Lean Mass or Total Weight to Set Calorie Levels – Q&A

Question: Should I use lean body mass or total weight to set my caloric intake?

Or should I use goal weight?

Answer: First off let me address the second question, using goal weight.  With few exceptions I don’t recommend using goal weight to set anything for the simple reason that most people tend to pick a goal weight that is exceedingly unrealistic and this tends to make them set calories very strangely.  That is, unless someone sets a goal weight that is perhaps 10-20% below their current weight, using goal weight will tend to do odd things.  So I don’t recommend it.

As to the first question, as usual it depends and there are pros and cons to each method.   Let’s look at them and then I’ll explain why I tend to use total weight regardless.

Part of the complication is that total daily energy expenditure has several components to it; classically these included resting energy expenditure (REE), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and the thermic effect of activity (TEA).

Recently, interest in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and spontaneous physical activity (SPA) has also been generated based on the observation that people differ greatly in their ability to burn off excess calories through NEAT/SPA.  This topic is discussed in more detail in Metabolic Rate Overview.

And while a good deal of work shows that resting energy expenditure is related primarily to lean body mass.   It’s worth noting that lean body mass includes a lot more than muscle mass, something that is often forgotten.  I’m not aware of any work linking the thermic effect of food to lean body mass specifically.  The calories burned during activity tends to be related to total body weight (since you’re moving the entirety of you weight) and, depending on how active someone is, this can actually make up a fairly large portion of total energy expenditure.  So while part of daily energy expenditure is certainly related to lean body mass, not all of it is.

As an additional complication, there is the issue of getting an accurate measurement of lean body mass in the first place, a topic that I discussed recently in Problems with Measuring Body Composition.  Admittedly this is a minor issue as many body composition methods can get you within 3-5% of true body composition and any variance in lean body mass based on that inaccuracy will be fairly small.

As a final issue, there is the simple fact that no matter how you estimate your starting calorie levels, it’s never more than an estimate (this is something that is altogether too often forgotten) and it will always have to be adjusted based on real world changes in body weight and body fat.

For this reason, I tend to simply use current total body weight and go from there.  It’s faster and easier, and unless you’re dealing with extremes (e.g. of age, body composition, activity) tends to get most people within shooting distance anyhow.

So, as I discussed in How to Estimate Maintenance Caloric Intake, for someone engaging in about an hour of moderate intensity activity per day, I will tend to assume a maintenance caloric intake of between 14-16 calories per pound current body weight.  Is this a perfect value correct for everyone?  No.  Is it pretty close most of the time?  Yes.

I’d note that, in recent years, due to drastically decreasing daily activity (outside of the gym), this value is often turning out to be a bit too high and many people are ending up towards the lower end (or lower than 14 cal/lb) as often as not.  Sitting in front of the computer all day burns squat for calories, even being on one’s feet burns significantly more.

So an individual weighing 170 pounds would have an estimated maintenance caloric intake between

  • 170 pounds X 14 calories per pound = 2380 calories
  • 170 pounds X 16 calories per pound = 2720 calories

Just to simplify the math, let’s split the middle and assume a maintenance level of about 2500 calories for this person.

Depending on the goals, I’d make adjustments to caloric intake based on that starting point.  A fairly standard moderate deficit fat loss diet might be a 20-25% reduction from maintenance.  Or 500-625 calories per day for an intake of 1875-2000 calories per day.

Which, as it turns out is about 11-12 calories per pound total weight.  And, as I discussed in How to Estimate Maintenance Caloric Intake, a very common moderate deficit calorie level is ~10-12 calories per pound anyhow.  So we could have saved a lot of time by just using that value in the first place.

More extreme diets would use larger deficits, of course.  For example, the low-calorie phase of my Ultimate Diet 2.0 uses a full 50% reduction from maintenance which would bring our subject to 1250 calories per day.  But that’s a different kind of diet since there are only 4 low-calorie days before raising them again.

Of course for muscle gain, you’d go the opposite direction, perhaps increasing calories by that same 20-25% (depending on a host of factor).  So you might end up at 3000-3125 calories per day or 17.5-18 calories per pound.  I typically use 16-18 cal/lb as a starting point for muscle gain and, as you can see, even using a slightly more complicated method yields an identical value.  So I tend to just use the fast one (with total weight) and then make adjustments from there.

Again, let me reiterate that these are all only rough estimates; they should only be treated as such rather than as holy writ.  While I don’t have the space to go into the approach I use to adjust calories (both are discussed in the final chapters of both The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and A Guide to Flexible Dieting), the key is that those values must be adjusted based on real world changes in body weight and/or body fat levels.

And since this is true whether or not you use lean body mass or total weight, I tend to just use faster estimates using total weight and then adjust from there.  Outside of extreme situations, this typically works well enough and since you have to adjust things anyhow, I don’t see much of a benefit to using the more complicated approaches.

I hope that answers the question.



19 thoughts on “Lean Mass or Total Weight to Set Calorie Levels – Q&A

  1. Lyle,

    I have a quick question for you about your Guide To Flexible Dieting that you mentioned in this article. I’m currently training a bodybuilder who has expressed misgivings about his tendency to be ultra-precise with food intake year-round whether losing fat, gaining mass, or maintaining. i.e. he tends to prepare the bulk of his weekly meals and weighs all portions when prepping and/or packaging. While your book would certainly not take the place of seeking out the proper help (medically speaking), would it possibly be of some benefit in helping him with strategies on how to ease out of such a rigid lifestyle? He seems to recognize a potential issue, so I’ve been wondering who to refer him to/what to have him read/etc. in order to help him along

  2. Lyle,
    Could you give me a ballpark estimate to the following question? Suppose sitting burns 5 calories a minute for some random individual. How many more calories a minute would you burn if you stood instead of sat?


  3. Albert

    The difference is not enormous and no way does sitting burn 5 cal/min (it’s more like 1 cal/min). We tracked some of this with a bodybugg a while back (and there are charts online) and the difference was maybe 1 cal/min vs. 1.3-1.4 cal/min. Which isn’t much on a per minute basis but it does start to add up over 8+ hours of sitting 5 or more days per week.

    It’s just one of many contributions to changing activity levels (generally doing down) and reduced caloric expenditure.


  4. Lyle, just found your site and have spent the better part of the morning reading articles, etc. (let’s not mention that I’m at work…). I’m going to purchase one or two of your books – they seem to be just what I have been looking for in terms of honest information.

    Your article about the “calories in/calories out” theory was fascinating and helpful. Inherently, I know that it’s more about composition of my diet vs. simply the total calories and was researching theory, etc. looking for reinforcement. Your explanation laid it out for me more clearly than I have ever read – why you can’t take the numbers completely at face value – I need to factor in other physiological factors as well.

    For the average person, caloric restriction almost begs one to overeat carbs. I’m making adjustments to my diet – increasing protein intake exponentially and decreasing carb intake. This whole experiment has just proven to me what I already know – it’s not ONLY about the calories – it’s about the KINDS of calories. In fact, despite religious food logging and maitaining VERY large deficits (over 1,000 cals per day) I’m seeing very slow to almost nonexistent improvements. In looking back on my macros, it’s obvious I’ve been ignoring my instincts and eating only with regard to calories not nutrition. I’ll adjust for that going forward. Shame on me.

    My question is this – You referenced the BodyBugg – what are your thoughts on that device as a fat loss tool? I’m currently wearing one. I realize that intake records are only as good as the efforts made to quantify and record food by an individual but how accurate and helpful do you find such devices as the BodyBugg or GoWearFit in determining your daily calorie expenditure?

  5. Sharon,

    If yo uread other work on teh site, there is a clear difference in diets higher vs. lower in protein.

    As well, for some people very large deficits stall weight loss due to massive water retention.

    I’ll be writing a full review of the GoWearFit (a newer version of the Bugg) at some point but the short version is that I think it’s a very valuable tool. I’ve correlated mine against standard estimation equations and other metrics and it’s invariably very close if not identical to those values. That said, it seems to be completely wrong for a small percentage of people (judging by forum reports); I have no idea what causes this.


  6. Hmm, After reading a few of these articles it seems the rough estimate for starting calories for fat loss (10%) is the same as estimating RMR. So in essence what a lot of the bodybuilders were doing by starting their calories at 10% total weight were dropping calories to RMR and tapping their fat stores to fuel the other 3 factors of the energy equation. Interesting!

  7. Lyle,

    What are your thoughts on calorie cycling? Loosing body fat while trying to hypertrophy is feasible for beginners, do you think it is something an intermediate/ advanced trainee can achieve by including high calorie and low calorie days in their nutritional plan?

    My reading so far has arrived at a bit of a grey area. With some people endorsing calorie cycling (and macronutrient cycling) while others condemn it.



  8. Discussed in various fashions elsewhere on the site, I’d suggest starting with “Gaining muscle while losing fat – Q&A”. My Ultimate Diet 2.0 is a cyclical diet as well, cycling calories and macronutrient intake.

  9. Hi Lyle, I stumbled onto your website and ever since I been reading it everyday. you have some really great advice. I weight 164lbs but I have a “pouch” I’m trying to get raid of and nothing seems to work. I even cut calories and even that doesnt work. I increased my exercise intensity and still I can’t get raid of the “pouch” (lower abs fat), I been trying for over six months now. I find that I’m hungry all the time and if I dont eat, I get headaches. My currently calories intake is 2200-2400 daily. I’m afraid if I go any lower, I will die from head aches. Any recommendation?

    Thank you so much.


  10. My suggestion is to find an article that your question might actually have relevance to instead of tacking it onto one that it has no relevance to and hoping I’ll answer it.

  11. Hi Shaun and Lyle

    I think the advice on my website may help Shaun if he has not found an answer yet to his paunch problem. What I do is mutiply bodyweight in kilos by 1.5 and then multiply this by 4 then 4 again to get total calories. I keep protein between 25 and 35%, carbs at 55 – 65% and fat between 10 and 20%.

    The protein levels take into account protein from carb sources and make up the difference with a lean animal or tofu protein.

    What do you think of this method lyle.

  12. Lyle,

    What about those of us who are Obese? For example, @ 285 lbs my body fat is 47% according to a DEXA scan. Would I still use the 11-12 per lb of body weight to estimate my maintenance calories?

    Thanks in advance!

  13. Hi Mark, actually no, that value will be too high and I’d suggest starting with 8-10 cal/lb and adjust based on real fat loss. Hope that helps.

  14. Hi Lyle

    Thank you for your time and giving so much knowldge away free, just a quick question.

    You mention not calculating in lbm when estimating your calories, but in 2 of your books flexible dieting and rapid fat loss you talking about finding lbm and gives charts to do so. Im a bit confused as i want the simplest method, as you said you need to adjust anyway. So which is better estimating from total weight or lbm or does it not matter

    Thanks in advance

  15. So 8-10 cals for fat loss or his maintenance ? For obese you said adjust based on fat loss so I assume 8 -10 as a starting point for fat loss for obese

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