How to interpret changes to your energy expenditure
All of MacroFactor’s “diet sidekick” functionality revolves around its energy expenditure calculation. If you understand how we calculate energy expenditure, you’ll be able to easily and intuitively understand why your energy expenditure is responding in a particular way, and therefore why MacroFactor’s nutrition recommendations are changing in a particular way.
Your calculated energy expenditure is based on two factors: your weight trend and your calorie intake. The actual math behind this calculation is reasonably complex, but the underlying principle is simple: if we know the direction and rate of your weight change, and we know your energy intake, we can estimate your energy expenditure pretty accurately.
Short-term fluctuations in weight largely reflect changes in water retention, muscle glycogen, and intestinal contents, but longer-term changes in weight reflect changes in stored chemical energy in the form of fat and proteins. Your weight trend separates the “signal” (real changes in weight) from the “noise” (day-to-day weight fluctuations). Changes in weight, according to your weight trend, imply a change in stored energy which can be quantified in terms of calories.
With that in mind, calculating your energy expenditure just involves using this classic formula:
Calories in - Calories out = Change in weight
First, since changes in weight imply changes in stored energy:
Calories in - Calories out = Change in stored energy
Then, since we’re solving for “Calories out” (i.e. energy expenditure), it’s just a matter of rearranging the formula:
Calories out = Calories in - Change in stored energy
Just to use a pair simple examples:
If you’re eating 2000kcal per day, and losing weight at a rate that implies a calorie deficit of 400kcal per day, that means your energy expenditure is about 2400kcal per day, on average. If you’re eating about 3000kcal per day, and gaining weight at a rate that implies a calorie surplus of 200kcal per day, that means your energy expenditure is about 2800kcal per day, on average.
As previously mentioned, the actual math underpinning the expenditure calculation in MacroFactor is quite a bit more sophisticated than these examples, but the basic principle is pretty straightforward.
Generating a good expenditure estimate
MacroFactor needs two things from you in order to accurately calculate (and adjust) your energy expenditure estimate: 1) consistent, accurate weight data, and 2) consistent, accurate nutrition data.
Tracking Body Weight
One of the best ways to optimize the function of MacroFactor is to input high-quality data, and it all starts with great weight data. Fortunately, you can take some very simple steps to ensure that you’re getting excellent weigh-in data. In an ideal scenario, weight would be measured daily, on the same scale, early in the morning. A simple routine of waking up, voiding your bladder, and weighing yourself in standardized (and minimal) clothing removes several potential sources of variability. If you have a smart scale, MacroFactor makes weight tracking even easier by allowing you to connect integrations, so that weight can be synced with any scale that can send its data to one of those platforms. Even if your scale doesn’t connect to those apps, you might be able to indirectly link your scale to one of them using a third app, such as Health Sync.
Naturally, body weight will fluctuate from day to day, and we’re bound to miss a weigh-in every now and then. Fortunately, MacroFactor has the trended weight function to smooth out the “noise” introduced by daily fluctuations, and uses an imputation method to minimize the impact of a missed weigh-in. Daily weigh-ins are ideal, but we understand that there are some circumstances in which daily weigh-ins simply aren’t feasible. When possible, we advise measuring weight at least three times per week, with weigh-in days distributed as evenly throughout the week as possible. More is generally better when it comes to weight data, but three weekly weigh-ins should provide enough information to the app to function as intended.
If you’re skipping weigh-ins because the process of seeing your weight every day is a bit stressful, you could consider taking advantage of the smart scale syncing functionality. If you cover the display of a smart scale and sync it with MacroFactor, you can gather daily weight data without actually seeing or interacting with the weight value during the weigh-in process.
A common source of missing weight data pertains to atypical values. Every now and then, users will have an atypical day of eating that involves higher or lower intakes of carbohydrates, sodium, fluid, or total food compared to their usual eating habits. In such scenarios, users often ask if they should skip the next weigh-in or log it. Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal either way. We specifically designed the trended weight feature to handle these types of transient weight fluctuations, so there is absolutely no issue with logging this data point. Conversely, MacroFactor handles small amounts of missing weight data very effectively, so there’s no harm done by skipping the weigh-in. The MacroFactor team is generally in favor of logging the weight data in this circumstance, but for those who are a bit hesitant, there’s really nothing to lose – if you log a really large weight spike and you’re concerned about how it impacts your trended weight value, you can always go back in and retroactively delete the weigh-in.
Tracking Dietary Intake
MacroFactor’s algorithm makes calculations, estimates, and recommendations based on what you actually ate (logged nutrition intake) rather than what you were supposed to eat (the previous week’s macro program). This is very advantageous, but obviously comes with an important implication: reasonably accurate nutrition tracking is important.
There are some basic “best practices” which can ensure that your nutrition tracking leads to high-quality data. When possible, using a scale to measure the mass of servings sizes is preferable when compared to the use of cups or spoons that measure the volume of servings. If you invest in a kitchen scale, this makes the tracking of multi-ingredient meals quite convenient – instead of gathering several different measuring cups and spoons, you can simply add ingredients to a bowl or plate one at a time, and tare (zero out) the scale between ingredients. This also makes it fairly convenient to track large recipes that are prepared in bulk early in the week and consumed over multiple days. For example, a soup, stew, or casserole would be quite challenging to weigh out ingredient-by-ingredient on a daily basis. Instead, you could use MacroFactor to log the entire recipe, weigh the entire finished product, and weigh out portions throughout the week. For example, if you have a 347g bowl of soup, you can just track it directly as 347g.
Another important consideration during food tracking relates to the distinction between cooked and raw ingredients. A lot of foods gain or lose weight in the process of cooking; ingredients like rice and oats soak up moisture during cooking and weigh more, whereas meats lose moisture during cooking and weigh less. In either case, it’s always prudent to make sure you know which version (cooked or uncooked) you’re tracking from a food database. Unless otherwise specified, many of the “common foods” in the database we use provide calorie and macronutrient information for their cooked weight; if you’re searching for a raw ingredient, including terms like “raw,” “uncooked,” or “dry” in your search query can help you be sure you’re tracking what you intend to track.
The most accurate method is to weigh food items dry and uncooked, and to find a food database entry that pertains to their dry, uncooked weight. Another acceptable (but less precise) method is to find a food database entry that pertains to the ingredient’s “cooked weight,” and weigh it after cooking. The reason it isn’t quite as accurate is because it assumes that you cooked it the same way as whoever made the food database entry, which would cause the food to gain or lose the exact same amount of moisture and weight. In many cases, this assumption won’t hold up perfectly; for example, a well-done steak will lose a lot more moisture than a rare steak, and some people cook oats with far more liquid than others.
In some cases, it may be more convenient to measure out cooked portions of food. For example, if you make a ton of chicken early in the week and eat it over the course of several days, it would be logistically challenging to use uncooked weights for tracking. For a cooked food that you consume consistently, you can simply figure out how much weight it typically loses when you cook it the way you typically cook it. For example, let’s say you want to figure out how to use cooked weights for your grilled chicken every week. On a few separate occasions, weigh your batch of chicken before cooking and after cooking. If you consistently observe that 2,000 grams of raw chicken weighs 1,500 grams after cooking, you would conclude that your typical cooking method removes 25% of the chicken’s weight. So, if you wanted to track 150 grams of “raw” chicken, you could use your pre-cooked chicken and account for the fact that it weighs 25% less. To do this, you would just multiply 0.75 by 150, which equates to 112.5 grams of cooked chicken. Note that these values are just examples; you’d have to determine how much your cooking style reduces the weight of specific food items.
Even when we track a meal with the intention of flawless accuracy throughout the cooking process, we might find that part of the meal never makes it into our mouth. A great example of this is cooking oil; we may coat a pan with oil, but find that a considerable amount of oil remains in the pan after cooking is complete. If you were confident that only oil remained in the pan after cooking, you could theoretically weigh the pan before and after cooking to infer the amount of oil remaining, but this is probably more effort than is necessary. If you’ve got plenty of fat in your diet and some wiggle room in your tracking, it’s generally fine to assume that you consumed all of the oil, even if you know this is a slight overestimate. If you’re at risk of going below your lowest advisable fat intake for the day, or you have a specific fitness goal that requires heightened precision, then you could simply estimate the percentage of oil that is likely to be remaining in the pan, and back-calculate your oil consumption from there. If you’re pursuing a weight loss goal, you’d want to strategically bias your estimate to avoid underestimating intake, while the opposite would be true when pursuing a weight gain goal. Also, a fun fact that a lot of people overlook: non-stick cooking sprays list zero calories on their label, but they contain oil that is just as calorically dense as any other cooking oil you’d be inclined to use. If you’re using more than a very brief spray of the pan, you might be adding a considerable amount of untracked calories by using liberal application of non-stick cooking spray.
Cooking spray is commonly overlooked in the food tracking process, but it’s not alone. People often wonder if they need to track things like vegetables, condiments, sauces, and dietary supplements. Obviously, the impact of a tracking inaccuracy will depend on the magnitude of the inaccuracy, but we generally advise tracking everything with calories (when it’s feasible to do so). Naturally, everyone has a different threshold when it comes to the threshold at which a low-calorie food is no longer worth logging, but it’s important to view tracking omissions in aggregate – a little splash of coffee creamer has never derailed a diet, but a combination of untracked coffee creamer, condiments, vegetables, and cooking oil can quickly chip away at a caloric deficit.
It’s not uncommon for people to skip out on logging a particular food or supplement that they consume every single day. For example, people might have a bit of creamer and sugar in their coffee that is approximately the same every single day, or might consume a dietary supplement that contains some calories every single morning. As long as untracked intakes are truly consistent from day-to-day, the app can accommodate these omissions quite well. The major difference is that the interpretation of some app estimates changes. In this context, the recommended calorie target represents the target for calorie intake above and beyond the daily intakes that are untracked. Similarly, the energy expenditure estimate actually represents the value of your energy expenditure minus the energy content of daily intakes that are untracked. While the interpretation of these values would change in the context of consistent but untracked calorie intake, MacroFactor would still continue to make calorie target adjustments that are accurate in terms of magnitude and direction.
Another common scenario that users frequently ask about relates to meals that can’t be feasibly tracked (or, similarly, scenarios in which the user simply prefers not to track for a brief period of time). Even if you can’t weigh out the individual components of the meal, one option is to track a similar selection of foods from the food database in MacroFactor. For example, if you eat pizza but don’t know the nutrition information for the dough, the sauce, the cheese, and the toppings, you could find a pizza entry within the food database that seems to be approximately similar in composition. This will inevitably be a rough estimation method, but you can skew the estimation error in a manner that suits your goal; you might overestimate portion sizes a little bit when pursuing a weight loss goal, or underestimate portion sizes a little bit when pursuing a weight gain goal, just to err on the safe side. If you’re looking for a slightly more efficient approach, you could simply estimate the total calories in the meal – as long as you get within 30% or so, you’re in a good spot. Once again, you can intentionally over- or under-estimate a little bit, just to ensure that you’re erring on the safe side with regards to your specific goal for gaining or losing weight. If you don’t want to worry about finding similar food entries in the database, you could instead use the quick add feature to roughly approximate the energy and macronutrient content of the meal.
If you have absolutely no idea how much you ate in a given day, and don’t feel confident guessing within roughly 30% of your total calorie intake for the day, another option is to leave the day blank. As long as you don’t instruct the app that your intention was to take a fasting day, MacroFactor will understand that you neglected to log food that day. If you had already started logging for the day, but things got away from you and you decided not to complete logging for the full day, you can also go back in and retroactively delete the entire day of nutrition logging from the habits page. It’s critically important to delete partially logged days because they will lead the MacroFactor algorithm astray. The app has no way of knowing if you actually ate 400kcals that day, or if you stopped logging after breakfast, so its default behavior is to trust what you’ve logged and assume that you actually ate just 400kcals. Here's more information on the question of: partial logging
The decision to omit (or retroactively delete) a full day of nutrition data isn’t ideal, but it’s fine if you had a fairly typical day of eating that was unquantified. However, if you ate way more than normal, but you’re not certain exactly how much you ate, a rough estimate is better than a blank day, even if you’re not particularly close. A very high (but uncertain) calorie estimate tells MacroFactor that you ate a lot more than you normally do, while a completely blank day conveys no information at all.
To be clear, tracking isn’t something that should stress you out. In fact, quite the opposite – food logging is your opportunity to feed the app fantastic data, which will yield more insightful analytics and more effective recommendations within the app. Even food labels and nutrition databases have some degree of imprecision, so we shouldn’t be losing sleep over 3 grams of beef or a roughly estimated handful of spinach. We should merely try to follow best practices for nutrition tracking whenever it’s feasible; this will result in reliably feeding the app high-quality data, which will lead to the most accurate and precise estimates and recommendations possible.
Why doesn’t MF pull activity data from activity trackers?
The decision to incorporate energy expenditure (EE) data from wearable technologies presents an interesting dilemma – if we include EE data from wearables, we incorporate their estimation error into MacroFactor adjustments. Depending on the wearable device and context of activity, this error can be substantial, nonrandom, and hard to predict. Conversely, if we exclude EE data from wearables, MacroFactor’s algorithms will figure out a user’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
We are dedicated to transparency, and this article fully explains how MacroFactor uses a continuous, running assessment of energy intake and changes in total body energy to maintain an up-to-date estimate of your TDEE. The major advantage of this approach is that we know our current method of estimating energy expenditure works. If it didn't, that would imply that everything we know about human metabolism is wrong. Based on current evidence regarding the validity and reliability of common wearable activity trackers, we have more confidence in the function of our algorithm than the measurement error of common wearable devices, so we do not pull activity data from wearable devices at this time.
Troubleshooting questions and issues related to energy expenditure
When you’re logging consistently and accurately, it should take MacroFactor about 2-3 weeks to dial in a good energy expenditure estimate when you first start using the app. From there, notable energy expenditure changes should be noticed and accounted for within 1-2 weeks. With that in mind, let’s walk through a few of the common questions people have, and scenarios where changes in energy expenditure or calorie recommendations may not track with people’s expectations.
Why isn’t my energy expenditure updating?
You may notice that the energy expenditure bars are shaded with different hues of orange. The darker the orange color, the more confident we are in our estimation of your energy expenditure. Confidence is strongly influenced by how consistently you track your food intake, and somewhat influenced by how consistently you track your weight.
If you track your weight and nutrition every day, the algorithms will be confident enough to start adjusting your expenditure estimate after seven days of logging. If you track your nutrition every day, but only track your weight 3-4 days per week, it’ll take the algorithms a bit longer to “get to know you,” but updates should start occurring within about two weeks. If you only track your nutrition 3-4 days per week, the algorithms might never gain enough confidence to start adjusting your energy expenditure estimate. If you log your nutrition 5-6 days per week, the algorithms will eventually gain enough confidence to start making adjustments, but it’ll take considerably longer.
In short, the more consistently you log both weight and nutrition data, the sooner the algorithms will gain enough confidence to start making adjustments to your estimated energy expenditure, and the more responsive the algorithms will be moving forward.
Why is my initial energy expenditure estimate considerably higher or lower than I was expecting?
Your initial energy expenditure estimate is based on two factors: your estimated basal metabolic rate (using the Cunningham equation) and a set of custom activity multipliers that accounts for your lifestyle and activity habits.
That process estimates your baseline energy expenditure about as well as we could hope in the absence of other data, but it’s a rough estimate. The typical error of BMR estimation equations is 100-200kcals per day, and activity multipliers are fairly blunt instruments. All together, we expect that our baseline estimates will be approximately correct, on average, across the entire MacroFactor user base, but errors for individual users might be 400-500kcals (or more).
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, per se. In fact, it illustrates why MacroFactor is useful in the first place. As you log your weight and nutrition, we’ll be able to pinpoint your daily energy expenditure far better than standard prediction equations would be able to. However, in the absence of other data, all we can do is start with our best guess. If you log your weight and nutrition data consistently, we should be able to pinpoint your actual energy expenditure within about 2-3 weeks.
So, with that out of the way, there are two things you could do if you think your initial energy expenditure estimate is too high or two low.
First, you can simply initial energy expenditure estimate. Just tap the person icon on the top left of your dashboard, scroll down to “expenditure,” tap on “initial expenditure,” tap on “manual,” and enter a number you think is more appropriate. Tap the check mark in the top right of the screen to save, and you’re squared away. As we collect more data, we’ll be able to update this user-generated energy expenditure estimate just as we would any other initial estimate.
Second, if you have prior weight and nutrition data, you can manually enter it. Entering approximately 30 days of prior weight and nutrition data on the habits tab (near the bottom of your dashboard) will allow you to start off with a refined energy expenditure estimate, as if you’d already been using MacroFactor for a month. You can enter more historical data if you’d like, but it won’t lead to further improvements in your energy expenditure estimate.
Why is my energy expenditure increasing/decreasing after 1-2 weeks of logging?
As discussed previously, our initial estimate of your energy expenditure is a rough approximation. If you log your weight and nutrition every day, insights derived from your actual weight and nutrition data will start influencing your energy expenditure estimate after one week of tracking.
If your energy expenditure estimate is decreasing, that simply suggests that the initial energy expenditure estimate was a bit too high for you; if your energy expenditure estimate is increasing, that simply suggests that the initial energy expenditure estimate was a bit too low for you. If the initial estimates were close to your actual energy expenditure, the rate at which your energy expenditure estimate changes will be pretty slow; if the initial estimates were further from your actual energy expenditure, the rate at which your energy expenditure changes will be quite a bit faster. However, once you’ve been logging consistently for about three weeks, we should have a highly refined estimate of your true energy needs.
After logging consistently for 2-3 weeks, why did my energy expenditure estimate initially increase and subsequently decrease (or vice versa)?
While the confidence of your expenditure estimate is ramping up, we allow for larger daily adjustments than we otherwise would. For example, if your initial expenditure estimate was 2300kcals per day, and your actual energy expenditure is closer to 2900kcals per day, we want MacroFactor to be able to close that gap quickly, rather than keeping your calories too low for weeks and weeks.
However, for some users, that can lead to an initial slight overshoot and subsequent correction. For example, if your initial expenditure estimate is 2700kcal per day, and your actual energy expenditure is 2300kcals per day, your expenditure estimate may trend down to 2200kcals per day initially, and then ease back up to 2300kcals per day. The opposite scenario can also apply, if we initially underestimated your energy expenditure.
Of note, the undershoots and/or overshoots typically aren’t particularly large (they’re generally in the range of 50-150kcals), and everything should smooth out once you’ve logged consistently for 3-4 weeks.
I’ve been logging consistently for at least 3-4 weeks, and my energy expenditure is still increasing/decreasing. What’s going on?
If you’re logging your nutrition almost every day, and you’re logging your weight at least 3-4 times per week, we should have a highly refined estimate of your energy expenditure after 3-4 weeks of consistent logging. So, further changes to your calculated energy expenditure are likely reflecting true changes to your daily energy expenditure.
Oftentimes, these changes will reflect the goal you’ve set for yourself (i.e. your energy expenditure will trend up if you’re trying to gain weight, or trend down if you’re trying to lose weight) as a consequence of metabolic adaptation. However, that’s not always the case. For example, when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s not uncommon to consciously (or unconsciously) move around a bit more, with the intention of burning a few more calories. When this occurs, it’s not terribly uncommon for energy expenditure to increase for a while, even though you’re in an energy deficit. The opposite could also occur when you’re trying to gain weight.
In almost all cases, changes in your calculated energy expenditure after 3-4 weeks of consistent logging reflect true changes in your energy expenditure. The only scenario that could result in (short-term) errors would be relatively large persistent changes in body weight that don’t reflect changes in muscle or fat mass. You don’t need to worry about your energy expenditure calculation getting thrown off by a salty, high-carb meal, or a couple extra pounds on the scale around the start of your period. However, if you shifted from a high-carb diet to a very low-carb diet, for example, you may shed some water weight (due to reductions in muscle glycogen), and be a few pounds lighter on an ongoing basis. However, that persistent change in water weight wouldn’t reflect a loss of muscle or fat mass, so MacroFactor might slightly overestimate your energy expenditure for a week or two.
Outside of that single scenario (persistent changes in weight, not reflecting changes in muscle or fat mass), ongoing changes to your calculated energy expenditure should reflect changes in your actual energy expenditure.
I’m losing weight faster than desired, so why isn’t my calculated expenditure increasing?
If you’re aiming to lose one pound per week, for example, but you’re losing 1.5 pounds per week, it might be logical to assume that your calculated energy expenditure should be trending up. After all, if you’re losing weight faster than intended, that must imply that your energy expenditure is higher than anticipated, right?
However, that’s not always the case. The energy expenditure calculation is based on your weight trend and your actual energy intake. In this scenario, it’s likely that your energy intake has been lower than MacroFactor’s recommendations. In fact, it’s even possible to be losing weight faster than intended, but still see a decrease in calculated energy expenditure.
A second possibility is that you’re not logging your nutrition and/or weight frequently enough for the algorithms to confidently update your expenditure estimate.
I’m losing weight slower than desired, so why isn’t my calculated expenditure decreasing?
If you’re aiming to lose one pound per week, for example, but you’re losing 0.5 pounds per week, it might be logical to assume that your calculated energy expenditure should be trending down. After all, if you’re losing weight slower than intended, that must imply that your energy expenditure is lower than anticipated, right?
However, that’s not always the case. The energy expenditure calculation is based on your weight trend and your actual energy intake. In this scenario, it’s likely that your energy intake has been higher than MacroFactor’s recommendations. In fact, it’s even possible to be losing weight slower than intended, but still see an increase in calculated energy expenditure.
A second possibility is that you’re not logging your nutrition and/or weight frequently enough for the algorithms to confidently update your expenditure estimate.
I’m gaining weight faster than desired, so why isn’t my calculated expenditure decreasing?
If you’re aiming to gain 0.5 pounds per week, for example, but you’re gaining one pound per week, it might be logical to assume that your calculated energy expenditure should be trending down. After all, if you’re gaining weight faster than intended, that must imply that your energy expenditure is lower than anticipated, right?
However, that’s not always the case. The energy expenditure calculation is based on your weight trend and your actual energy intake. In this scenario, it’s likely that your energy intake has been higher than MacroFactor’s recommendations. In fact, it’s even possible to be gaining weight faster than intended, but still see an increase in calculated energy expenditure.
A second possibility is that you’re not logging your nutrition and/or weight frequently enough for the algorithms to confidently update your expenditure estimate.
I’m gaining weight slower than desired, so why isn’t my calculated expenditure increasing?
If you’re aiming to gain 0.5 pounds per week, for example, but you’re gaining 0.2 pounds per week, it might be logical to assume that your calculated energy expenditure should be trending up. After all, if you’re gaining weight slower than intended, that must imply that your energy expenditure is higher than anticipated, right?
However, that’s not always the case. The energy expenditure calculation is based on your weight trend and your actual energy intake. In this scenario, it’s likely that your energy intake has been lower than MacroFactor’s recommendations. In fact, it’s even possible to be gaining weight slower than intended, but still see a decrease in calculated energy expenditure.
I hit my calorie targets dead-on, and gained more/gained less/lost more/lost less weight than I’d like to this week. Why am I not seeing large energy expenditure changes?
MacroFactor’s energy expenditure calculation relies on changes in trended weight (which you can read more about in the linked article) for one simple reason: we don’t want to over-react to short-term weight fluctuations that may not be reflective of actual rates of muscle and fat gain/loss.
For example, if you’re aiming to lose one pound per week, you’ve been losing about one pound per week for a while, and your weight doesn’t change for one week, there are two possible explanations:
- Your energy expenditure hasn’t actually changed very much, and the scale is just being a bit slow to reflect ongoing weight loss.
- Your energy expenditure has actually decreased quite a bit over the past week.
More often than not, possibility 1 is closer to the truth than possibility 2. Maybe your energy expenditure is decreasing a bit (which is to be expected during weight loss), but it’s unlikely that a particular level of calorie intake that was sufficient to lose a pound per week suddenly became a maintenance level of calorie intake in the span of a week. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely.
Because of this, our weight trending algorithm (and therefore our energy expenditure algorithm) responds somewhat conservatively, rather than ratcheting your calorie recommendations down by 400-500kcals per day (which would likely be a large over-correction). If the trend holds for a second week, you’ll see a larger adjustment, since it’s more likely that you’re truly experiencing a notable decrease in energy expenditure.
Functionally, MacroFactor’s energy expenditure changes (and therefore calorie recommendation changes) generally follow a two-step process. During the first week, we hedge our bets a bit, making some tentative adjustments; we don’t want to be slow to respond to true changes as they develop, but we also don’t want to overreact to short-term deviations that don’t represent a true departure from longer-term trends. However, if an observed trend holds for a second week (and certainly a third week), you’ll see larger adjustments.
How will my calculated energy expenditure respond to changes in exercise or day-to-day activity levels?
The response to this question is a simple one: your calculated energy expenditure will respond however your actual energy expenditure responds, with a small time lag.
I actually think this is one of the coolest “off-label” uses of MacroFactor. There are various ways to estimate how many calories you burn in a single bout of exercise, but few good ways to estimate how changes in activity levels affect your total daily energy expenditure.
For example, if you start running, you may be so tired after your daily runs that you’re less active throughout the rest of the day, resulting in a negligible change in total daily energy expenditure. Conversely, your new running habit may really energize you, leading you to be more active throughout the rest of the day, resulting in an even larger increase in total daily energy expenditure than would be predicted by just accounting for your runs.
Conversely, if you scale back your normal exercise, your total daily energy expenditure may decrease accordingly, or you may find yourself being a bit more active in day-to-day life, largely offsetting the anticipated decrease in total daily energy expenditure.
If changes to your exercise or activity habits affect your total daily energy expenditure, that change will be reflected on the scale, and will thus be accounted for by MacroFactor. As discussed in the previous section, your calculated energy expenditure should start responding fairly quickly, and fully account for this change in lifestyle or exercise habits within about two weeks. This will allow you to assess how changes to your lifestyle or exercise habits actually affect your total daily energy expenditure.
How does MacroFactor respond to short-term changes in water weight?
It’s not uncommon for users to be concerned that fluctuations in water weight will throw off their weight trend, and therefore their calculated energy expenditure, and therefore their calorie and macronutrient recommendations. However, you absolutely don’t need to worry about this scenario. Our algorithms are very well-equipped to handle short-term weight fluctuations without over-reacting.
As previously alluded to, our algorithms effectively “hedge their bets” in response to short term changes. If your weight is several pounds or kilos higher or lower than normal for 1-5 days, your energy expenditure estimate will change, but not by very much. It’s entirely possible that your recommended calorie intake for the next week would be 20-30kcals higher or lower than would be 100% ideal (an amount that wouldn’t even be noticeable), but it’s not going to be off to any significant degree.
As mentioned in the introduction, if you personally feel more comfortable not weighing yourself on days where you think your scale weight for the day won’t reflect your “true” weight, that’s absolutely fine. However, you don’t need to worry that these days will “confuse” the algorithms and result in inappropriate recommendations.
How does MacroFactor respond to longer-term changes in water weight?
Certain dietary or supplement changes may result in persistent changes in weight that don’t reflect changes in muscle and/or fat mass. For example, shifting from a high-carb diet to a very low-carb diet (or vice versa) could result in quick, persistent changes in weight that reflect changes in glycogen levels, or you may experience a persistent increase in water weight from creatine loading. You can also experience rapid shifts in water weight if you transition from a weight loss goal to a weight gain goal (or vice versa), especially if you’re targeting a fairly aggressive rate of weight gain and/or loss.
As previously mentioned, persistent changes in water weight will affect your energy expenditure estimate. However, we’ve tested a range of plausible scenarios, and the resulting “errors” are generally tolerable in magnitude (<10% of energy expenditure) and resolve themselves quickly (within about two weeks). For example, if your actual daily energy expenditure is 2000kcals per day, your calculated energy expenditure may drop to 1800-1900kcals per day for about two weeks after switching from a low-carb to a high-carb diet, or after beginning to supplement with creatine.
For many users, the functional outcome of simply sticking with MacroFactor’s recommendations may be desirable. For example, if you’re aiming to maintain a body weight of 180lb, and you switch from a low-carb diet to a high-carb diet, your body weight may initially increase to 182-185lb. This increase would result in a decrease in estimated energy expenditure, and a decrease in calorie recommendations, with the goal of pulling you back towards 180lb. If you were truly trying to maintain a body weight of 180lb, this “error” would result in recommendations that would still help you accomplish your desired outcome (maintaining a body weight of 180lb). The same logic would apply to people with rate-based weight gain or weight loss goals: the persistent shifts in water weight would pull you away from your target rate of weight gain or weight loss, and the errors in calculated energy expenditure would result in calorie recommendations that would nudge you back toward your target rate of weight gain or weight loss.
However, if you’re concerned about the potential errors in calculated energy expenditure resulting from persistent shifts in water weight, there’s a simple solution: just skip a couple of weekly check-ins. Keep an eye on your energy expenditure estimate; if a dietary change resulted in persistent increases in water weight, your calculated energy expenditure will initially fall, and then start rising again. If a dietary change resulted in persistent decreases in water weight, your calculated energy expenditure will initially rise, and then start falling again. Once it starts rising again after its initial fall, or falling again after its initial rise, just resume weekly check-ins as normal.
Realistically, there’s not a bad option for navigating this scenario. For most people, most of the time, even the “errors” introduced by persistent shifts in water weight won’t result in calorie recommendations that are intolerably inappropriate. If the ideal calorie intake for a particular goal is 2300kcals/day, and you’re recommended to consume 2500kcal/day for a couple of weeks, you’d still be close enough to keep progressing toward your goals. Similarly, unless you’re undergoing large lifestyle changes, your true energy expenditure is unlikely to change so much in a couple of weeks that you’d miss out on much by skipping a check-in or two. Even in the one scenario where our algorithms struggle, you’re probably fine to keep interacting with the app in whatever manner you’re the most comfortable with.
How will my calculated energy expenditure respond if I don’t log my food or weight for a day?
There are scenarios where it may be inconvenient (or even impossible) to log your weight or nutrition for a day. So, how will MacroFactor handle those scenarios?
As previously mentioned, our algorithms have a much easier time handling missing weight data than missing nutrition data. The reason for this is simple: it’s easy to estimate missing weight data, but it’s not easy to (accurately) estimate missing nutrition data. If you weighed 170lb two days ago, and 170.2lb today, you probably weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 170.1lb yesterday. And, even if you were 168lb or 174lb, the error associated with simply assuming you were 170.1lb won’t have much of an effect on the weight trending algorithm. However, the same principle doesn’t apply to nutrition data. If you ate 2500kcals two days ago and 2400kcals today, we can’t necessarily assume (with a high degree of confidence) that you ate about 2450kcals yesterday. Perhaps you didn’t log your food because you were super busy, and didn’t have much time to eat (much less log what you ate), so you only consumed 800kcals. Conversely, maybe you didn’t log what you ate because you went to a buffet and consumed 4000kcals. The range of plausible weight values for a missing day of weight tracking is relatively small (rarely more than 5% higher or lower than your weight on surrounding days), whereas the range of plausible calorie values for a missing day of nutrition tracking is relatively large (values 50% higher or lower than your calorie intake on surrounding days are very plausible).
As a result, the algorithmic “cost” of skipping a day of weight logging is small, whereas the algorithmic “cost” of skipping a day of nutrition logging is a bit larger.
So, as long as you’re still weighing at least three times per week, not weighing for a day is totally fine, and will have minimal effect on your energy expenditure estimate.
However, not logging your nutrition could result in non-trivial errors in your energy expenditure estimate.
If your calorie intake on a day you don’t track your nutrition is fairly similar to your calorie intake on other days, your energy expenditure estimate will still be spot-on. However, if it differs substantially from your normal calorie intake, that will start to introduce some errors into your energy expenditure estimate. The effect of a single untracked day with atypical calorie intake will be fairly small, but the effect could compound if you had a single untracked day with atypical calorie intake per week, and it could compound further if you had multiple untracked days with atypical calorie intake each week (and with enough untracked days, the confidence of your expenditure estimate will decrease enough that we can no longer make updates).
So, on one-off days when you either can’t track your nutrition, or simply don’t want to track your nutrition, I’d still strongly recommend making a good-faith effort to roughly estimate your calorie intake, using the “edit today” function from your quick actions menu, or using the “quick-add” function in your food log. As long as you think you can get in the right general ballpark of your actual energy intake for the day, you’ll be in good shape. For example, if you think you consumed about 3000kcals when you actually consumed about 4000kcals, that’s perfectly fine. Or, if you think you consumed about 1500kcals when you actually consumed about 1000, that’s also perfectly fine. Functionally, even if your calorie intake for the day is atypical, missing one day of food logging is fine. However, if you choose to not log your nutrition somewhat frequently, estimating your calorie intake for the days you don’t track is crucial (and, most of the time, estimating your intake for a day is better than having a completely untracked day).
How will my calculated energy expenditure respond if I don’t log my food or weight for an extended period of time?
There are many situations where it would be very inconvenient to accurately track your nutrition and/or weight for an extended period of time. For example, if you’re packing up for a road trip or going on vacation, you may not want to pack up your scale (and certainly not your food scale and measuring cups) or worry about tracking everything you consume.
And honestly, that’s completely unacceptable. You need to be 100% dedicated to your goals at all times.
I’m joking, obviously.
If you want to take an extended time away from tracking, that’s perfectly fine! When you’re back in the saddle, we’d simply carry forward your last high-confidence energy expenditure estimate to get the algorithms rolling again. Assuming your lifestyle when you resume tracking is fairly similar to your lifestyle before your break from tracking, your most recent high-confidence energy expenditure estimate should provide you with an appropriate starting point to resume the pursuit of your goals.
What can I actually do with my calculated energy expenditure?
The main reason we show you your calculated energy expenditure in MacroFactor is simple: it’s what we use to generate and adjust nutrition recommendations, and we believe in transparency. We don’t want our “coaching” algorithms to be an inscrutable black box – we figure you deserve to know where your recommendations are coming from.
However, there are other potential benefits of seeing your calculated energy expenditure.
First, it can provide a bit of validation if online nutrition or macro calculators have previously given you recommendations that didn’t give you the results you wanted, or if people have told you that there’s no way you need a particular amount of calories to gain or lose weight. Some people simply have nutritional needs that differ substantially from the norm. MacroFactor doesn’t rely on preconceived notions of what your energy expenditure should be (beyond our initial estimate, that is); it uses your actual weight and nutrition data to calculate what your energy expenditure actually is. So, if your needs differ considerably from the norm, and you’ve previously failed to get the results you want, based on advice or recommendations based on population averages, MacroFactor can provide you with a bit of cold, hard, mathematical validation.
Second, your calculated energy expenditure can let you know when you need to go for a walk. Well, not directly. However, after you’ve been using MacroFactor for several months, you’ll find that your calculated energy expenditure generally falls within a particular range. If it starts edging closer to the bottom of your normal range, you can use that as an indicator that it’s probably a good idea to focus on being a bit more active.
Third, as previously mentioned, your calculated energy expenditure can let you know how changes in lifestyle or exercise habits actually impact your total daily energy expenditure. More often than not, burning an additional 200kcals through exercise won’t result in a 200kcal increase in total daily energy expenditure (often, though not always, the increase in total daily energy expenditure will be a bit smaller). Changes in your calculated energy expenditure will allow you to quantify this effect.
Fourth, changes in your calculated energy expenditure throughout an attempt to gain or lose weight will allow you to quantify how much metabolic adaptation you experience when gaining or losing weight. I think most people are aware of the concept, but without a reliable method of estimating your daily energy expenditure, it can be challenging to actually quantify. By observing changes in your calculated energy expenditure over the course of an attempt to gain or lose a substantial amount of weight, you can better understand the extent of the metabolic adaptation you personally experience.
If you have other questions about your calculated energy expenditure, the best place to ask those questions would be in our Facebook group or subreddit. If you have a question that’s not already addressed in this article, a) we’d love to address it for you and b) we’d love to add it to this article, since other people might have the same question.