Who needs a lot of calories?

There are some interesting consequences that happen when your formative years are spent image-obsessed. As you might imagine, most of them are negative such as choosing all your clothes based on how they hide your body, eating in secret, avoiding meaningful relationships and that's just getting started.  There are few but powerful positive benefits as well. The older I get the more I realize that education and experience comes from failure and some of us have to fail for years before we learn the lesson.  Say what you want about positive thinking, mentoring and therapy as faster and more healthy routes than just time, but time is a critical component.  Even with some of the best support it takes way longer to dump your baggage than pick it up.  One painful memory can sear into your psyche that takes years to undo. But recovery is also a process of time and I've accepted that all the time I spent wasted on obsessing about the wrong things, it taught me the process of seeking answers and finding solutions that I apply to so many other things in my life.  It also led me to my current career which I love. 

Failure is a great teacher

Those tough years did lead to my interest in nutrition. It was a poorly misunderstood and easy influenced interest but nonetheless I wanted to learn more. If you've ever had even the most remote interest in the food you eat, you've probably flipped over a container of chips, soda or canned beans and checked out the nutrition. You've heard of a calorie of course and the label has a number but is it good, bad, indifferent? 

My drive came from seeking answers to why I overate, what habits and behavior changed that I can work on repairing? What food choices did I make that sped up that process? Did my exercise, severe calorie restriction or puberty play the largest roles in losing that weight? I hated how I felt and looked and wanted to change that so I did so through extreme calorie restriction but I also remembered a time when I didn't feel that way.  Perhaps the biggest question was could I get back to that place?

While I'll never fully have the answer I can pretty confidently say no, you can never go back to that place.  For one, hopefully you've learned something through the process so now you know things you can't unlearn. You've also made emotional changes in a more positive direction because you were able to reflect back into the past. In the past you couldn't do that so again, you can never go back to before. Sort of like failed athletes making good coaches, former disordered eating people can use all their time spent at the "bottom" to better educate others.  Nothing like being able to look up from the bottom and realize "oh, THAT"S how that works!". 

To quote Gojira, "pain is a master". Ultimately, painful processes are some of the most educating and wisening.

Could science explain all my precious feelings?

For me, I wanted scientific answers to understand why people who gain weight and lose weight make lifestyle changes that result in the weight change. Why and how did I do it? If you could understand that, you could address the issues on a large scale.  I become very interested in the calorie as a unit of energy, what it meant and how in fact the food we eat impacts our physiology based off of HOW much we eat.

Moreover, what happened to all the food we eat in terms of digestion and absorption and how we could determine the correct amount for any individual?In school you'd hear that we need energy for daily movement, exercise, the cost of digestion and absorption and organ function. Certainly we need energy for much more than just going to the gym, but it is a very "stuck" subject in current mainstream fitness and nutrition. What I think would actually help the situation is to dispel the myth that muscles burn a ton of energy or that exercise accounts for most of your energy expenditure.  They are a part of the whole yes, but more limited than you think. Specifcally, the concept of muscle as an energy-sucking tissue that requires most of the calories you consume.

For many who might've strugg;ed with their weight like me, the calorie game becomes how much you're eating vs how much you're exercising and thus it's easy to view food through the lens of earning or deserving. The more I learned that adequate energy intake is needed just for optimal function and that this amount far exceeds whatever you expend exercising, it helped to free me of the "exercise to earn calories" mindset that plagues so many others too.

Exercise is not the calorie show stopper

A problematic concept that lingers in many trainees minds is that lifting weights expends a ton of additional calories and if you want to add muscle, it's going to be even more that that.  Gotta eat big to ge big. Anecdotally, that lingering association comes from that fact that many trainees, especially male, begin lifting weights in their teens when insulin, growth hormone and IGF-1 are all high and already promoting muscle growth. A 13 year old male might grow six inches and gain 30lbs by the end of high school simply from puberty alone, no training needed. That already requires a significant amount of calories and if that mid-puberty teen starts lifting weights, it goes up even more. But the gap in logic is that because they started lifting weights, all those calories eaten were needed for their 3 times a week bro sesh. In reality, puberty was doing most of the proverbial heavy lifting in terms of growth and calorie needs. You won't find many 40 year old men new to training going on a bulk; at 40 years old the new trainee already has most of the muscle they can carry and he probably needs to lean out more than anything else. Training combined with sufficient protein, reducing alcohol, hydrating and improvjng sleep will power most of the positive body composition changes. 

There is plenty of researching showing brand new trainees can start lifting weights, eat in a calorie deficit and still build muscle.  I'd propose that you'd be hard-pressed to find manywomen who began lifting weights and started bulking yet they can lean out and build muscle without an enormous amount of calories too. Men are larger and as we'll find out, that accounts for a large portion of the discrepancy.  But many men, at least historically,  begin lifting weights during puberty,  and mistake the correlation (hey I started lifting weights, ate a ton of food and got huge) with the causal (I was actually going through puberty and needed a ton of calories anyway).  Remove puberty from the equation and calorie needs wouldn't be nearly as high.

"According to Hasbro Children's Hospital, children ages 7 to 12 need 27.3 to 34.1 calories per pound of body weight, while preteens and teens ages 12 to 18 require about 13.6 to 27.3 calories per pound of body weight each day. Using these weight-calorie guidelines, a 115-pound, 13-year-old pubescent boy needs 1564 to 3140 calories, and a 110-pound, 13-year-old pubescent girl requires between 1496 and 3003 calories per day depending on activity level"(Soliman et al 2014).

Check out those calorie needs for young kids barely over 100lbs! If you extrapolated that to an 185lb man in his 40s, he might need 5,050 to 6,308 calories per day.  Even with weight lifting thrown into the mix, he'll never come near that calorie window. So, it should be clear that if we remove puberty from the equation, calorie needs simply aren't that high, even when trying to build muscle.

Who needs a "lot" of calories?

I'm very excited to share this next bit of data I found with you not just because it's educational but so damn interesting.  I recently listened to James Krieger discussing forming hypothesis and how we should seek answers to the questions that hypothesis assumes.  In the instance of my "most people don't need a ton of calories" blog, I should also be assuming some people DO need a ton of calories and seeking examples. It's not hard to point to professional NFL and NBA guys and say they eat a ton because they're athletes and all their training expends an enormous amount of calories.  And it does. But they also happen to be naturally huge and would need many calories every day even if they weren't athletes. Lebron James is 6'9" and 250lbs and he isn't the largest NBA player by a mile as there are quite a few players over 7 feet and 300lbs. According to Kevin Hall's calorie calculator at the National Institute of Health, a completely sedentary Lebron James needs 3,152 calories just hangin' on the couch.

Huge athletes need a lot of calories, got it.  Who else? I returned to a great resource from college, Sport Nutrition for Health and Performance.  In the chapter on energy balance they referenced a male bodybuilder who was drug-free and world class. His entire exercise and nutrition regimen was his own design and the researchers merely observed and recorded data from his routine.  I found the paper here and it took a little digging to find as the textbook didn't mention the athlete and finding the research didn't either.  However they references him as the 1990 winner of the Arnold Schwarzenneger Classic.  The great thing about searching for clues like this it gain insight into what a natural, extremely successful and genetically blessed individual is doing at a training and nutrition level.

This bodybuilder, Mike Ashley was 5'7" and in the off-season, 209lbs while he dieted down to 195-198lbs for the Arnold Classic. Nearly 200lbs and close to 5% body fat is very muscular, especially at a very average 5'7". Clearly he has much more muscle mass than the typical guy at his height and paired with his training, he would need a lot of calories.  While Ashley was trying to get over 200lbs naturally, he had to eat a lot more than usual.  At the height of his bulking, while the study observed him, he was consuming 4,952 calories per day with 175g protein, 696g carbohydrates and 176g fat.  He consumed most of his fat through MCT's. I saw this and thought "sheesh!" that's a ton of food, especially for a guy who isn't really all that large.  Sure, he's jacked and ready for business, but check him out here next to Arnold, not huge.

Naturally I looked over his training as well and found how he trained during this wild mass phase. Ashley was doing a 3-day rotating exercise regimen consisting of both a morning and evening workout that combined, worked his whole body.  While they don't say how many days per week, I am assuming he was training 6 days, so he would train three days, take one day off and then train for three and so on. He was everaging 15 sets per muscle group with 5 sets each devoted to 15 reps, 12 reps and 6-10 reps.  Now that's already a lot of sets in one day right? Next they list how many exercises he conducted with 15 sets.  For chest alone he did:

  • 6 exercises with 5 sets of 15 reps each
  • 4 exercises with 5 sets of 12 reps each
  • 3 exercises with 5 sets of 6-10 reps each
  • 65 total sets per week

The remaining body parts all had fewer sets, averaging about 80% of what he did for chest but that's still triple what most people are doing.  Over the course of each training day his lifting lasted for 3 hours and then he performed 2 hours of cardio, split between the stationary cycle and Stairmaster. This leaves us with a muscular, lean athlete exercising 30 hours per week (5-10 times what any average client ever would) and needing a large amount of calories to support that.  What's interesting is that when I added up his weekly exercise, I would actually think he would need more calories, but remember he's 5'7" and not naturally large.  How many calories would someone 6 feet and 225lbs need?

Even in terms of non-huge athletes, to need 5,000 calories per day is rare.  Mike Ashley was training at a level most people simply couldn't fathom and thus most people, even the lean and muscular ones training for an hour 3-4 times per week, EVEN in a bulking phase, wouldn't demand that much food.

That leaves the rest of us

Most of the population is simply exercising to lean out.  They want to look and feel leaner and the concept of "bulking" is both foreign and unnecessary.  So a trainee exercising simply to expend some energy in the interest of being smaller (and thus needing even less energy) and not actively targeting maximal hypertrophy, wont have their calorie needs go up a ton. 

To answer the question of what drives baseline calorie needs, we need to look beyond that someone is simply exercising.  That doesn't account for enough of the difference.  Lets explore how muscle mass differences influence our calorie needs.

A pound of muscle only burns about 6 calories a day outside of exercise situations.  6 calories?  Are you kidding me?! So even putting on 10lbs of new muscle burns you a measly 60 extra calories per day.  I've written recently about muscle tissue being a great storage site for glycogen so increased muscle tissue gives you more glucose disposal capacity, that's good.  But as an energy burning furnace, it's kind of disappointing.

So the energy we expend from digestion and absorption is about 10% of our total, exercise 5-10%, N.E.A.T (fidgeting, posture, subconscious movement etc) 15-20% and Basal Metabolic Rate coming in around 65%. So the bulk of our calories are coming from BMR, the cost of just keeping the engine running.  To summarize, muscles at rest and all other body organs are accounting for 65% of the energy you need daily.

But people vary in how many calories they need so despite variances in energy from different lifestyle choices, two people of the same weight are more likely to have the same basal metabolic rate.  That's not counting exercise, food etc. As we learned above, muscle mass is only burning 6 calories a day at rest so that difference between the two subjects wouldn't be large either.  Lean body mass accounts for around 65% in the variance (I pulled this from Lyle McDonald) in BMR. Now here's the point I think a lot of people miss: lean body mass is muscle mass and organ mass. So someone with a larger LBM usually also has larger organ mass as well because...shocker, they're a larger person. This is a huge reason why men expend more daily calories than women, we have more lean body mass than women.  That increased size means larger muscles and organs simply by default and will always need more energy than someone a lot smaller.

Muscle mass vs organ mass

If we only think about LBM in terms of muscle we miss out on the fact that two people of similar body weight and size won't need a huge variance in energy, even if one has 20 pounds more muscle than the other. Naturally the more musclular and active one would need more energy but not to the extent most of the public believes. Some guy who is 6'2" and 275lbs lifting in the gym was going to be a big-ass guy anyway whether he lifted or not. Because he was by default "big" he'll always need more calories than the average person.  But it's easy to project that specific case onto anyone we see lifting in the gym. A more average-sized athletic guy around 175lbs simply isn't demanding the same daily energy

For example my maintenance calories are around 3,000 per day.  That's quite a bit but I am 6'4" so by default I am larger  and have bigger organs than other people so my baseline energy needs are going to be higher. Compare that with a 120lb woman who's maintenance might be 1500 calories a day, I'm literally double.   We cannot compare energy needs based on muscle mass if the two subjects are vastly different in bone structure and size.  Remember Mike Ashley from above eating 5,000 calories per day?  The researchers recorded his Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) and it was barely over 2,000 calories. He had to train, eat and maintain a near-impossible level of muscle mass to come close to the RMR Lebron James has if he never left the couch. For him, RMR only made up about 43% of his calorie needs while for we less super-human beings  have an RMR that's more like 50-70% of our calorie needs. Organ mass is accounting for most of the baseline energy needs and that size is not in your control. You can change the muscle mass variable like Mike Ashley but even then most people won't be able to come close to his muscularity.

Back to the original question: where do most of our calories go?  It's to the organs primarily with lifestyle and genetic factors contributing on top of that.  The function asking this question serves is to then bring it back to the client in question.  How large are they naturally?  Overall size is a great predictor of baseline calorie needs and the truth is that most people of similar size don't vary that much in muscle mass. I recently read a study that had men eating pizza to "comfortable" fullness and they averaged 1500 calories in one sitting.  Then they had them come back and eat until they couldn't "consume another bite" and they averaged 3,000 calories in one sitting.  So the question women always ask in regards to why their boyfriend/husband can get away with eating so much more is explained that men are larger and require more calories but also have the capacity to consume more, even if they don't need it.. It's a question I'd guess 90% of my female clients have asked about their male counterparts. I'd be interested to see how

It's all about size

Simple size differences account for the drastic variance so we can stop with the idea that someone who appears lean and muscular must need 4,000 calories per day, unless they're a huge person they simply won't. Obviously energy needs are adaptive and if you eat more food, your metabolic rate usually goes up too mostly through N.E.A.T. But those adapatations are finite and if you stay too high for too long, you'll gain some fat evenually. But carrying an extra 15lbs of muscle on another person and training three times per week doesn't require a 50% calorie increase. I think this idea is freeing that for most of us, we just need to take whatever increased calorie needs come our way through lifestyle changes and accept that the rest is simply determined by how big we are.

I think far too much calorie-comparing goes on between clients, couples and crap we hear celebrities say. It isn't helpful and focuses on exercising, building muscle and making good habits solely for the sake of getting to eat more. Talk about disordered eating.  Listen, if a smoothie in the morning, turkey sandwich and apple for lunch and steak, green beans and a few potatoes are all you need for a lean, muscular and energized body good on you.  Do you NEED to try to eat more if the system is running well? I think most problems come from people eating less protein and more alcohol over time coupled with decreased exercise.  

If you're getting back into the gym and looking to improve body composition, outside of puberty, abnormal amounts of muscle mass or being inheritantly tall/large you probably don't need a huge calorie intake.  It's a mistake to assign inherent worth to the total amount of calories you are eating compared to someone else and it's misguided to associate calorie needs simply from how many times per week you hit the gym. There are many factors involved and they will all add up to move the system in a positive direction; together that can be significant but again, it's healthier to enjoy the permissive calorie needs that come with improved lifestyle changes rather than chasing more calories through those lifestyle changes.