In addition to questions about training and general health, I receive a lot of questions about nutrition. It’s a complicated topic because everyone is at a different place with respect to what they are eating, what they can eat (i.e., food intolerances), and how they need to eat in order to achieve their goals. As with anything, the more work one puts into their nutrition, the more they can get out of it. Depending on where you are at, adjusting when you eat and what you eat can go a long way. But over time this might not be enough. And if you goals change, your nutrition will likely have to change as well. These types of changes are hard to make if you have no idea how much you have been eating and no idea how much of that food was carbohydrates, fats and protein.
For many, there comes a time when the total amount of food (as represented by calories) and the ratio of the “macros” (the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) in their food becomes important. It can manifest with those who are just starting out for the first time and aren’t seeing the expected “beginner gains” from training and eating well. It can also be for those more advanced who want to optimize their training or because they are trying to dial in their body composition. Let’s take an example from my own training.
I’m one of those tall, thin types (ectomorph) who tend to have a naturally high metabolism (I burn through food at a very high rate even when not training). I also seem to have genetics that makes it very hard for me to gain fat even if I stop training. While this is great for staying lean, it makes it very hard to gain muscle mass through training. Because my body is wired this way, I need to eat a LOT when I am trying to bulk up in a strength cycle, and the easy approach is to just eat and eat – basically everything in sight. In this way, I make sure I’m getting enough calories (energy) to fuel muscle growth. I estimated how much food this was at one point and it was generally over 4000 calories. Beyond this I didn’t need to do much counting. Eating everything in sight worked well. I went from 180lbs to 200lbs (my body fat went form about 6% to 10%).
After my most recent strength cycle, I went back to CrossFit and added in some bodybuilding accessory work for my upper body (which is much weaker than my lower body). The goal was to get a little bigger, but largely drop my fat percentage back down – I typically carry around 6% when I’m not doing strength. So, what I did is switch my eating back to 3 meals a day (largely Paleo) and have 1-2 snacks interspersed. It worked. I got a little bigger and my fat percentage dropped. However, CrossFit is very quantitative. It’s about measuring and tracking your performance and what I noticed is that I wasn’t performing well in many of the workouts. I was getting drained very quickly, often in the warm-ups. In one session I stopped and had a protein shake, whereupon I felt 100% better. It was then I realized I wasn’t eating optimally.
I decided to sit down and calculate how many calories I was taking in at each meal, along with how many carbohydrates, fats and proteins were in each meal. On a typical day I was taking in around 2100 calories. As a reduction from 4000 calories (in my strength cycle), this was a huge drop. In addition, most of the calories were coming from protein and fat; there were relatively few carbohydrates. This is all seemed a bit off, but how is one to know for sure? It’s a fairly complicated question and the answer depends on what your specific goals are, but a great staring point is to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and then estimate the number of calories you need based on that. The process starts with the Harris-Benedict equation, which has been modified a bit over the years. The original version (from the old studies in the 1900s) is as follows:
Once you have your BMR from the above equation you can estimate calorie needs by multiplying your BMR by a number that estimates your activity level:
And there you have a rough estimation of the total calories you should be taking in each day in order to *maintain* your body weight. For me, I should have been taking in 3400 calories to maintain. To drop fat I could have reduced the calories a bit from there and I would have dropped my fat percentage back down gradually. At 2500 calories per day I was dropping fat very fast, but at the expense of having very little energy. It took tremendous effort to train during each session. Part of the problem was not having enough food in general, but another problem was the ratios of my macros were off. I wasn’t consuming enough carbohydrates to help me get through my training. What these different ratios should be is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s important to keep in mind that after assessing calorie intake, the balance of your macros is the next factor to consider.
The Takehome: Although not everyone needs to count their calories and find their BMR, if you aren’t achieving your goals, or if you’ve been training for a while and have never counted your calories, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. At least do it once. See roughly where you should be at and then figure out how much, on average you are eating. If you are serious about your health and training goals, more calculations might be needed such as the balance of macros and the timing of those macros (meals) relative to training. If you would like to arrange one of these more detailed assessments, or if you have general questions, I am happy to help – just drop me a line.