Just looking for an accurate TDEE calculator and nothing else? Check out the Legion TDEE Calculator!
Not sure what a TDEE calculator is, why you need it, or how to use it to lose or gain weight? Read on!
- TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure and is the average amount of calories you burn per day.
- You can accurately estimate your TDEE with your weight, height, age, and activity level.
- To lose weight, multiply your TDEE by 0.75; and to gain weight, multiply your TDEE by 1.1.
“How many calories should I eat to lose weight?”
“I’m not eating that much and not losing weight. Do I really need to eat less?”
“I’m eating so much food and can’t gain a pound. What do I do?”
I hear questions like these all of the time, and fortunately, the answers are simpler than most people think.
They all have something in common, too, and it’s this:
How much you need to eat depends mostly on your goals and lifestyle.
Let’s start here:
- If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less energy than you burn over time.
- If you want to gain weight, you need to eat slightly more energy than you burn over time.
- If you want to maintain your current weight, you need to eat more or less the same amount of energy you burn over time.
In other words, you need to manage your energy balance properly.
That’s hard to do when you deal in vaporous guidelines like those, though. How do you quantify how much energy you’re burning over time? And how much less or more should you eat?
That’s where a TDEE calculator comes into play.
TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure, and it’s a mathematical estimate of how many total calories you burn throughout the day.
The best TDEE calculators work by using your weight, activity levels, and mathematical formulas to estimate how many calories you burn each day.
With this number in hand, you can then create a meal plan that allows you to systematically lose, gain, or maintain your weight.
This is true regardless of the foods you eat, too.
No matter how “clean” you eat, if you feed your body more energy than it burns, you’ll get fatter.
And, as a corollary, no matter how “dirty” your diet is, if you feed your body less energy than it burns, you’ll lose fat.
That’s why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks . . .
. . . and you could do exactly the same if you wanted to (not that you should though—food quality does matter).
The bottom line is once you understand how to calculate your TDEE and then ensure you’re eating less, more, or close to that amount of energy every day, you can lose, gain, and maintain your weight with ease.
And a TDEE calculator makes the first step easy as scrambling an egg.
Table of Contents
Total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is exactly what it sounds like:
The total amount of energy you expend every 24 hours.
It’s often expressed in calories, which is a measurement of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (also called a kilocalorie).
For example, I’m 36 years old, 6’1 and 195 pounds, and I lift weights for about 5 hours and do steady-state cardio for about 3 hours per week (I switch to high-intensity interval training when cutting), and my TDEE is about 2,800 calories.
“Wouldn’t this number change throughout the week based on what you’re doing every day?” you might be wondering.
Yep. Our total daily energy expenditure is a moving target for various reasons, including exercise, non-exercise activities, calorie intake, and even sleep duration.
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about the daily fluctuations. For our purposes, we only need to know our average total daily energy expenditure, which is what us fitness folk are actually referring to when we talk about TDEE.
Once you know your TDEE, you can make effective decisions about how to eat based on three premises:
- If you consistently eat more than that number of calories every day, you’ll gain weight.
- If you consistently eat less every day, you’ll lose weight.
- If you consistently eat that much, you’ll maintain your weight.
Summary: Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is the average number of calories you expend every 24 hours, and you can use this number to gain, lose, or maintain your weight.
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Your TDEE consists of your basal metabolic rate (BMR) plus additional energy burned through physical activity and the food you eat.
Let’s review each of these points separately.
It’s the minimum amount of energy it costs to carry out essential functions like pumping blood, breathing, regenerating cells, and so on. In other words, it’s how many calories it costs to stay alive, but nothing more.
There are many formulas for estimating BMR, but which one you pick mostly comes down to personal preference and convenience (more on this in a moment).
No matter how large or small or long or short an activity is, it requires energy.
Even easy exercise can significantly boost your energy expenditure.
For example, walking at just 3 mph burns almost four times as many calories as sitting. This is why enough small and short bouts of movement throughout the day can significantly increase your TDEE.
And of course, longer and more intense forms of exercise can burn hundreds of calories per hour.
That means you’re burning considerably more calories on some days than others, which is why you want to work with an average TDEE rather than an absolute one that changes day-to-day.
To do that, you could calculate your actual TDEE for each day of the week and divide by 7, but there’s an easier way: you can simply multiply your BMR by an activity multiplier based on how physically active you are each week.
You’ll learn more about this in a moment.
This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
For example, whole grain bread with cheddar cheese has a TEF of around 20%, meaning that about 20% of the calories in the food are burned during digestion.
So, if the food contains, let’s say, 200 calories, about 40 are burned thanks to TEF. On the other hand, a slice of white bread with processed cheese has a TEF of only 11%, so 200 of these calories only “cost” about 20 to process.
While a difference of 20 calories in a single meal is insignificant, it can add up meal after meal, day after day.
If you’re getting, let’s say, half of your calories from highly processed, low-TEF foods, you might burn several hundred more calories per day by swapping most of them for less processed foods.
When you sum the energy your body burns to stay alive (BMR) and the energy burned through physical activity and digesting and absorbing food . . . you arrive at your TDEE.
And if that sounds complicated, don’t worry. It’s not. You don’t have to dust off your college algebra or take an Excel tutorial.
Metabolic researchers have already done all the heavy lifting for us and boiled it down to simple arithmetic.
The first step in calculating your TDEE is calculating your BMR.
There are several equations for this, but I recommend the Mifflin-St Jeor variant, which looks like this:
BMR = [9.99 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [4.92 x age (years)] +/- (s), where “s” is +5 for men and -161 for women.
Or, to make things simpler, we can separate it into male and female versions:
Male BMR = [9.99 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [4.92 x age (years)] + 5
Female BMR = [9.99 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [4.92 x age (years)] – 161
The reason I recommend the Mifflin-St Jeor over other formulas such as the Harris-Benedict or Katch-McArdle is it produces very accurate results on par with other equations, but doesn’t require much math or your body fat percentage.
Once you have your BMR, the next step is accounting for the additional energy expenditure.
Instead of tracking every step you take and noting readouts from cardio machines (they’re inaccurate anyway), the Katch-McArdle equation includes multipliers you can apply to your BMR based on your general activity level.
Here are the standard Katch-McArdle multipliers:
1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
1.55 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
1.9 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
I don’t recommend these multipliers, however, because they’ll probably overestimate the actual amount of energy you’re burning.
I don’t have any research to directly back that statement up, but I’ve worked with thousands of people and consistently found it to be the case. It’s also common knowledge among experienced bodybuilders.
Simply put, if you use the above multipliers, you’ll probably place yourself in too small of a calorie deficit when cutting (resulting in less-than-optimal fat loss) and too large of a surplus when bulking (resulting in more-than-optimal fat gain).
And that means generally diminished returns on your efforts over time.
This is why I recommend you just use lower activity multipliers in the TDEE calculator.
Here’s how I do it:
Those multipliers should give you a more accurate starting point, and they’re what are built into the Legion TDEE Calculator.
Summary: To calculate your TDEE, use the Mifflin-St Jeor equation to estimate your BMR, and then multiply the result by the Legion Activity Multiplier that’s closest to your average weekly activity level.
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One catch with the Mifflin-St Jeor equation is it assumes you have a relatively normal body composition (normal musculature and 10 to 20% body fat for men and 20 to 30% for women).
Thus, the equation can underpredict the BMR of people with above-average levels of muscle mass (especially if they also have below-average levels of body fat as well), and overpredict the BMR of people in the opposite boat.
So, why not use a BMR equation that incorporates lean body mass then, such as the Katch-McArdle equation?
That’s what I used to do and recommend, but I stopped for two reasons:
- Most people have a hard time accurately estimating their body fat percentage, and relatively small mistakes can wipe out any potential benefits of the equation. That is, if the equation is 5% more accurate, but your estimate of body fat percentage is off by 20% (relative), it’s a wash.
- The Mifflin-St Jeor equation is simpler and produces estimates that are almost identical to the Katch-McArdle equation for most people.
The first point is self-explanatory: many people think they’re significantly leaner than they are, which translates into an overestimated BMR with the Katch-McArdle equation.
The second point requires a bit more explanation, though.
Although muscle does burn more calories than body fat, the differences are unimportant in practice.
Research shows that a pound of muscle burns around 6 calories per day (not 50, as many fitness gurus claim), and fat burns around 2 calories per day. That’s a threefold relative difference, but a trivial absolute difference that has little impact on your TDEE.
For example, I have about 40 to 50 pounds more muscle than most guys my height (6’1, 195 lb., ~10% body fat, and 36 years old), and the Mifflin-St Jeor equation pins my BMR at 1,872 calories per day.
The Katch-McArdle equation, which accounts for my additional muscle mass and low body fat percentage, estimates my BMR is 2,089 calories per day—about 200 calories more. In the scheme of things, this is too little to matter.
None of these BMR equations are 100% accurate for all people under all circumstances. Your lifestyle, genetics, diet, and daily habits make your actual BMR a small and moving target that formulas are unlikely to hit.
Luckily, BMR equations don’t need to be pinpoint accurate to serve their intended purpose—they just need to be good enough so you know where to start.
Then, you can raise or lower your calories based on how your body actually responds to your diet.
For example, it’s possible the Mifflin-St Jeor equation slightly underpredicts my energy needs, and the Katch-McArdle equation slightly overpredicts my needs. I’ll never know my true BMR with absolute certainty (even fancy devices for measuring it aren’t 100% accurate), so all that matters is that I consistently eat the same amount every day, and adjust my calorie intake as needed.
So, if you’re cutting, and a TDEE equation (which includes BMR calculation) says you should eat 2,500 calories per day to lose weight, and you aren’t losing weight, then you need to eat less, regardless of what the math says.
Similarly, if you’re lean bulking, and a formula says you should eat 3,000 calories per day to gain weight, but you aren’t gaining weight, then you need to eat more.
And what about the Harris-Benedict equation?
This is also a workable formula that produces results similar to the others, but most researchers consider the Mifflin-St Jeor to be slightly more accurate. There’s also the Revised Harris-Benedict equation, which is considered a smidge more accurate than the original.
Finally, I want to share one more equation with you, which is handy because of its simplicity: the Lyle McDonald resting metabolic rate (RMR) equation. Here it is:
Male RMR: 11 x body weight in pounds
Female RMR: 10 x body weight in pounds
Yep, that’s it, regardless of your body composition.
RMR is slightly different from BMR, but for our purposes here, they’re basically interchangeable.
(BMR is an estimate of the minimum number of calories your body needs to sustain life, whereas RMR is the actual number of calories you burn at rest, influenced by factors like prior activity or food intake.)
My general recommendation is to use the Mifflin-St Jeor equation if you have a calculator to do the heavy lifting for you (like The Legion TDEE Calculator) or you want to be as precise as possible, and the Lyle McDonald equation if you want a quick and dirty solution that’s almost as accurate in practice.
Summary: All BMR equations are estimates of your actual BMR, not precise measurements. Use them to establish a starting point for your calorie intake, and then adjust up or down based on how your body responds.
As I noted earlier, the thing that most dictates whether you gain or lose weight is energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between the energy you feed your body and the energy it expends.
You see, the scientifically validated, “boring” reality is this:
- Meaningful weight loss requires you to expend more energy than you consume.
- And meaningful weight gain (both fat and muscle) requires the opposite: more consumption than expenditure.
If you’re shaking your head, thinking I’m drinking decades-old Kool-Aid, let me ask you a few questions.
Why has every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years—including countless meta-analyses and systematic reviews—concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed energy intake?
So, the bottom line is: a century of metabolic research has proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that energy balance is the basic mechanism that regulates weight gain and loss.
All that evidence, however, doesn’t mean you have to count calories to lose weight, but it does mean you have to understand how calorie intake and expenditure influences your body weight and then regulate your intake according to your goals.
Luckily, this isn’t hard.
As you know, you must be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, but how large should that deficit be? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Larger?
In other words, should you eat 90% of the calories you burn every day? Eighty percent? Less?
Some fitness folk advocate a “slow-cutting” approach where you use a mild calorie deficit and lax workout schedule to whittle down fat stores over the course of many months.
Slow cutting is at least slightly easier and forgiving in some ways than a more aggressive approach, but the upsides aren’t all that significant in most people, and they come at a steep price: duration.
Namely, slow cutting is, well, slow, and for many dieters, this is more troubling than eating a bit less food every day.
For instance, all things being equal, by reducing your calorie deficit from 20 to 10 percent, you’re halving the amount of fat you’ll lose each week and doubling the amount of time it’ll take to finish your cut.
This is a problem for most people, because the longer they remain in a calorie deficit of any size, the more likely they are to fall off the wagon due to life commotion, dietary slipups, scheduling snafus, and so on.
This allows you to enjoy faster results without having to sacrifice anything but calories, and this in turn allows you to spend more time doing the more enjoyable stuff (maintaining and lean bulking).
Therefore, my recommendation is an aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit of about 25% when cutting.
In other words, when you’re cutting I recommend that you eat about 75% of your TDEE. For most people, this comes out to 10 to 12 calories per pound of body weight per day.
I didn’t pick this 25 percent number out of thin air, either. Studies show that it works tremendously well for both fat loss and muscle preservation when combined with resistance training and high protein intake.
For instance, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) split national- and international-level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or below 10%) into two groups:
- Group one maintained a 300-calorie deficit (about 12% below TDEE).
- Group two maintained a 750-calorie deficit (about 25% below TDEE).
After four weeks, the first group lost very little fat and muscle, and the second group lost, on average, about four pounds of fat and very little muscle. Neither group experienced any negative side effects to speak of.
These findings are also in line with what I’ve experienced working with thousands of people.
You can calculate this number by multiplying your TDEE from the calculator by 0.75, or you can use a back-of-the-envelope formula for arriving at this number:
10 to 12 calories per pound of body weight per day.
This may seem unsophisticated, but it’s what most people “in the know” use to set their cutting calories.
This simple formula will give you a number that’s around 75% of your TDEE without the hassle of using a TDEE calculator for weight loss.
A few notes on how to use this formula:
- If you’re a woman, new to lifting weights, and/or you work out less than 3 hours per week, then I recommend you multiply your body weight in pounds by 10.
- If you’re a man or woman, you’ve got two to three years of lifting under your belt, and/or you workout 3 to 6 hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 11.
- If you’re a man, you’ve got 4+ years of lifting under your belt, and/or you work out 6+ hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 12.
For example, using the TDEE calculator we established that my TDEE is 2,800 calories, so when I cut, I should drop my calories to about 2,100 (2,800 x 0.75).
Here’s what the math looks like using the simpler method:
I’ve been lifting over 15 years and I work out about 5.5 hours per week, so I’ll want to multiply my body weight by 11 to estimate my daily cutting calories.
195 x 11 = 2,145—almost exactly what I get when I multiply my TDEE by 0.75.
Remember, though, that all formulas, including this one, are just estimates. No matter what any TDEE formula tells you, if you’re running into difficulties losing weight, you’ll need to adjust your diet or activity levels.
Check out this article to learn how:
Summary: To lose fat without losing muscle, eat 75% of your TDEE every day. The easiest way to find this number is to multiply your body weight by 10 to 12 calories.
In order to build a meaningful amount of muscle, you need to maintain a calorie surplus over time.
This has been confirmed in a number of studies that show a calorie surplus boosts muscle protein synthesis, increases anabolic and decreases catabolic hormone levels, and improves workout performance.
All of that adds up to significantly better muscle and strength gains over time.
You don’t want to eat too many more calories than you’re burning, however, because after a point, increasing food intake no longer boosts muscle growth but just fat gain instead.
So, how large should your calorie surplus be to maximize muscle growth while minimizing fat gain?
A lot less than you might imagine.
A study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences provides an illustrative example of why. The researchers divided 39 elite athletes from a variety of different sports (rowing, soccer, ice hockey, etc.) into two groups:
1. Group one followed a meal plan created by a nutritionist to produce an increase of 0.7 percent of body weight per week.
This entailed increasing the participants’ calorie intake from about 2,800 to 3,600 calories per day, a 28 percent calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “30-percent-surplus group.”
2. Group two was encouraged to eat more calories than they burned every day, but didn’t follow a precise meal plan. This group essentially used intuitive eating to maintain a slight calorie surplus.
They ended up increasing their calorie intake from about 2,900 to 3,200 calories per day, a 10 percent calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “10-percent-surplus group.”
Both groups also lifted weights four times per week in addition to continuing their sport-specific training, training each major muscle group twice per week. Everyone followed their diet and exercise plans for 8 to 12 weeks (depending on how much weight they wanted to gain).
The researchers measured the participants’ weight and body composition using dual x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) before and after the study.
Both groups gained almost the exact same amount of muscle, but the 30 percent surplus group increased their body fat by about 20 percent, whereas the 10 percent surplus group lost a small amount of body fat.
Here’s a chart showing both group’s body fat levels during the study:
(The dotted line represents the 30-percent-surplus group, and the solid line represents the 10-percent-surplus group).
And here’s a chart showing both group’s muscle gain during the study:
As you can see, the 10-percent surplus-group gained just as much muscle as the 30-percent-surplus group, despite gaining almost no body fat.
The results of this study also nicely conform to what I’ve experienced with my own body and working with thousands of others:
The point of diminishing returns when lean bulking is somewhere around 110 percent of your average TDEE.
That is, you’ll likely gain just as much muscle eating about 110 percent of your average TDEE as you would eating 120 or 130 percent but a lot less fat.
And so that’s my recommendation for lean bulking: eat about 110 percent of your average TDEE. For most people, this comes out to 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day.
For me, this would mean eating about 3,100 calories per day (2,800 x 1.1). And again, this is exactly what I do when I want to start a lean bulking phase, and it results in slow and steady muscle gain with minimal fat gain.
Once again, instead of using the TDEE calculator you can also use a back-of-the-envelope formula of . . .
16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day.
A few notes on how to use this formula:
- If you’re a woman, new to lifting weights, and/or you work out less than 3 hours per week, then I recommend you multiply your body weight in pounds by 16.
- If you’re a man or woman with two to three years of lifting under your belt and/or you workout 3 to 6 hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 17.
- If you’re a man, you’ve got 4+ years of lifting under your belt, and/or you work out 6+ hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 18.
I’m in the middle, so here’s how the math works out for me:
195 x 17 = 3,315
From experience I know this number is a little high for me, so I typically go with the more conservative multiplier of 16 calories per pound of body weight at the start of my bulks.
Here’s what that looks like:
195 x 16 = 3,120—again, almost exactly what I get when I multiply my TDEE by 1.1.
And again—this is just an estimate. I typically need to readjust my calorie intake a few times over the course of a lean bulk to ensure I keep gaining weight.
Read this article to learn how:
Summary: To build muscle without gaining boatloads of fat, eat 110% of your TDEE every day. The easiest way to find this number is to multiply your body weight by 16 to 18 calories.
TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure, or how many total calories you burn per day on average.
The best TDEE calculator uses your body fat percentage, weight, and activity level to give you a very accurate estimate of how many calories you burn each day.
If you consistently eat more than your TDEE over time, you’ll gain weight. If you consistently eat less, you’ll lose weight. And if you consistently eat your TDEE over time, you’ll maintain your weight.
The three main factors that contribute to your TDEE are how many calories you burn at rest, or your BMR, how many calories you burn through activity, and how many calories you burn through digesting and absorbing food.
There are many equations you can use to predict your BMR, but they’re all just educated guesses that get you close enough.
I prefer the Mifflin-St Jeor for most people because it’s simple, accurate, and doesn’t require the estimation of body fat percentage, but you can also just multiply your body weight in pounds by 10 (women) or 11 (men) to arrive at a similar number).
Our TDEE ebbs and flows depending on how much we move on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately, however, we only need to pay attention to our TDEE for our purposes, or the amount of energy we burn every 24 hours on average.
Once you have your TDEE, you can either lose or gain weight by subtracting or adding to it, respectively.
If you want to lose weight, you want to eat 75% of your TDEE every day. To find this number, multiply your body weight by 10 to 12.
If you want to gain weight, you want to eat 110% of your TDEE every day. To find this number, multiply your body weight by 16 to 18.
Once you have your cutting or lean bulking calories figured out you can adjust them up or down depending on how your body responds.
And that’s all there is to it!
After figuring out your daily calorie intake for cutting or lean bulking, the next step is to set your macros for cutting or bulking.
Check out this article to learn how:
What’s your take on TDEE calculators? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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