How to Count Calories for Beginners
Approximately 6 Minutes Reading Time
Brief Article Overview
- Counting or tracking calories and macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate) has become much easier through the use of calorie calculators and mobile phone apps such as MyFitnessPal.
- Click here for our easy to follow MyFitnessPal guide videos.
- Counting or tracking calories is a really useful tool to increase awareness, education and accountability when it comes to nutritional intake.
- We prioritise Calories and Protein when it comes to most body recomposition goals.
- Estimating your daily energy expenditure will give you a good ballpark figure for your “maintenance” calorie intake.
- To gain weight you need to be in a positive energy balance (calorie surplus), to lose weight you need to be in a negative energy balance (calorie deficit).
- Once you’ve established your maintenance you can determine recommended weight loss or weight gain calorie targets.
- To keep things simple, but adhere to the scientific literature we set protein targets at 2g/kg of either; goal body weight or lean body mass.
Why Count Calories?
In our experience we find calorie counting a useful skill to increase awareness, accountability and control over nutritional intake. Some believe it’s too difficult or takes too much effort. We aim to make it as easy as possible for you.
This article will explain (with examples) how to calculate your nutritional targets, whether you want to lose (fat) or gain (muscle) weight. After that, we recommended watching our short, easy to follow guide videos which show you how to input these numbers into the calorie calculator app, MyFitnessPal. You’ll become a calorie counting pro in no time!
Calories and Macronutrients
As mentioned in our Quick Weight Loss Article we prioritise two things when it comes to improving body composition; calories and protein. Once these two nutritional targets are set, the other two macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats) will simply make up the rest of your calories, and their distribution will depend on individual preference.
As this is a beginners guide, we are assuming that those who are reading this are recreational gym-goers, looking to get in better shape and not elite athletes training for competition or anyone with specific dietary needs. This is why we aren’t particularly concerned about the distribution of carbohydrates and fats.
Estimating Maintenance Calories
First thing’s first, we need to estimate the number of calories your body uses during a typical day. Now, this is not an exact science, as each individual’s needs are different. But, other than closely observing you and taking advanced scientific measurements, we need to start somewhere! These numbers are ballpark figures which can be fine-tuned further down the line.
Here’s the formula we use:
(Body Weight (kg) x 22) x Total Calorie Multiplier
(Body Weight (lb) x 10) x Total Calorie Multiplier
Choosing your “Total Calorie Multiplier”
We take daily activity and training frequency into account when selecting your individual “total calorie multiplier”. As you can see in the table below, once you’ve selected your daily activity, the total calorie multiplier is given as a range. E.g. Lightly Active = 1-1.5. For every hour of purposefully exercise you perform per week, this multiplier increases by 0.1 within this range. For example:
- If your daily activity is “Lightly Active”, your range is 1-1.5.
- Depending on your weekly training frequency you will use:
1x per week = 1
2x per week = 1.1
3x per week = 1.2
4x per week = 1.3
5x per week = 1.4
6+x per week = 1.5
Lightly active person, who trains 3x per week and weighs 80kg.
Total Calorie Multiplier from table = 1.2
(80 x 22) x 1.2 = 2,112 kcal/day (maintenance calories)
The Simplest Way
The simplest way to set a protein target is using your goal body weight. We use the target of 2g/kg or 1g/lb.
Your goal body weight is 70kg.
70kg x 2g = 140g/day
A More Accurate Way
We like using Lean Body Mass (LBM) to calculate individual protein targets because body fat (especially if it’s relatively high) can distort numbers slightly. Again, we will use the same 2g/kg protein target, but this time for lean body mass instead of goal body weight.
1. Calculate lean body mass:
A male who weighs 85kg with 30% body fat.
30% of 85kg is 25.5kg.
Total fat mass= 25.5kg.
85kg (total body mass) – 25.5kg (total fat mass) = 59.5kg.
Lean body mass = 59.5kg.
2. Use the 2g/kg multiplier:
59.5kg x 2g = 119g Protein.
As stated in Golden Rules for Fat Loss, in order to lose weight, your intake needs to be less than your maintenance calories (a negative energy balance). So, we will keep the protein goal the same, but decrease the calories accordingly. The size of the deficit will depend on how much and how quickly you want to lose weight;
- Short, aggressive weight loss – 2-4 weeks at 60-70% maintenance (30-40% deficit).
- Moderate weight loss – 4-12weeks at 75-85% maintenance (15-25% deficit).
- Steady and Sustainable – 3+ months at 85-90% of maintenance (10-15% deficit).
Maintenance calories are set at 1,800kcal/day.
Moderate weight loss set at 80% of maintenance (20% deficit)
80% of 1,800 = 1,440kcal
Weight loss calories = 1,440kcal/day.
Note: This deficit will be achieved by reducing fats or carbohydrates, or both. Your total protein intake will remain the same (2g/kg lean body mass). Your margin for error is smaller when hitting your calorie and protein target when losing weight compared to gaining weight.
Weight Gain (Muscle Gain)
For weight/muscle gain, we tend to set calorie and protein minimums and go from there. Going slightly over these targets isn’t the end of the world, as the margin for error is larger than losing weight. But it’s important not to go too far over and start rapidly gaining weight, as this will be accompanied by high amounts of fat mass. We, therefore, prefer a “lean bulking” method.
A lean bulk is set between 10-20% over maintenance calories. This should be sufficient to build lean muscle if you’re training and sleeping well.
Maintenance calories = 1,800kcal
120% of maintenance is set (20% Surplus)
120% of 1,800kcal = 2,160kcal
Note: As with weight loss, this energy difference will be achieved by increasing fats, carbohydrates or both and total protein intake will remain the same (2g/kg lean body mass).
As mentioned before, now that you’ve got your numbers why not watch our MyFitnessPal guide video to put them into action. Remember that this is all a case of trial and error, hopefully, this process builds accountability and awareness regarding your personal intake. You will also find that you’ll build some skills when trying to hit your numbers. Please let us know what you find useful!
If you’re interested in starting your health and fitness journey with us…
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.