Food is fuel. It can support or detract from our fitness and physique goals.
I try to get my clients to view food as fuel for their chosen lifestyles and activities. The fuel we choose can support or detract from our goals. One very effective way of finding out whether our nutrition is adequately supporting our goals is, of course, to log our food.
In a of this series we covered the many reasons why food logging can be useful, what we can learn from it, and why I think all vegans should track their food at least occasionally. If you haven’t yet read that part, please do so before delving into this one!
Remember, there’s no such thing as “good” food or “bad” food; there’s just food that supports your goals, and food that might not. The occasional and guilt-free treat should be part of any nutrition plan that supports your goals, but most of us know that moderation is important.
Most of us also know the basics when it comes to the types of foods that would best support our goals. Oatmeal with hemp hearts for breakfast instead of Froot Loops, for example. An entrée salad with smoked tempeh for lunch instead of deep fried onion rings. Roasted chickpeas or veggies and hummus as snacks instead of Skittles and Oreos (yup, they’re vegan). A homemade tofu and vegetable curry for dinner instead of a bag of chips.
Remember: just because your diet is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s nutritious or supporting your fitness and physique goals.
You don’t need food logging to figure out what types of food might be more nutritious choices than others. I’d say that’s pretty intuitive, right? Where food logging comes in is when you’ve nailed the basics of good food choices, and you want to get more detailed.
First up: calorie counting
After you feel like you’ve (mostly) got the hang of choosing the types of foods that support your particular goal, the next step is to find out whether the total volume of food you eat is supporting or detracting from your goals.
This is where calories come in. The best and easiest way of getting a reasonably accurate idea of your calorie consumption is to log your food in an app like MyFitnessPal.
What, exactly, is a calorie?
A calorie is not a physical entity. It’s a measure of energy – specifically, heat. The word comes from the Latin word “calor”, which means “heat”. So, we’re measuring the amount of energy foods will provide in the human body.
One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Now, just to confuse you with numbers for a sec, when we talk about calories in relation to food, what we’re actually talking about is kilocalories (1000 calories). Except people will often use the terms “calorie” and “kilocalorie” interchangeably in the context of food.
So, if you’re a scientist, a calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
If you’re a non-scientist talking about what you’re eating, a food calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. If you log your food and your calorie total comes out to 2500, that’s actually 2500 kilocalories, or 2,500,000 “true” calories.
For more details on all this confusing math, read this article.
How do I figure out how many calories I should consume per day?
Well, this depends on your goals! If you want to stay at the same weight, you’ll need to consume your maintenance calories. If you want to gain weight (99% of the time the goal would be muscle!), you’ll need to eat more than your maintenance calories. And if you want to lose weight, you’ll need to eat less than your maintenance calorie number.
So, not surprisingly, the first step is calculating your maintenance calories.
Step 1: Calculate your maintenance calories
This is the calorie calculator I use with all my clients – and for myself! It takes into account many different variables, and is much more accurate than the MyFitnessPal app. Remember that any calorie calculator isn’t going to be exact. Instead, it’s giving you a ballpark figure to work with. No calculator is perfect.
So, use this calorie calculator to get an estimate of how many calories you expend in a day. This is an estimate of your maintenance calories, meaning your body weight wouldn’t change if you were to consistently consume this number of calories per day. If you’re looking to change your body composition and/or body weight, you need to tailor this number to your specific goal.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The calorie calculator I recommend using includes your average daily physical activity (unlike the default MyFitnessPal calorie estimate, which doesn’t). This way, you’ll be tailoring your nutrition to the physical activity you’re doing, instead of adding in physical activity later (which is how MyFitnessPal is set up by default. More on this in Part 3).
Step 2: Adjust your maintenance calorie number to suit your fitness and physique goals
My goal is fat loss
If your goal is primarily fat loss, you’ll need to eat less than your maintenance calories. Your mission is to find a number that lets you lose fat without making you feel hungry all the time, or lethargic – both of which sabotage your training (and limit the results you get from it). There are two main ways of figuring out what this calorie goal should be:
1. Most people take their estimated maintenance calories and subtract 300-500 from that. In a very simplified way, it takes a deficit of about 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat. So if you’re in a deficit of 500 calories per day, that’s 3500 in a week (or 1 pound of fat loss per week). There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it might not be the best option for you.
If your starting maintenance calories is around 3300 (like mine), reducing your daily calorie intake by 500 calories means a 15% reduction of calories. If, however, your maintenance calorie intake is 2000 and you subtract 500 from that, you’re cutting your calorie intake by 25%. That’s a drastic difference you may not be able to sustain for very long.
2. What makes more sense to me is using a percentage instead of a number range. People with higher energy requirements will lose fat but will still be able to eat proportionally more, and people with lower energy needs will have a deficit that’s more suited to their overall lower calorie intake.
Here are 3 calorie deficit ranges and their pro’s and con’s:
Large calorie deficit: Around 25% of your maintenance calories. Watch out for serious hunger, decreased athletic performance (and just finding it really hard to train in general), and a severely restricted diet. Yes, you’ll likely lose weight at a faster rate than other less drastic deficits, but most people are so miserable on deficits like these that they don’t maintain them long enough to see any appreciable results.
Medium calorie deficit: 15-20% of maintenance calories. This is much more sustainable but can still lead to losing 1 or 2 pounds of fat per week. Your training won’t be adequately fueled if you’re serious about working out, so you may find that you don’t make any progress at the gym – but you probably won’t regress.
Small calorie deficit: 10-15% of maintenance calories. This is a good longer-term option for those who experience unbearable hunger or lethargy when cutting larger percentages of calories. It’ll take longer to lose weight, but you’ll be saner doing it.
My goal is massive muscle gainz
When your primary goal is to pack on muscle, you’ll need to be in a calorie surplus for a period of time. As in, you need to eat more than your maintenance calories. If this calorie surplus is massive, you’ll gain muscle as well as fat. If the surplus is smaller, you’ll gain mostly muscle with relatively little fat (which is what the gym bro’s call “lean bulking”).
Again, this will take some experimentation. You need to find your own happy medium between packing on more fat than you’d like (too much of a surplus), and not gaining enough muscle (not enough surplus). Similar to those who are calculating a calorie deficit, there are two main approaches to being in a surplus:
1. Increase your maintenance calories by a certain percentage, and aim for that amount on a daily basis. For example, if your maintenance calorie number is 2000, you could start by increasing this by 10%. Your new goal, then, is 2200 calories per day.
2. Eat a larger calorie surplus only on training days. So you’d consume your maintenance calories on non-training days, and 500-600 calories extra (as a starting point) on training days. So, with our example of the 2000-calorie maintenance level, you’d eat 2000 calories on rest days, and 2500-2600 on training days.
In working with my clients, we lean toward a small to moderate calorie surplus (e.g. 10%) on a regular basis. This percentage will change depending on someone’s body type, current fitness level and physique, goals, and more. It’s easier to maintain consistent nutritional habits this way. Instead of having to eat quite a bit more food on training days and quite a bit less on rest days, you’re eating about the same amount of food every day.
A 10% calorie surplus isn’t very large, so there’s less chance of gaining a whole bunch of fat along with the muscle you’re building like you would if you were doing a faster “bulk”. That would involve stuffing your face to gain a lot of weight, then going through a period of “cutting” where you try to shed the fat you’ve gained but keep the muscle. It may take a bit longer to get the muscle mass you’re after compared to the “fast bulk” method, but you don’t have to worry about feeling “fluffy” or having to severely cut calories down the road.
For more info on calculating calorie surpluses for muscle gain, check out this article.
My goal is to stay at the same weight
Well then, carry on with your maintenance calories!
Calories and veganism
The concept of calories has nothing to do with veganism. You need a certain amount of energy to fuel your body whether you get it from vegan sources or not. However, you’ll find that many healthy vegan food sources are not as high in calories as animal-based foods. Whole, plant-based foods tend to be nutrient-dense, rather than calorie-dense. What this means if you’re trying to cut calories is the overall amount of food you eat might end up being more than your omnivorous friend, even though her total calorie goal is the same as yours.
And if you’re trying to maintain or increase a high level of calories (like my 3000 calories per day) for a very active lifestyle, muscle gain, and/or a high metabolism, you’ll find that you’re stuffing your face very often throughout the day to hit your calorie target. Everyone knows me as the gal who never stops eating; I basically consider it my second full time job.
Wrapping things up on calories
Now that you have an estimate of your daily calorie goal, plug that into the MyFitnessPal app. Don’t use the goal the app gives you; it’s much less accurate!
Then log your food for a few days and see where you’re at, calorie-wise. Are you at maintenance? Do you eat more in a day than you burn (could lead to weight gain if this is maintained long-term)? Do you eat less in a day than you burn (could lead to weight loss over time)? Focus on just the calorie numbers for now, before delving into even more detail with macro’s (up next).
Moving on to macros…
Before you start focusing on macronutrient ratios (the percentage of your diet that comes from carbs, fat, and protein), know that tracking macros is something for the fairly advanced fitness nut. Make sure you get really good at the foundational nutrition habits first, before you start focusing on macros.
Tracking (and tweaking) macros makes no sense if you’re still working on getting out of your decades-old habit of drinking 2 cans of pop every day and only ever eating take-out for dinner.
You can start tracking macros if you’ve mastered the basics of healthy eating
You get about 80% of your calories from whole, nutrient-dense foods
You feel like you have an overall healthy relationship with food
You know your approximate daily calorie intake (logging your food for a few days will tell you this)
You know your approximate daily calorie maintenance level and your daily calorie goal (if it’s different from your maintenance level)
90% of the food you eat comes from the grocery store
You regularly plan ahead for at least some of your meals and snacks
What the heck are macro’s, anyway?
When you hear fitness fanatics, gym bro’s, athletes, and your friendly neighbourhood vegan fitness coach talk about “macro’s”, what we mean is “macronutrients”. Macro’s are the largest type of nutrient, and are required in large amounts in the human diet. They provide our bodies with energy, and each plays a different role within our bodies. (Micronutrients, on the other hand, we need in small amounts: vitamins and minerals.)
The foods you eat will contain different ratios of macronutrients. An apple, for example, is 100% carbohydrate. Coconut oil is 100% fat. Tempeh is about 40% protein, with 30% each of carbohydrate and fat. Steamed edamame beans are 34% protein, 28% fat, and 38% carbohydrate.
What macro ratio is best for me?
As with most things in health and fitness, the answer is, “It depends”. Most of my vegan nutrition coaching clients aim to get half their calories from carbohydrates (whole, nutrient-dense sources whenever possible), 25-30% from healthy fats, and 20-25% from protein.
This 50/30/20 breakdown is a good starting point, and can be tweaked as necessary. People who find they gain weight very easily may want to cut carbs down to 40%, while endurance athletes putting in many hours of cardiovascular training each week may perform better with higher carbohydrate percentages.
When it comes down to it, use 50/30/20 as a baseline, and experiment from there.
All sources of plant-based protein – other than pure protein powder – automatically come with carbohydrates and/or fats. Think beans, tempeh, and hemp hearts; they’re great sources of plant-based protein, but also contain carbohydrates and fats. If you’re vegan, focus most of your mental energy on getting in a good protein source with every meal, and the other macros typically take care of themselves.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Stay far, far away from extreme macro ratios like the 80/10/10 diet (that’s 80% carbs, and only 10% fat and 10% protein), which is unfortunately popular in the vegan world, or keto (which includes only 5-10% of calories from carbs, and the majority of calories from fat).
There’s no clinical evidence that these extreme diets work – and, in fact, there’s evidence that they can be harmful. Example: eating anything less than 15% of your total calories from fat (like the 10% in the 80/10/10 diet) can seriously mess with your hormones.
In Part 3 of this series, I’ll go over what I think are the pro’s and con’s of the MyFitnessPal app. It’s great and I use it with all my clients, but, like anything (except maybe dark chocolate), it has its downsides. Knowing these will help you to make sense of your food logging results.
Download my free 32-page ebook that shows you how to track your food, calculate calories, and set macro goals on a vegan diet. You’ll even get step-by-step instructions – complete with a printable grocery list – for how to prep a week’s worth of super healthy vegan dinners in 60 minutes or less.