Monday, August 9, 2010

Calorie Counting

I received my first "reader's question" (thank you Stephanie!) which I was super excited about (especially since I very rarely receive any comments.) After my blog about my daily eats, she asked this question...

"How many calories should you have in a day? Is there some kind of percentage
that I heard but was wondering what you thought? I had heard your body weight x 10. So if you want to lose weight, you would put in the weight you want to be at
times 10 and then that is the amount of calories you should use for the day.
What about if you work out? Should you increase your calorie intake at all? If
you are trying to lose weight, I would think probably not but what about if you
are just trying to maintain it?"

Calorie needs and calorie counting are really personal to each person and their individual bodies and mentality. I need to preface this by saying that I am not an expert nor a nutritionist. All I will do is tell you my experience and what has worked for me. What you do with that information is completely up to you, of course.

A calorie is the basic unit of energy that your body uses to do everything from blinking your eyes to running marathons and everything in between. Your Basal Metabolic Rate (or BMR) is the amount of energy or calories that your body needs in order to function at its most basic level (what your body would need if you just laid around the couch all day.) There are many formulas and online calculators such as this one that can give you a VERY general idea of what you BMR is based solely on your current weight, height and gender. Another general guideline to you BMR can be found by simply multiplying your current weight by 100. So if you weight 130 pounds, your BMR would be around 1300 calories per day. Obviously these methods are only rough guidelines and should be used as such.

To determine your calorie needs, you would take the number from your BMR and then determine how active you are during the day. A sitting-at-their-desk-all-day office worker doesn't burn the same number of calories as a construction worker and if you run around doing chores and chasing children all day, your calorie needs may be even higher. Calculating any increase in calories burned through exercise also needs to be accounted for to determine your basic calorie needs for any typical day.

The basic idea of weight loss then is to burn more calories than you consume. If you follow this basic "diet" philosophy, you will lose weight, at least for a while anyway. You could be consuming nothing but sodas and twinkies and as long as you burn more calories than you consume, you will still drop the weight (you won't be healthy at all and all those empty calories will have leave you pretty hungry most of the time, but you will be thinner.) A general rule of thumb to lose one pound a week is to burn 500 calories more per day than you eat, so that at the end of the week, you will have a deficit of 3500 calories, the equivalent of one pound.

If you are a calorie counter, I would encourage you to never drop your calories too drastically though. My personal recommendation is to never drop it below 1500 calories/day. Anything less than that in my opinion will send your body into starvation-mode and your body (the extremely efficient machine that it is) will find ways to hold onto any excess weight you may have, making weight loss even harder. Eating less will also mess with your metabolism in such a way that maintaining any weight loss may be close to impossible.

I don't count calories. I had a brief stint with calorie-counting earlier this year as documented here, but I really hated it. I felt that I became a slave to a number and wasn't relying on my own body's cues to know when, what and how much I should eat. And really, a calorie from unhealthy-overly-processed foods is not equivalent to a calorie obtained from a good-straight from-nature food item. Your body knows what to do with an apple, but it gets confused on what to do with Apple Jacks. I found that I did better at losing weight when eating whole, natural, organic foods than I did with the Diet-labeled-100-calorie-processed-packages of food, even though I was eating around the same number of calories (and actually I eat more calories now than ever before, but because most of them are in the form of healthy foods, I still don't gain weight!)

I think the best advice I have heard is to follow the lead of Michael Polan who said it this way...
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." If you are ready for it, I would recommend to stop counting calories today and instead follow these simple strategies...

1. Eat often (5-6 small meals each day is ideal)
2. Eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible (the fewer the ingredients, the better)
3. Watch your portion sizes
4. Aim to get in 5-6 servings of non-starchy vegetables, 2-3 servings of fruit, 2-3 servings of whole grains and 2-3 servings of healthy fats each day (Trust me, if you can get in these amounts each day, you will not have enough room to fill up on empty calories)
5. Drink water (our bodies can't really distinguish between hunger and thirst, so many times we think we are hungry when in actuality, we just really need to drink more water...I say if in doubt, drink first!)

I bet if you followed these 5 rules, your weight will go down, your clothes will fit better and most importantly, you will be developing a strong and healthy body. And a nice will also be providing a great example to those little eyes who may be watching you!!


  1. Thanks Dadra. You are so awesome. I am sure you are aware of my weight loss, but then I have been eating a lot during Summer 1 classes to keep me awake to read my texts, then vacation and then just eating all sweets in sight. I do and don't like counting calories. I like to see how many I have taken in at the end of the day, and it also helps me know how much I am eating rather then just eye balling it. I need to train my eye as to a correct portion. I notice that when I am counting calories, it prevents me from eating those empty calories, i.e. sweets because I don't want to have to write that down. I need to come to a point that I can just have clean eating and not have to worry about calories. Thanks for answering my questions.
    I have read your blog throughout the month but missed some of the entries. I have actually made sure that I read every post and looked at every tab you have at the top, which is a post but I looked at the tabs first. I really do enjoy reading about health. I am not as into it as you, obviously but I do love seeing people exercising. I also really enjoy reading it because it isn't just some Joe Smoe writing it, it is my friend and so it is more personal. Thanks for doing this. I am thoroughly enjoying all of your posts.
    BTW-though I am commenting I don't want to be put in the drawing, let someone else win it. I just wanted to let you know that I am enjoying your blog.

  2. I understand the calories in and out concept but I didn't know until last year that I was suppose to have 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day. Now that I know that, what about protein? I don't understand why or how much of it I need, and what are things that have protein in them? If I am not working out as much as I should be right now but trying to eat healthy, do I need whey? I don't even know what that is. I would like to make that ice cream and looked at the chocolate whey at the store but I am not sure I should be drinking it if I only play basketball for an hour 3 days a week.

  3. Steph, I'll be doing a post soon about protein. It's extremely important to get enough, just for your body to function and to help you feel more satisifed between meals. Of course if you exericise, you need even more!! Stay tuned for more details soon...