Monday, March 3, 2014

Estimating Your Caloric Intake

Why you are probably underestimating what you eat and overestimating how much you are burning and how it is affecting your goals.

     You've had it.  You are overweight or at least unsatisfied with your current appearance in the mirror.  You decided to do something about it and set a goal.  You have taken the hardest step which is giving a crap but the most crucial steps are the ones that follow.  You decide to track the food that you are eating.  You start writing down everything, “estimating” what you are eating.  How accurate are you though?  Are you weighing everything?  Should you be?
     All of your progress hinges on your ability to estimate your caloric intake accurately and it’s something that a majority of people are terrible at.  Studies show that people generally underestimate their caloric intake by as much as 50% and overestimate their activity level as much as 50%.  That means that even when tracking your energy balance most people end up eating at maintenance levels i.e. the calories required to maintain their current weight.  Not ideal if your goal is to lose weight.

The Art of Estimation

          So how do you accurately estimate what you are eating?  The first step is to buy a food scale.  For the first few weeks of estimating you should always weigh your food.  Weigh everything!  (I prefer using grams for the unit because they will give you the best accuracy)  That tbsp. of peanut butter might look like a tbsp. but weigh it out.  You might find that what you thought was a tbsp. is actually closer to 2 tbsp.  That steak you though was 8 oz. is actually closer to 12 oz.  This scale will slowly help to program you to where you can fairly accurately estimate what you are taking in.  After a week or so you will see how much better you become.  Start estimating in your head before you throw it on the scale.  See how far off you are.  Treat it like a game, do whatever you have to do to get yourself more accurate.
     After your initial few weeks with a scale you can continue to use it or slowly phase it out.  I recommend that you still use it for foods that are easily underestimated.  Mainly fats like nuts, PB, avocado, dressings etc.  Good rule is that if it’s calorically dense you might want to check it on the scale before you eat it.  They will be the hardest to judge and the most detrimental if underestimated.  I would also use it every few months of so to make your stomach isn't causing your eyes to underestimate which they will tend to do.
     Weighing food is great but what are you using as a reference?  I've found the most accurate and convenient website to be  It has yet to let me down.  I also use MyFitnessPal to track calories but be careful if you are using this app to estimate food.  The library is user updated and can be highly incorrect.  I recommend using calorieking at first and find a way to translate those numbers into MFP.  Calorie labels can be off by 10% ish but they are at least a reference point when it comes to food that has them.  Another tip is to not bother about counting anything green, leafy or just about any non-starchy vegetable.  As long as you consistently don’t count them you will be fine.  If you do count them though, be consistent and ALWAYS count them.  The key is consistency.  If you are looking for some better food choices to add to your diet you can read my article about what should be in your refrigerator.

Estimating Calories Burned

     Estimating the calories you burn in a day is something that can be done by anyone with a few free minutes and access to Google.  It’s fairly simple.  Take your BMR (calculate that here) and multiply by your activity level.  I know you are all super studs and elite athletes so you will choose an activity level that is moderate to very active but this is where that overestimation comes in to play.  98% of people I work with I will start at the sedentary level of activity.  Why you might ask?  Few reasons, (1) People will almost always underestimate the calories the eat (2) People will almost always underestimate the calories they eat (3) It’s easier to add calories in after a few weeks of assessment than it is to get someone to eat less than they are already eating after we find out my initial assessment was too high.  For these reasons I use a multiplier of 1.2 for just about everyone I work with.

     Let me give you an example.  We will take an average male, 25 y/o, 70 inches and 180 lbs.  According to the calculator his BMR is 1906.  Using a sedentary activity level (1.2) that would put him at a caloric intake of 2287 to maintain his weight of 180 lbs.  We can play around with that number depending on if he wants to gain muscle, lose fat etc.  The number you get from this calculation is just an estimate.  There are a few fancy calculators out there that will help you estimate how many calories you burn in a day but know that all of them are just educated estimations on what your body is actually burning.  They can’t take into account things like genetics, fidgeting and other small factors that can add up over time.  The number you end up with is what any trainer will use to base your nutrition plan off of. 
     If you want to lose weight and eat at a consistent deficit (something I don’t recommend) then take 500 calories off per day and you will end up with a 3500 calorie deficit at the end of the week.  Theoretically you should have lost 1 lb. that week.  If you want a real good plan that utilizes calorie and carb cycling that help offset the hormonal and diet adherence issues that occur from eating at a daily deficit then have someone like me design you a carb cycling plan.  A plan that will have you eating over that number at some points in the week and under that number on some other days.  I am getting completely off topic and into another article but I will finish my thought before we get back on track.  If you use anything over the sedentary activity level then you are setting yourself up for failure.  Don’t do it.

Do I Account for my Physical Activity?

     I am sure I will get this question/statement so I will address it now.  “But I do P90X, Insanity, (Insert latest workout fad here) etc.  I am burning like 1000 calories when I do it so shouldn't I take that in account?  Short answer is no you shouldn't.  Long answer is No, because you are more than likely not burning anywhere near the calories you think you are burning.
     Since this is semi on topic I will touch on it a little more in detail now.  That sedentary man above is burning nearly 100 calories an hour by simply being alive and doing his daily routine.  If he decides that he wants to do 60 min of exercise, let’s say the elliptical or running at a 12 mile/hr. pace, he will have burned about 500 Cal (a fairly high estimate that is assuming he is in good shape).  That’s 60 minutes of straight up running or elliptical work.  Take that 500 Cal and minus what he would have burned had he of done nothing and you are left with 400 actual calories burned during that hour.  Remember this is a 180 lb. male in good shape.  Females will typically have a lower bodyweight and BMR so that number will be lower for you.  In my opinion that hour would have been better spent doing something else more productive like sleeping, planning your diet for the week etc.  Not to mention that aerobic exercise is great at stimulating your appetite which is the opposite of what you want while trying to lose weight.  It also leads to that whole “I worked out today so I deserve a reward” type attitude which leads down a road with chocolate pavers lined with doughnut trees and candy bar bushes.  If you really want that additional 400 calorie deficit than create it in your diet, not by upping your activity level.     Now I’m not saying that aerobic exercise has no place in your weight loss plan so please don’t miss quote me. I am just saying that it should not be a primary focus nor should it really be taken into consideration when you are planning for your nutrition unless you are doing butt loads of it which would lead me to believe you are either training for a marathon, a masochist or just love running (my beautiful wife is in this category).      If you start with aerobic activity at the beginning of a weight loss plan you will only have two choices when you hit your first plateau.  Take away more calories or start sweating for longer periods of time.  That 60 min just became your baseline and now you must do 90 min to see weight come off again.  Taking calories away is never fun so most people resort to more cardio and see very little additional results for the time they are putting into it.  Save it for the a little closer to your goal and you might find that you don’t even need it.  Worst case, it gives you another tool in your arsenal to use if you do hit a plateau.  Now when to use cardio as a tool for fat loss and how to best use it to reach your goals is a topic for another day.

Bringing It All Together
 The point I want to hammer home in this article is that you should have some consistent and accurate way to account for all of the calories you are consuming in a given day.  The key word to remember in all of this is consistency.  If you are consistent, even if you are off by 10-20% you can account for that in the changes to your caloric goal.  Have I said consistent enough?
Do not account for physical activity when calculating your estimated calories burned throughout the day.  You WILL over estimate and end up reaching your goal either extremely slowly or not at all.  That sedentary 1.2 number is as good as gold.
First look to your diet to create the caloric deficit you require to lose weight.  Don't use exercise as your only tool.  Allow your diet to do the work.  Cardio is a very viable tool for fat loss but it should be used sparingly for the vast majority of individuals.