Calorie Counting: A Guide to Calories, Losing Weight, and Building Muscle

calorie counting

Building a solid physique can be a complicated process that involves dialing in your training, nutrition, supplementation, rest, and recovery programs for optimal results. If there is a single, guiding nutritional principle that bleeds into every area of your program and helps govern all of your progress in the gym and at the training table, though, it has to be the “simple” calorie.

Whether you’re trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or maintain your weight, you simply must get your calorie counting right, or you’ll never achieve your goals.

So, what does it mean, exactly, to get your calories right?

Like questions in the fitness game, the answer is very personal and will be at least slightly different for each lifter, but there are some basic principles and rules that can guide you along your way.

And that’s what this guide is all about: giving you the basic information you need about calories to make the proper dietary choices for you, at the right time for you.

Read through these guiding principles and then check out the in-depth articles below for even more calorie-counting information. Once you grasp these ideas, you’ll be well on your way to taming your eating and building the physique you want.

What Is a Calorie?

OK, first things first: just what is a calorie?

Sure, this is a very basic question and many have a firm grasp on this already, but in the simplest terms, a calorie is just a unit of energy that can be used to do work. Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one gram of water by one Celsius degree.

That’s pretty technical, but in the context of your diet, calories are the energy component of food that let you train hard, grow, and just live. You have to take in a certain number of calories on a regular basis, or your body won’t function at all.

Oh, and one more technical note: what we refer to as “calories” in food are actually kilocalories, or 1000 calories. So, from a scientific perspective, that apple you had at lunch didn’t supply you with 100 calories, it supplied you with 100 kilocalories, or 100,000 calories.

For the purpose of this discussion, though, we’ll use “calorie” in its usual sense, so your apple will once again have “just” 100 calories.

Not All Calories Are the Same

One of the debates that has raged in the fitness world for decades is whether the type of foods you eat make any difference at all if you keep your calories at a certain level.

Proponents of the “all calories are created equal” argument rightly point out that body weight control is, at its base, largely a matter of energy expenditure. Eat more calories than you burn off over a long enough period of time, and you’re bound to get fatter.

Eat fewer calories than you burn off and you’re likely to lose weight.

As evidence that this equation works no matter what type of food you take in, look no further than the infamous McDonald’s Diet. In this “study,” a high school science teacher from Iowa named John Cisna decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s three times a day for six months to see if he could lose weight and get healthier.

The results?

At the end of his experiment, Cisna had lost 56 pounds and lowered his “bad” cholesterol significantly. He accomplished this by limiting his daily calories to about 2000, all of them served up at the Golden Arches.

Proof positive that you can eat whatever you want if you keep your calories in check, right?

Not so fast!

This “diet” worked because Cisna was extremely disciplined and, let’s face it, he was trying to prove a point. In other words, he was highly motivated.

The truth is that most people would have a hard time eating fast food exclusively and keeping their calories to 2000 per day. Part of that is because we’d get bored eating the same stuff day after day, but part of it is because our bodies would be screaming for more.

And, while we might feel hungry and like we need more food, what we’d really be craving would be more nutrients.

You might be able to support your energy needs, at least for awhile, eating hamburgers and fries — or whatever else is on the menu at Mickey D’s that would fit into your calorie framework — but you’d have a heck of a time meeting the RDAs for all of the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy long term.

There simply isn’t enough variety — enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, low-fat dairy — to supply you with all of the goodies you need for lasting health. And when you’re not getting those things on a regular basis, your body will start yelling at you, eventually.

That’s why you should always …

Eat For Health First

Whether you are trying to gain muscle, lose fat, or just stay the same weight over a long period of time, the first step in constructing your diet is to figure out what nutrients you need to include in order to stay healthy. While not perfect, the Dietary Reference Intakes from the National Institutes of Health is a good place to start.

So, first figure out your base metabolic rate using a calorie calculator or a simple metric like the one the Lyle McDonald advises on For instance, using McDonald’s numbers of 14-16 calories per pound of body weight per day, a 150-pound man might need to eat around 2250 calories each day just to maintain his weight.

From there, figure out if you want to gain, lose, or maintain. If you’re maintaining, then your calculations are done.

If you’re trying to gain, you’re likely interested in gaining muscle. On the other hand, if you want to lose weight, chances are you want to hold onto your muscle and shed some fat. Either way, you should adjust your maintenance level by just a small amount, at least to get started.

You often read about drastic calorie cuts when someone is trying to lose weight, or of bodybuilders eating like pigs when they’re trying to “bulk” but eating an amount of calories that’s drastically different than your maintenance level is big mistake in most cases. You can read more about why that’s true in the articles below, but the gist is that extreme diets — either way — can lead to fat gain or muscle loss. Bad news.

So now our 150-pound man has set his daily calorie target somewhere between 2000 and 2500 calories depending on his body weight goals. How should get those calories?

If he wants to train hard and stay healthy over the long haul, then he should prioritize his food intake like this:

  • Make sure to get around 150 grams of protein per day: 600 calories
  • Include lots of fruits and vegetables — some at each meal — to get important vitamins and minerals: 500 calories
  • Take in enough whole, complex carbs to fuel his workout and get 25-40 grams of fiber: 700 calories
  • Add in some healthy fats — almonds, walnuts, avocados, etc.: 400 calories

That leaves him at 2200 calories, and he has some play depending on his overall calorie target.

Think he could get all that from three McDonald’s meals? Every day?

Not likely.

But if our example guy eats like this for a few months, he’ll be hooked and will be able to dine his way to a better physique for the rest of his life.

The bottom line is that calories pervade every aspect of your healthy lifestyle, and you have to get them right if you want to build a better body. And counting calories is never boring and never wasted energy if you take it for what it is: the first step toward feeding your body what it needs to stay healthy and strong for a long, long time.

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