In my previous post on the roadmap to intuitive eating, I explained that calorie and macro counting can also be tools in the toolbox of understainding nutrition goals.
In this post, I will explain two of these core methodologies: calories in, calories out (CICO) and If it fits your macros. (IIFYM).
- Macros vs. calories vs. portions vs. intuitive eating: What’s the best way to ‘watch what you eat?’ (Precision Nutrition)
- Counting macros versus intuitive eating (Jada Blitz fitness)
- This is the best macronutrient calculator on the net (Legion Athletics)
- IIFYM Diet Guide: Counting Macros for Weight Loss (Legion Athletics)
- What is BMR and how do you calculate it for weight loss? (Legion Athletics)
- Differences between BMR and RMR (WebMD)
To understand how to get to macros, you ned to understand a few things about calories and macros:
What are calories and macronutrients – and how do they relate?
A calorie is the unit used to measure the energy-producing value of food. Technically, a calorie is defined as the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree centigrade.
Macronutrients form the major sources of energy in food. They include carbohydrate, and protein, fat, and alcohol. When burned (metabolized), they provide different amounts of energy:
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
CICO and IIFYM – what are they and what do they have to do with calories and macros?
CICO and IIFYM respectively stand for “Calories in Calories out” and “If it fits your macros.” Applying both of these methods, you can estimate your needed calorie intake for different body composition goals (losing fat, gaining muscle, or maintaining). Based on that, you can toggle the macronutrients that make up that calorie total to derive your desired ration of protein to carbs to fat. You can then use that information to plan your meals, snacks, treats, and even alcohol intake.
Both CICO and IIFYM are premised on some kind of food tracking and measuring (or approximating measuring). While doing this in perpetuity is not sustainable, for some amount of time having this practice can help better judge portion sizes and be able to “ballpark” how many calories and what kind of nutrients are in a particular food.
Research shows that without this training, people are very prone to underreporting their calories consumed and overestimating the amount of calories they are burning. , often by 10 to 20 percent. Fitbits and Apple watches can overestimate calorie burn by over 90 percent. In fact, a 2017 Stanford study found that the most accurate calorie tracker was off by at least 27 percent!
And while food tracking devices like MyFItnessPal and ATE it aren’t perfect (discussed in my DAO of metrics post Part II) at estimating calories consumed, they can at least give you an idea if you are exceeeding an average calorie intake needed by 1000s of calories.
What is CICO?
To understand how to design a meal and exercise plan, you have to understand the CICO equation and its subparts.
The basic energy balance equation is as follows: Calories in = Calories out.
Calories in (CI) are what you consume in food and drinks.
Calories out (CO) is equal to Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
TDEE is a sum of the following: Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)+ Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) + Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA)+ Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).
Briefly explained, these components mean:
- BMR stands for “basal metabolic rate.” and is a measurement of the number of calories needed to perform your body’s most basic (basal) functions, like breathing, circulation and cell production. BMR is often used synonymously with RMR, but is not quite the same. Resting metabolic rate is a measurement of the number of calories that your body burns at rest. Resting metabolic rate is usually measured in the morning before you eat or exercise and after a full night of restful sleep.
- BMR and RMR which is “Resting Metabolic Rate” are often used interchangeably. While they are not exactly the same, for purposes of simplicity we will simply refer to the base metabolic rate in the formulas as “BMR” as is done by many of the online calculators and academic publications.
- TEF is the Thermic effect of food, what you burn eating and digesting food.
- TEA is the Thermic effect of activity, e.g., the number of calories you burn from intentional exercise.
- NEAT is what you burn through unstructured movement throughout your day, like walking your dog, cleaning up the kitchen, running after your kids, doing errands, or walking back and forth to the bathroom. We talked about both TEA and NEAT in the post on how you can get fit without going to the gym.
RMR and BMR is the biggest influencer of TDEE
The big part of this equation is the Basal Metabolic Rate. Although this is the calories you burn from doing nothing but watching Real Housewives, it is also responsible for the largest portion of your energy output, as seen by the below chart
How calories are calculated, step by step
There are only three steps to figuring out how many calories you should be eating per day:
Step 1: Determine your resting metabolic rate (RMR).
Step 2: Based on RMR, determine your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure).
Step 3: Calculate your target daily calorie intake.
Optional Step 4: Calculate macronutrient needs
Step 1 is based on a formula, or you can get a personalized assessment ( I will go into why I recommend this).
Steps 2-3 are where the science of your particular body needs come in, and where a dietitian’s advice is critical. If weight loss is a goal, a dietitian can help you ascertain why that is and what kind of daily calorie deficit is healthy to achieve that goal. There is a big difference between a healthy calorie deficit of about 10-20 percent that can incur gradual weight loss versus an extreme calorie-slashing diet typical of the fad diets we discussed earlier. If weight gain or weight maintenance is a goal, this calorie target is also useful to understand how much intake in the CI side to achieve these objectives.
Step 1: Calculating RMR
Most nutritionists use a formula to determine RMR called the “Mifflin St. Jeor” formula,
It’s worth noting that tools for calculating BMR are viewed as very back-of-the-envelope. It’s impossible to ascertain a BMR or RMR exactly unless in lab settings. In various studies, scientists have found a significant margin error. The science of the body, especially when it comes to these variables, naturally slants to imperfect. We can never be completely sure about how many calories foods actually contain either, So think of this as back-of-the-envelope determinations, not exact mathematics. It’s more of a range than a point.
You can calculate your approximate RMR using the Mifflin St. Jeor or other similar formulas (like the Harris-Benedict equation), with knowledge of just your weight and height, but the best way to really know how many calories you are burning is a RMR assessment, which will provide you with the most accurate basis for your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), i.e., how many calories you burn a day. You can get an RMR test where you get a physical, usually at your local gym, or at specific testing centers, an index of which is available here. I highly recommend this, because even if your goal is to lose weight, RMR formulaic estimates often underestimate or overestimate your RMR.
Even if weight loss is not your goal, this is a useful tool to stay where you are weight-wise, but make sure you are getting adequate nutrients to support both your workout regime and your ADLs (activities of daily life). In all three cases, understanding the math the professionals use is helpful, but ultimately, seeing the professional is the best case scenario.
Until you get a chance to do an actual RMR assessment, it is still useful to gain a back of the envelope sense of where you are at and how you can initially set some calorie intake (CI) goals, so we will go through these steps now.
Mifflin St. Jeor Calculation
Below is the Mifflin St. Jeor formula, which you can find on hundreds of websites by just Googling the name. Although there are variations of formulas to determine RMR, Mifflin St. Jeor appears to be viewed as the most reliable so for illustrative purposes, I will use this to demonstrate how you can initially gain an estimate of your RMR. You can then enter your numbers and the site will calculate for you. For the sake of completeness, here is how the Mifflin St. Jeor formula works for calculating RMR:
The complete equation varies between men and women, as follows:
Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161
For women, the specific steps would be:
- Calculate your weight in kilograms by taking the number and dividing it by 2.2 (there are 2.2 kilograms in a pound)
- Multiply your weight in kilograms by 10
- Multiply your height in centimeters by 6.25
- Add the numbers from 2 and 3 together
- Multiply your age by 5
- Subtract the number in step #5 from the number in step #4
- Subtract 161 from the number in step #6
If you want to make it even simpler, here are the directions for using a web-based calculator: (like this one on the National Association of Sports Medicine website: https://www.nasm.org/resources/calorie-calculator?utm_source=blog&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=Resting-Metabolic-Rate:-How-to-Calculate-and-Improve-Yours&utm_content=NASM-Online-Calorie-Calculator#calculate-calories
- Select your sex.
- Enter your weight and select lbs or kgs.
- Enter your height and select inches or cm.
- Enter your age. You now have your RMR.
Let’s apply this to a woman who is 40 years old, 5 foot 5 and weighs 140 pounds. Her weight in kilos would be 64kg. Thus applying the steps in 1-7 above, this would mean:
Her RMR would be :
10 * 64 + 6.25 * 165 – 5 * 40 – 161 = 1300 kcal a day (rounded)
The number you will end up with for your RMR is very close to your healthy body weight times 10.
Thus, for a woman that is 5’5 and weighing 140, her RMR will be about 1300-1400 (depending on age factor)
Once you ascertain your RMR, you can assess your TDEE. Your TDEE is your calorie needs per day based on your actual activity, assuming that you are not just completely at rest without eating anything.
Step 2: Calculating TDEE
The TDEE is simply taking your RMR and applying an activity-based multiplier. After all, most of us do not sit like vegetables all day, every day so the calorie balance needs to take that into account. The more activity, the higher the multiplier.
Let’s stick with the above example, of a woman who is 5’5 and 140 pounds.The RMR of 1300 calories as a base is used to calculate the TDEE multiplier.
The multiplier is applied based on activity levels, as follows:
- If you totally sedentary and rarely exercise, multiply your RMR by 1.2
- If you exercise on 1 to 3 days per week, multiply your RMR by 1.375
- If you exercise on 3 to 5 days per week, multiply your BMR by 1.55
- If you exercise 6 to 7 days per week, multiply your RMR by 1.725
- If you exercise every day and have a physical job or if you often exercise twice a day, multiply your RMR by 1.9.
These multipliers are derived from the Katch-Macardle Multipliers (W. D. McArdle, F. I. Katch, and V. L. Katch, Essentials of Exercise Physiology: LWW; Fifth, North American edition, 2015. [Google Scholar])
Just like a RMR calculator, you can calculate your TDEE automatically using the TDEE calculator. In fact, that is usually more efficient because you can just skip knowing your BMR and go straight to the TDEE, which is really the punchline. Most TDEE calculators also inform what your BMR is.
The best step by step comprehensive TDEE calculator I found is on tdeecalculator.net, where you simply input your weight, height and age and it spits out your TDEE based on those numbers.
Step 3: Calculate daily caloric intake
Based on your TDEE, whether you want to be in a caloric surplus, deficit, or maintenance mode will determine how many calories you will want to aim to consume on a daily basis. The TDEE calculator site calculates the calorie deficit or surplus that you would need to achieve one of three possible goals: 1) “Cutting” or Fat Weight Loss, 2) Weight Maintenance, 3) “Bulking” or Muscle Weight Gain.
Thus, going further with the example, suppose the hypothetical woman exercises 3-5 times per week. Her TDEE would be 2015, what would be required to maintain her weight as is.
However, the ultimate decision of the right amount of calories for your personal needs is one that should be made with the help of a dietitian or medical professional. I will talk more about the process of finding a dietitian in the next chapter.
Optional Step 4: Calculate Macronutrient Needs
If dealing with macros is too overwhelming at this point for you, you can stop at step 3 and revisit this when you feel like you have a better grip on your program.
Recap: What are macros again? Macros are the quantum (often expressed in grams) of protein, carbohydrates and fats you are eating.
Should I count them?
- Pros: Helps satiety, no “bad” foods
- Cons: Could result in lack of vitamins and minerals, may be problematic for history of complex food relationship
How many macros should I eat?
It depends. (classic lawyer answer, but it really does).
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recommends adults try to get 10-35 percent of their calories from protein, 45-65 percent from carbs and 20-35 percent from fats.
You can find macro-counting calculators online (like from the TDEE site) to help you determine your magic numbers, but it’s best to work with a registered dietitian who can use his or her expertise to guide you through the process.
What’s “If it Fits your Macros?”
“If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) is a dietary strategy that revolves around eating a calculated number of calories and amount of protein, fat, and carbs every day from whatever foods you want.
Once you calculate calories, it is possible to determine what your macronutrient needs to be. So let’s take the previous 1600 calorie a day example. If that translates to 200 grams of carbs and 44 grams of fat based on DRI guidelines, then that would leave 100 grams of protein.
Under IIFYM, the 200 grams could all come from gummy bears or vegetables and grains—it is agnostic. Same with the fat intake—it can all come from nut butter or olive oil. Protein can be all beans or all steak. Pasta, bread, potatoes, fries, and ice cream are all just fine,
There are both pros and cons to this approach. Some dietitians and professionals support it because of their flexibility. Others are more skeptical because this could result in nutrients deficiencies (like if you were to take it really literally and not eat any vegetables). This is where I think the 80/20 approach really makes sense and offers a more common-sense solution. It is a modification of the IIFYM approach to integrate good health and common sense principles, yet still allow for that flexibility.
So what should I do, count calories, macros or both?
Overall, both calorie and macro counting are good ways to track food intake and approximate portion sizes. However, if the data entry burden of macros is too high, you can stick with calorie tracking for now and worry about macros later.
Besides on the TDEE site, there are several online tools that do the work of calculating macros for you based on detailed quizzes and preferences. These are available at:
- https://drbillsukala.com/macronutrient-calorie-gram-calculator/. I like this calculator because you can enter your desired rations based on our desired calories.
- IIFYM calculator – https://www.iifym.com/macro-calculator/
How to calculate your macro ratios
To recap, the recommended macro ratios are:
- 45-65% of calories from carbs
- 20-35% of calories from fat
- 10-35% of calories from protein
While this recommendation is not necessarily right for everyone, it is a great starting point.
Start with protein
Since protein is the basis for your food outfit, it makes sense to start with your protein needs. The US Dietary Guidelines suggest protein intake should make up 10% to 35% of your daily calories. On a 2,000 calorie diet in our example, this will equal out to 50 to 175 grams of protein a day, which is a large range.
A high protein diet is associated with numerous benefits including decreased appetite, reduced cravings, and better body composition, especially when protein is front-loaded in the day. For example, this National Institute of Health study compared two adult groups eating an egg breakfast versus a bagel breakfast, and found that the “egg diet” group showed a 65% greater weight loss and a 16% greater reduction in percent body fat.
Also, protein is the most thermogenic of all the macros. Earlier we looked at the CICO equation and in that equation “TEF” represented the “thermic effect of food” – responsible for up to 10 % of total calorie intake. With protein being at the top of the list for igniting that thermic effect, it can lead to an increase in your daily metabolism and overall TDEE.
As you may have experienced, protein can also satiate hunger. Think about how full you feel eating an omelet for breakfast versus a bagel with cream cheese or plan cereal. With the later, it’s very possible you could be hungry just an hour later. With a high-protein meal, you are capable of being full fuor at least 3-4 hours.
There is a school of “bro science” which recommends eating a gram of protein per bodyweight, but this does not necessarily translate to a perfect formula.
So what is the “magic” number for protein? The truth is that it depends on your personal needs, your lifestyle and your body goals whether you should be swinging in the 10 percent of the range versus the 35 percent. It is a process to find the ideal range, but if you are patient and seek outside help from a dietitian you can gain an intuitive sense of what amount you need to stay full and energized. Protein is one of the key “levers” in managing weight, so when you focus on making your protein needs a priority, the rest of the equation will fall into place.
Toggle the remaining balance between carbs and fat
After you have figured out your protein needs, then assess your carbohydrate and fat needs.
Ultimately, these numbers can be toggled with. Quality does matter when it comes to the kind of carbs and fat you are consuming, as we discussed earlier. Getting most of your carbs from sugary, processed foods can lead to insulin resistance, which basically causes the body to store these calories as fat.
When it comes to macros, there is no single best formula for fitness goals; most of the time calorie management can work quite well as long as caloric balance is accounted for. And without a reliable method, you are not likely to be held accountable for “forgetting” a few nibbles here or an extra serving there. These “microtransactions” add up and then can sabotage your efforts at “eating clean”.
Instead of trying to adhere to a rigid monk-like eating regimen, do yourself a favor and don’t succumb to willful blindness caused by impossible, misconstrued standards. Set yourself up for success by having real-time information on what your intake and how that can be adjusted and tweaked to balance your outputs. These factors highly depend on your activity level, body goals, age, and other circumstances but a back of the envelope information can empower you to navigate a professional consultation and get the most out of your session so you can hit the ground running on your meal planning!
The DAO metrics-based approach totally aligns with the flexibility the 80-20 plan gives you. Having flexibility in your diet by staying with 80 percent minimally processed foods but allowing 20 percent for a piece of cake, fettuccine dish, or a Laffy Taffy is what will keep you sane and not feeling deprived. Even though in theory you can get all of your carbs in this example from candy, that would make you feel pretty awful physically. Whether you want to make your “20” a percentage of calories, macros, or meals, knowing the content of all three of these is going to give you more power and control.
And this will not be difficult. We are all brainy women, and contrary to popular belief, good with numbers.
If seeing a dietitian as I recommend is something you wish to pursue, I describe my experience with this in the following blog post: https://daofitlife.com/path/my-date-with-a-dietitian-how-to-find-one-why-it-matters/.
A weighty question
You may notice that these calculations depend on one key data point: WEIGHT. I have never met a woman who had said, “yay, I love weighing myself!”
It is really easy to lose accountability from lack of weighing oneself, for several reasons:
- Judging by how clothes fit is misleading. I can still fit into the same clothes within a 15 pound weight range, especially stretchy ones.
- It’s just better to know earlier if you need to make adjustments rather than being blindsided at a doctor’s office weigh-in.
- If you do not measure it, you won’t be able to manage it. Managing it early on when you slide by a few pounds is much easier than doing so when it bubbles up to 15, 20, 30 plus pounds.
Subjectivity come from us, not the device
The fear of a number on the scale is only from the assumption of what that number may mean for our well-being, or even self-worth. There’s a preconceived notion for what weight we “should” be, but even at the same height, so many factors like muscle mass, bone structure, and genetics influence it. The purpose of the scale is to have an objective device to balance out the subjectivity of our judgment and keep us on track.
This definitely does not translate to weighing yourself every day and freaking out if it’s not exactly the same number. I generally follow the advice of weighing in once a week, without clothing and first thing in the morning, ideally on the same day per week. Make sure to use the same scale, because different scales are calibrated differently.
It is also worth pointing out that the number of kilos or pounds does not tell the whole story. A full assessment that is available from technology like a DEXA scan can give you data when it comes to percentage of body fat, lean muscle and bone mass. These are all factors to consider besides the raw number and so that should be top of mind when you are using your weight as a factor to determine the rest of the data points.
Putting it together: a practical example
Let’s put this ALL together, and it’s not complicated—let’s suppose a 38-year-old 5’5 woman weighs 165, and exercises 3 to 5 days a week.
Using a standard BMR calculator, that would put her BMR at about 1430 calories. Remember, this is basically the calories you would burn by sitting around watching Netflix. Just your body performing its basic functions.
Based on this number, she can calculate her TDEE for her activity level. This would mean multiplying 1430 by 1.55, which would equate to 2,217 calories to maintain her weight.
On the tdeecalculator.net site, it gives you the information you need regarding calorie consumption based on whether your goal is to lose fat (cutting), gain muscle (bulking), or to maintain. Typically, to lose one pound a week (a relatively steady weight loss), this would mean cutting 500 calories from one’s daily diet.
Staying with the above example, this would make her caloric intake daily around 1700 calories. The tdeecalculator.net site also gives macro variations based on a low-carb, moderate carb, or medium-carb diet. For example, a medium carb diet assuming a 30/35/35 ratio of proteins to fats to carbs would mean 129g of protein, 67g of fat, and 150g of carbs.
There are a wide variety of calorie and macro calculators on the internet, but an ideal macro ratio differs from person to person – there is no one size fits all. It is highly dependent on your activity level, body goals, age, and other circumstances (for example, if you are dealing with a chronic condition or are trying to get pregnant). This is why seeing a dietitian is so important. However, this back of the envelope information can empower you to navigate that discussion and get the most out of your session so you can hit the ground running on your meal planning!
Takeway : Tools in the toolbox
As a back of the envelope tool, calorie and macro tracking can be useful to “train” you to get an idea of how much food you are taking in and how much you need. They can also be useful meal planning tools. When you establish a regular rhythm of “LBD meals” and understand how much you need to eat around your workouts, you can be more flexible. Look at it like a chef just starting out – in the beginning, they probably have to measure cups and tablespoons but later they intuitively know how much should go in and can eyeball it. You can do the same with your nutrition intake and be more intuitive about what you need.