughout the week.
- Remove the outlier to figure out your average daily calorie intake. Now adjust your calories for your goal by 10-15 percent to figure out your daily calorie needs. Maybe you go from 2,500 average calories to 2,125 calories each day. Then, add in one cheat meal each week. This is great if your outlier was pretty typical. If your family usually goes out to eat on Saturday night, go and eat! Enjoy that meal! Then follow your weight-loss-adjusted calories on other days.
If you’re trying to gain weight, just be aware of days that you typically may undereat and make an effort to hit your goal calories every day.
All of these are great recommendations for getting you started. I never recommend making too drastic a change, up or down, from your current baseline. Changes that are too large are difficult to stick with. Make small changes, be consistent for one month, see how you’re doing, and then continue or make another small adjustment.
Now That You’ve Set Your Calories
Give your new calories one month. See what happens and adjust from there. Weigh yourself one day each week. The best way to use the scale is to weigh in the morning, right after going to the bathroom, on a day that is smack-dab in the middle of your workweek. Make sure that you weigh in on the same day each week.
Conclusion: How to Find Your Daily Calorie Needs for Any Goal
Weight loss or weight gain calculators are complicated to get right if you don’t know what you’re doing. People often under or overestimate things like Activity Level or how quickly they can reach a goal, and end up with calorie recommendations that are way off and impossible to follow in the long run.
Following the Food Journal method will let you know how many calories you are actually eating already, and allow you to make small adjustments in your calorie intake and still see progress.
And, if you are going to see a dietitian or nutritionist, this information is so helpful before your first meeting!
Want to see how to completely set up and customize all aspects of the free version of MFP? (article coming soon)
Or, check out this video as I go through a full setup of MFP (video coming soon).
Most Common Caloric Need Calculations
Mifflin-St Jeor Equation:
- For men: BMR = 10W + 6.25H – 5A + 5
- For women: BMR = 10W + 6.25H – 5A – 161
*This is my favorite method. The BMR calculation tends to be very close to my actual BMR from In Body scans. My BMR tends to be right around 1,800 calories a day, and this calculation gives me 1,837.5. Harris-Benedict puts my BMR way too high!
Revised Harris-Benedict Equation:
- For men: BMR = 13.397W + 4.799H – 5.677A + 88.362
- For women: BMR = 9.247W + 3.098H – 4.330A + 447.593
- BMR = 370 + 21.6(1 – F)W
W is body weight in kg
H is body height in cm
A is age
F is body fat in percentage