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Why Your Calorie Calculator Is Off Course And How To Renavigate Your Success Journey

Kandis Joubert is a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, specializing in corrective exercise and fitness nutrition. She believes real transformation is multi-dimensional, and therefore founded Faceted Fitness LLC.

Executive Contributor Kandis Joubert

Most of us have used a calorie calculator at some point to see how much we should eat in a day to maintain, lose, or gain weight. There are tons of them online these days and on various body scales and scanners using a variety of formulas. Sometimes they seem pretty accurate, but what about when they’re not? Have you ever gotten a calorie “prescription” from one of these calculators or machines, and not seen any results, or worse, gone in the opposite direction you wanted to?

Confused woman infront of her laptop.

What are calorie calculators, and how can they benefit us?

Simply put, calorie calculators collect data input regarding our weight, age, gender, and activity level to produce an estimated TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) with correlated daily calories for fat loss (lower for a deficit) and muscle gain (higher for a surplus) goals, based on projected BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). Calorie calculators can therefore serve as a guide or a starting point. 

What’s the problem with calorie calculators?

Considering limited data input that includes a personal perception of activity level with disregard for individual variables, I think it’s important to note that calorie calculators are simply tools to provide an estimate based on averages. There will be outliers, so expect them. 

Have you ever provided this information to get your daily calorie “prescription,” started eating accordingly, and nothing happened? Even worse, have you found yourself moving in the opposite direction of your goals?

Common reasons why this happens

You overestimated your activity level

Even with the descriptions on each, this is common. No matter how educated we are on these things, most of us will still overestimate what we do (and simultaneously underestimate what we eat). Just because you’re on your feet all day, or busy all day, doesn’t mean you’re moving all day. Use an activity tracker to see how many steps you take in a day. From what I’ve found, most people who stay home or in an office for work with no planned exercise average about 3,000-4,000 steps per day, which is less than half to half of what they should. In this case, your body doesn’t utilize as many calories per day as you’re reporting, which will throw off the calculation.

Your nutrition tracking needs fine-tuning

Oftentimes, individuals who are new to or otherwise inexperienced with tracking their food will disregard serving sizes or forget certain food items with calories that can quickly add up. Be sure to include things like coffee creamer, condiments, cooking oils, and supplements (i.e. gummies) with calories. Make sure to account for them and measure them appropriately. In this case, the calculator could be pretty accurate, but your nutrition tracking is off.

BMR isn’t what the formula claims it should be

This is the one that seems to blow people’s minds until they see for themselves after proper adjustments. Your BMR is the estimated number of calories per day your body needs to function and sustain life (breathing, circulation, cell activity, etc.). This does not include physical activity and planned exercise. It accounts for about 60-75% of your TDEE. Even if you are tracking nutrition correctly and accurately, and you are reporting the correct activity level, your BMR may be significantly more or less than the calculation estimates. Why? For one thing, several general calculations don’t consider one’s actual lean mass (body weight – fat mass) and muscle mass, which is a crucial factor in determining nutritional needs. Some formulas like the Katch-McArdle do utilize lean mass, or fat-free mass, rather than just body weight, but of course, this depends on an accurate measurement of body composition that most people won’t have as readily as body weight and most means will inevitably have some margin of error. 

So, why does this matter? The more muscle mass one has (that requires more energy to sustain), along with moving more and eating more, the higher their BMR will be. Meaning, they could potentially have a higher BMR than the calculation estimates using average variables. On the other hand, an individual who is what we sometimes call “under muscle” can have less muscle mass than their frame should for ideal body composition, and perhaps also be moving less and eating less than they should, which all drives BMR downward- meaning, they could potentially have a lower BMR than the calculation estimates using average variables. 

How does this affect one’s results more specifically? Here are a few examples. An individual with a lower-than-average BMR who thinks they are in a calorie deficit may instead be eating closer to their maintenance calories, and therefore not seeing any weight loss occur. This individual could also even experience weight gain eating their projected maintenance calories for body recomposition goals. Another individual with a higher-than-average BMR who thinks they are eating calories for a surplus to gain muscle may instead be eating closer to maintenance calories, and therefore not seeing the scale go up. This individual could also elicit unwanted weight loss eating their projected maintenance calories to maintain weight because they unintentionally created a deficit. Simply put, knowing one’s body composition will produce more accurate estimates regarding caloric needs.

Renavigating your calorie course

Differentiate scale weight and actual body composition change

For example, if you are brand new to weight training or have recently started it up again, while you’re aiming to lose fat mass, you will likely see a slight increase on the scale initially due to lean mass increasing (mostly water in the first couple of weeks). This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve gained more fat mass and that something’s wrong with your calorie calculations. Body composition scanners are great tools to use as long as variables are kept consistent (like hydration for bioelectrical impedance scans), but if you don’t have access to one, keep taking periodic measurements and note how your clothes fit week to week, month to month. 

Adjust if needed

The keys here are consistent observation and timely adjustment. You aren’t seeing weight loss or a slimming figure? You’re not truly in a deficit. You’re not seeing muscle gains or even seeing weight loss? You’re not eating enough to spare and sustain existing muscle mass while eliciting muscle protein synthesis for growth. If you’ve established that you are tracking nutrition as accurately and consistently as possible, and you are honest with yourself or your coach about your level of activity, yet things aren’t moving in the direction they should be at the pace they should be within a few weeks, this calls for an adjustment. 

Be patient and stay consistent

While appropriate adjustments are necessary, keep in mind that the more you impatiently flip-flop around with variables, the harder it will be to nail down what truly needs to be adjusted that will be easiest for you to adhere to. If an adjustment is deemed necessary, don’t try to change everything at once. In other words, don’t implement more or less cardio, more or less calories, more or less steps, and more or less days at the gym all in the same week, then expect to figure out which one is most effective.

If you need help nailing those nutritional needs for your fitness goals, give me a shout! Reach out if you have questions, and feel free to book a Q&A call on the site if you’re interested in online coaching options. I also have a Fitness Foundations e-book that subscribers can snag for free! Shape up, shine out.


Kandis Joubert, Certified Personal Trainer & Nutrition Coach

Kandis Joubert is a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, specializing in corrective exercise and fitness nutrition. She believes real transformation is multi-dimensional, and therefore founded Faceted Fitness LLC, where she uses a multi-faceted approach in helping other business owners and corporate professionals prioritize their health and preserve longevity to amplify their own distinct influence. Additional areas of expertise as it relates to human wellness include mobility and goniometric assessment, prehab and rehab, movement optimization, mindset, lifestyle change and adherence, and body recomposition.



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