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This blog is going to give you a deep dive in how to create your own nutrition plan, from setting starting calories to setting macronutrients and when to worry about eating etc.
If you have any questions about this article, feel free to comment below or send me an email.
Without further ado, let’s get into it, shall we?
Setting Initial Calories
Now, you don’t have to track your food or calories, but it’s important to at least understand how many you should be eating based on your goals, then you can adjust from there.
The first step is to calculate your maintenance calorie intake. The number of calories your body requires simply to maintain bodyweight. If your body-weight has been stable for weeks/months/years then it’s safe to say you’ve been eating at maintenance for that amount of time.
The simplest way to find your maintenance intake is to track your food and drink for 7 days straight. From here, based on your average body-weight change, you can calculate whether this week was at maintenance or not. If not, you can use the average weight change to work out how much of a deficit or surplus you were in.
If using this method, understand that there are 7700 calories in 1kg of body fat. So if you lost 0.3kg on average in a week, you could assume you were in a 2310 calorie deficit for the week (7700 x 0.3). That’s if all of the weight you lost was fat, which it may not have been.
If you want to be more specific with setting maintenance, these are the steps I go through with clients:
1 – Calculate your BMR:
Your BMR is your basal metabolic rate essentially the number of calories you’d need to stay alive if you lay down sedentary all day long. This is what is often referred to as your metabolism, though as we know from this article, your metabolism is a collection of different things.
Calculate your BMR simply and easily by going to this website and plugging in your details, once you’ve done that, come back here.
2 – Multiply BMR by a daily activity factor
Now that you have this number, we need to multiply this amount by an activity factor. This is to take into account your daily movement (outside of exercise). Things to consider here are how active you are day-to-day because of work, commuting and hobbies/chores etc. There is a good chart we can use to set an appropriate activity factor.
Note: if your goal is weight loss, you’re best to underestimate your activity and if it’s weight gain, you’re best overestimating your activity.
Sedentary – Little or no activity, desk job – 1.1
Lightly active – some of the day standing/walking – 1.3
Moderately Active – moderate activity levels, on feet most of the day e.g. retail/street sales – 1.5
Very Active – hard daily active/exercise e.g. working on a building site/labourer – 1.7
Most people usually sit between 1.1 and 1.3, but if you’re reading this and you’re in retail, personal training, or in an industry, then it very much may be higher. Do your best to estimate based on step counts and job descriptions. We now multiply our BMR by our activity factor. For example, I’m 95kg and sedentary (I sit at this desk all day apart from a couple of walks) so my total caloric intake would be: BMR x 1.1 = xxxx. Note, this is before exercise, for simplicity, let’s call this our TDEE (total daily energy expenditure),
3 – Add in your exercise amounts
We now have the number of calories it requires for your body to maintain weight without added exercise. The next step is to calculate how many calories we burn during exercise. The most accurate way to do this is to use the METS scores for exercise frequencies. Luckily, someone compiled a list of this table on this website.
The amount of calories we burn in a given exercise is calculated as so:
The amount of time (in hours) spent exercising x body-weight (kg) x MET score
For example, again using myself, if I did 1 hour of cycling <10mph for commute purposes, then I would burn:
1 x 95 x 4.0 = 380 calories.
You can apply this to any and every sport/activity you do. Again, you have to be a bit smart with the amount of time you give to the exercise. If you’re doing a functional fitness class, for example, you won’t be working for that one hour solid, so you would have to split it up into circuit training and weight training, and work out how long you were resting etc. etc.
When I set up plans for folks, I use a combination of this table and years of experience to set calories in an appropriate place. I know from this paper that in the benchmark workout ‘Cindy’, participants burnt an average of 13 Calories per minute. Meaning in that 20-minute conditioning piece they burnt an average of 260 Calories. If you do functional fitness classes, you could always estimate your average expenditure each week using the 13 Calorie per minute equation.
Once you have an appropriate number of Calories for each piece of exercise you do within the week, you can add these together to make your total weekly calorie amount. That would be done like this:
(TDEE x 7) + weekly exercise = Total weekly Calorie burn
Using myself as an example, let’s fire in some decent numbers. Let’s say all I did was cycling at this moderate pace 5x per week, that means I burn 1900 Calories just in cycling each week. If my BMR is 2066 Calories and I’m otherwise sedentary, my TDEE is 2066 x 1.1 = 2272.6. Multiply this by 7 = 15,908.2 weekly Calories. So, 15,908.2 + 1900 = 17808.2 weekly Calories.
From this number, I can now work out my daily average Calorie requirement:
17808.2 / 7 = 2544 Calories per day
If you wanted to, you could set yourself a different Calorie target each day based on the amount of exercise you did, however, this is not necessary. You can get the same results by eating the same amount each day because your body responds to intakes over time, not moment-to-moment or day-to-day.
4 – Setting your deficit/surplus
Now we have our maintenance caloric intake for each day, we need to adjust this based on our body-composition goals. If your goal is improved health and performance, you can just leave things at maintenance intake and then move on to the next section of setting macronutrients.
If your goal is to lose or gain weight, then this next section is for you, let’s start with weight loss
For weight loss:
Remember there are 7700 Calories in 1kg of body fat, this then sets us up for creating a Calorie deficit. A lot of people go by simply setting a deficit based on the rate of weight loss desired. This is one way to do it, however, if you’re leaner/smaller, this may not leave you with many Calories, so there’s a smarter way for us to set deficits. I prefer to set deficits based on a percentage of overall energy intake.
The key thing to think about when setting this deficit is that smaller energy deficits are best if you’re wanting to preserve performance and muscle mass. I know that ‘smaller’ is such an abstract term, let’s say for the benefit of this article that this was around a 15-20% energy deficit.
Using my example above, this would mean taking off 381-508 Calories each day. If you wanted to be more aggressive with your weight loss you could set a deficit of 30-35% each day. This could be very useful if you’re very large, have a lot of weight to lose, want to do so quickly and you’re not too concerned about losing muscle mass or performance.
To write in simpler terms, let’s say I went for a 15% energy deficit, my Calories for weight loss would look like so:
2544 x 0.15 = 381.6
2544 – 381.6 = 2162.4 daily Calories
For muscle gain
For muscle gain, we can apply the % of energy expenditure in the same way, just in reverse. What we need to be aware of here though is that muscle gain is a much slower process than fat loss, and we want to be conservative with our numbers so that we don’t just put on a bunch of body fat.
It’s harder for us to be as specific with recommendations because people will put on muscle at different rates based on their genetics, the number of years they’ve been training for, and their individual non-exercise activity (NEAT) amounts. BUT, let’s assign a starting point based on years trained:
Beginner (< 1 year) – 1.5% body-weight per month
Intermediate (1-3 years) – 1% body-weight per month
Advanced (3 years +) – 0.5% body-weight per month
Let’s use me as an example again. I’ve been weight-training now for 10 years + and for the last 3 of those I’ve been following a periodised, individual training plan, it’s safe to say I’m an advanced trainee. 0.5% of my body-weight is 0.475kg which is 3657.5 Calories that I need to spread across the month, not the week.
So, a 3657.5 surplus across an average month would be an additional 122 Calories per day.
My Calories then become:
2544 + 122 = 2666
Muscle gain is an incredibly slow process and it can be hard to distinguish this much weight gain when mixed in with body fat gain, water weight fluctuations and everything else. A good rule of thumb with most of my clients is to set a surplus of 200-300 Calories and adjust based on results.
You can also measure progress by keeping a training log of your lifts and noting improvements, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Please see this article for a description of measuring your own progress.
You now have everything you need in setting up your initial Calorie amount, now we need to break these Calories up into macronutrients.
There are 4 macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats and alcohol.
Protein is 4 Calories per gram
Carbohydrate is 4 Calories per gram
Fat is 9 Calories per gram
Alcohol is 7 Calories per gram
We don’t need to assign a total amount of Calories to alcohol in our initial calculations, but it’s useful to be aware of them at this point in time. For this article, we’ll focus on assigning a total number for each macronutrient.
Note: we have lots of evidence now to show that the amount of carbohydrates and fats we eat doesn’t matter all that much once we’re eating an appropriate number of protein. This means that for simplicity’s sake you could target just overall Calories and total protein and get great results.
Protein is the first and most important macronutrient for several reasons: it’s vital for building and retaining lean muscle mass; it keeps us fuller for longer, and it’s involved in the building of new tissues within the body. The RDA of protein is 0.8g per kg of body-weight but this is just the minimal amount needed to avoid a deficiency.
Based on the body of evidence we have, I recommend you set protein somewhere between 1.6-2.4g per kg of body-weight.
Using my example above, at 95kg I would set my protein somewhere between 152 – 228g. In Caloric terms, this would take 608-912 Calories away from my daily budget. For the sake of ease, let’s say I set my protein at 2g per kg (190), this would be 760 Calories from protein.
Using my weight loss example:
2162 Calories – 760 (protein) = 1402 Calories remaining for carbs/fats
As I said above, I could just aim for 2162 Calories and 190g protein daily and get great results, but if you wanted to be more specific, then follow the steps below.
I set fat amount next because carbs are not vital to human health. We can live perfectly well without carbohydrates and survive without them, which is why so many opt for low-carb or ketogenic approaches. However, if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re bothered about performance which requires you to have carbohydrates. Plus, carbs are tasty, filling, some contain fibre, and so have many benefits.
Based on the data, the minimum amount of fats we require is somewhere around 0.5g per kg of body-weight. So, depending on someone’s preference/need for carbohydrates, I set fats somewhere between 0.5 – 1 gram per kg of bodyweight.
Using my example above, I do quite a bit of weight training and I love carbs, so for the sake of an energy deficit would rather take away fats, so I’ll set mine at 0.7g per kg:
95 x 0.7 = 67g fat
In Caloric value, this would be:
67 x 9 = 603 Calories
So, our total now looks like this:
760 Calories from protein
603 Calories from fat
= 1363 Calories
So we have:
2162 – 1363 = 799 Calories for carbs
= 799 / 4 = 199.75 (200) grams of Carbs
That gives us the following breakdown:
2162 total Calories
As a starting point.
Breaking this up into set meals
Now, let me start this section off by informing you that meal-timing is not magic, you could eat as many or as few meals you’d like per day and get the same results. The only things to consider would be meal spacing in order to combat feelings of hunger and well as the timing of meals pre and post-workout.
For simplicity, you could just divide your totals above by the number of meals per day you would like and split them evenly. This would be a great way to have balanced meals every time and follow the simplest route possible.
In terms of pre and post-workout nutrition, the only thing I’d say would be a must would be to include protein (at least 0.3-0.5g per kg of body-weight). After that, you’ve covered essentials. Having carbohydrates pre-workout could improve your energy levels by acutely raising blood sugar, but it’s not a must to do this.
And that’s all you really need to know about meal-timing, keep it simple and doable 😉
What about food quality and supplements?
These two elements go beyond the scope of this article. If you want to have an idea of what supplements can help you, then go here.
In terms of food quality, I’m a big advocate of the 80/20 rule. Make sure 80% of your Calories are coming from nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods and 20% can come from junk food, alcohol, etc. However, don’t be too anal about this, just eat plenty of fruits and veggies and like a general adult. For why I hate the term ‘Clean Eating’, please read this blog.
And that’s it! There’s a lot here (and not many graphs or pictures), I’m sure over time I’ll edit this to include them, but in the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.