Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Many Calories Do You Need?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many calories a body needs to be healthy and to successfully lose weight. The first thing that got me thinking was something I read in The New Rules of Lifting for Women.

Rule #12 in the book is: Calorie restriction is the worst idea ever.

That begins Chapter 4, entitled, The War Against Food. The author uses this chapter to present what is a very sound argument that we may be forcing our bodies into starvation mode, thereby doing the very opposite of what we’re trying to do by forcing our bodies to slow down our metabolic rate in an attempt to store up calories, rather than burn them.

He refers to a group called the Calorie Restriction Society, an organization that encourages limiting calories in order to live longer, healthier lives. He then points to a study that shows that the average number of calories consumed by this group is 1,400-2,000 calories.

That’s considerably lower than what the average American may eat, but quite a bit more than most weight-loss plans allow.

I don’t know about you, but My Fitness Pal gives me 1,200 calories a day. That is on par for most weight-loss books, website, and meal plans and, as author, Lou Schuler points out, well below even the Calorie Restriction Society folks. I can, of course, add to that by working out, but I typically only earn 300-400 extra calories a day, but that still puts me on the low end of that 1,400-2,000 calorie range.


photo by lori stalteri

There is a chart in the book that helps you figure out what your calorie deficit should be for the day, based on your weight, your resting metabolic rate, and your BMI. For me, according to The New Rules of Lifting for Women, it should be 2,000-2,200 calories a day, depending on whether or not I’m working out, which I do, on average, about six days a week.

Currently, I’m eating around 1,500-1,600 calories a day after figuring in my calories earned from working out.

I finished The New Rules of Lifting for Women a few weeks ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about my calorie intake since then, but even when drinking the recommended post-workout protein shakes, I’ve tried to stay within my allotted budget on MFP. My weight-loss results were less-than-impressive last week.

Then, late last week, I cam across a post on Faith, Fitness, Fun about what 2147 calories looks like. The author, Tina, says that after years of following all sorts of crazy diets, she finally began to see the importance of properly fueling her body.

Granted, she is young and doesn’t have my forty-something metabolism, but she has had two kids, which generally gets your metabolism all out of whack. I can’t help but feel that there is wisdom in what she says:

It always saddens me when I hear about diet plans with recommended calorie intakes of 1200 calories. I truly believe its possible for a healthy individual with no metabolic issues to lose weight eating more than that. I hope to display that you can certainly eat enough food to fuel your body well, feel satiated, and still make progress. [emphasis mine]

Tina doesn’t count calories, but instead has found the value in giving her body the fuel it needs. I hope you’ll click over and take a look at what a typical day’s worth of food looks like for her.

I noticed a couple of things about Tina’s food choices that I think are important:

1) She is eating about the same amount of calories for each meal. This is highly recommended by many sources I’ve read. It keeps your metabolism steady throughout the day by providing a steady intake of fuel without a lot of spikes and dips.

It also avoids doing what so many of us do – eating sparingly throughout the day, then consuming the majority of a calories for dinner, when we’re moving into our less-active time of day.

2) Tina is eating a great variety of nutrient-dense foods. Her non-calorie-counting ways probably would not be as effective if she were eating junk all day, but she’s consuming a nice balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins.

Tina says somewhere on her blog that she tries to keep in mind an 80/20 plan with her eating – 80% healthy, 20% treats. She says that she doesn’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking of this, but it’s become a habit that she tends to stick to.


photo by jpopesku1

Even my hero, Jillian Michaels, recommends increasing your calories for a few days in order to break through a plateau.

That’s really given me a lot of food for thought – no pun intended. I mean, tracking my food has played a huge role in my success anytime I’ve lost weight. However, I don’t want to have to write down every bite of food that goes into my mouth for the rest of my life.

I’d like to use this time of my life to learn how to eat for the rest of my life.

And, really? 1,200 is not a lot of food. That’s three 350-calories meals and one 150-calorie snack. A banana is 110 calories. A bowl of cereal with fruit, granola, and a splash of milk is over 300 calories.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not looking for an excuse to gorge myself. When I looked at Tina’s 2,147 calorie day, I was actually thinking that would be too much food for me – until I got to the pasta bowl for dinner, that is. That made me little hungry.

And, of course, there are my two glasses of sweet tea every day. That accounts for nearly 300 calories the don’t fall into the “nutrient-dense” category.

I think there is something to be said for eating more than 1,200 calories a day, though. And, I really think I’d like to spend a few weeks trying to find a nutrient-dense, healthy volume balance in my eating that doesn’t involve me writing down everything I eat and going to be hungry for the rest of my life.

I won’t lie and say that it doesn’t scare me, though. I’ve spent 16 years either ignoring or failing to recognize my body’s cues. I’m hoping that there is a reasonable balance of calories, healthy food, and activity level for me.

I’m thinking that I’m going to spend some time experimenting. I’ll continue tracking my food, but maybe I won’t worry so much if I’m edging up toward the 2,000 calorie range, as long as those calories are being used on good, healthy, nutritious foods to fuel my body and I’m staying active.

These are the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for a few days. What do you think?

This post is linked to Fitness Friday.

Do or do not. There is no try.


  1. I love this post!  I have had similar thoughts and feelings- but have not been able to verbalize them as clearly as you have.  I would love to be an intuitive eater.  Listen to my body and eat nutritious food.  Stop eating when I am satisfied.  There are days when we are hungrier than others, so I think if I could hear my body and respond "appropriately" the calories would balance out over time.  My issue is that I still struggle with emotional eating and don't trust myself.  I want to trust myself.  That is what I am working on now.  I, like you, do not want to have to track everything I eat for the rest of my life.  Please let me know any tips or tricks.  It sounds like I might just have to take a leap of faith and give it a try.  Worse case- I gain weight and go back to calorie counting......  but as you know- it is hard to accept weight gains!!!

  2. Do you think a different type of tracking might help? (I'm not giving
    suggestions, but, rather trying to brainstorm with you, since it sounds like
    we have similar thoughts on the subject.) Maybe writing down what you're
    eating, but not writing down calories as you're eating. Then, you could use
    something like My Fitness Pal to log at the end of the day just to get an
    idea of how many calories you consumed.

    I mean, I'm still thinking you wouldn't want to go over a certain range --
    like, I should be in the 2,000-2,200 range based on The New Rules of Lifting
    for Women book. I'm thinking I certainly wouldn't want to go over that
    because that would just fall into overeating, know what I mean? Especially
    if I wasn't being active.

    So, maybe if you (or I...or we...whatever) kept a food journal of when --
    and why -- we were eating, then, tracked calories at the end of the day for
    awhile, we could see how we were doing and still have a kind of safety net
    until we could learn to trust our bodies. I think the "why" would be
    important. If it was anything other than hunger, you might want to
    reconsider the meal or snack. Boredom, loneliness, anger, sadness, or "it
    was noon, so it was time to eat" would not be listening to your body's cues;
    those things would be emotional eating or listening to societal cues.


  3. I've had good success in maintaining a 20-25 pound weight loss (I'm 5'6 and now I stay in a range of 138-143) following the advice you mentioned about keeping meals similar in size.  I grew tired of tracking my calories but the practice of doing it for the better part of last year is what made the biggest difference, imho.  Now I would guess that I eat about 1,800 calories a day and burn about 250 four-five days a week.  Somedays I would like to lose again, to get under that 138 number for some reason, but that's a red flag to me.  That's when I realize it's too much about the number on the scale.  Thanks for sharing all of this, good food for thought! Love following your successful journey!!

  4. I totally agree that the practice of calorie counting is vital. I'm hoping
    that, as you said, I'll get to a point where I have a pretty good idea of
    how many calories I'm burning and consuming. I'm thinking that maybe it's
    all part of the process. I've spent nearly 2 years counting calories burned
    and consumed, so maybe it's time to transition to mindful, concious eating
    paying attention to my body's cues.

    That's what I've been thinking, anyway -- that maybe I'm coming to a
    different part of the lifestyle change that can involve sensible eating
    without physically counting calories.

    (Thinking out loud here and enjoying the discussion.)

  5. Oh, my goodness, this post echoes so many things I've been trying to figure out and haven't quite yet.  I too was reading (I think in the excerpt from the book about lifting for women, in fact) about how too few calories can really have a horrible effect on weight loss and our bodies in general.  It got me to thinking about how I've felt so hungry lately and how I thought that I was just being a wimp!  I have such a hard time trusting myself as you all have been saying.  I'm also on about 1200 calories at MFP and only ever earn up to 400 with exercise (usually more like 300) and it has always seemed like too little food to me.  I figured that it was because my portion control and eating habits were so out of whack.  And I think that they were, but now that I'm making better choices, have a handle on portion size, am more aware of what I'm eating and why, and know how to keep my calories in balance throughout the day better, I think that I can do okay without tracking so carefully and wonder if upping my calorie intake may be a good thing.  I'm trying to adjust my exercise routine and add more weight lifting as well as keep sugar in control a bit more.  So perhaps I should look at changing up my calorie intake as well.  I'm going to do some more reading... Thanks for this post!

  6. I think it's vital, as you mentioned, to get a handle on what we're eating,
    because I do think that those of us with weight problems have been consuming
    too many calories, burning too few, and eating the wrong kinds of food.
    However, I think there is a lot of validity in the reasoning behind eating
    too few calories. I'm really going to try focusing, during the next few
    weeks, on eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. I think I'm still going
    to track my calories on MFP, but I'm not going to be too concerned about
    getting up in the 1,700-2,000 calorie range as long as I'm eating healthy
    choices and only eating when I'm truly hungry -- though being careful not to
    get to the point of starving because that's when I tend to overeat.

  7. This chapter of the book really resonated with me.  I've reread it several times and I keep recalculating my calories because I keep thinking "really?  that can't be right!  I need to eat how many?!?!"  LOL!
    I know that I have to work in a calorie deficit in order to lose fat.  That's just basic biology, but I also believe that the idea that the eat less and less and workout more and more mentality has completely taken over common sense in our society.  Our body needs fuel and nutrients.  That is the sole reason we need to eat.  That's it.  Period.  Unfortunately many of us have lost sight of this simple fact and we've forgotten how to eat intuitively (another awesome book:  Intuituve Eating).  I used calorie counting as in initial tool to help reteach myself what a proper portion looks like and how my body feels when it's satisfied (not stuffed) and how to chose foods so that they keep me satisfied longer and how not reach for foods taht will leave me feeling like crap in half an hour.  When I was counting (I use the Livestrong website/app) I never set my calories below 1500 ~ even when it told me to and I also tracked my workout calories so I could get an idea of which workouts burn more calories, etc...I've learned a lot, but I've recently decided it's time to take off the training wheels.  It's time that I start putting these lessons into practice so I've stopped counting so religiously.  I still use it every once in a while.  Maybe for three or four days every couple of months, just to make sure I'm still on track.  
    I'll be honest, my weightloss has slowed considerably (sometimes to a complete stop, but I just keep plugging along), but I love that I'm no longer obsessed with food.  When I'm counting, I'm constantly thinking about what I'm eating, what I'm going to eat, what I've already eaten, recounting everything, do I still have enough for that treat I was planning or did my mid afternoon snack ruin it?  What's for dinner again?  What if that's not enough?  Did that extra slice of turkey at lunch throw off the rest of the day?  What if I don't really want that salad for lunch tomorrow, but we're going out to dinner........ *sigh* I was thinking about food constantly.  Being obsessed with food is what got me here in the first place. 
    I don't need to lose weight ~ I need to fix my relationship with food and my weight loss will be a pleasurable side effect.  I'm not dieting.  I'm learning how to "live like a skinny person".  Anyway, these are my thoughts and my experience.  I realize this approach will not work for everyone. 

  8. I read that post by Faith,Fitness,Fun. I was thinking " wish I could do that"
    Well, why can't I anyway? It just seems like a lot of what I've read says I need to have less calories. And that seems to work. Except when I'm tired of going hungry. And I binge. because that's what I do. Well, used to do. I'm getting a handle on all of that through the grace of God.
    I read a book years ago titled Thin Within. It was filled with
    scriptures and ( if I am remembering correctly) ran along the same lines
    of what you are saying. I'll have to see if I still have it.
    Also,I heard a radio show the other day that was talking about listening to your body. God has created us to be able to tell when we are hungry, full , thirsty etc.  Now I read your post and it is really making me wonder about being so strict with counting calories. I like what you're saying.

  9. I, too, am enjoying this discussion. I count calories because I HAVE to. It's become almost an obsession for me. In order to lose 2 pounds a week my daily calorie goal is 1640 calories. I actually have a hard time getting in all of those calories on a consistent basis and it's even harder when I count in my exercise calories. It is working for me because I have lost 17.5 pounds in 5.5 weeks.

    That being said, I am also VERY conscious of what I put into my body. I wrote about it last week (here if you are interested: http://fatchickfedup.com/2011/07/20/what-does-healthy-look-like/) but this has been a several-year process for me to get to this point. I don't have a perfect diet by any means, but I have become very aware and conscious of every bite that goes into my mouth. Of those 1640 calories, I make sure EVERY CALORIE COUNTS. A good girlfriend always says to me, "Garbage in, garbage out." That is a message I continually try to get across to my kids as well-that if you want to get the most you can out of your body, you have to put good things into it.

    Two of the most important things that have changed for me since I started counting calories have been 1) mindless eating just to eat (including emotional eating, boredom eating, eating just because it's "there") and 2) portion control. Counting calories has really helped me get those two things under control.

    Taking all that into consideration though, I do think 1200 calories is far too few. Your body needs fuel to produce and be good to you. But you gotta make those calories count like you are saying Kris. Saying that it's okay to eat more than 1200 calories, or more than what your recommended allotment is, doesn't mean you should eat those extra calories in junk lol.

    Also, I think it's not an exact science. There are so many different factors that go into weight-loss-genetic factors, mental/emotional issues, your own personal metabolic rate-which you can only do so much about, your activity level, sleep and the list goes on. Caloric intake is only part of it. And as soon as you think you have it figured out, you hit a plateau and you need to change things up and begin again with new techniques.

    So while I am a big proponent of counting and tracking what you eat-if for no other reason than to be AWARE and consious of what you are putting into your body-I feel there also needs to be balance, and lots of other things need to be taken into consideration. For me, it's a comfort and a necessary part of my routine, but it doesn't work for everyone. And it can be discouraging when you are doing all the right things and the weight isn't coming off. As long as you are paying attention to what kinds of fuel you are putting into your body, you are taking a HUGE step in the right direction. I believe even more important, or at least as important, as the physical, is the emotional process required to defeat temptation, self-doubt, lack of motivation. If counting calories helps you achieve your goals, go for it. If not, find another way. I really encourage people who are just starting out to try it though, even though it may seem like a drag, I think it is so important to just make yourself conscious of what you are doing to yourself, how you are treating yourself.

    Sorry for my book-I enjoyed the post and am enjoying the discussion. You are giving me some good ideas for blog posts ;)

  10. I really enjoyed this post, downloaded the book (been hearing about it everywhere, it seems), read most of it last night (!), and now I am also confused.  

    I am on 1450 at MFP and earn at least 400 calories a day.  Some days I eat them, some days I don't.  Most days I find it hard enough to eat the 1450. . . I have been averaging 2.5 lbs a week lost for about 5 weeks now, so my inclination is to keep doing what works.  

    I want to add strength training b/c I know how important it is, and I like this book a lot.  The routines seem very smart to me.  However, the section on recovery has me worried about adding this now while just having started Turbo Fire.  Since I am at the beginning of my weight loss journey, I have quite a bit of fat to lost and have been really focusing on cardio/core.  

    Anyway, I am scared to death of starvation mode, of slowing the metabolism, of losing muscle because I am not lifting. . .so I just don't know what to do!  Anyway, thanks for getting me to thinking through some of this stuff.  I'll probably punch out a blog post when I finally come to some answers.  

    Enjoy your blog!  

  11. Don't apologize at all. I loved hearing what you had to say and I think

    you're absolutely right. Just to be clear, I am a huge propenent of counting

    calories. I think it's the only way to know where you are -- especially

    starting out. I know I would not have been successful in my weight-loss thus

    far if I had not counted calories. I do, however, wonder if there is a time

    to transition away from that as part of a complete lifestyle change. I guess

    I'm wondering, will I really physically count (as in writing down/logging)

    calories for the rest of my life?

    Maybe I will. I have heard some
    people say that they will or do -- those who
    have successfully maintained
    their weight-loss. I might have to, but I'd
    like to think that, as part of
    completely changing my lifestyle, as relates
    to food and activity, I could
    learn to eat quality foods in acceptable
    quantities and follow my body's

    I don't think I would havve been saying any of this a few months
    ago. I
    *had* to track my food then -- maybe I should be saying "tracking
    rather than "counting calories" because I think I'll probably always

    mentally count calories, but maybe I won't always log

    And, maybe I will.

    Ultimately, I question the sanity
    of the 1200 calaries thing.

    I think *that* may be the main point. Not
    whether or not you count
    calories -- mentally or physically -- but whether
    or not a 1200 or 1400
    calorie-a-day diet adequately fuels a person's body.
    Does it, instead, slow
    down the metabolism and force a body to cling to
    calories rather than burn
    them? And, are we paying attention to what,
    exactly, we are using to fuel
    our bodies?

    I'm not a fan of fat-free,
    reduced-calorie junk (though it's hard to leave
    those words out of my
    vocabulary). I really want to move toward quality,
    nutrient-dense whole
    foods, as you mentioned. I want real sugar, but in
    moderation. I don't want
    chemically-altered foods. I want to fuel my body on
    foods the way God
    intended them -- and maybe in more than 1200 calorries a

    hope that makes sense. I think you're right on track, though. I completely

    agree with what you're saying. I enjoyed your book. ;-)

  12. Exactly. God created our bodies to know when they need food. We've ignored
    our bodies' cues for so long, that we've forgotten how to read them. I don't
    think starving yourself is the answer, though. Just like everything else, I
    think it's a balance -- balancing food and activity level. Of course, I do
    think that you *have* to burn more calories than you consume in order to
    lose weight...but I agree with what Jessica said -- we've gotten into this
    cycle of eat less and less and less and move more and more and more and we
    aren't adequately fueling our bodies.

    Something to learn and think

  13. Yes, all that! It's almost like you're trading one type of obsessing over
    food for another...and neither of them are healthy. I totally agree that
    calorie counting is very important in the beginning, but I think it's
    equally important to eventually learn to trust your body.

  14. Definitely don't fix what's not broken -- especially if you're getting enough calories to be satisfied. It is all a lot to think about, though.

  15. I must admit, I am terrified of food and I hate living my life in fear of that which, well, gives me life. While tracking my calories on MFP I play this game of seeing how far under my allotment of 1320 calories I can get while still feeling alive at the end of the day. If less is what I need, than even LESS must be better! Yet I've also read lots about "starvation mode" and excessive exercise so I am paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing - both directions. I've been toying with carb-cycling for about a month. I eat 1400 for three days, and then 1800 for one day. The program I got this idea from follows very specific protein/carb/fat ratios and was written by a body builder. I also upped the amount of exercise I was doing (from about four hours per week to over seven hours). My weight will only drop either the morning after an 1800 calorie day or after a day off from the gym. I'm not convinced I am eating enough for the amount of exercise I am doing, and I should probably go back and recalculate with the increase in exercise, but I struggle with using the extra calories as an allowance for junk. Always a work in progress, the good news is that I have finally broken the 130 lb barrier and am back into the 120s! As always, I enjoy your blog, and thank you for encouraging the conversation.

  16. I think the "even less must be even better" thinking it what gets people in trouble. I've seen it on Biggest Loser many times -- a big weigh-in is coming up, so somebody eats less than their calorie budget and does extra workouts...and gains or stays the same because their body is doing its best to hold on to that fuel.

    It can be a difficult balance sometimes. I've heard good things about having a couple of days of lower calories followed by a couple of days of higher calories. Hopefully, you'll soon figure out what works best for your body.

  17. Great post. I'm living proof that increasing your calories to sustain your activity level works. I'm eating more calories per day than ever before and my weight, body fat % and and even clothing size are lower than they have been in a long time. I too have the forty- something metabolism and 2 kids :)

    I tweak my calories based on my workout/running plan each day. I eat anywhere from 1600-1800 calories daily. As a long time member of the calorie restriction society, at first, this was a very hard concept to wrap my brain around. I, without fail, write a weekly menu and closely watch what makes up those calories. That has made a big difference too.

    My menu for this week is here Commitment to Health and Fitness

    Can you tell this is something I feel strongly about LOL I could keep writing and writing about this.

    Have a great weekend and thank you for linking up with Fitness Friday.

    I'm a new follower :)

  18. I saw that post and was amazed at how many calories she can eat.  I am trying to maintain and eat about 1300-1500 per day.  But I also work out and don't figure that in.  So I would think I'd be able to eat more.  And, honestly, I'd sure like to eat more!  I'm off to read what Jillian had to say.

  19. I'm  so glad you shared this on Fitblogger, because I haven't seen your blog before.
    I did read Tina's post and the one caveat I would add is that she is nursing which does give her more calories to play with. What I notice about her "diet" is how much she does include fruit/veggies at every meal. Also, she "plates" her food nicely -- maybe for the blog pictures, but I know I enjoy my food (and savor it) when it is served nicely.
    Anyway, after finally giving up my battle against "the last 10 pounds" I have lost the last 10 pounds, and I am amazed at how much I can eat while holding my weight steady. Yes, I exercise (and run) regularly, yes I make good food choices most of the time, but I probably would have a panic attack if I tracked my calories.
    I think all fitness magazine push the 1200 calorie diet, althuogh I've noticed recently that Self magainze has had higher calorie diet plans (1600?). I agree that 1200 is not enough, but I'm no R.D. or weight loss expert!

  20. That's really good to know, Jill, about how you've continued to lose weight, body fat, and size while increasing your calorie intake. This is something that I'm still grappling with. It's hard to let yourself think that it really can be okay to increase your calories after hearing nothing but "calorie restriction" all your life.

    Thanks for following and for hosting Fitness Friday. I've really been enjoying participating.

  21. I agree, Karen. I honestly don't think I could eat that much...well, I probably could, but my schedule is so different than hers that I don't need to, I don't think. I sleep fairly late, so a small breakfast is my pre-workout meal, then, I eat lunch not terribly long after working out. Depending on what time I eat lunch, I may or may not need a snack between lunch and dinner. I am pretty fond of an after-dinner snack, though.

  22. Yes, nursing would affect your calories needs and, as I mentioned in my reply to Karen, your schedule does, too. And, I totally agree about Tina's food presentation. Yum! After looking at her meal photos, I've been much more concious of adding fruits and veggies to every meal. I even tried cherries for the first time last week because they looked so good in a picture on Tina's blog. They were yummy!

    I'm so glad you stopped by and I apologize that it took me so long to reply. It took me a week to realize that I had a problem with my email server and wasn't getting all of my emails -- including comment notification for my blog. Ugh!


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