Calculating calorie needs: the pitfalls

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Counting calories seems simple, but making an accurate calculation is quite difficult. Before you know it, you are way off your calorie needs and you are going wrong with your bulk or cut.


Natural bodybuilding is more than just toiling and sweating in the gym. Outside the gym you have to be disciplined with your diet. This requires the necessary precision: eating just a few hundred calories more or less can determine whether you gain weight (bulk) or lose weight (cut). That is why it is important to calculate your daily calorie requirement, also known as TDEE, as accurately as possible.


Your daily energy consumption consists of:

  • BMR (Basal Matabolic Rate), the energy expenditure for primary life functions, also known as the basal energy expenditure;
  • TEF (Thermic Effect of Food), the energy expenditure involved in digesting food;
  • NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), the energy expenditure of spontaneous movement;
  • EAT (Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), the energy expenditure during conscious movement, such as sports.

These components together form your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), also known as calorie requirement or maintenance level.

Your TDEE is your starting point for when you go

  • bulking (building muscle): you eat 10-20% above your TDEE;
  • cutting (losing fat while preserving muscle): you eat 20-25% below your TDEE;
  • recomping (build muscle and lose fat at the same time): you eat at or slightly below your TDEE.


There are several ways to calculate your TDEE. Let’s discuss the most important ones.


The easiest way is to start from an old guideline for calorie needs, as used by the Nutrition Center: women need 2000 kcal per day, men 2500 kcal.

The problem with these recommendations is that they are far too general. After all, calorie needs can differ greatly between individuals. For example, someone who weighs 60 kg has a completely different energy requirement than someone who weighs 90 kg.

An alternative to these guidelines is a simple formula based on body weight:

(body weight in kg / 0.453) x 15

But here too, the outcome is far too global. Even if two people weigh the same, they can have completely different energy needs, research shows.

Ready-made guidelines are also often used for weight loss: for example, women should reduce their energy level to 1200 kcal, men to 1500 kcal. But these numbers are also far too arbitrary. After all, if you need 1600 kcal daily, you can easily lose weight with 1200 kcal, but if your calorie requirement is 2500 kcal, then an intake of 1200 kcal is of course much too low.

Only non-bodybuilders who ‘just’ want to lose weight will still get away with a bit of work.


With activity trackers or smart watches you get to know your daily energy consumption much more precisely. However, this method is by no means perfect.

review from 2020 shows that wearables are quite good at measuring heart rate and number of steps. However, measuring energy consumption is not so accurate:

For energy expenditure, no brand was accurate.

It is fair to say that quite a few devices from this rewiew no longer exist and that today’s activity trackers are perhaps a bit more accurate. Still, coach and author Greg Nuckols is pessimistic, although he is not entirely objective as the operator of Macrofactorapp.

Finally, a study from 2022 shows that newer devices are not very accurate in measuring energy consumption during sitting, walking, running, cycling and strength training.

According to Nuckols, the deviations of activity trackers are too great for people who seriously want to change their body, especially strength athletes.


Another popular way to calculate calorie consumption are calculators that are offered on the internet as a web tool or app.

Most calculators are based on the revised Harris and Benedict formula by Roza and Shizgal, from 1984. There is an even more precise formula, Katch-McArdle’s, but for that you need to know your body fat percentage. Top athletes also use the Spijker en Van den Hoven, or Ten Haaf formula.

The Harris and Benedict formula allows you to calculate your BMR fairly accurately. ‘Quite’, because the formula doesn’t take physique into account. If you are particularly muscular or if you have a relatively large amount of fat, the formula is less reliable.

The formula looks like this:

88.362 + (13.397 x body weight in kg) + (4.799 x body height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

447.593 + (9.247 x body weight in kg) + (3.098 x body height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)

As mentioned, the outcome is your BMR, your daily energy expenditure at rest.


To calculate your actual energy consumption, including all your daily physical activities, the formula works with multipliers, the so-called PAL values ​​(PAL = Physical Activity Level).

When determining those PAL values, things often go wrong. This is because they are formulated too globally. For example, there is the multiplier of 1.2 for people who are ‘inactive’ (have an office job and hardly exercise), 1.4-1.5 for people with an office job and light sports 1-3 times a week, and 1, 8-1.9 for ‘active’ people (working standing and exercising 4-7 times a week). Just ‘exercising’ is far too vague: it makes quite a difference whether you do endurance sports or strength sports. Moreover, the values ​​do not take into account people who, for example, do sedentary work but who are in the gym every day. In addition, we usually do not work and exercise on a daily basis, so one calorie value is not enough.

Many people choose the wrong multiplier and therefore deviate hundreds of calories from their actual energy consumption. But even if you use the best multiplier that suits you, the deviation can be large.

In short, calorie calculators are handy and fast, and you can calculate your ‘bare’ energy consumption, ie your BMR, fairly accurately. However, these calculators are not very suitable for calculating your total daily energy consumption; especially for people with bodybuilding purposes they are not accurate enough.


The three methods discussed for determining your energy consumption all have their pros and cons. In our opinion, it is best to calculate your BMR and then manually add the energy values ​​of individual activities.

You do this in short as follows:

  • Calculate your basal energy needs according to the revised Harris and Benedict formula;
  • Use a supplement of *1.2 for everyday activity (NEAT and TEF);
  • Add the energy consumption from work (only for non-seated work);
  • Add the energy consumption from endurance sports (for example, cardio);
  • Add the energy consumption from strength training (according to this formula);
  • Add the energy consumption from other sports.

Admittedly, it seems a bit cumbersome, but in our opinion this is the only way to arrive at a somewhat accurate TDEE. In this article you can read the details, such as using MET values ​​to calculate the energy consumption of a particular activity.

You then use your TDEE to calculate your calorie needs in the bulk (+10-20%), cut (-20-25%) or recomp (~-10%).

Keep in mind that your TDEE changes over time, especially under the influence of metabolic adaptation . Use your scale and mirror regularly to determine if you’re still on the right track.


For people with bodybuilding purposes (bulking, cutting or recompensing) an accurate estimate of the daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is of great importance.

We recommend that you calculate your basal energy requirement (BMR) using the Harris and Benedict formula, and then add the calories from physical activities one by one (NEAT, occupation, endurance sports, strength training and other sports).

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