Counting Calories

There is no simple and accurate way to estimate your daily calorie needs. But that doesn't stop me from trying. The following formula is one I've used before with some success, based on the response of readers. To use it, you need a calculator and a scale.

You also need to estimate something I call your "activity factor." That is, the amount of exercise and non-exercise activity you get in an average day. First, place yourself in one of these four categories:

Generally sedentary (desk job, very little exercise, your only hobby is stamp collecting)

Somewhat active (you exercise an hour a day, and spend at least one other hour a day on your feet, moving around)

Really active (your daily exercise involves buckets of sweat, or you lift like a warrior three or four times a week and have the muscle mass to show for it)

Off the charts (you're training for a couple of hours or playing a high-adrenaline sport like soccer or basketball virtually every day of the week)

I've assigned each category a multiplier, based on your age. (Don't worry, I'll show you what to multiply right after the chart.) The idea behind activity factors is that they help you estimate how many calories you burn during the course of a day, aside from the calories you'd burn just to keep your brain and internal organs functioning. I did it as percentages of your weight for a very simple reason: The more you weigh, the more calories you burn with every step you take.

Activity Factor

Under 30

30-40

Over 40

Generally sedentary

30%

25%

20%

Somewhat active

40%

35%

30%

Really active

50%

45%

40%

Off the charts

75%*

60%

50%

*Yes, I had to take an extra-long step in the formula to make it work for the young, super-active athlete. I know some under-30 readers will fall into the big gap between "really active" and "off the charts." As I say below, choose the numbers that correlate with your goals—higher to gain muscle, lower to lose fat.

*Yes, I had to take an extra-long step in the formula to make it work for the young, super-active athlete. I know some under-30 readers will fall into the big gap between "really active" and "off the charts." As I say below, choose the numbers that correlate with your goals—higher to gain muscle, lower to lose fat.

So here's how to estimate the number of calories you'd need in an average day to maintain your weight:

1. Step 1: Multiply your weight in pounds by 11. This is how many calories an average guy would burn if he went through the day without eating or moving. Side note: Isn't it amazing how much energy it takes to keep your heart beating, your lungs working, and your brain generating the occasional thought?

2. Step 2: Multiply that number by your activity factor.

3. Step 3: Add those two numbers together.

Some practical examples:

Name

Age

Weight

Activity level

Joe Workingstiff

35

200

Somewhat active

His basic calorie need is 2,200 (200 X 11). His activity factor is 35 percent of 2,200, or 770 calories. Add them together and he has an estimated maintenance intake of 2,970 calories. Let's call it 3,000, to make the math easier.

Name

Age

Weight

Activity level

Buzz Hyperball

23

160

Off the charts

His basic calorie need is 1,760. With an activity factor of 75 percent (1,320 calories), his daily maintenance need is 3,080.

However, just a few pages back I quoted Susan Kleiner saying that a really active young athlete needs calories equal to twenty times his body weight just to maintain his current muscle tissue. So Buzz would need 3,200 calories a day, not the 3,080 I calculated with my formula. If I were Buzz, and I wanted to gain muscular weight, I'd go with the higher figure for maintenance, and then add 5 to 10 calories per pound to gain weight.

But let's say Buzz is super-active yet still doesn't have a physique that's as lean as he wants. In that case, I'd advise him to go with the lower number—say, 3,000 calories a day instead of 3,200—and see if that does the trick.

If you're going to be imprecise, always fudge in the direction of your goals.

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