I’m a huge health and fitness nerd. I’ve used almost every app, device, monitor, and log at some point to track my progress, keep me focused on my goals, and help manage my training and recovery.

My history goes back a long way, from bound notebooks to the first app on my Palm Pilot (bonus points for those of you who remember what those were).

Of all these methods, however, the one that has worked best for me is simply logging my calorie intake and expenditure. and a notebook

No matter what type of training I’m doing, the first thing I do when I’m trying to break out of a rut is play with my calorie intake. Gains are not coming fast enough? I up my calories. Starting to get a little soft? I dial back my eating. Tracking my calorie intake and expenditure each day helps ensure I’m eating enough to support my active lifestyle while keeping my body fat levels in the right range.

This type of system takes effort in make it work, but if you’re committed to the process, you’ll be able to fine-tune your nutrition and reap the rewards. Here’s what you need to know about balancing your energy intake and expenditure:


Step 1 – Track your Eating:

Here’s what is required of you to get started:

1. Get a Food Scale. I can’t stress this enough. All your efforts will be wasted if your measurements are off. I recommend the AmazonBasics Scale. It has served me well over the past two years, doesn’t take up much counter space, and travels well.

2. Look-up nutrition values. This info is imperative in order to figure out the calorie content of your food. Do a quick Google search for almost any food, and you’ll find the calories per 100 grams, per cup, or any other unit of measure. (Keep things simple and track everything in grams.)

3. Get a Log or Diary. I keep it simple and track my daily macros (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and total calories. Spreadsheets are an option too, but they may not be the best if you spend a lot of time away from your computer. There are also several apps to choose from, like MyFitnessPal and MyPlate Calorie Tracker, which are free and allow you to easily log your intake. Bonus: They have built-in nutrient databases listing nutrition values for thousands of foods.

Once you’ve sorted out your scale, nutrient values , and tracking method, now you need to commit to weighing and determining the calories in everything you eat. The first week of measuring will be an eye-opening experience. (Who would have guessed a serving of almonds would be so small!) You might decide after two or three weeks that you have a great feeling for portion sizes and can relax a bit on the weighing. But definitely try it first so that you’re sure!

Now that we know what’s going into our bodies, let’s figure out what we’re burning…


Step 2 – Track Your Activity:

Without a proper understanding of how many calories you burn in a day, what’s the point of tracking your eating? It’s like putting a blindfold on a world-class archer: he’s capable of hitting the bullseye but has no idea where the target is.

Figuring out your calorie expenditure requires a two-pronged approach. First, you need to establish your Basal or Resting Metabolic Rate (i.e., what your body would burn if you stayed in bed all day) and then add the additional calories burned through activity to determine your daily expenditure.

A common approach to determine Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) is to use a formula. There are various equations and calculators available online, the most basic of which estimates RMR based on age, weight, and gender. More sophisticated equations account for lean and fat mass, but this requires you to know your body composition. Keep in mind that this approach has a degree of error. I’ve found these estimates can be off by 25% or more, which, for someone with a slow metabolism, could mean overeating 400-500 calories per day. YIKES!

Metabolic Testing is a better way to establish your RMR. This simple test measures your oxygen consumption over a period of time and uses this data to calculate your RMR.

Second, we need a way to measure what we burn through exercise. You might be tempted to use the calorie values reported on the StairMaster/treadmill/bike etc. This won’t work. There is significant error in the displayed values (we’ll discuss this more in a future post). For exercises like jogging or swimming, use a device like a Garmin or Fitbit. While these are an improvement to the cardio equipment’s built-in counters and provide a way of tracking most activities, they tend to make a number of assumptions and will generally underestimate calories burned for untrained individuals and overestimate calories burned for more seasoned athletes.

The most accurate method I’ve found to measure calories is KORR’s CardioCoach V02 Max App. During this test, your oxygen consumption is recorded across a range of heart rates. The calories you burn are directly related to your oxygen consumption. By tracking your heart rate[JD1] during activity (or the full day for that matter), you’ll get an accurate picture of calories burned during exercise. Note: This app requires you to perform a VO2 Max test to get accurate data.


What To Do With All That Data

Now that you are more in tune with what you’re eating and what you’re burning, you can refine your energy balance (calories in minus calories out) to reach your goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, a good rule is to aim for a 500-calorie deficit each day. This should cause you to shed about one pound per week (and hopefully preserve your muscle while losing weight).

Conversely, if you’re trying to gain muscle, you should start with a conservative surplus of 250-500 calories per day. A long, slow bulking phase combined with a resistance training program is very effective in building muscle while minimizing fat gain.

So there you have it. Measure what you eat, track what you burn, control your energy balance, and watch the results come to you.