RMR and daily calorie counts are bullshit

You heard me.

Okay, maybe for J. Random Sedentary Individual it’s worthwhile to plug your bodyweight and “daily activity type” into an online calculator and come up with a random number between 1800 and 2500, but I’m working on the assumption that anyone for whom that game’s appropriate clicks “next” as soon as they realize I’m writing about nutrition.  The rest of you, I figure, are doing some sort of exercise intense enough that you can’t do it every goddamn day at the same intensity without turning into a weeping ball of cytokines and injury.  My bias leans heavily toward weight training, but I’ve been reading Lyle McDonald’s ebooks lately and he’s convinced me that there are some fucking hardcore endurance athletes out there.

Anyway, it’s example time.  Suppose you’re a Mk. 1 mod 0 standard-issue college lifter on the oldest split known to humankind:

  • Monday: Chest and bis
  • Wednesday: Back, shoulders, tris
  • Friday: Legs, abs

You might burn through, I dunno, 2200 kcal over the course of a Sunday that consists of seven hours of Call of Duty followed by an extended six-hour session of twelve-ounce curls.  On the other hand, maybe on Friday you ate up closer to 5000 kcal over the course of six sets of heavy squats, whatever ab shit you kids do these days, three hours of dancing at the club, and twenty seconds of wet slapping noises.  And Saturday?  Started with an impromptu 400m sprint and a brief but violent puke that made your abs hurt worse than yesterday’s workout, followed by a gruelling twelve hours on the couch because (unlike most people at the gym) you actually took your squats seriously.  So based on all that, what are your macro targets for a day’s eating, huh?  Sixty grams of carbs gonna cut it?

The problem is, figuring out exactly how much you “have to” eat on any given day is a constantly moving and incredibly obscure target.  “Eat for what you’re going to do” is a great piece of advice; problem is, “what you’re going to do” probably consists mostly of “recovering from what you’ve already done” (except when it doesn’t, you’re sprinting hills in an hour and you need some muscle glycogen RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT).  It’s sort of useful to micromanage your diet on an hourly sort of basis — “get some fructose-bearing carbs a couple hours before your workout to load up on liver glycogen and create an anabolic environment”, “get some starchy carbs right after your workout to replenish muscle glycogen and facilitate myosynthesis”, blah blah blah you already know this stuff if you’ve read about Cheat Mode and Leangains and googled Lyle McDonald and &c.  This is the sort of micro you do because fiddling with your diet gives you a nerd boner so hard it could cut diamonds; it is not the crucial difference between a fat lump of lard and a taut muscular physique.

Y’see, even if you agonize over every last detail, any changes in your physique or performance are going to happen agonizingly slowly.  “Oh no, I ate a carb and dropped out of ketosis for half a minute three hours before my scheduled refeed!”  Well, that’s a fucking disaster you’ll never notice in the mirror or on the scale.  “I forgot to drink my third protein shake yesterday, I only got 0.9g/lb instead of 1.1g/lb!”  Life is hard.  Cowboy up and have an extra can of tuna today, your nitrogen balance will not know the difference.  If you’re leaning out, probably you’re losing at most a pound of fat a week.  If you’re bulking, probably you’re gaining at most half a pound of muscle a week.  Getting the balance wrong for a day, which incidentally you’re going to do anyway because you’re vastly unlikely to be able to predict your kcal/macro needs if one day is interval hell and the next is… well, the day after interval hell, is not going to make a noticeable difference.

Which gives one to wonder why people obsess over calorie and macro counts for individual meals.  “That was a rounded scoop of protein powder, not a level scoop, I bet it has 20g of protein rather than 19.5g.”  Seriously?  If you like micromanagement that much, play Starcraft.  Similarly, don’t weigh each chicken breast you put on the grill — just add up the flats you buy on grocery day and figure out how much protein and fat they’re putting into your weekly diet.  And don’t weigh out your spinach because you’re worried about blowing your diet.  Just don’t.  Spend that time studying two rax openings, because your life needs more Starcraft and less FUCKING AROUND WITH SPINACH.

“But how will I know how much to eat if I don’t calc out my macros, huh Matt, huh, smart guy, huh?” Well, I dunno, you’re eating something now, right?  And probably you’re either happy with where you are, in terms of your physique and performance goals, or you’d like to get bigger/stronger, or you’d like to get leaner.  So take the first thing and figure out — roughly! — what you’re eating on a weekly basis.  Maybe you’d like to get a bit more out of your training, so you drop some waxy maize — or some ground-up Rice Krispies, same deal — into your pre/peri/post workout shakes.  Try that for a few weeks.  How’s it work?  Maybe you’d like to see visual evidence of your lower abs, so you tearfully stop putting bacon into your meat slops.  Try that for a few weeks.  How’s it work?

Point being: You already have a baseline diet.  It’s what you’re eating now.  Unless your body weight’s steadily increasing (or decreasing) it’s probably pretty close to your baseline metabolic requirement for your current weight, body comp, and activity level.  And while it might vary from day to day it’s probably pretty consistent over the course of a week, or maybe you’re a special snowflake and it’s only consistent across a two-week window.  That’s where you need to start, not “if I park at the far end of the lot I’ll burn between 56 and 59 kcal walking to the grocery store, which is like almost a third of a cake-pop!”  Eat a damn cake pop if you want it and fold it into your weekly diet if it’s a regular thing.  If you’re worried about cake pops you need to squat more, anyway.

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