We are adding a new feature to the Motivation Alliance for an upcoming release that permits you to estimate your daily caloric burn rate. This new feature is part of an update to the diet and activity logs that have proven so popular with current users.
It turns out that estimating the calories that you burn each day is not as easy as many weight loss programs make it out to be. In most cases (except for high-end programs that measure energy via a “metabolic cart”) programs, trainers or web sites just ask for your weight, gender and how active you are – with three choices.
The problem is that your actual daily burn rate cannot be estimated reliably from just this data. There are a number of additional factors that may play a role:
- body fat levels
- caloric restriction
- activity level measured to a much finer degree
- protein ratio of the diet
- ambient temperature
Body fat levels are important because the best metabolic estimates come from equations that take body fat into account. Since fat is not very metabolically active, the typical equations that you see will overestimate how many calories you burn if you are overweight.
If you are on a diet and are severely restricting calories, your body will adapt by reducing its metabolic rate – sometimes as much as 30%. And it isn’t enough to just vow to exercise more: the body will adapt to that too by maintaining a very low energy expenditure rate when you are not in the gym or on the road. Thus, typical equations will again overestimate the calories you are burning if you are severely restricting calories.
The next problem, activity level, is not very well captured by the “sedentary”, “moderate” and “vigorous” scale used by most calorie estimators. The problem lies in the reporting: these categories are just far too crude to gain a clear idea of how much energy you are expending. A number of manufacturers have created wearable devices that measure your activity level and use that information to calculate your energy expenditure. These are great tools when used correctly but good ones are quite expensive. BSDI’s new energy estimation page solves the activity level problem by letting you specify exactly how much time per day is spent in eight energy categories.
The final three categories have marginal effects and are somewhat controversial. They are not used in BSDI’s calculator but I thought I would mention them since you may have heard theories of weight loss that rely on them.
The amount of protein in your diet is thought to increase weight loss because it increases the thermic effect of food: the amount of energy above the resting metabolic rate that you need to process the food you consume. Because protein is harder to digest (has a higher thermic effect), the thinking goes, you’ll lose weight if you eat more protein. The problem with that logic is that the energy you’ll save by substituting protein (which can have its own problems) is better achieved by simply eating a bit less food. Similarly, chili peppers and medium-chain triglycerides (e.g. coconut oil) have been found to increase the thermic effect of food. While we’re all for cooking with both chili peppers and coconut oil, doing so is not exactly a weight management strategy.
Finally, it has long been observed that those who live in a cold environment and/or at high altitude are less likely to suffer from obesity than those living in warm environments at sea level. It seems obvious when you think about it: you do need more calories to maintain body temperature when shivering and your body will indeed do more work extracting oxygen from thinner air. However, in both cases, the effects are relatively marginal and have little impact on weight management for the average individual who cannot afford to move to the northern mountains.
So where does that leave us? The new caloric balance page in the Motivation Alliance will give you facilities for calculating body fat or will use a value that you’ve already entered. It will then use that information to calculate your resting metabolic rate (RMR). Once RMR is known, we ask that you provide a detailed record of your activity level throughout the day. With this information and an estimate of RMR, we can generate an estimate of your metabolic rate that will be fairly precise – assuming you are not practicing severe caloric restriction. If you are looking to lose weight, we will then provide an appropriate caloric restriction level that should help you lose weight while avoiding an unwanted “metabolic adaptation” that reduces your caloric burn rate.