Updated: Aug 11, 2020
“How many calories should I eat a day?”
Probably one of the most commonly asked questions amongst those trying to shed body weight/body fat. Before that question can be answered, you have to be willing to do one thing. Track your food.
It really is quite a pain in the ass. Using a mobile application to document every aspect of food that you ingest truly is an unideal chore. While long-term it may not be realistic or even necessary, it is an incredibly useful tool to really learn what makes up the food you’re eating in terms of macronutrients and you may be surprised to learn just how much you’re actually consuming. Learning how to count, measure, and eventually estimate portion sizes is a skill that will help you become more conscious of what you’re putting into your body on a day to day basis and help you achieve and maintain your health-related goals. Now again, this definitely isn’t for everybody but if you want an exact answer to a question, exact tracking is necessary as well.
All this being said, to truly see the effects of this practice, about 2-3 months minimum is necessary to begin. It does become easier and easier over time as you get more accustomed to the habit of recording what you eat. There are a number of apps out there, MyFitnessPal, MyPlate, LoseIt, and many more. Any of these that you are comfortable with will be fine.
When you download any of these apps, they typically provide a calorie estimate that you should try to hit by taking the information you provide them (height, weight, etc.). It seems that these are typically vast underestimation and it would be wise to do your own via the site below.
Enter in your information, and for the activity level, be honest and steer towards the lower end if you are between two ranges. For this, let’s use a made up example to help illustrate how this would work.
A 40-year old male. Height is 5 feet, 10 inches. Weight is 200 lbs. Works out twice a week. His goal is to lose 20 lbs. According to the site provided, this person burns about 2500 calories a day. His basal metabolic rate (absolute minimum he should be eating) is about 1800 calories. Unless advised by a medical professional, under no circumstances should this man be eating any less than that. Under-eating is perhaps even more detrimental than slightly overeating.
The number we’re working off of is 2500 calories/day to start. As his information (weight, activity level) changes, then this number will change as well. In order to lose body fat, you have to be in a caloric deficit. Simple as that. You can't out-train a caloric surplus. If you eat more than you burn, you will gain weight.
So to begin, we have to set his daily calorie goal. This imaginary man burns 2500 calories a day. A conservative deficit is 20% to begin. 2500 - (2500x.2) = 2000 calories/day. We’ll delve into how it might work better to look at this number as a weekly number versus a daily, but first let’s break down macronutrient intake.
A lot can be said/debated over in terms of macronutrient breakdown. Basically what percentage of your total calories should consist of fat, carbs, and protein. At the end of the day, unless you are a professional athlete, it’s not going to make a huge amount of difference. As long as you are eating sufficient protein, these are more numbers to play around with rather than live or die by them.
The advice here would be to favor more of the things you enjoy. If you like eggs, nuts, and olive oil, then have a larger percentage geared towards fats. If oatmeal, rice, and beans are your jam, then favor the carbs more. Whichever direction you go, the total calorie goal should still be 2000 (in this example) and just ensure that you are still having a decent amount of every macronutrient.
Real quick. 1 g of carbs = 4 calories. 1 g of protein = 4 calories. 1 g of fat = 9 calories.
Let’s say in this example that this guy LOVES his carbs. Protein comes first though. You want to shoot for at least .8g of protein per pound of bodyweight. This man weighs 200 lbs so that’s 160 g of protein (640 calories). That leaves us 1360 calories to work with. For someone that wants a higher carb diet, about 50% of total calories would work for them. That would be 1000 calories for this guy. 1000/4 = 250 g of carbs. That leaves us 2000 - 640 - 1000 = 360 calories left for fat. 360/9 = 40 g of fat.
So 160 g protein. 250 g carbs. 40 g fat. That’s the goal to hit on a daily basis. If this person loved fats, they could do 160 g protein, 200 g of carbohydrates, 60 g fat. No matter what the macronutrient breakdown, the total calorie intake is 2000 and have a consistent amount of protein.
One thing we’ll do different here that most other sources won’t, is to look at calories from a weekly perspective, not just day to day. While it’s good to have faith, it’s very unlikely that every person will stick to exactly the calories and macronutrient breakdown they “should eat.” Life happens. Birthdays, weddings, date night, whatever. You are going to eat something that will throw your entire allotment of fat or carbs out of sorts for the day. And that’s okay. Looking at your caloric intake from a weekly perspective allows you to have more leniency with yourself and put less pressure to “hit the target” every day.
So the example was 2000 calories per day. That’s 14,000 calories per week. This approach gives you much more flexibility and room for error. So instead of that 400 calorie slice of cake seemingly ruining your eating goals, it has a fraction of the effect when looking at it from a weekly standpoint. And that’s the idea. It’s okay to indulge (to a degree!). Now, if this guy was sitting at 17,000 calories for the week then obviously we’d have a problem. He’d be on a steady fat GAIN train if he was over-eating by 3000 calories a week.
What this weekly standpoint does is it puts your cheat meals in perspective. While eating in a 500 calorie deficit for 5 days is great, it can quickly be undone with a whole weekend of poor eating. Looking at nutrition as a weekly tally helps you see the effects that a burger, fries, and a milkshake really can have.
Again, tracking your food really isn’t something you probably want to be doing for a long time. Do it for a few months, really get the feel for portion sizes and what feels good for you, then carry out the same practices without using the app. Hopefully this helps you gain a more real understanding of where calories come from and might help you see why what you’re doing is or isn’t working.