Your daily calorie intake is a key component of your diet. In fact, when it comes to losing fat or gaining muscle, it’s THE key component. Plenty of other stuff matters too, of course. It’s just that calories matter the most.
That’s why the very first step to putting together a diet that is designed to support your goals is figuring out how many calories you need to eat per day to reach those goals. Obvious, I know.
To help you do this, there are tons of different calorie calculators and fancy equations out there to help you calculate your BMR and/or TDEE.
The question is, which calculator is the best and most accurate of them all?
BMR vs TDEE vs Maintenance Level
First, let’s define some stuff:
- BMR: Your BMR is your Basal Metabolic Rate, which is the amount of calories your body burns at rest just keeping you alive and functioning. So, imagine the number of calories you’d burn if you just stayed in bed all day not moving (or digesting food). That amount of calories is your BMR.
- TDEE: Your TDEE is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, which is your BMR calories + all of the other calories you burn per day through every additional thing your body does (e.g. normal human movement, exercise, digestion/the thermic effect of food, NEAT, etc.). So it’s all of the calories your body burns per day doing everything.
- Maintenance Level: Your maintenance level is essentially the same thing as your TDEE, only from a slightly different perspective. Basically, when you consume the same number of calories that you burn… you’re at your maintenance level. So if your TDEE is 2500 calories, and you eat eat 2500 calories per day, you’re at maintenance and 2500 is your maintenance level. I bring this up only because “maintenance level” tends to be the term I most often use in the stuff I write.
Methods Of Calculating Your BMR/TDEE
The most popular methods (or at least the first few that come to my mind) include…
- The Harris-Benedict Equation
- The Katch-McArdle Equation
- The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation
- The Cunningham Formula
There are a few others as well, not to mention a few “less official” methods that various people have developed on their own based on their own experience. But I’d say that whenever you’re using some kind of calculator, there’s about a 99% chance it’s using one of these equations.
For me personally, The Harris-Benedict Equation has always been the closest. However, I’ve always had WAY above-average calorie needs, so if a specific equation is accurate for me, chances are it’s going to be inaccurate for most other people.
That’s part of why the calculators I’ve created/recommended over the years (like the one used here) use The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation instead. I can also vaguely remember seeing a study once years ago showing that it was the most accurate equation out of the group it was compared against, with the only downside being that not all of these methods were actually in that group.
Which means, we still have no definitive proof as to which one is “the best” in terms of accuracy.
That is… until now!
Which Method Is The Best? The Definitive Answer!
After TONS of research, plenty of experimenting and untold hours of careful consideration, I have finally come to a definitive conclusion for which calorie calculator is the best.
The winner is… it doesn’t matter.
The only reason these calculators and equations exist is to provide you with an estimated starting point. That’s it.
It’s NOT a completely accurate starting point, and it’s NOT a guaranteed end point. It’s just a quick and easy way of getting a number that should (usually) be within at least some sane distance of the number you truly need.
Thinking of it as anything more than that causes two problems. First, it will drive you crazy wondering if you picked the right calculator or filled in your info correctly. You’ll wake up in a cold sweat thinking about how you said you were 5’11 when you’re really more like 5’10 and half. Or how you selected a “moderate” activity level when it could just as easily be considered “light.”
And second, it will make you think the number you got is definitely the number you need. So when weeks/months/years go by without your body changing like it should be, you’ll think it’s the “bad carbs” or “not eating frequently enough” or some other nonsense that has nothing to do with anything.
In reality, the estimated figure the calculator gave you was off by a bit and needed to be adjusted. That’s the thing about estimates… they are sometimes off. But when you’re thinking of it as guaranteed perfection rather than an estimation, you’ll fail to see that as being a possibility.
Full details here: 2 Mistakes You’re Making With Calorie Calculators
Which brings me to my SIPOTA… aka my Super Important Point Of This Article.
The Most Important Step Comes After The Calculator
Using some calculator to estimate your BMR/TDEE is just the first and least important step.
The second step – which is really the step that is the key to everything you’re trying to do – is putting that estimated calorie intake into action consistently, monitoring what happens, and then, if needed… making the necessary adjustments.
I really couldn’t care less what method you use to get that initial estimate. Hell, I don’t even care about how accurate that estimate ends up being. It barely matters at all.
All that truly matters is that you END UP with the right calorie intake… not START OUT with it.
So if the estimated amount you got from your favorite calculator causes your body do exactly what it should be doing at the ideal (and realistic) rate it should be… then awesome! You’ve struct gold and found your ideal calorie intake on the very first try. Keep eating that amount of calories each day from this point on (or until an adjustment needs to be made).
But if the estimated amount you got fails to make your body do what you want it to do at the ideal (and realistic) rate it should be doing it… then relax. It’s not a big deal. It’s not a problem. It’s not something you should be angry or worried about.
It simply means that the estimated number the almighty calorie calculator gave you was off by a bit and needs to be adjusted.
So if you’re trying to put yourself into a caloric deficit to cause fat loss, and you ended up maintaining or even gaining weight over the next 2-4 weeks, you need to lower this calorie intake a little bit. A reduction of 250-500 calories is a good place to start.
If you’re trying to put yourself into a small caloric surplus for the purpose of building muscle (without gaining excess fat), and you ended up maintaining or even losing weight over the next 2-4 weeks, then you need to increase this calorie intake a little bit. Superior Muscle Growth contains my specific recommendations for exactly how to do this.
In either case, the next step is exactly the same as it was before. Monitor what your body does over the next few weeks when eating this amount of calories. Is it now doing what it should be doing at the rate it should be doing it? If so, cool… you’re good. If not, then do another round of adjusting and monitoring until it finally does.
Above all else, THIS is what matters most.
And honestly, whether you started this process off using the best or worst calculator or picked the wrong activity level or lied about your height and weight… it really doesn’t matter.
As long as you monitor progress and adjust when/if needed based on what actually happens in the real world, you’re always going to end up with the exact calorie intake you need.