For some of you that you are exploring a vegan/plant-based diet, I know you will want to understand how to calculate your daily energy demands and how best to split up the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) you are consuming to achieve your own individual goals. This, of course, is not something everyone needs to do, and in fact the majority of you probably won’t want to (I personally did this at the beginning to understand plant-based nutrition inside out, but it’s not something I track daily anymore). If you are NOT interested in counting your macros, then jump over to my top tips for healthy living and grocery list blogs as they will be more interesting for you!
Unfortunately, there is a misconception that with weight loss comes improvements in overall health. This is an oversimplification that stems from the fact that weight loss, independent of food selection, can in many but not all circumstances, improve biomarkers (lipid levels, blood glucose control etc). However, if we remove weight loss from the scenario, and look ad diets where the person is consuming energy that places them at a calorie maintenance, we know that a diet heavy in animal and/or processed foods, in most cases does not improve biomarkers versus a diet rich in whole plant based foods which will improve biomarkers without weight loss. What does this tell us? That both weight loss and the foods you consume are important for improving your overall health and disease risk.
The idea of counting calories to promote weight loss became ”mainstream’ in 1918 when Lulu Hunt Peters released his book ‘Diet and Health’. Well before the 1950’s to the current date where our food system has been infiltrated by processed, unnatural foods that lack the nutritional power of that offered by nature in the form of whole foods. So fast forward from this idea of ‘counting calories’ with whole foods to what’s happening today and there is cause for concern. Many educators now preach “if it fits your macros” with the notion being that a calorie deficit is all that one needs to focus on. The problem is this though is that this over simplification encourages people to make up those calories with crappy foods that do not give the body everything it needs to create health. Remember, the micronutrients in foods are what allow us to actually utilise the energy from the macronutrients. The net result is people feeling fairly crappy themselves as there body enters a state of stress.
Just think about how unnatural this is for a minute. Our ancestors didn’t count their calories in order to be able to maintain a calorie deficit whilst eating artificial food scientist formulated foods in plastic wrappers. There’s nothing natural about that process and I don’t believe its the answer to the obesity epidemic we are faced with today.
So where do I think this conversation around weight should start? The very first question we should ask ourselves is “Will this food nourish me?” Not “How many calories are in it”.
Then once we establish what foods nourish our bodies we aim to eat more of them and less of the foods that do not nourish our body. This doesn’t mean becoming vegan. It means a reduction in animal protein in exchange for plant protein, and a shift from processed foods to unprocessed, to the extent that you can make possible in your life. The closer you get to a diet rich in legumes, unrefined grains, nuts, seeds, fruits & vegetables as outlined in the Plant Proof food pyramid, the more in control of your health you will become.
Beyond the food selection the second most important thing we need to address is stress in our lives. Establishing a healthy non obsessive relationship with food will help that but there will also likely be other forms of stress in ones life they can address independently. A stressed body does not create an environment that favours weight loss.
Then engaging in physical activity (whatever you enjoy most) daily is incredibly important. This isn’t just about the calories burnt per session. You will get physical and mental benefits beyond that.
Finally, when one introduces all of this into their lifestyle, they are setting themselves up to live a way that naturally promotes a healthy body weight. Why do I think this is so important? Because it encourages people to eat ‘food’ and not ‘nutrients’. If it fits your macros places zero emphasis on food. It’s an ideology built around energy consumption and unfortunately the totality of science and bigger picture tells us that the source of the calories we eat is incredibly important.
If you are doing all of this (adopting a diet made up of mostly whole plant based foods, performing activities to reduce stress in your life and moving your body daily) and still not losing weight then I suggest taking these further steps. I believe this is a small percentage of people, as long as the former steps as described above are implemented thoroughly and consistently over time.
These splits give your body enough protein whilst ensuring that you are also getting enough unrefined carbohydrates, dietary fibre and essential fatty acids. The key is making sure these nutrients come from as much unprocessed foods as possible. Just because you start calorie counting doesn’t mean you want to fall victim to the modern ‘food’ system. I say ‘food’ because most of it isn’t food, it’s just nutrients that are packaged up into something you can put into your mouth that will keep you coming back and back….that emotional connection humans develop with such foods is something nature cannot compete with and is ultimately what makes such food companies so much $$. Fortunately when you remove these from your diet your affinity for foods that are naturally sweetened by nature goes through the roof (blueberries will make you salivate like that highly processed and artificial chocolate bar you once enjoyed)
Body Fat % means the % of your total body weight that is from fat. Fat-free mass is your total body weight when you remove the amount that your fat weighs.
There are all sorts of equipment and clinical tests you can buy/pay for to get your body fat %, however they don’t provide that much more accuracy than eye balling your abdominal region and comparing yourself to a body fat chart like the below. Using the below chart, select the body shape that looks most like your midsection. If you think you are slightly leaner or slightly thicker than the example photo (or fall between two of them), you can use the middle ground figure.
Once you have your approximate body fat % you know what your fat-free % is. For example, my body fat sits around the 10% mark for a lot of the year, so my fat-free mass is 90%. Therefore, if I weigh 85Kg, my total fat-free weight is 85Kg x 90% = 76.5Kg.
Your BMR is the number of calories you burn per day at rest before we consider exercise, and your TDEE also factors in the number of calories you burn during exercise. To calculate these figures with greater accuracy, you need to understand your ‘fat free mass’ weight. To do this, you need to have an idea of your body fat %, which I am sure is something you have no doubt heard before.
Now you know your fat free mass, you can use that along with your height, age and activity level and enter it into a BMR/TDEE calculator like this one to give you the total calories your body will burn if you engage in ZERO activity for the day (this never happens unless you literally stayed in bed asleep all day) and the amount of calories you will actually require for your standard day to maintain your current weight (weight loss and gain discussed further down). When I input my details, I get 1,574 calories as my BMR and a daily burn of 2,440 calories. This means that based on my current activity level, I need 2,440 calories per day to stay the same weight that I am right now.
Equilibrium: Setting your calories at equilibrium means you will be consuming the same, or similar, number of calories per day to what you are burning. This is for anyone wanting to stay the same weight.
Surplus: Setting your calories at surplus means you will be consuming MORE calories than you are burning per day. This is for anyone wanting to put on weight. If this is your goal, for optimal results I recommend you set your calories at 15% above your daily calorie burn.
Deficit: Setting your calories at a deficit means you will be consuming LESS calories than you are burning per day. This is for anyone wanting to lose weight. If this is your goal, for optimal results I recommend you set your calories at 15% below your daily calorie burn.
Now you know the total calories you are targeting and also understand the macronutrient breakdown based on your activity level (Step 2), find the appropriate chart below and calorie level. This then shows you the approximate calories you should be targeting.
Note: If your exact calorie target is not in the chart (i.e you fall between two rows) and you want to perform the calculation with great accuracy (rather than just approximating) use the above data with the below calculations:
Note* Sometimes people will advise to hold your protein as you drop your macronutrients. This holds some merit for people wanting to achieve a crazy body composition (i.e body builders seeking a body fat % that your body really doesn’t want to be at). But for everyday folks just wanting to be a healthy weight I would just reduce the portions of your food evenly without paying attention to one specific macronutrient.
I really cannot reiterate this point enough – Read my tips for a healthy plant based diet here. If you are counting your macros and want the best results, then make sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods with each mouthful as it will pay off in dividends both now and in the long term future.
Hopefully this blog helps you identify if you need to be focussing on calories and if so, how to do it in a healthy manner that delivers the results you want from both a body composition and overall health point of view. This blog wouldn’t be complete without finishing off with the importance of your overall lifestyle. For healthy, long-term, sustainable weight management it’s important that you look beyond just your food and build a lifestyle that helps mitigate personal stress, connects you with your loved ones and encourages regular daily exercise.
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