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This is arguably one of the more controversial areas in society and frankly in medicine. That said, there are some pretty good guidelines as to how much we should be eating, what kind of things we should be eating, and what we should be avoiding.
This topic is near and dear to me – at my sedentary heaviest, I weighed 240 pounds and wore a size 40 pant. If you know men’s sizes, this starting to get into specialty Big & Tall sections. Weight loss, exercise, and battling with lifestyle change are all something I know well, so here are some thoughts backed by food science and a lot of personal experience.
When it comes to how much we should be eating, the back of most food packages (and US Dietary Guidelines, for that matter) would have you believe that 2,000 calories are a daily standard. However, this doesn’t fit everyone and may actually be too much for most people.
So, what are the ranges to keep in mind? Well, women should not be eating less about 1,400 calories a day, but unless a woman is particularly active or above average in build, more than 1,800 calories per day will likely lead to weight gain for most. Similarly for men, a 2,000 calorie a day diet is a decent benchmark for someone not very physically active or looking to simply maintain their weight, assuming an average height and build. However, for the CrossFit competitors and Olympic hopefuls out there, you’re probably going to find you need more calories in a day. Conversely, a man that is pretty sedentary (has a desk job, skips the gym, not a lot of working out on the weekends, etc.) may very find they are gaining weight at this daily amount and will need to cut back a bit.
Here is an excellent take on this confusing situation by US News & World Report:
So who actually needs 2,000 calories per day (or more)?
- A fairly tall male in his 20s or 30s who’s got a healthy body mass index (BMI) at, say, 6 foot and 175 pounds, and has an office job but manages to get to the gym three times a week.
- A healthy weight male or female teenager who plays organized sports and practices or competes several times per week (and may even still be growing on top of that).
- Healthy weight adults with very active jobs that involve lots of lifting, climbing stairs, walking and generally being on their feet and moving around during the day. Think delivery people, construction workers, fitness trainers, sanitation workers and landscapers.
- Fit, very active adult athletes of all ages, especially endurance athletes, and including many weekend warriors.
What would a conversation about nutrition be without discussing weight loss? Generally, the sweet spot for weight loss is reducing your calorie intake by 100-200 calories daily. It’s a marathon, not a race. For people who go on crash diets, it’s rarely healthy and rarely sustainable, so a smaller reduction in calories and increase in exercise over time is the best way to get it off and keep it off. Working against you is a sophisticated metabolism that slows down when you’re not properly fueled, so the best strategy is consistency and patience.
So how do you keep track of what it is you’re eating? Well thankfully, there are several apps for this. One of the most common free ones out there is MyFitnessPal (https://www.myfitnesspal.com/welcome/learn_more), available for both Android and iPhone. It has a database of thousands of meals and recipes, and you can always input your own. Apps like this will help you get a better understanding of how many calories you’re taking in in a day, because unless you are diligently reading every package, most people frequently underestimate the number of calories they are consuming.
And how about eating out? This is a bit tricky. The short answer is to go sparingly. The reason it is so delicious is because of butter, sugar, and oil in quantities that you typically wouldn’t use at home. That pizza you ordered? Calorie bomb: 2960 calories for a whole medium pizza at Dominos. Banana nut loaf at Starbucks? Atomic calorie bomb: 420 per slice.
As an example, if you were feeling a little hungry and swung into Starbucks, ordered a grande caramel Frappuccino and a slice of banana bread, you would consume 800 calories in one meal! One you’d probably forget you had in just a few hours. Eating out, like most dietary indiscretions is best saved for special occasions or the end of the week.
And what of carbs and refined sugars? There is truth behind this one. One of the best and most studied diets that has been shown to promote heart health, brain health, general well-being and lower cholesterol, is the Mediterranean diet. This is a diet that incorporates fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts and legumes, lean pieces of meat, while also limiting grains. An example of a typical meal would be a small side of lentils, a salad, salmon, and some fresh fruit for dessert.
Calories are still king in maintaining weight, but this particular diet is championed by the American Heart Association and US Dietary Guidelines. Carbs are not out of the question but should be thoughtful and based on whole grains. So, white bread, white pasta, and breakfast cereals or pastries should be saved for special occasions. For more info, check out: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/mediterranean-diet
One thing to keep in mind is that our basal metabolic rate (BMR) lowers as we lose weight. That means that we need to adjust our caloric intake accordingly. Lastly, the more muscle mass we have, the higher our BMR, as muscle burns more calories at rest. Therefore, the best weight loss strategy is the one that incorporates weightlifting in addition to general exercise and healthy munching.
As in all things, listen to your body -if you are gaining weight, then you need fewer calories and if you are losing it, you need more.
Special Thanks to contributing author, Francesca Orlando, RDN at Healthful Living SD! She is a talented Dietician, committed to helping you live the healthiest way possible. To learn more or become a client, go to: https://www.healthfullivingsd.com/
Author Dr. Jon Doctor, Entrepreneur, Founder of Dr. Jon Deam