Calculating Your Dieting Numbers

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve decided that you want to shed some fat and become all sexified (Rog’s term). But you’re frustrated as all hell because there’s so much conflicting information out there. Never eat more than 1,000 calories; carbs are the devil; absolutely no dairy or fruit; switch up your foods every day to confuse your body; never, ever let any food pass your lips after 6p.m. (thanks for that one, Oprah).

I think that macronutrient percentages are useless. I’ve had people ask me for my opinion on their diet that was a “40/30/30” p/c/f split. Well, buddy, I’d love to help you out there, but you’re really not telling me anything. For example, how many total calories are you consuming? If you’re only getting in 100g total, that’s 40g protein, 30g carbs, and 30g fat. Not enough. Or if you’re consuming 3000 calories – alright, but relative to your bodyweight, what is that…?

Now, there are a number of ways to do this, but below is my approach that I’ve been using for some years.  I’ve done my research, I’ve applied the knowledge to myself and with my clients, and it works. You’ll read about other people recommending that you calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), then factor in activity levels, plus your age and gender and finally the number of hairs you have on your head. Quite frankly, all of those calculations give me a headache, but feel free to use those if you so desire. Here’s my way to skin the fat loss cat.

Determining Your Calories

Take your bodyweight (bw for short) in pounds and multiply by anywhere between 12-14. If you are extremely active in your day-to-day-life (eg. your job involves you lifting heavy things for several hours a day), then start at the top end. If you’re pretty much sedentary save for the time you spend in the gym, you’ll want to begin at 12x. The number you get will be the total number of calories you are to consume per day, on average. While I was first taught that the dieting range should begin at 12xbw for all individuals, I’ve since learned that our bodies can actually get away with eating a bit more than that. I was rather excited to know that little ‘ole me could afford to chow down just a wee bit extra and still make progress.

For myself, I am currently training 3 days (60 minutes each) per week and doing anywhere between 3-4 metabolic-type work (4-20 minutes each) as well. When not in the gym – which is the large majority of my time – I am a fulltime student, which entails a lot of ass-sitting. To counteract this, I walk whenever I can. I’d consider myself to be somewhere between lightly to moderately active. I would therefore set my starting dieting calories out at around 13xbw, or 1480 total calories.

114lbs today and wishing I could afford more calories!

Some people will have linear calories throughout the week, while others prefer calorie cycling or carb cycling. I’ve tried all three methods and am currently implementing carb-cycling (but not calorie-cycling). For intermittent fasting (IFing), calorie/carb-cycling is the recommended approach, with lower carbs and higher fats on off days.

Determining Your Macronutrients

Before I begin:
Protein = 4 kcal/gram
Carbohydrates = 4 kcal/gram
Fats = 9 kcal/gram

For the sake of convenience (and everyone’s familiarity), I’m referring to kilocalories (or Calories) simply as “calories,” even though technically it’s not the correct definition. This is simply the term that is tossed around colloquially.

Protein will be your most important macronutrient. In general, a minimum of 1.0g protein/lb bodyweight is a solid starting point. I personally like to go a bit higher than that – up to 1.5g/lb bodyweight if I can – for the sake of maintaining my hard-earned muscle mass. The harder you diet (ie. the greater your calorie deficit), the more crucial protein becomes and the more weight you’ll want to give it.

At a current bodyweight of 114lbs, then, my protein intake is set at 114 x 1.1 = 125g.

You’ll hear different opinions about what intake of carbohydrates is optimal. No matter how light you are as an individual, I’d like to see someone consuming an absolute minimum of 100g carbs on training days, preferably much more than that. Your carbohydrate number here will depend on a multitude of factors, including how well your body tolerates carbs, how much you like carbohydrates relative to fats, and how physically active you are. The more exercise you’re doing, the more carbs you’re going to need.

So, you can have linear carbs, in which case I’d recommend anywhere between 1.0 – 1.3g carbohydates/lb bodyweight. Otherwise if you’re carb-cycling, you can go as high as 2.0g/lb bodyweight with trace carbs on your off days.

I’m not going batsh!t crazy with my training (sticking to the basics and keeping it simple), so I’m going to go ahead and give myself 114 x 1.3  = 150g carbs on my training days.

Last is fats (though no less important). Make sure you’re tossing back your fish oil — anywhere between 6-10 1000mg capsules is a good amount. Try to stick mostly to full-fat sources: nuts, nuts butters, extra virgin olive oil, full-fat cheese, avocados, etc. The number of grams of fat you consume will simply be whatever remaining calories you have divided by 9. The way it works out, you’ll likely have more fats on days you’re not lifting.

For me, that comes out to (1480 calories – 125g protein * (4 calories/gram) – 150g carbs * (4 calories/gram))/9 = 42g on my training days.

Adjusting and Tweaking

So as it stands, my current dieting numbers are:

Training Days
1480 calories
125g protein
150g carbs
42g fats

Off Days
1480 calories
125g protein
60g carbs
82g fats

If you’re not keeping track of your progress, your dieting efforts will be for naught. Whether it be using the mirror, your bodyweight (in combination with body measurements, especially the waist), bodyfat calipers (which are by and large inaccurate for the most part, by the way), or that dress you wore at prom all those years ago, find some way to assess how you’re trucking along. I very strongly urge you to take progress pictures at least every month – this will keep you honest.

I’ve been using this bodytape measurer for years.

As much as I wish this were the case, the calculations above will likely not be perfect for you. You’ll probably either overestimate or underestimate your calorie needs in the first few weeks, and that’s okay. Before you flip out and change your macronutrient numbers every other day, give it a solid two weeks. If you want to get on the scale daily, then by all means go ahead – just as long as you don’t have an emotional attachment to whatever number is coughed up.

Some of you will be genetic freaks and will find that you drop weight surprisingly easily. If this is so, then you may need to bump up your intake by a couple hundred calories. The less fortunate will have to shave off more calories than the average individual to see the scale budge.

A good rate of fat loss is 0.5-2.0lbs/week. The leaner you are, the slower you want to diet lest you lose some muscle mass. For heavier, obese folks, a slightly faster rate is fine. But if you’re dropping something insane like 10lbs a week, you’re probably not eating enough and chances are, you’ve lost some precious muscle. This isn’t The Biggest Loser; this is real life. We want to establish healthy, sustainable lifestyle habits.

If, after two weeks, you’ve made solid progress, then don’t bother changing your numbers just yet. There’s no point in decreasing your calories further if it’s working for you. Once you find that your progress has slowed a bit, that’s when you can go back to the drawing board and adjust. Take the calories (anywhere from 100-300) away from either your carbohydrates or fats; leave your protein intact or even increase it ever so slightly.

I don’t like getting anywhere lower than 10xbw for dieting calories, and for most individuals, I don’t think anyone will ever need to get to that point. If you’re past the point of “pretty lean,” however (and by this I mean easily visible abs for men and a nice ab outline for women), you’ll want to incorporate some refeeds into your plan to upregulate some hormones that have gone wonky from the chronic low calories. More on that later, though.

…and Everything Else 

There’s nothing wrong with some dairy in and of itself, and nobody ever got fat from eating fruit. Hell, one of my favorite meals as of late has been 500g thawed berries mixed with 1 scoop vanilla casein powder. No, such a high intake will not kill me.

The meal timing myth is bogus. Simply focus on consuming most of your calories in the post-workout window (especially your carbs). If you’re training fasted, as many of you intermittent fasting folks are wont to do (myself included), then be sure to get in some BCAAs.

Eat the damn egg yolk. Whole milk is great. Some simple sugars are fine, too.

Keep it simple, sucka! There’s no need to overcomplicate the process. The simpler you choose to make dieting be for yourself, the smoother the ride will be.

About the author  ⁄ soheelee

I am a fitness buff with a Stanford B.A. in Human Biology – Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health. I’m also an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a nationally qualified NPC bikini competitor. I've written on Bodybuilding.com, Greatist, and other awesome publications sharing tips on fitness, psychology, and motivation.

  • Lulu

    Very informative…but one thing. You have fats, carbs and proteins all listed as 4kcal/gram. Shouldn’t fats be 9kcal/gram?

    • Sohee Lee

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. Thanks for catching that typo!

  • Jeff Britt

    Once again another informative article. I feel sorry for you girls who dont get to eat as much calories as us guys. No way I could survive on 1480 calories.

    • Lulu

      It sucks. A lot.

  • Katie

    Great article except on the part where you say a 40/30/30 diet at 1000 cals would be 40 g p 30g c 30g f. That would only equal 550 calories. It would actually be 100g p (400 cals) 75g c (300 cals) 33 f (300 cals). So it is a decent protein intake.

    • Sohee Lee

      Thanks for the correction – I missed that somehow. Fixed :)

  • mizztanya

    I think you accidentally a word, first sentence after ‘…and everything else’. Also, on determining calories consumed, should the current body weight be used, or the goal weight? Should beginners be using BCAA’s and if not, at what point are they best to start? You are such an inspiration! Thank you for all you do.

    • Sohee Lee

      Use your current bodyweight to determine your calories. I don’t think BCAAs are absolutely necessary if you’re training in a fed state (beginner or not), but if you’re lifting fasted then it’s a good idea. 10g before, 10g during, and 10g after.

  • http://djkreger.me Daniel Kreger

    Great post, Sohee! That multiplier you use to set calories…is there a corresponding multiplier for the number of hours of training each week? Like 4 hours of training gets 13xBW, 6 hours gets 14xBW, etc.? I will train 4 days (60 min max), and cycle 2-3 days (1-4 hours per ride), so I would assume the multiplier would be different. And yeah, I’m trying to lose fat.

    • Sohee Lee

      Not strictly, no. The problem with calories is that our human bodies are not machines… so it’s difficult to accurately determine how much we should be eating. There are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account, including not just amount of exercise but also intensity. For you, though, I’d say you should probably start at 13.5xbw since you seem pretty active.

      • http://djkreger.me Daniel Kreger

        Thank you, Sohee. I’ll play with that and see how it works out. Much appreciated!

  • Zak

    Great article. I am curious however, as to why you cycle carbs but not calories while dieting. Is there any specific reason you do this, or is it just for simplicity?

    • Sohee Lee

      Hey Zak – yep, just for simplicity. I’ve also found that staggering calories too much throws my body off, so I like to keep a consistent calorie intake.

  • Clement

    I am totally in agreement with you on this. Calories are the one thing that must be manipulated for fat loss.

    I don’t cycle my carbs, as I’m on Dan John’s 40 Day Programme, training 5-6 times per week with cardio afterwards. All I do is aim to hit the required amount of protein and let the rest of the macronutrients make up the rest of the calories.

    I have a question to ask about recomposition, though. How do you set up your training and diet for this holy grail of training?

  • Pingback: Crash Dieting Syndrome: A Somewhat Facetious Guide to What You Should Not Do | Sohee Lee Fitness

  • Breezey

    This is awesome. Thanks for posting it!

    Couple of quick questions though…how did you figure out your carbs for rest days? You explain workout days quite well (and totally understand that it will depend on the person) but rest days?

    And second, those calories seem super high at even 12xbw for me. I’m 5’3″, approx 142 pounds, and lift 4 days a week. I’m aiming to reduce body fat and over 1700 calories daily seems like a TON! (But, that said, I’ve been on a plan that only gives me 1300 for ages….)

    Thanks!!

    • Sohee

      Hi Breezey,

      Everyone’s going to give you a different answer regarding carb intake for rest days, but my preference is that carbs should be dependent upon how active you are in everyday life. For me, I consider myself lightly active with my job, so I don’t have as much a need for the carbs on my days off from training. Also, if an individual really loves fats (avocados etc.) then the off day would be a good time to bump the fat intake up and consequently push the carb intake down.

      For your height and weight, 1300 calories is pretty damn low. You’ll be good starting at 12xbw :)

  • Anna

    Is this to determine the number of calories for maintenance or for weight loss?

  • Priya George

    Thanks for writing that macros counting book – it is amazing! The first book that really makes super sense to me. I’ve downloaded the app and I got so much incredible info I realised i am eating a lot more fat and carbs than I thought!

    Hoping you’ll clarify if I understood this correctly…
    If I weigh 135 lbs and want to lose weight – does that mean I need to eat 135 gm of protein at least a day (to not lose muscle mass). Since 100gm chicken is 30gm protein – that’s a lot of calories as well, I may need to switch to tuna or something. Did I get that right with the protein?

    Awesome e-book!!

  • Tracey

    How do you deal with Fiber? Do you count it? For example this pasta: http://www.thinslimfoods.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=63

    Does it really have 65 calories?