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TDEE (BMR) Calculator Explained

calculator

The TDEE calculator (ETP calculator) is an important part of our site and when you put it together with Met Flex for Fat Loss you have a pretty good understanding of how to move forward.  The goal however isn’t for you to track calories for the rest of your life it’s just to get you in the ballpark of understanding as it relates to your athletic nutritional requirements.  Also whatever the reading is that doesn’t mean you have to hit that number every day.  You can and probably should look for more of an average or intuitive way of eating.

There’s been some confusion on the Facebook page regarding the BMR/TDEE Calculator, so I wanted to write this article to clear things up.  First of all, let’s clarify what the calculator does and doesn’t do.

What it does do is give you an estimate of what your overall calories are supposed to look like.

What it doesn’t do is spit out a meal plan or a precise ratio of macronutrients; that is left up to the user.

The underlying theme of practically everything we write here is that people need to take the reins and manage their health/nutrition themselves.  It will save you money and teach you a valuable lesson that you can apply to any area of your life.  If you eat whole foods and listen to your body, it’s really not that complicated.

Second, many athletic folks are shocked the first time they run things through the calculator.  The number seems too high.  “How could this be optimal if I want to stay lean?”  Coming from a background of calorie restriction and crash dieting, I’ll admit that it doesn’t make sense at first, but this is not an arbitrary suggestion.  The primary reason we’re telling you to eat closer to the TDEE calculation is because if you’re properly fed, you will have the energy (and hormones) to crush your workouts and that will create a greater energy debt.

We’re not talking about working out excessively to “burn calories” though.  When you under eat, your body holds onto fat and your work capacity decreases as a measure of protection.  This slows your metabolism down and stresses you out.  Eating more + moving more = better body composition and health.

Of course, there is a process of “dialing it in” that needs to happen.  Some people misunderstand that I’m suggesting they count calories.  I’ve said at least a dozen times that I personally do not count (nor does James), and I don’t necessarily want you to either.  All I’m suggesting is that you spend a few days counting calories and getting a handle on what it looks like to eat as much as you need to.  Once you know what “eating enough” looks and feels like, you never have to count a calorie again.  I want you develop intuitive eating patterns instead of relying upon the calculator to “hold your hand”.  This is what I did to get out of the dieting cycle, and it changed my life forever.

Can you use this approach doing Paleo or The Zone?  Absolutely!  You can also use it with a more flexible approach.  I often describe the way I eat as “80% whole foods and 20% eating for joy.”  I believe that this strategy is viable for practically anyone, but it’s especially useful for athletes who want to spend more time eating and training, and less time worrying about their nutrition.

With that said, I hope I’ve better explained what to do with this puppy.  To boot, here’s a primer on using the calculator and a description of its functions.  The “height”, “weight” and “age” fields are fairly self-explanatory; I can’t help you if you don’t know how old you are, how much you weigh or how tall you measure.

Activity

This is the money spot right here.  If you CrossFit, “Moderately Active” probably represents the activity level of a guy/gal who trains 2-3 times a week and works a relatively inactive job.  “Very Active” people CF 4-5 times a week.  “Extra Active” correlates with someone who CrossFits and works a pretty active job, or does two-a-days in the gym.

The next two fields, “gender” and “units” are also self-explanatory; you’re either a male or female.  If you live in the United States, select “Imperial”.  If you measure in grams, liters and meters, you will want to switch to “Metric”.

Results

There are two options here:

1)      TDEE (total daily energy expenditure)

or

2)     -10% TDEE

The -10% option is for the people that don’t feel like jumping in head-first, for whatever reason.  There is a bit of a “fudge factor” if you suspect you’ve got a damaged metabolism and you’re trying to work back to a healthy version of yourself.  While you could slowly increase your calories, I don’t suggest it.  I want you eating to perform as soon as possible.  A slow increase might leave you better off than what you were doing before, but you won’t see the real benefits of what we teach until you start eating to your level of performance.

Protein Calculation

This provides you with two settings:  “1 gram per lb.” and “LBM”.  LBM, or “Lean Body Mass, is based off of the body fat % that you input in the next field.  If you don’t know your body fat %, either select the first option or make a guess; you don’t need to be 100% accurate.  Also, remember that these numbers are just a guide.  This doesn’t mean you can’t eat more than 1 gram of protein per lb., but since most people (especially women) aren’t getting enough protein I think this information is enlightening.

We are a big believer in adequate Protein, in my opinion the best protein money can buy is from Progenex.

Fats

We recently changed the recommendation on the calculator to solve for fats, this is the message that is actually on the page of the calculator.

Note that many people adjust the carbs lower and end up getting a higher fat number.  This is a mistake.  Try solving for “carbs” using the paramaters below (also note that adjusting protein higher is typically favorable and will keep your carbs at a reasonable level, this is a guide not a rule):

  • Women 75g-100g of fat (I would probably default to 100g in most instances)
  • Men 125g-150g of fat (I would default to the lower number in most instances)

The simple fact is that if you want to kick-start your metbaolism; carbs and protein are better for doing that but you want to try and play with things a bit.  You are in charge, not a calculator on the internet.  The goal is adequate protein (at least 1g/lb. of LBM), enough fat (see above), and moderate carbs (see below).

(For more information on why click here.)

The calculator can also solve for carbs based upon how much fat you’re going to eat.  Leave the “carbs” field empty and use the “fats” drop-down to select a hypothetical amount of fat.

For example:

On a rest day, you may wish to eat more fat.  You would select (for example) 150g in the “fats” drop-down, and the calculator would spit out your TDEE calculation along with a suggested amount of carbs.

A lot of people want us to come up with a definitive meal plan that they can follow; we don’t offer one right now, and we probably never will.  Your nutritional requirements cannot be estimated with 100% accuracy by a calculator online; you’re going to have to take this guesswork, put it into practice, and adjust from there.  The goal here is to teach you to fish, so to speak.  Like a barbell, this calculator is a tool to allow you to reach your goals, but it doesn’t really do any work for you.  I hope this helps!

Carbs

This gives you a drop-down menu where you choose your “theoretical” carb intake for a day.  That number combined with your protein number allows the calculator to come up with a suggestion for how many grams of fat (not carbs) you need to eat to reach your TDEE goal.  Knowing how many carbs you need can be confusing at first, so we suggest that you shoot for values in this range:

  • Men should go for between 200-300g most days
  • Women should go for between 150-200g most days

See this article on Control Days to get an idea of how to lower your carbohydrate and calories on rest days to accelerate fat loss.

Want to lose 18 pounds of fat in 3 months? (Now 25.5 after 6 months)

Margaret Martin

Maggie’s approach is moderate with an emphasis on the Metabolic Flexibility method we teach, especially in the evenings and eating lot’s of fats.  For women I run through this approach and how to tweak it in the seminars but also it is detailed in the new Metabolic Flexibility chapters that are written specifically for high intensity athletes (details are in this link).

This is an update after 6 months (she is still killing it):

Here is a quote from Maggie “I’m definitely in the middle of the pack at the box, I’ve never made the leaderboard (though a few weeks ago, I was only one or two reps off), I don’t have meticulous lists of what I eat, I only CF 3x week, then do some at home lately (slow lifting, trying to get pull ups, situps, and pushups) and am fairly slow with cardio. I started with a Paleo Challenge for the first three months and then the last three have been mostly Paleo with a few non-Paleo meals here and there (pizza!), added white rice, liberally have red wine, and that’s about it. I can be more specific, but wanted to confirm that I wasn’t going over the top on anything, not even close.”

So in short if you think she is some genetic outlier you are wrong.  She just found an approach and continues to hammer it.

Maggie Martin

 

Also please notice how I don’t need to embarass Maggie with before and after pictures to prove my point.

This is Margaret Martin, she lost 18 pounds of fat in 3 months (measured at the University of Minnesota). She didn’t lose 18 pounds, she actually only lost 15 pounds but when you are new to Crossfit dormant muscles wake up. Also this isn’t MY story, changing behavior is hard, no matter what that behavior is but I will tell you my advice to Margaret and it’s the reason I don’t make a lot of money off of Crossfitters as a nutrition coach.


“Don’t diet, the worst thing you can do is come in here and try to kill yourself every day underfed. Change what you eat not how much. Also add weight to the bar but don’t hurt yourself, harder isn’t better, harder is a formula for getting hurt.”

After that we barely talked. The cardio is slow for a lot of people just starting off and they make it worse struggling under heavy weights they can’t handle. Maggie was strong and eating and showing up made her stronger, left he less stressed out and in general led to awesomeness.

Lastly let me say that I have seen well over a 1,000 BodPods. I have never seen one better than Maggie’s for a gal. Maggie asked me if that was good improvement, my response to her was “every woman (or man for that matter) in this gym would stab you to lose 18 pounds of fat, so yeah, it’s kind of a big accomplishment”.

The Details

Here are more numbers because #datadontlie (as you can see Margaret came in strong as hell)

Deadlift-185/215

BackSquat-130/170

Overhead Press-65/75

Baseline (this was a baseline workout she did when she first started Crossfit)7:39-black band, knees 5:57-green band, no knees

BMR Calculator with TDEE (total daily energy expenditure)

One question I am getting a lot related to this calculator is how to use the information.  Currently we offer a Q&A series when you buy the book Carb Back Loading and soon that series will be expanding.  Some of the topics will include meal planning, using supplements as well as a weekly guest speaker that will be focused on what Eating to Perform looks like in real life.

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How Do I Know How Much I Should Be Eating? (w/ dead-simple calculator)

(Click here to jump to a summary of this article)

Ok, it’s time to get serious.  I talk a lot about eating “enough food” to support your activity level.  I realize that up until this point, that recommendation has remained relatively vague.  You’ve asked me, “How do I know how much I should be eating?” and I’m going to do my best to provide you with a succinct answer.  The problem with giving a one-size-fits-all recommendation, or setting up basic guidelines, is that they’re never right for everyone; each of us is a biochemically unique, adaptive organism living through its own personal challenges.  Even when a suggestion comes close, it needs to be tweaked as time wears on, or progression will wane.  Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best to explain what I mean by “enough food” and how to determine what that actually means.

Our new TDEE Calculator with activity multiplier

Here is the calculator for you guys to play with, but first, a few words of caution.  This isn’t a calorie counting exercise where you need to be all obsessive; running this calculator will simply enlighten you, show you what eating for performance looks like in a quantitative measurement, so you can make more educated decisions in regards to your food intake.  Before you start punching in your data, I want to ask you to look at this as a tool and nothing more.  Use this calculator as a means to establish a general idea of how much energy you expend during your average rest/training day, and go from there, always listening to your body and doing what feels right.

Without further ado, here is our new TDEE Calculator (remember almost everyone who Crossfit’s is considered “Very Active” and that is the calorie number we are looking at as your total)

Determining Activity Levels

Once you load the calculator, it should be pretty straight-forward.  You can ignore the bits about body fat percentage, waist circumference and such if you don’t have those data, but the “Activity” drown-down menu on the left beneath “Age” needs some special attention.  Half of knowing whether you’re eating enough comes from understanding how to define your level of activity.  The menu gives you several options; here’s how I’d suggest you match the categories available to your lifestyle:

  • Sedentary:  People who work a desk job and engage in very little (if any) structured exercise.  Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, this does not describe you, so you’ll probably avoid this option.
  • Very Active:  If you CrossFit or lift heavy a couple times a week, or if you work a physically demanding job, your activity level can probably be described as “very active”.
  • Extra Active:  For those of us who CrossFit 5-6 times a week.  Serious weightlifters and athletes, as well as folks who work jobs requiring hours of heavy llifting, fall into this category.

Again, because we’re all different and lead different lives, the TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculation that we arrive at is naught but a guideline; a person who lifts hay bales for 12 hours days will do well to classify their activity levels as “extra active” even if they’ve never touched a barbell in their lives.  A person who trains hard a few times a week but does little in the way of physical labor at work will err on the lower side of things.  Once you’ve got your numbers plugged in and your activity level selected, you’ll move onto the next page of the calculator: the macronutrient breakdown.

Macros:  What Are They and Why Are They Important?

Macronutrients are major components of your diet that are broken down into constituents to provide energy, build tissue and create hormones.  The ones we’re concerned with are protein (which provides 4 calories per gram), Carbs (4 calories per gram) and Fats (9 awesome calories per gram).  Just to clarify, micronutrients are vitamins that play an important role in how your body metabolizes the macronutrients that you make available.  A body without essential vitamins and minerals is like a car with a full tank of gas but no spark plugs.  This is why eating wholesome, nutrient-dense food is so important.

At the top left-hand corner, under “Presets”, you’re given several self-explanatory options.  I would recommend setting this to “Maintain” first and then to make adjustments with the sliders beneath the pie charts.  Here are some general guidelines for achieving different goals by manipulation your macronutrient ratios:

  • Improving performance/gaining muscle:  Increase your protein and fat on both days and increase your carbs on workout days.  Adding on an extra 3-500 calories for training days should help you put on some muscle and make some gains.  There are a lot of people out there looking to bulk up or get stronger with an all or nothing approach, but believe it or not, constant overeating may not be helping their progress.  Eating a little less carbohydrate on rest days can keep your body sensitive to insulin so that it can function properly when it needs the extra energy (around training).
  • Losing fat:  Simply eating at “Maintenance” calories and engaging in vigorous exercise a few times a week will help you lose body fat.  It’s important to eat when you’re active.  I write about it all the time because it’s true and I can’t stress it enough; you must eat enough or your workouts will suck and your long-term physique goals will be compromised.  To that end, a minor reduction in your carbohydrate intake on rest days that results in a 2-400 calorie deficit should do the trick and mobilize more fat, especially since you’re active.  Again, start small and work your way up.  Always pay attention to what your body’s trying to tell you.

 

A Real-World Example

I’m going to use Lindsey Valenzuela as my example, mostly because she is awesome.  Here are her stats that she tweeted the other day, with some minor adjustments to simplify the math.

  • Height:  5’6″
  • Weight:  150 pounds
  • Age:  26
  • Activity level:  Extra Active
  • BMR:  1572 kcal’s (basic calories you need to live)
  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure:  3000 (no wonder she’s so awesome)
  • Protein:  150g=600 calories from protein
  • Carbs:  300g (she is Lindsey after all)=1200 calories from carbs

That leaves 1200 calories to come from fat, so you divide by 9 which will leave us at 133.3 fat grams for the day.

Now let’s do a male example, but in this case he wants to put on 10lbs of muscle:

  • Height:  6’0″
  • Body fat %:  12%, 22.8lbs of fat
  • Lean Mass:  167lbs
  • Weight:  190
  • Age:  25
  • BMR:  2012 kcals
  •  TDEE:  3470

To get him there, we’re going to have him eat about 4,000 calories on training days, broken down into 187g of protein, 407g of carbohydrate and 181g of fat.  Now, let’s assume that several months have passed by and our male example’s training and diet were spot-on.  He gained 10lbs of muscle mass while adding only 2lbs of fat to his frame.  This is a great accomplishment, and his numbers look like this now:

  • Body fat %:  12%, 24.3lbs of fat
  • Lean Mass:  177.8lbs
  • Weight:  202lbs
  • BMR:  2115 kcals
  • TDEE:  3649

Compare the two sets of numbers:  A man at 190lbs and 202lbs, retaining the same body fat percentage burns only 100 more calories at rest, and only about 200 more throughout a day.  That equates to an extra hour of light activity or sleep…A sweet potato here or there.  First and foremost, it takes a lot of time, hard work and perseverance, but only a modest alteration of energy expenditure and intake to lose or gain weight.  The precise numbers are generally unimportant; as long as you’re within the ballpark everything is okay.  There are special circumstances where your unique biology and lifestyle require you to eat more or less but I’ll touch on that and explain why this is all so fuzzy in an upcoming article.  For now, what I want you to take away is this:  After you’re eating enough good food to end up in the general area according to the numbers, how you feel, how you perform, and how you look should always be the first indicators you assess when determining the effectiveness of your training and nutrition.

Summary

  • Everyone is unique, so there is no “one-size” diet prescription.  We all need different amounts of food based upon our height, weight, body composition and activity levels.
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories you would theoretically spend at rest.
  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the amount of calories you burn in a day.  This is based upon your BMR and then multiplied by an activity multiplier.
  • We recommend eating at or just slightly below your estimated TDEE to ensure proper recovery from training
  • Using our calculator, you can determine your expenditure without doing any math.
  • Macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) provide the bulk of the energy in your diet.  By eating more or less of each, you can manipulate your weight, body composition and performance without restricting calories.
  • How you look, how you feel, and how you perform are more important than any number on a scale or a calculator.  

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