How to Count Calories: Cutting, Maintenance and Bulking Explained

Counting calories is one of the most common and widely known ways to manage weight. Whether you want to shed excess weight, maintain your current weight, or bulk up with muscle (gaining weight), it’s crucial to understand your caloric needs to achieve your goals. In this article, we’ll explore how to count calories for different fitness goals and, most importantly, how to do it in a healthy way.

Calories are just a measure of the energy we consume on a daily basis. But it’s not just calories in and calories out when considering both weight and health. At the core of weight management are calorie balance, calorie quality, and calorie type.

Calorie balance and the numbers

When it comes to caloric balance to achieve fitness goals, it’s a simple equation:

Calories eaten vs. calories used dictates weight.

How many calories do you need every day? How about when you exercise or lead an active lifestyle? Knowing your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) will help you create a plan to reach your goals. Let’s review some important numbers so you can see exactly what that looks like.

TDEE

TDEE = BMR x Daily Activity Factor

TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) = BMR (basal metabolic rate, or the calories you need at rest) x daily activity (exercise and just life in general).

TDEE takes into account all of your energy needs each day to maintain your current weight.

BMR

The Harris-Benedict equation can help determine BMR based on your age, sex, weight, and height.

Males. BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5

Females. BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

Activity factor

After you calculate the calories you need at rest, multiply your BMR by an activity factor to account for daily activities and exercise. This factor ranges from sedentary (little to no exercise) to very active (intense exercise).

  • Sedentary (little to no exercise + work a desk job) = 1.2
  • Lightly active (light exercise 1-3 days / week) = 1.375
  • Moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days / week) = 1.55
  • Very active (heavy exercise 6-7 days / week) = 1.725
  • Extremely active (very heavy exercise, hard labor job, training 2x / day) = 1.9

After you multiply your BMR by this activity number, you will know an estimate of your daily TDEE.

Bring it all together

Let’s look at an example:

  • Age/sex: 40-year-old female
  • Weight: 150 lbs (68 kg)
  • Height: 5 feet 7 inches tall (170 cm)
  • Activity level: Moderately active

From the equation above you just plug this information in:

BMR = (10 × 68) + (6.25 × 170) – (5 × 40) – 161 = 1381 calories at rest is her BMR

Activity Multiplier: 1381 x 1.55 (from list above) = 2,140 calories per day is her TDEE

What does this mean exactly when it comes to weight maintenance, gain, and loss? Let's take a look.

Maintain weight: calories eaten = calories used

Once you achieve the weight you feel most comfortable with, you can maintain it by understanding your daily caloric needs and sticking to those. Eat or consume about the same calories you use every day and this is how you can maintain your weight. In the example above it means that she should eat about 2100-2200 calories per day.

Some days you may eat a bit more and some days you may eat a bit less, but it all balances itself out over time, maintaining your general weight. Because weight can fluctuate with hormones, stress, hydration, and other factors, weight maintenance may be a range (+ or - a couple of pounds from your target weight).

Gain weight: calories eaten > calories used (calorie surplus)

Eat or consume more calories than you use every day, known as a calorie surplus, and you will gain weight. Research shows that healthy, sustainable weight gain can be achieved with a calorie surplus of about 250-750 calories depending on the person and their goals. In the example above it means that she should eat about 2600-2700 calories per day (about a 500 calorie surplus) to reach her weight gain goals. Remember, weight gain (like loss) happens everywhere in our body, so some body fat will inevitably be gained in this bulking process as well.

To prevent excess fat gain, it’s essential that the extra calories consumed are high in protein and that you are exercising (especially weightlifting or resistance training). This will ensure that the weight gain will primarily be muscle. In the fitness world, this is known as “bulking” because you are gaining weight in the form of muscle, bulking up your physique.

Lose weight: calories eaten < calories used (calorie deficit)

Eat or consume fewer calories than you use every day, known as a calorie deficit, and you will lose weight. Research shows that healthy, sustainable weight loss can be achieved with a calorie deficit of about 300-600 calories depending on the person and their goals. In the example above it means that she should eat about 1600-1700 calories per day (about a 500 calorie deficit) to reach her weight loss goals.

Weight loss, like weight gain, can be somewhat manipulated by the types of calories you’re eating. Maintaining higher protein levels during this process will ensure most of the weight loss is fat loss and not muscle loss. In the fitness world, this is known as “cutting” because you are cutting down your weight.

Note
Remember, weight loss happens everywhere in the body, and you will lose body fat as well as some muscle, especially if you are not consuming enough protein.

Again, this is the broad view of calories and by all means, not the only factor to consider. The sources and types of calories you consume can significantly impact fitness goals as well.

Calorie quality

In terms of the quality of the calories you consume, you want to aim for calories that also provide necessary vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients to support health (not just macros and calories). Eating fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, nuts/seeds, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats from things like olive oil and avocado oil will ensure you reach your caloric and nutritional needs. Not only will you look your best with this approach, but you will also feel your best!

Types of calories matter

Calories alone will ensure you gain, lose, or maintain your weight, however, you must consider other variables if you’re really aiming to achieve fitness goals. The scale just reflects weight, it doesn’t reflect fitness (such as body composition, muscle mass, body fat, cardiovascular health/endurance, nutrient status, etc.). Let’s consider an example.

Say we have two diets with the same amount of calories (2,000) but very different macronutrient ratios. Remember, macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

Diet plan A

Diet A is high in carbohydrate calories and very low in protein calories. These macronutrient levels could make gaining muscle mass more difficult, as a major contributor to muscle tissue development and maintenance is protein consumption.

Total calories2000
Carbs1200 calories (300 g)
Protein200 calories (50 g)
Fat560 calories (62 g)

Effects. Low protein makes muscle gain very difficult and weight loss will most likely be muscle loss vs. fat loss.

Diet plan B

Inversely, with Diet B, the same calorie count is being met but with significantly higher protein levels, which is more conducive to building muscle and gaining lean mass faster.

Total calories2000
Carbs800 calories (200 g)
Protein640 calories (160 g)
Fat600 calories (67 g)

Effects. Higher protein intake ensures proper muscle development for gaining and supports and prevents muscle loss when losing weight.

Takeaway

The takeaway here is that not all calories are created equal. It’s important to consider the quality of the calories (making sure they are nutrient-dense) and the type of calories (protein, carbs, or fats) to reach your fitness goals and ensure proper nutrition along the way. Always discuss your fitness and nutrition goals with a professional to get the most accurate and tailored information for you.

Things to keep in mind

Counting calories can definitely help you reach your weight goals, especially short term. However, it’s important to consider some long-term issues when tracking your calories.

  • Sustainability. Calorie counting can be tedious, especially in the long term. This can lead to disordered eating habits or a strained relationship with food, so be sure to allow some moderation. Incorporate days where you don’t track and instead eat intuitively based on what your body needs and wants.
  • Metabolic adaptation. Over time, your body can adapt to a reduced-calorie intake, making it harder to continue losing weight which usually means plateaus in your progress. To keep your metabolism sharp, try experimenting with different macronutrient ratios to see where you feel your best and what is the most maintainable.
  • Psychological impact. Constantly tracking calories can be mentally draining and may cause anxiety or obsession over food. Be sure to check in with your mental and emotional status every few days to see how you’re feeling and if you need a break from tracking.

Counting calories can be an effective short-term tool for managing weight, but it isn’t the only factor when it comes to fitness goals. For lasting success, focus on developing a balanced and healthy approach to nutrition, incorporating nutrient-dense foods, engaging in regular physical activity, and seeking professional guidance as needed. Ultimately, the key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is finding a sustainable lifestyle that works for you!

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