Calorie intake: one of the most common questions I get asked when it comes to managing weight. How many calories do we need to be eating? Should we even be paying attention to caloric intake?
If the answer was clear-cut and simple, we would not have the weight problems we have in this country.
First of all, let’s assess what impacts calorie needs, as they will vary due to a number of reasons:
Body size: It makes sense that a larger body generally requires more calories. Taking nothing else into account, a body that is 180cm tall will require more food than a body that is 150cm.
Activity levels: Daily activity levels have a huge impact on energy needs. Someone who’s gone for a 10km run will require more fuel than someone who has done no exercise. An office worker sitting down all day won’t need as much as someone in a highly active job where lifting heavy equipment and walking around all day is required. For this reason, having a set daily calorie goal is unlikely to be accurate, due to some days being highly active, and others less so.
Gender: Males have higher energy requirements than females do, mostly due to larger muscle mass. A male and female who weigh exactly the same, are the same age and do the exact same physical activity will still have slightly different daily calorie needs.
Age: As we get older, our metabolism slows slightly, meaning as you get older, your calorie needs will change.
Read more stories like this: Calories in, calories out might be complete BS. Plus, The real reasons you’re not losing weight.
How to assess calorie needs
There are a number of equations that are commonly used to assess calorie needs. The key word to remember here is ‘estimate’. Whilst these estimations are relatively accurate, they are still an estimate, and as actual needs vary day to day their specificity can be lacking. Lab estimates can be more accurate, however these are only really done in research facilities, meaning access is limited.
What do we need to do for weight loss though?
If we stick with calorie tracking, determining your approximate daily calorie needs based on the factors above, and then subtracting 500 calories from this, to allow for approximately 0.5-1kg loss of weight per week. It is important though to not drop intake below your basal metabolic rate (BMR – the calories your body needs to simply function) though, as this can actually inhibit weight loss if done for too long.
For example, if your BMR is 1400 calories per day, then with exercise and usual daily activities your overall requirement is 2000 calories for the day. Take that 500 calories off, and aiming for 1500 would be appropriate. But if your overall requirement is only 1700 calories, dropping intake to 1200 calories for the day is below the BMR, and intake would be better bumped up to 1400 calories, as a day to day intake.
But is it really that simple?
In a word? No. There’s plenty of evidence around about the benefits of fasting, where significantly less than BMR is consumed. It is important to remember that this is not done on a daily basis though, which is part of why it works for some people.
Also, we know that sleep and hormones also impact weight. Lack of sleep, high stress levels, and even that time of the month can all have an impact on what the number on the scales says.
How are you counting?
There is a plethora of apps and tools around to assist with counting the calories. Whilst some are better than others, they do rely on accuracy from the user for inputting the data. Unless you’re weighing and measuring everything you put in your mouth, you are still estimating. And to be honest, who has time for that?
And do we really need to count calories…?
Whilst counting calories can be a useful tool to assist with weight loss, it isn’t the be all and end all. Eating well most of the time, and particularly hitting your minimum five serves of veggies per day, plus eating plenty of fibre you are likely to end up feeling satisfied and losing weight without actually counting your calories.
How good is that?
Consistency is key. So often Monday to Friday will be completely on track food-wise, then the weekend comes and (particularly during Christmas/party season), 3249 drinks + all the pizza + all the bacon the next day can lead to a blow out, and weight not shifting. You can check out my article on managing the party season here.
Eat your veggies. Make healthy choices most of the time. Drink plenty of water. Be consistent. Treat your body with love and respect. Worry less about the number on the scales, and more about nourishing your body with great quality food.
Chloe McLeod is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian.
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