Counting calories; the good, the bad, and the ugly

Counting calories or nutritional information in one way or another is a pretty good way to get control over your diet if you know where to start. A lot of people prescribe a one size fits all approach that obviously doesn’t fit all. The 6 foot tall volleyball player does not need the same amount of food as the 5 foot tall accountant. The FDA uses 2000 calories for women and 2500 calories for men as the RDA (recommended daily allowance) which is just silly because every one is different. But I assume they did this in order to simplify things for the average joe. Well I like simply, but only when it works. When it comes to figuring out your calorie requirement there are LOTS of ways; some simple, some not, some good, some bad. Let’s address those later. First let’s talk about why you should or should not count nutritional info.

The good

  • It gives you more information to work with
  • You can actually make smart modifications to your diet because you know what you are putting in your mouth
  • It holds you accountable for what you eat
  • If you use an online tracker it will likely give you all sorts of other info like proteins, cards, fats, sodium etc. and possibly track your weight, fitness etc as well
  • If you are an organized person, it can be enjoyable and rewarding to look at your successes
  • It’s one of the single most effective weight loss tools because it prevents mindless eating (i.e. grabbing a handful of cereal out of the box) as you have to write it down
  • It can be a great planning tool if you are trying to meet certain targets and you can map it out in advance

The bad

  • It’s time consuming
  • It requires dedication to keep up to date with it
  • The information is only useful if you use it
  • Not all the systems are good: i.e. you might have to input your food manually or approximate things at restaurants etc.
  • If you are writing it by hand you can get lazy with it
  • In order to be accurate you have to measure your food which ca also be time consuming and not only feasible

The ugly

  • It can become an obsession
  • If you eat something bad, it can increase feelings of guilt because that number is staring you in the face
  • It can do crazy things with your emotions and psyche
  • Some people try to “beat” yesterday like it’s a game and can end up doing unhealthy things now that they have the information

So assuming I haven’t scared you away from giving it a go, here are some useful ways to figure out your requirements:

BMR calculator – not the most accurate, but will give you a good starting point. Then you have to add in calories burned from lifestyle and activity.

Multiply that number by the following factors to get your maintenance calories:

1.2 = Sedentary (Desk job, and Little Formal Exercise)
1.3-1.4 = Lightly Active (Light daily activity AND light exercise 1-3 days a week)
1.5-1.6 = Moderately Active (Moderately daily Activity & Moderate exercise 3-5 days a week)
1.7-1.8 = Very Active (Physically demanding lifestyle & Hard exercise 6-7 days a week)
1.9-2.2 = Extremely Active (Athlete in ENDURANCE training or VERY HARD physical job)

So now you know what your calorie requirements are for 1 day in order to stay at your current weight. Are you eating that much? More? Less?You probably don’t know! That’s where a food journal comes in. Don’t change the way you eat, just write down everything that goes in your mouth for 3 days. At the end of it go through and calculate the calories or use a site like SparkPeople which is the one I use. Now you will know when your normal eating habits look like compared to what the calculator tells you is “maintenance range”, if you have a stable weight then you are probably around that target.

5 pounds of fat or 17,500 calories burned!

So how do you lose weight? Well, you decrease calories… but by how much? A pound of a fat is equal to approx. 3,500 calories. A typical healthy weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week so you need to cut or burn an additional 500-1,000 calories per day. I would recommend doing part of it through exercise and part ( a bit more than half) through cutting calories. So if I want to lose 2 pounds per week it looks like this:

BMR = 1500

Moderately active = 1.6

Maintenance calories = 2,400

Calorie deficit required per day = 1,000

Calories per day = 1,700 (700 cal deficit)

Calories burned through exercise = 300

In order to burn 300 calories through exercise I can either jog/bike/elliptical for about 30 mins, do 20 mins of intervals, 40 mins of circuit training, or an hour of weight lifting at a slow pace. There are lots of options, and it’s not exact, but I try to do at least one of those every day or some combination if I miss a day.

All of this should be done while keeping your macronutrients in a good range as I discussed here.

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