It’s a question I get a lot.
In fact, losing fat is the biggest goal of athletes who come through the GAA Lean Athlete Online Coaching Program, with muscle gain being the second.
Of course, whilst these are the goals, achieving them whilst fuelling performance is always crucial.
Here’s the thing. There are a lot of factors involved when it comes to nutrition for these goals, but the best bit of nutritional advice I can give that will apply to the most people, as obvious as it sounds, is that eating LESS or MORE respectively than you expend, will put you in one direction or the other.
(Note: For muscle gain, especially, getting a good gym-work program in place will be a huge factor as to whether you gain muscle or not, regardless of nutrition)
There are a couple of problems with the idea of simply focussing on energy balance (energy intake vs. energy output.). After all, a little bit of information can be dangerous. One of the potential issues is that people tend to extend this logic to mean, “The less I eat, and the more exercise I do, the more weight I will lose.”
It’s not that this logic is false. However, because we are also interested in things other than just weight-loss, we can’t just slash our calories and expect to see the results we want, since implementing this protocol can lead to performance suffering, muscle loss, poorer health, poor quality of life, and ultimately, low adherence (people don’t stick to it for an extended period of time).
The Problem with Tracking
Another thing that needs addressed is that although we can track our intake of energy (by tracking the calories in the food we consume), it is almost impossible to track our expenditure (the amount of energy we use).
There are so many ways in which we expend energy, that it would be impossible to track all of them. We don’t just burn energy through exercise. We also burn energy through our body’s everyday processes, digesting our food, thinking, walking, fidgeting, breathing and a huge array of other outputs.
In fact, exercise usually only accounts, surprisingly to most people, for a minority of our daily energy expenditure.
So what are we to do?
Well, all we can do is try to make the best estimate possible, and adjust from there by trial and error. There are many ways to do this. We can track our calorie intake over a period of time, and if we are gaining or losing weight, we can adjust our caloric intake down or up accordingly, and if you can do that, then great.
The way I’m suggesting today is just a way of speeding up that process and giving us a decent guess at where our baseline of caloric expenditure might be.
Calculating Your Energy Requirements
Firstly, I should say that there are online calculators that you can put your details into and get an estimate calculated for you. Most of these are decent, and some use the formulae we’ll go into today, but in this guide, I wanted to walk you through the calculations in a way that you can learn the principles of energy balance and macronutrient requirements.
I’ll start with a couple of definitions which are useful to know before we go on:
BMR — Basal Metabolic Rate: This is an indication of the amount of energy you would need to simply keep your body functioning at rest. Essentially, the amount of calories you would burn if you laid in bed all day resting.
TDEE — Total Daily Energy Expenditure: This is an indication of the amount of total daily energy you use in your actual life. This includes your BMR, as well as exercise, walking to work, lifting a box off the ground, tying your shoelaces, the energy burned breaking down food, etc. This is the value we want to know in order to determine how much we need to eat to gain or lose weight.
So first off, we need to calculate our BMR. There are a few various methods of doing this, but for our purposes, we will be using a formula known as the Harris-Benedict equation.
This states that for men:
BMR = 66.5 + ( 13.75 × weight in kg ) + ( 5.003 × height in cm ) — ( 6.755 × age in years )
And for women:
BMR = 655.1 + ( 9.563 × weight in kg ) + ( 1.850 × height in cm ) — ( 4.676 × age in years )
This might seem quite complicated, but when we put it into practice, its quite simple. Let’s say we have a 23 year old male who is about 80kg and 180 cm.
BMR = 66.5 + (13.75 x 80) + (5.003 x 180) — (6.755 x 23)
BMR = 66.5 + 1100 + 900 — 155
BMR = 1911.5
(let’s say 1900 kcal (calories) for ease of use)
So this individual has a BMR of about 1900 kcal.
To re-cap, that means if he was to lie in bed all day, he would burn about 1900 kcal.
But he obviously isn’t going to be doing this. He is actually a gaelic football player who wants to gain muscle. He trains hard with his club 3 times per week, and is in the gym 2–3 times per week.
With this knowledge, we can start to estimate his average TDEE.
To do this, we use a multiplying factor. In accordance with the Harris-Benedict equation, there is a range of these multiplying factors. For example, someone who is more or less sedentary, meaning they aren’t very active during the day, and don’t exercise, the multiplying factor will be about 1.2. For someone who is a professional athlete, for example, where they’re doing a lot of heavy training, perhaps even twice a day, the factor will be about 1.9. For someone in the middle, working out maybe 3–5 times per week, a factor of about 1.55 will be used. Below is the guide used.
Sedentary (little or no exercise): TDEE = BMR x 1.2
Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): TDEE = BMR x 1.375
Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): TDEE = BMR x 1.55
Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): TDEE = BMR x 1.725
Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): TDEE = BMR x 1.9
After determining where the individual falls in this spectrum, we then take the BMR and multiply it by this factor. So for the example of the young male above, we could determine his multiplying factor at around 1.65:
TDEE = BMR x 1.65
TDEE = 1900 x 1.65
TDEE = 3135 kcal
We now have a rough estimate as to what this person would need to eat in order to maintain his weight. But he doesn’t want to maintain his weight, he wants to gain muscle. So that brings us to the next stage.
In order to gain weight, he will need to be eating more than his TDEE. A good place to start is to increase it by about 10%.
Required intake = TDEE + (10% of TDEE)
Required intake = 3135 + (10% of 3135)
Required intake =3135 + 313
Required intake =3448 kcal (Let’s say 3450 kcal for ease of use)
(If his goal was fat loss, we would take 10% off his TDEE and use that as an estimate.)
It’s important to note that these aren’t fixed variables, meaning that, for example, as you increase your energy intake, your energy output can also increase as a result, which can lead to less weight-gain than may be expected, in which case, energy intake may need increased again, as we’ll get into in the next section.
The same is true when reducing calories. When someone reduces their calorie intake, their energy output can naturally decrease slightly as a result.
Are You Progressing?
We have now calculated a good estimate of the amount of calories the individual in our example would need to be eating in order to gain weight. Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, this value is an estimate, and certain factors should be monitored to see if this is enough to stimulate muscle gain.
Again, it is worth reiterating that when it comes to muscle gain, your gym-work is what stimulates the muscle to grow, and nutrition is simply what allows this to happen. In other words, the impact of nutrition on muscle gain is small compared to the impact of gym-work. The opposite is true to fat-loss. Fat-loss is primarily determined by your nutrition, with gym-work allowing you to build/maintain muscle in the process.
I tend to evaluate muscle-gain progress by asking a couple of questions:
- Is your strength increasing week-on-week?
- Is bodyweight going up? (usually by about 0.5-1kg per month. Yes, I know that may seem slow for you, but gaining 6-12kg of muscle over the course of a year is amazing progress.)
If not, intake can be increased, by a further 100-200 kcal, until a point where these goals are being achieved. Inevitably, there will come a point where this calorie intake is no longer causing muscle gain, at which stage, the caloric intake will need to be increased again. On the other hand, if weight is going up, but a lot of bodyweight is being gained (I usually count this at around 1.5kg and over, although it will be different for each person, based on experience, age, how much of the weight-gain is bodyfat, time of season etc.), it is advisable to cut the caloric intake down by about 100-200 kcal.
For Fat-loss, the questions I usually use to evaluate progress are:
- Is bodyweight decreasing? (usually by about 0.5-1kg per week, although there are times when there can be no weight-loss and still be fat-loss, particularly in beginners to weight-training)
- Are you maintaining strength in the gym, and performance levels on the pitch?
If these two things aren’t happening, then there may be a change needed. There is going to be a balance between weight-loss and performance. If someone is losing weight at a rate higher than that suggested above, the likelihood is that performance will be suffering, and therefore intake should be increased, in order to allow adequate fuelling of performance.
If weight-loss is not being achieved, then intake should perhaps be decreased slightly (I would suggest by about 100-300 kcal) until a point where it is occurring and performance isn’t being majorly affected.
There will be a lot of individual variation on where the balance lies. Some people will feel great even when losing a lot of weight. Others will need more of a slow-and-steady approach. The important thing is to know yourself and be mindful of how things these are affecting each other.
So hopefully this helps answer that infamous question: “How much should I be eating to gain muscle or lose fat?” or at least gives a good starting point.
But we ain’t done yet.
There is a lot more to this fat loss/muscle gain conundrum than just calories in vs. calories out: The quality and type of exercise, the ability of the individual to be accurate in tracking the quality of food intake from a micronutrient point of view, the macronutrient breakdown of these calories (how much of it is made up or protein, carbohydrates and fats), but these are topics for another day. The calorie theory outlined above is the small amount of information, that will give you the biggest results, if adhered to consistently.
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