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Understanding Calorie Targets

Maintenance, surplus calories, calorie deficit… you could be forgiven for being a least a little confused about what these terms all mean! The great news is that the UP Transform app does the leg-work and sets you up with a personalised nutrition plan based on your goal.

Knowledge is power

You will learn how calorie targets works so you can plan your week knowing exactly what you’re doing and why.

  • UP Transform sets your calorie goal based on your starting point, goal and lifestyle.
  • The first step in estimating a calorie goal is calculating how many calories you need to stay exactly as you are, so we can set our calorie target below this.
  • Creating a consistent calorie deficit is the main priority when it comes to fat loss.
  • Our daily maintenance calorie intake is a moving target and is determined by how much lean body mass we have, how active we are, and the types of foods that we eat.
  • It takes a daily calorie deficit of 500 kCal to lose 0.45kg per week.

When you enter all your starting measurements, the app can calculate the calorie goal you need to reach your goal. You can find this target by heading to the planner tab in your app.

So, how does the app know what calorie target is best for you?

Estimate Maintenance

The starting point for setting your calorie target is to figure out how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current body weight.  This is known as your maintenance calorie intake, or more technically, your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). 

The reason we start by estimating your maintenance calorie intake is that you need to set your calorie target below this to lose body fat.  When this happens, you create a calorie deficit, which forces your body to mobilise stored energy in the form of body fat and lean body mass (LBM). This helps you meet your daily energy requirements. 

Without an accurate estimate of maintenance, you risk setting your calorie target too high and creating a calorie surplus where it is impossible to lose body fat. 

The 3 components that make up your Total Daily Energy Expenditure

1. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

RMR is the minimum amount of energy your body needs to maintain vital life functions at rest, such as your heart rate and breathing.

RMR accounts for 50-70% of the average person’s TDEE, depending on how physically active you are. If you suddenly become more active and increase your TDEE, your RMR will account for a smaller percentage.

 

2. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

TEF is the number of calories you burn digesting, absorbing and processing foods for use and storage inside your body.

Each macronutrient (protein, fat and carbohydrate) has a different thermic effect…

As you can see, it costs your body a lot more energy to digest and absorb protein-rich foods. For every 100 kCal of protein you consume, your body burns 20-30 kCal through digestion.

TEF generally accounts for 10% of your total calorie intake, assuming a balanced diet. For example, if you eat 2,000 kCal per day, then you could burn up to 200 kCal digesting your meals. This does not mean that spreading your daily calorie intake over a greater number of meals will burn more calories or “stoke your metabolism”.

TEF is the same regardless of whether you eat three or six meals if the total calories consumed are the same. Eating more frequently will just result in more regular but smaller, thermic effects compared to eating fewer larger meals.

3. Activity Energy Expenditure (AEE)

AEE is the number of calories you burn performing purposeful exercise (resistance training and formal cardio) and all other physical activity that is not sleeping or eating. AEE ranges from 15% of TDEE in sedentary individuals up to 50% in highly active individuals.

Why do we start by estimating maintenance?

The reason we start by estimating your maintenance calorie intake is that you need to set your calorie target below this to lose body fat. When this happens, you create a calorie deficit, which forces your body to mobilise stored energy in the form of body fat and lean body mass (LBM) to help meet your daily energy requirements.

Obviously, the goal is to use body fat, not lean body mass (everything in your body that is not fat, i.e., muscle, bone, connective tissues, water, skin, etc.) as a fuel source. We signal to the body to do by resistance training and eating a high-protein diet. Without an accurate estimate of maintenance, you risk setting your calorie target too high and creating a calorie surplus where it is impossible to lose body fat.

How to Estimate Your Maintenance

Luckily for you, the app automatically calculates your maintenance based on your starting weight and body composition, as well as your training and activity targets.

A key point to understand about your maintenance calorie intake is that it is not a fixed value. Instead, it is more appropriate to think of it as a moving target that can change from one day to the next. Although your RMR stays relatively stable over time, your activity levels can vary significantly from one day to the next.

As an extreme example, an athlete who trains for several hours a day may need to eat 4,000 kCal (think, three large pizzas) to maintain their current body weight. Imagine if they broke a leg in training. If this happened, their maintenance calorie intake would cut in half overnight as they would be lying in a hospital bed unable to move. If they continued to eat 4,000 kCal, they would gain a lot of body fat!

Less extreme examples include being more active on weekends compared to weekdays, or walking instead of driving to work on some days. Whatever the cause, the reality is that you will almost never burn the same number of calories each day. The difference between days can be a little or a lot depending on how consistent your activity levels are.

How big does my calorie deficit need to be?

A key point to understand about calorie deficits is that the size of the deficit determines the rate of fat loss.

To help illustrate this, we can use a meal planning rule of thumb called the “3,500 calorie rule”.

The rule is based on the premise that a single pound (0.45kg) of body fat contains roughly 3,500 kCal. Therefore, if you create a 500 kCal deficit each day, you will lose one pound (0.45kg) of body fat per week if your body only uses body fat to overcome the calorie deficit (3,500 / 500 = 7 days). If you double the deficit size to 1,000 kCal per day, you should theoretically lose two pounds (0.9kg) of body fat per week.

A key point to make here is that a bigger calorie deficit is not always better. There is a limit to how quickly your body can mobilise body fat for use as fuel. Beyond a certain point, it will begin to break down and use muscle too.

While resistance training and eating a high-protein diet can help maintain or even increase muscle mass in a calorie deficit, research suggests that losing more than 1% of your total bodyweight per week increases the risk of muscle loss. As a result, if your goal is fat loss, a loss of 0.5-1% of your total bodyweight per week strikes a good balance.

While there are advantages to the “slow and steady” approach, we have found with the many clients we have worked with that setting a rate no lower than 0.5% is important. This is to allow you to achieve the biggest possible change in your body composition.

Based on this, the app uses the 3,500-calorie rule to work out the size of calorie deficit required to achieve the target rate of bodyweight loss.

How accurate is the 3,500-Calorie Rule?

The 3,500-calorie rule is a useful meal planning tool, but it is not foolproof. Experience and research both show that fat loss very rarely occurs at the exact rate you plan for on paper.

This is because:

  • Your maintenance calorie intake is an estimate, so you cannot be completely sure what size of calorie deficit you are creating at the start.
  • Your body makes adaptations when in a calorie deficit to conserve energy, which means that the same size calorie deficit will become progressively less effective over time.
  • There is also the added complication that bodyweight fluctuations, caused by water retention, can make it appear like you are losing body fat more slowly or quickly than you expect.

The key takeaway is that setting your initial calorie target is not an exact science. The aim is to find a reasonable starting point, then to guide you to adjust as you progress.

 

 

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