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It’s All Just A Calorie Equation (Well Kind of…Mostly….Sort Of…Let me explain…)

“How many calories do I need to eat?”

This is a question I get numerous times a day.

It’s one I like to say well it all depends and it truly does there is so much to the equation but really comes down to a few things that apply to most people….

Calories in Vs. Calories Out- the great debate…

The overarching fundamental principle involved in weight management is calories in vs calories out (CICO). This should not be a controversial statement…but to some it is and has also become a calories vs. hormone debate…Who is right??

Like any good evidence-based answer, it depends and it’s both. I’ll stick with the calorie debate for now as Hormones are super important and I will mention them here and there but we’ll focus this on energy burning, storage, contributing factors and TDEE.

Our body is literally made up of calories. Our muscles and fat are stores of calories, even though they might also have other functions.

The body burns through calories every day doing a variety of things.

For example, your heart pumping, lungs breathing, brain functioning, literally maintaining the amount of muscle and fat you have, in addition to a massively long list of things, burns calories. This is before even factoring in the calories burned during movement.

When there is a surplus of calories, beyond what the body has burned, that surplus gets stored in some way. Fat is one of the options for where it can be stored.

When there is a deficit of calories, as in the body has burned more calories than what has been consumed through food, these calories have to come from somewhere.

Like literally think about that, if the body has burned X number of calories, but you have eaten less than that amount, where do the calories come from? Our body’s main storage form is muscle and fat, so it comes from there. Which is why if someone has done intermittent fasting and works out in the morning they have energy as they are using fat as fuel.

This overly simplified explanation is why CICO works. Breaking it down to this level is important because it also prevents other misunderstandings.

There is obviously more to the story. The “calories out” portion of the equation is not some static number that stays the same day in and day out. There is a lot of variation in that number.

Heck, even the number of calories you eat directly changes that number.

Fat loss is something that from a nutritional perspective is somehow both simple and incredibly complex.

Understanding nutritional priorities when it comes to fat loss can make the process seem simple. It can also make it easy to avoid focusing on things that do not really matter.

But it can be ridiculously complex when you factor in all the details that can be relevant.

This post is going to cover the fundamentals of nutrition for fat loss, while also touching on a lot of practical points.


Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the total amount of calories needed to keep your body functioning.

Body processes like breathing, cell production, pumping blood, and maintaining body temperature all burn calories. This means that even when you sit perfectly still, you still use plenty of calories keeping your body in good working order.

Your sex, age, weight, and height will all affect the number of calories you need, which is why they are variables in our equation above.

The taller you are, or the more you weigh, the higher your BMR will be.

There is simply more of you to fuel: more blood to pump, more cells to produce, more body mass to transport and manage.

Your age will also factor in: the older you get the lower your BMR will be.

Roughly two-thirds of the calories you need each day go into keeping your body running.

The other third?

That goes into powering your motion.

You know, because going from one place to another requires energy. So does lifting stuff.

So let’s talk about Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) next.


Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is an estimate of how many total calories you burn in a day.

Since your BMR includes the calories you need while resting, we’ll also need to factor in movement and exercise.

To do this, we’ll take your BMR and multiply it by an “Activity Factor.”


Sedentary (BMR x 1.2): You regularly have to tell Netflix you are still watching. You don’t intentionally exercise at all.

Lightly Active (BMR x 1.375): You casually stroll through your neighborhood a few times a week. On average, you walk for exercise about 30 minutes a day. Another way to think about this would be 15 minutes per day of vigorous exercise like running or lifting weights.

Moderately Active (BMR x 1.55): If we called the gym on a weeknight looking for you, they’d find you. This averages out to about one hour and 45 minutes of walking (for exercise, not going around your house) a day, or 50 minutes of vigorous exercise a day.

Very Active (BMR x 1.725): You work in construction during the day and you’re on the company softball team. This averages out to about four hours and 15 minutes of walking (again, for intentional exercise) a day, or two hours of vigorous exercise.

If you’re following along at home, you may notice that different Activity Factors can make a big difference in the calories burned.

Let’s use some numbers.

Suppose you’re:

  • Male
  • 35 years old
  • Weigh 200 pounds
  • Six foot even (72 inches)

You’re also wearing a recently ironed collared shirt and it looks great on you. It really brings out your eyes.

Awesome shirt or no awesome shirt, we know your BMR comes in at 1,882 calories given the variables we identified. Meaning you’ll need roughly 1,900 calories for basic bodily functions.

This is where things get interesting.

If you’re sedentary, we’ll multiply 1,882 (BMR) by 1.2 to get a TDEE of 2,258, which means you’ll need 2,258 calories to maintain your current weight, support bodily functions, and to walk around your house, to go from your car to your office, from your office back home, etc.

Let’s imagine a scenario where you are not sedentary. Let’s say you’re lightly active – you walk around your neighborhood a few times per week.

We take your BMR of 1,882 and multiply it by 1.375 to get a TDEE of 2,588.

”The difference between these two activity factors, in this case, is 230 calories. That’s equivalent to a single glazed donut.

Let’s keep going.

Let’s say you hit the gym a few times a week for strength training, and go on walks or do yoga on your off days.

This will push you into the moderately active category.

We’ll then take your BMR of 1,882 and multiply it by 1.55 to get a TDEE of 2,917.

The difference here between sedentary and moderately active would be 659 calories.

That’s an extra meal’s worth of calories!

For reference, here are some examples of things that are roughly 500-600 calories:


All three items above have the same number of calories, but they’ll vary widely in how full they’ll make you feel!

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’ve used the word “estimate” several times in this article and will continue to do so.

Although BMR and TDEE estimations are extremely helpful, they are still just that: estimations.

Hormones, genetics, medications, and macronutrient ratios all affect an individual’s calorie needs.

Said another way, it’s CRUCIAL that we take our BMR and our TDEE as a starting point, not the definitive “answer.”

It’s the place we can start from, and then adjust based on how our bodies respond!

As we’ve just seen, different Activity Levels can influence the TDEE greatly too.

So… COULD THIS BE A TRAP….NO NO NO:) I’ve mentioned before there’s a lot to it yet it can be really simple….

You’re smart. Eat more REAL food.”

Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are all great examples of REAL food.

This is what you should be eating more of.

200 calories of broccoli gets you enough broccoli to fill up an entire plate while that
while 240 calories is a bag of M&M’s….


By eating REAL food, you have a MUCH higher margin for error to stay under your calorie goal for the day.

  • If you accidentally overeat broccoli, you might accidentally eat an additional 20-30 calories.
  • If you accidentally overeat candy or soda or processed foods, you can consume an extra 500-1000+ calories without feeling satiated or full.

Putting it all together: If you want to consistently be in a calorie deficit, focus on REAL food.

And yes, I know a M&M’sare way more delicious than broccoli – it was designed in a lab by scientists to be AMAZING!

I’m not gonna tell you to never eat a them ever again either.

Instead, start being proactive about your food choices.

If you want to eat M&M’s or any other cady, plan for it by intentionally eating fewer calories earlier or later in the day.

And if the scale isn’t budging – you’re still eating too much or not moving enough!

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