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Diet and Exercise: Identifying the Right Amount of Calories For Weight Loss, Bodybuilding, Strength, Endurance and More

Director Cardiology, Fortis Escorts Hospital
Dec 16, 2018 5:13 AM 6 min read

Last week, we briefly discussed how to calculate the caloric requirement and macronutrient intake of an active individual. It is suggested the reader reviews the article before we take a deeper dive into the topic. 


Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) or the energy spent when the body is at rest is highly dependent upon age and gender. As discussed earlier, progressive muscle and bone loss begins in normal adults after the age of 30. Apart from decreasing strength and causing problems in mobility, along with body and muscle ache, it also slows down the BMR, resulting in the creeping weight gain (0.5 kg per year). Use of simple formulas to calculate one's BMR may help as shortcuts, but remain just those, which is not ideal for serious athletes. Therefore, use of the Harris Benedict equation is the most recommended. 

Diet and Exercise: Identifying the Right Amount of Calories For Weight Loss, Bodybuilding, Strength, Endurance and More

As established earlier, it is notoriously challenging to estimate burnt calories while exercising, or those consumed while eating. Therefore, a fine tuning of the diet plan should be guided not just by math, but also by the outcome.


Are you achieving your goals?  Fat loss, muscle gain, athletic gains, or even a combination of these?


Let's revisit the examples given last week.


A 30-year old female needs about 1,300 calories every day to maintain her BMR. One can add another 250 calories if she walks briskly for 45 minutes daily and is generally active. This means about 75 g of good quality proteins, 180-200 g of carbohydrates and 55 g of fat, if she is happy with her current weight and fitness levels.


However, if she wishes to lose fat, she should consider decreasing the total calorie intake by about 200 calories, most of them being refined carbs or added sugar. This would mean a reduction in carbs to 140-150 g per day.

Diet and Exercise: Identifying the Right Amount of Calories For Weight Loss, Bodybuilding, Strength, Endurance and More

On the other hand, if she wants to gain lean mass, she should consider starting strength training and adding another 200 calories per day (approx. 25 g extra proteins and 25-30 g extra carbs and remaining fats). Another 250 calories can be consumed pre or post-workout for best results. These are not counted as part of the daily calorie intake as we have not calculated the caloric burn due to NEAT and EPOC. One can use the apps mentioned last week (HealthifyMe and Cronometer) for the needful. But this is just the beginning. The most important step is to monitor the progress.


If she is losing fat as per her goal, the plan continues; if not, she needs to re-evaluate the calories consumed, or reduce carbs further by 25 g per day.


If she is unable to gain strength as in the second example, she can consider adding 25 g carbs to her diet. Either way, reviewing the weight and strength gains (or losses) every week is important for deciding the next week’s plan.


A 35-year old male athlete who wishes to maintain his weight needs 2,300 calories every day. If he exercises regularly, he would do well to start with 100-125 g proteins, 250-300 g carbs and 70-80 g fats.


If he wishes to lose fat, he should reduce his carb consumption by 50-75 g and monitor his progress.

Diet and Exercise: Identifying the Right Amount of Calories For Weight Loss, Bodybuilding, Strength, Endurance and More

If he wishes to gain strength/lean mass, adding 25 g proteins and 25-50 g carbs would help. Again, weekly weighing and measurements are mandatory for maintaining progress.


Here, it is important to mention why we are mostly meddling with the carb intake. Carbs are the easiest to digest, taking about 2-3 hours only, while proteins take 8-9 hours and fats even longer, with more calories expended in the process. Hence, a carb meal is digested within 2-3 hours, leaving a person hungry again, as is commonly seen in malls and cinema halls after enjoying colas and popcorn. On the other hand, the same amount of calories eaten as nuts, milk, cheese, chicken, fish or eggs take nearly three times as long to get digested, leaving a person full for much longer.


This also implies that the net calorie gain in a carb meal is higher than a protein/fat meal, which are commonly consumed together in all the above foods. Thus, a 300 calorie snack will differ in its impact upon the body depending on what food the calories come from. This is what is meant when it’s said that calories do matter in weight gain/loss, but not in the way most people think.


Hence, a person exercising for fat loss and fitness goals, should cut down on carbs (to around 40% of total calories) and consume higher proteins and fats, while one aiming for strength gains and not fat loss can go higher to 50-60%. However, a minimum amount of fat (about 20% of total calories) is essential for getting fat soluble vitamins and a minimum amount of carbs (about 30-40%) are needed for maintaining bowel movements. One must also ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals through fruits, vegetables and salads. Proteins are to be kept at 1-1.5 g/kg per day if one is seeking general fitness, and about 2 g/kg if one is lifting heavy weights or practising HIIT protocols.


How to Measure Progress?


Ideally, an athlete should get a body composition analysis. This may be impractical, as the best methods are dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), a special type of X-ray that measures bone mineral density and under-water weighing - both not suitable for regular use except in elite athletes.


Practical methods include using Bodpod machines (available for gym and home use, not very expensive; simple, not very reliable but can tell whether one is progressing in the desired direction) and callipers for measurements. Jackson-Pollock formulas are useful for 3, 4 or 7 point skinfold thickness measurements and give more reliable body fat estimates.

 Diet and Exercise: Identifying the Right Amount of Calories For Weight Loss, Bodybuilding, Strength, Endurance and More

Weekly or fortnightly measurements are useful if one is sincerely following a goal. This is important because one can never only gain muscle even if one undertakes rigorous strength training. Usually muscle and fat are gained in a 2:1 ratio at best (means 2/3 of gained weight is muscle, 1/3 is fat). This means one has to watch the fat and manipulate exercise and diet to lose fat intermittently.


All the while, strength and fitness gains are of utmost importance, and should not be forgotten in trying to lose fat or gain muscle. Strength gains which come at the expense of general health (using supplements indiscreetly, incurring injury while trying unrealistic lifts) or fat loss with a feeling of general weakness is of no use ultimately.


A pre-requisite to follow the above - Motivation


No program can begin or continue without it. Initially gains come fast and one is energised. Within weeks and months, these plateau, following which progress is slow and hard to earn. This is the time when most fitness enthusiasts begin to feel frustrated and become irregular in their schedule, starting the slide downhill. This is why most people manage to lose weight or exercise regularly for 3-6 months, but then start regaining weight. This is the time to realise that a healthy lifestyle is its own reward, and will bring benefits if one is persistent.


This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: A Guide to Exercise.

 [Listen in to understand some broad thumbrules around good Nutrition and Fitness from Dr Chopra.]

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