Why calories always count

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Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

Are you focusing on nutrition incidentals and missing the factors that will have the biggest effect on your body composition? One of the most common things I see among bodybuilders or people interested in body composition is that we don’t know what are the big rocks and what are the pebbles. As a result we sometimes spend a lot of time and energy on the pebbles before we even have the big rocks in place.
The reason why you want to have these big rocks in place before you start thinking about anything else is because that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck.

Here’s an example of how people can very easily focus on the wrong things. I can’t tell you how often I sit down with someone who wants dietary advice and when I ask them to tell me about their diet they say, ‘Well, for breakfast I’m having oatmeal…’ and they start to list their meals. And I say, whoa, stop, do you know what your total calorie intake is? And they usually say no. So in that instance it’s not even that the cart is before the horse. We don’t even have a horse.

Think nutrients, not foods
When you come to plan your diet you need to start by understanding that a meal plan is not a diet. That would be like saying your overall paradigm of training is ‘I do chest on Monday’. It doesn’t tell me anything except what body part you’re training. You may well use a meal plan. You may plan for what you’re going to eat that day. That’s fine. But we care about the nutrients in food, right? Not the foods that contain them. So we need to be talking about the big-picture structure of our diet, not just in terms of a meal plan.

The first thing we need to do is to think about energy balance, which means we need to look at calories. Then we need to think about where calories come from. And we also need to plan how we organise our energy balance, which includes weight gain or weight loss over the course of a diet, which is diet periodisation – breaking things up into organised periods that have a purpose.

Maintenance work
In order to plan your diet effectively you need to establish what your maintenance calorie intake is. At every bodyweight and body composition you have a range of calories you could be eating to maintain it. Crucially, your maintenance is not a static figure. In the off-season right now I maintain about 205lbs eating, on average, about 3,400 calories a day. When I’m all the way dieted down to around 180lbs for a contest then my average calorie intake over the course of the week, with only minimal weight loss occurring, has been as low as 1,800-2,000 calories. It’s a really big difference.

Granted, some of that is just because I weigh less, but a significant part is due to metabolic slowing from being on a long calorie restricted diet[1] and getting far below my body fat set point[2]. Therefore, at any bodyweight and body composition combination, there is a range in which your maintenance calorie intake can lie. The thing is, if it’s a moving target, how do we figure it out? I’m going to give you an okay way to figure it out then I’m going to give you an ideal way. The reason I’m giving you both is because you can’t always use the ideal way.

Basic intake calculation
Take your bodyweight. If you’re working in kilos, multiply it by 22. If you’re working in lbs multiply it by 10. Then you multiply that by one of the four activity multipliers that I’ve listed below. This gives us an approximate range for your calorie intake. Unlike other activity multipliers[3], this is one that I have designed specifically for people who lift weights. It combines the activity level of your day with the given fact that you train hard several times a week, rather than combining your general activity with exercise which can make the choice of which multiplier to use confusing.

Sedentary lifestyle plus 3-6 days of weight training: multiply by 1.3-1.6

Lightly active plus 3-6 days of weight training: multiply by 1.5-1.8

Active plus 3-6 days of weight training: multiply by 1.7-2.0

Very active plus 3-6 days of weight training: multiply by 1.9-2.2

So let’s take an example. We’ve got a 92kg person, sedentary with 3-6 days of lifting.

Their calculation is: 92kg x 22 = 2024 and then 2024 x 1.3-1.6 = 2,630-3,240 calories.

By this calculation, they might maintain their weight anywhere between roughly 2,630 to 3,240 calories. That’s a pretty broad range, isn’t it? So it’s not ideal but it gives you something useful to work with.

The data-driven calculation
What is ideal, instead of using a multiplier, is to actually use data. Figure out what you’re actually eating and track your weight. All this requires is a couple of weeks of consistency and monitoring and you’ll have an idea of what your current maintenance requirement is right now.

Here’s how to do it. Take two weeks (or longer, if you prefer), track your calorie intake on a day-to-day basis and take the seven-day average of your caloric intake for both weeks (add all seven days’ caloric intakes together and divide by seven). At the same time, do the same thing with your daily bodyweight. Weigh-in every day, under the same conditions, calculate a seven-day average and monitor how your weight changes.

One relevant bit of information in this case is the fact that we know a 1,000 calorie deficit per day should create, roughly, 1kg loss of bodyweight, or roughly 2lbs over the course of a week[4]. And roughly the same should be true if we go into surplus.  Let’s look at an example of how you apply this in real life. In week one you’ve averaged 92.1kg while eating 3,270 calories on average per day over the course of the week.

During the second week you’re averaging 91.9kg at 3,300 calories as your daily average for the week. So that means we’ve lost about 200g (or .2kg) eating, on average, 3,300 calories. We know a 1kg loss in a week equates roughly to a daily deficit of 1,000 calories, so our calculation would be 0.2×1,000, which equals a slight deficit of approximately 200 calories per day.

Now, this isn’t 100% accurate as even with a seven-day average, water weight fluctuations could affect that average; but that’s a much more accurate way than using a multiplier, and from there you adjust and modify over time. So in this example, we can start by saying that our maintenance calorie intake looks like it’s at  about 3,500 calories.

The next step
Now that we know our maintenance, then we have something to work with. If we know what we need to maintain weight then we know we need to go higher or lower to gain or lose weight.

If you know how may calories you need you can then begin to talk about where those calories come from. Our primary concern is the ratio of protein, carbs and fats. They are all important and they all have functions in the body. Using them in the right combination for an individual is one of the big, big rocks that you want to try to manage.

Once you know where you’re starting from you can look at where you’re trying to get to and calculate the rate of your weight loss. How long is the traditional contest prep diet? Eight or 12 or 16 weeks, right? Well, it’s worth noting that the faster the rate of weight loss the greater your potential risk of losing lean body mass[5] and the greater the potential risk of strength loss[6], which could also possibly result in a loss of lean body mass. And also, the more rapid the weight loss, the more extreme the rate of metabolic adaption[7].

What have you got to lose?
So, what’s an appropriate rate of weight loss that can mitigate and minimise a loss of lean body mass, strength and the severity of metabolic adaptation? It’s roughly 0.5-1% of bodyweight3,5,6. If you’re 100kg, that’s 500g-1kg. That’s the same for men and women. It’s also important to mention that this is in the context of bodybuilders who are not typically overweight.

Let’s say that you have about 25lbs of non-essential body fat on you, it’s pretty reasonable to lose 1lb in a week because that’s only one 25th of that figure. That doesn’t sound crazy. But if you’re 6lbs over stage weight can you still expect to lose 1lb of fat per week? Not really. So as you get leaner, the amount you want to lose per week gets lower. Sure, it’s not Biggest Loser fast, but that’s not what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to get on stage with as much muscle as possible.

1. University of Minnesota. Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene., Keys AB. The biology of human starvation. Minneapolis,: University of Minnesota Press; 1950.
2. Harris RB. Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. FASEB J. Dec 1990;4(15):3310-3318.
3. Turocy PS, DePalma BF, Horswill CA, et al. National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sport and Exercise. J. Athl. Train. 2011;46(3):322-336.
4. Hall KD. What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? Int. J. Obes. 2007;32(3):573-576.
5. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. Apr 2011;21(2):97-104.
6. Mero AA, Huovinen H, Matintupa O, et al. Moderate energy restriction with high protein diet results in healthier outcome in women. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 2010;7(1):4.
7. Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, Hall KD. Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. July 1, 2012 2012;97(7):2489-2496.

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