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

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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.  

Screw the switch, let’s torch some body fat

Fire (1)

This was one of the best articles we did on Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss which is the method we teach in the Science Lab (for info on how to receive our chapters specific to High Intensity Athletes, click here for info).

I am going to try and keep this one short because it is essentially an update to the Metabolic Switch article.  I was asked this question “what if I have to lose some weight for a competition?”.  With the open coming up (actually this probably isn’t a good article for the open because it is coming too fast), regionals and then the Crossfit Games for the lucky few amongst us, is there a way to flip the switch a little bit harder in time for a competition? That answer is almost certainly yes and possibly without changing much at all with some smart timing.  First let me say that if you drop a lot of weight too soon that leads to an energy deficit and a performance drop.  Also it is not favorable as it relates to building muscle, muscle tone and adding strength.

The case for carb cycling both intraday (same day) and alternating days around workouts

Secondly you have to remember that these are all strategies but as strategies go it’s going to be hard to find a more flexible plan.  Same day is simple, eat your carbs around your workouts and then fats, proteins and fibrous carbs the rest of the time, potentially saving some carbs before bed.  Total volume should be highish because you don’t won’t to compromise all of the work you did in the gym.

Is it possible to flip the switch harder?

I’m glad you asked because that answer is yes for a person with a high functioning metabolism.  If you don’t have one yet, try both ways and see what feels most right.  If I were to take this approach I would drop 3-5 pounds in a week.  It wouldn’t all be fat but a lot of it would be.  The reason I don’t is because a healthy fat layer is favorable as it relates to my goals as an already lean individual.

High fat days

I need you to hear me when I tell you this.  If you added up the calories for both days and your high fat days were lower than your carb days that’s fine but if they are greatly lower that’s just you getting cute.  That isn’t what I am suggesting.  So on these days we eat 85/15 grass fed ground beef and avocados for energy dense foods that keep our calories high (yes I am talking to you ladies, don’t think this is just for the dudes).  The carb days aren’t low fat but they wouldn’t be as high.

One of the concepts in the book that is often confusing I will make brain dead simple for you guys.  If you are WOD’ing you have the option to carb up the night before but you always fuel around your workouts.  I realize all of the GLUT4 talk related to the anabolic window confuses this issue because it seems to put the emphasis on post workout.  I like pre-workout carbs to fuel workouts and if you are going into a rest day the post workout carbs are OPTIONAL depending on your goals.  If the following day is a rest day you won’t need as many carbs, since you don’t need carbs for that day you want to be able to switch to fat burning since fats are preferentially burned at rest.  What about back to back WOD days, so let’s say you have a rest day then 2 WOD days back to back followed by another rest day.  I am going to just do a one week example.  This is how that looks (this is a 2 on 1 off then a 3 on 1 off example because a week is 7 days long):

Sunday (rest day) you are potentially having carbs in the evening.  The goal isn’t low carb, more like saving reasonable carbs for the evening using most of the day for fat burning (because insulin is low).

Monday (WOD day) we are having carbs both pre-workout and post-workout on this day because we are back to back fueling to perform.

Tuesday (WOD day) this is the high fat day, by high fat day I simply mean similar energy intake to the rest day with a reliance on fats for your energy dense sources (potentially a relatively aggressive calorie deficit, I will use 500 calories as an example).  Just remember if you go too aggressive on the calorie deficit it could affect your workouts for a few days.  You will keep carbs high around your workouts but other than that mostly fats, proteins and fibrous veggies.

Wednesday (rest day) lowish carb saving most of your carbs for the evening.  The goal for this day is low but not uncomfortable.

Thursday (WOD day) carbs around your WOD’s definitely post pre and post.

Friday (WOD day) same as Thursday.

Saturday (WOD day) carbs pre-workout for sure but post workout is optional maybe saving some carbs for a nice glass of wine or two in the evening.

Oh yeah, on high fat days lean meats can bite it.

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