Two common questions in this industry are "how do I know how much I should be eating for my goals?” and “how do I figure it out?” A lot of times, someone asking these questions is directed toward the use of a calorie calculator or equation of some sort. Now, this isn’t the worst option in the world, but in my opinion, it definitely isn’t the best. Within this article, I am going to discuss how I “calculate” macronutrient and caloric needs, as well as training protocols for someone depending on their goals. But first, let’s go over a few reasons why calorie calculators may not be the best option for managing intake.

Calorie calculators do not know your genetic predisposition, metabolic health, or health history.

When using a calorie calculator, you are asked to enter a few pieces of information such as age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. These items are all necessary pieces of information but they do not tell the whole story. It doesn’t take genetics into account which, let's be real, is a huge component. This rolls into metabolic function and health overall, as well as your body type (endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph). How quickly you metabolize food is a main component of how much you should be eating for your goals, and a calorie calculator does not know that information. It also doesn’t take into account your health history. Someone who has had disordered eating in the past, chronic weight gain or loss, or suffers from a metabolic disorder will have much different eating needs than the average Joe. Again, a calorie calculator does not take this into account.

Calorie calculators do not know your current caloric intake, previous eating patterns, or average macronutrient profile.

How someone gets to where they are (in regard to eating habits) is a huge component of figuring out where they should go to reach their goals. It doesn’t matter what calories a calculator spits out if the person has been chronically over- or under-eating and their metabolism has adapted to such behavior. In order to adjust someone’s caloric needs, you have to know their starting point and adjust from there.

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It honestly doesn’t matter as much what someone “should” be eating, but more so what they actually are eating. What a calorie calculator also does not tell you is how those calories should be split up in terms of macronutrients. Everyone responds better or worse to various macronutrient manipulations (i.e. high carb, low fat, ketogenic, carb cycling, etc.), and while overall caloric intake is the main player here, macronutrient distribution is a very important piece of the puzzle.

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Calorie calculators usually do not accurately estimate resting metabolic rate or activity level.

A calorie calculator will ask for your current activity level and may give you some options such as:

  • Sedentary (little to no activity)
  • Light Activity (exercise one to three times per week)
  • Moderate Activity (exercise three to five times per week)
  • Very Active (hard exercise six to seven times per week)
  • Extra Active (hard exercise or physical job)

As you can see, it is really hard to gauge where you could fall within these options. First, the majority of them only speak of exercise frequency, and if intensity is mentioned, it is very vague and subjective. I see most people highly overestimate their true activity level. In terms of resting metabolic rate (RMR), the best reading of this is through a metabolic cart, which measures oxygen uptake. A calculation is going to be quite off for most people here as well, simply due to the subjectivity of it.

So how do I figure out someone's caloric needs?

When I am creating a program for a client, there are a number of things I ask for in order to determine what and how much they should be consuming to reach their specific goals.

1. I obtain a three-day food log.

I ask all clients to give me at least three days worth of their typical daily intake. Some track it through an app already, which makes it much easier for me. However, most of the time I have to figure it out myself. Assuming I have to figure it out myself, I essentially calculate the macronutrients and calories of what they consumed on those days and then take the average. I take all macronutrients and calories from packaging; I do not use apps such as MyFitnessPal, which can be extremely inaccurate. I do ask them to include what an “off day” might look like as well because we all know Monday through Friday can be great, but Saturday and Sunday can turn into a shit show really fast. Those weekend days should be included and taken into account as well.

Taking the average of what they typically have been consuming as of late will give you a better starting point as to what caloric level is currently maintaining their weight. Therefore, if the goal is to lose weight or gain weight, you now have a starting point to adjust the calories as needed (up or down). You can also manipulate macronutrients as needed since you now have a starting point for those as well.

2. I evaluate their activity level with an RPE scale.

For all clients, I request a week’s worth of workouts, including everything from sets and reps to cardio training (with details on intensity and duration). However, I also ask them to give me a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for each workout on a scale of one to 10 (one being no effort, 10 being failure). This will help guide me in terms of how to adjust their training as well if needed. A client can be “training seven times a week,” but if the intensity is not where it needs to be, they may be better off training four times a week at a higher intensity level with more rest days. These are things I can adjust much more easily by receiving more biofeedback about their training. This is still a subjective method compared to the calculator, but it is much more an educated guess than a complete shot in the dark.

3. I review their health history.

This is an important piece to take into consideration when programming for a client to ensure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. Again, does this client have a history of disordered eating? Do they have a diagnosed metabolic issue or hormone dysfunction? What medications are they currently taking? This information will help me adjust their caloric needs and training protocol appropriately. For example, if someone is experiencing a low thyroid condition, they have a stressful job, etc., do you think programming a ton of HIIT and other high-intensity training is a good idea? No. That will just burn them out and make things worse. What if the client has a history of binge eating? Do you think programming in cheat meals is a good idea? Probably not. All of these items regarding their past or current ailments are vital to ensure proper nutrition and training programming.

With the information I collect I can create a plan for them that is much more suited for their actual needs. The detailed information also puts me in a better place to adjust clients in the future. My clients check in with me weekly, so I can make adjustments as we go, which is important. Our bodies are not static; they are dynamic and always changing. Therefore, nutrition and training have to change with us — another piece the calorie calculator does not provide. Is my method more time-consuming? Yes. Is my method more accurate for most people? Absolutely. If you take the time to really dig in and figure things out, it truly makes a difference in your results.