Some personal trainers and “health gurus” don’t believe in logging calories. Instead, they say “eat clean and eat when you’re hungry.” I don’t agree with that. I know from experience that eating below or too far above the amount of calories your body requires, can wreck your goals. When I started working out in 2002, I had no clue how to eat for optimum health and fitness. In fact, I still thought it was okay to barely eat anything at all. From age fourteen to sixteen, I went back and forth with anorexia and bulimia (both are very illogical are hard to keep up). When I found out I was pregnant in late 2001, logic told me that I needed to eat for my baby. This was the first time I decided to really figure out proper nutrition. After having my son, I had no excess fat on me. However, I still had skewed ideas on nutrition. I was still under-eating, and my breast milk was like skim milk. This was because I looked in the wrong places for nutritional advice (tidbit from magazines, TV ads, and word of mouth).
In 2005, I decided to end my confusion and purchase a personal training course. I was in Air Force Tech School at the time, with no major bills to worry about. Dropping $500 on a course was no big deal. It was a good investment. The course taught me the basics of nutrition. I learned that eating smaller, more frequent meals tricks the human metabolism into speeding up. I trusted the source and followed through with all that was advised. I went from eating sparingly to eating 5 small meals per day. That single change made the most visible, positive difference in my body in the years that I had been pursuing fitness. I finally got real abs. But, soon, I noticed there was a limit as to how far I could take my body with a standard personal training course. I struggled with growing muscle. In 2007, I dug around the internet, and finally, on a bodybuilding forum, I learned about Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto. Later, I purchased Championship Bodybuilding by Chris Aceto; a recommended read in the back of Tom Venuto’s book. These books combined, transformed my body into that of a fitness model. Venuto and Aceto stress the importance of the following in their books:
- What to eat and WHEN to eat specific foods
- The importance of eating enough calories for muscle growth – and where to get those calories from
- Knowing how much to decrease your calories for fat loss and from what macronutrient (essential for fat loss and muscle retention)
- What macronutrient ratio works for your goal and body type
Call yourself an athlete? Below are the average caloric requirements for professional athletes.
To determine your caloric needs, you need to be aware of your activity level, body fat percentage, and weight. Your composition, combined with your activity level, determine how many calories you burn per day. Finally, you’ll find out how many calories you’ll need to support muscle growth, maintenance or fat loss. The best method for determining this is the Katch-McCardle Method. The calculator at the link below utilizes this method.
- As a general rule, you should NOT eat below 20% of your “maintenance level.” If so, you will actually slow down your metabolic rate, and you can lose muscle. Muscle burns calories. The more muscle you retain, the easier it is to keep fat off. To find out your maintenance level go to the link below and follow the steps in the calorie calculator. Learn about maintenance level here.
- As a general rule, in order to grow muscle, you will need to eat above your “maintenance level”. Experiment with a two week period at 100 calories above that level. If you don’t notice subtle changes, or if you feel weak, then raise it to 200 calories. You probably don’t want to go above 400-500 calories above your maintenance level. Higher amounts make sense if you’re doing intense activities, such as powerlifting or if you’re active all day.
- As a general rule, when you raise your calories to support muscle growth, raise it with complex carbohydrates (oats, whole grains). That is assuming that you already eat around 30% protein from your total caloric intake. Carbs provide the energy to support your workouts and aid in recovery.
- Don’t log vegetables, they have a negative caloric effect. Logging them can give you the illusion that you’re eating enough when in reality you might not be. Peppers, green apples, and several other foods have a negative caloric effect as well. Look it up.
Good news: Once you get a hang of eating a specific way for the phase of training you’re in, it’s not necessary to log calories every day. In this case, get back to logging if you notice that you’re falling off track; logging every now and then to get back in a steady caloric and macronutrient pattern. Meeting your nutritional requirements within 100 calories or a percent or two of your macronutrient ratio is good enough for results; no one is perfect. Every time you change your goal (ex: summer slim down), you’ll need to determine your caloric needs to reach that goal.
I hope you learned the importance of keeping track of your nutritional needs. Eating below your needs leave you with no way of protecting your muscles from atrophy (shrinkage or breaking down for energy) when cutting calories for fat loss (if that’s your goal). There is also no way to make sure that you’ll grow muscle or tone maximally for muscle development. To hit these goals, you need to know how many calories are required for and from what nutritional sources. You need to log calories if you really want to ensure results. Period!
Figure out your caloric needs here: total daily energy expenditure and body fat calculator