If there is one question that comes up for us more than anything else, it is ‘How Many Calories Should I Eat to Lose Weight?’ (or, ‘to gain weight, or ‘maintain).
Simple rules change our lives, but it’s often the simple things that elude us. Look, losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining weight really isn’t that difficult. Consume more calories than you burn, and you will gain weight; Consume less calories than you burn and you will lose weight; Consume just enough calories for your current weight and activity level, and you will maintain your current weight?
THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD STARVE YOURSELF!
Far too many of our new clients come to us from other programs that have them in far too much of a calorie deficit. Here’s the thing: If you want to lose weight at any cost, it’s pretty easy — don’t eat, or eat far below your BMR (basal metabolic rate). We’ve had clients come to us having been eating at 600-800 calories for months, one yo-yo diet after another, and can’t understand why they can’t hang onto results. These grossly restricted calorie diets are temporary, the weigh lost is water weight at best, muscle loss at worst, and the results simply aren’t sustainable. Yes, a calorie deficit is important, but this has to be calculated based on your goals and not so low that you’re losing muscle tone or causing metabolic damage.
BODY-FAT LOSS, NOT WEIGHT LOSS, SHOULD BE YOUR PRIMARY GOAL.
Having coached 100s of clients, we see some similar patterns. Being fixated with the number on the scale is one of those patterns. I get it – we are society that is scale obsessed, and most tend to use the scale as the end-all-be-all metric for progress. Here’s the thing: While a good relative measure, the scale does not take into account body composition factors such as muscle tone and fat loss.
Consider this: A 150 lb female at 30% body fat is going to have 45 lbs of body fat on her frame. A 150 lb female with 18% body fat is going to have 27 lbs of fat on her frame. Both individuals weigh 150 lbs, but I guarantee you, the latter is far more fit with far more lean body mass.
WHY PEOPLE FAIL
- People don’t know where to start. There’s so much conflicting information and diet protocols out there, it’s not surprising that people get dizzy trying to figure things out. Paleo, low-carb, no-carb, Primal, Atkins, The Zone, South Beach – the list goes on. Look, there are many ways to skin a cat, as they say. Don’t get hung up on approach – just follow a simple strategy that is designed for your goals. Don’t worry – I’ll break down a simple protocol below.
- They don’t have a WHY. As simple as it sounds, many people don’t have a clear idea of what they want or WHY (key word) that they want it. A surface goal such as, “I want to lose weight.”, or “I need to lose ten pounds.” Is a ‘level 1’ goal. It may be enough to get started, but it’s not enough to carry a person through to the end. When we establish goals, we need to get very specific about WHY and WHAT we want to achieve. As an activity, ask yourself ‘WHY’ you want to lose weight. Then ask yourself “WHY” again, and again, and again. Repeat this self-interrogation until you have a few paragraphs on paper. When you have the real reason, you’ll know.
Here’s an example: A recent client approached me and said that she really needed to lose 30 pounds. This is a good ‘surface goal’, but not enough to carry her through. After more probing, and questioning, I found out the real reason:
“I’ve struggled with weight my entire life, and was always the ‘fat’ sister’. This limited me from many activities, and my self-confidence was shaken as a child. I was last-picked for sports teams, and even my teachers made comments about me being ‘bigger’. I’ll never forget those words. As I grew up I was never happy with my body and had self-esteem issues. Finally in college, I started exercising and got into the best shape of my life. I was eating well and felt attractive for the first time ever. I met the love of my life, we got married, had two beautiful daughters, but found myself suddenly in the worst shape of my adult life. I hated the person I had become and no longer felt attractive to my husband. My wardrobe was full of clothes that I used to wear when I was thin, and my husband commented that we should donate them all to charity and get me some new clothes that fit. That was the tipping point for me – that was the moment that I realized I didn’t have to be defined or trapped in this body and that I had the power to change it again. I need your help.”
- They think that ‘diets suck’, and food will taste like cardboard. There is this misconception that ‘diets’ are comprised of tasteless foods and are heavily restricted. The mere word itself, ‘DIET’ comes from a place of lack and scarcity! Not only that, it implies a process that is temporary and it’s no wonder people are resistant to it.
Consider this: ‘DIET’ is simply whatever it is that you’re eating now. However you choose to eat, that is your diet. If your current eating plan includes too much, too little, or not enough of the right kinds of foods, your results are going to reflect that. This article is about re-working your existing diet so that it is aligned with your goals – that’s it. Further, our goal is to teach our clients how to continue eating foods they love (often reworked in a healthy way so that ‘dieting’ remains tasty and satiating). Most often, our clients comment that they are eating more food than before yet finally getting the results they’ve been chasing!
- They calculate their goals incorrectly. Many online calculators over-estimate a person’s calorie needs based on multipliers that are set too high, or, people choose the wrong multiplier for their activity level. Too many calories and you’ll either maintain your current weight or gain weight. You need to establish this right from the get-go, monitor your progress, respect your body type, and make slight changes if required. Don’t worry – I’ll break this down as well. Keep reading!
- They give-up too fast. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your body. We’ve heard expressions like this so often, that they lose all meaning after a while. Here’s the thing – you didn’t pile on the extra body fat and weight in two, three, or even four weeks. It’s going to take some time to get into the shape that you want. Remember, this is a process and not an event. If you do it right, you should seen an average of 1-2 lbs loss each week if a loss of body fat is your goal. This is a generalization, so don’t freak out if you don’t lose 2 lbs every week! Our bodies are not machines, nor is success linear; There will be fluctuations, flat spots, more loss some weeks than others, and this can be attributed to a number of factors such as water retention, hormones, recovery from exercise, sleep (or lack thereof), and so on. Be kind to yourself, be patient, and trust in the process.
- They don’t exercise. Fitness is a journey, not a day trip. If you were heading out on a week long hiking trip, you’d pack some necessary ‘stuff’, you’d prepare, you’d have it set up in your mind that you were committed to a 7-day expedition and you wouldn’t expect to arrive in one day. You’d pack foods that would sustain you, you’d stretch, you’d rest, and most likely you’d have done some warm-up hikes before the big trip. Getting fit and achieving the body that you want comes together through the symbiotic efforts of proper nutrition, rest, exercise, reduced stress, having the proper support system in place, and so forth.
Exercise is one of those key components, and ironically, the more we do of one thing, the more it inspires us to do more of the other things. When we exercise, we are driven to fuel our body with nutritious foods. When we do that, we have more energy to exercise. When we do both of those things well, we feel better, we see results, we feel more confident and we are further inspired to continue. Additionally, exercise stimulates muscle growth and specifically, resistance training, will help preserve and build lean body mass (LBM). The more lean body mass you have, the more calories you will burn!
NOTE: A fit body as harder to achieve than it is to maintain. Put in the sweat equity now, and reap the rewards later. You’re building a body that’s ‘fit for life’.
- They aren’t consistent. Consistency is key for success. “We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The compound effect of our actions, over time, are what yields results! Of interest, there is absolutely nothing that is different from those who are successful and those who are not, aside from their determination and resolve to remain consistent, even when ‘life’ gets hard.
Here’s the thing – everyone is busy, everyone gets sick, stressed, has functions to go to, works crazy hours, has kids, pets, renovations, gets tired, and so on. These challenges aren’t reserved for those of us out of shape! The difference is, the successful people turn obstacles into challenges and stepping stones toward their end-goal; They find a way around the things that others simply give up or make excuses. Decide what it is that is important to you, take a hard look at where you are now, be specific with what your goal is, set a realistic timeframe, and then move toward that goal with unwavering dedication. CONSISTENCY will make you successful.
HOW MANY CALORIES DO I NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT?
Let’s get to it.
I’m going to preface this by saying that this is not the only protocol out there. In fact, as a coach, certified personal trainer and specialized sports nutritionist, I’ll be the first to tell you that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to anything. Individual differences dictate how we approach clients, as does training intensity, frequency, and type. However, the following is a very easy-to-follow breakdown that will help most people starting out with fitness and nutrition achieve great results. We refer to it as the 3-2-1 method, and it’s as easy is 1-2-3. Read on…
Determine How Many Calories you Should be Eating Each Day
Calculate your BMR – Basal Metaboic Rate, or BMR can be thought of as the calories you would need if you were in a coma. These are the calories your body would require to maintain basic body functions, i.e. pumping blood, growing hair, breathing, and so on. An accurate way to measure how much energy you’re burning is to use the Katch McArdle formula to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), and multiply it as follows:
- By 1.2 if you exercise 1-3 hours per week.
- By 1.35 if you exercise 4-6 hours per week.
- By 1.5 if you exercise 6+ hours per week.
This gives you a good approximation of your ‘Total Daily Energy Expenditure’ (TDEE), which is simply the total amount of calories you’re burning each day.
This number is the number of calories you would require to maintain your current weight. Since our goal is weight loss (body fat loss) in this case, we want to create the mild calorie deficit. As such, we will be simply multiplying your above number by 20% (so multiply your TDEE from above, by .8). This is going to put you in a safe and sustainable rate of loss.
For example, I’m a 5’7, 39 years old, and I weigh 160 at 9% body fat, and I exercise about 6 hours per week. Using the Katch McArdle formula, my TDEE is about 2,650 calories per day.
2650 * .8 = 2,120, which I would just round down to 2,100.
Now you have your “daily calorie deficit” number.
The next step is to work out how this translates into grams of protein, carbs, and fats every day, because the ratios that you will eat are important when you’re trying to maximize weight loss and muscle preservation.
Convert Your Daily Calories Into Macronutrient Needs Using the 1-2-3 Rule
In case you don’t know what a “macronutrient” is, it’s defined as follows:
A macronutrient is any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
Expanding the 1-2-3 ratio of macronutrients, we see that 1 part fat plus 2 parts protein plus 3 parts carbohydrates equals 6 total parts (1+2+3). Dividing the overall 2,100 calories (from my example in ‘Step 1’) into 6 parts yields 350 calories per part (2100 ÷ 6 = 350). Knowing that one part equals 350 calories, we can calculate the number of calories allotted for daily intake for each macronutrient.
Fat: 1 part x 350 = 570 calories allotted to fat intake
Protein: 2 parts x 350 = 700 calories allotted to protein intake
Carbohydrate: 3 parts x 350 = 1,050 calories allotted to carbohydrate intake
Caloric Density of Some Major Nutrients
Carbohydrates – 4
Protein – 4
Fat – 9
Alcohol – 7
Water – 0
Vitamins – 0
Minerals – 0
* Alcohol is often considered a nutrient because it provides calories in the diet.
Using our numbers from above, we now know that fats need to be divided by 9 (as they have 9 calories per gram), proteins by 4 (4 calories per gram), and carbohydrates by 4 (4 calories per gram). This will give us the amount of grams for each macronutrient required for the day:
Fat: 1 part x 350 = 570 calories allotted to fat intake (/9) = 63.3 g
Protein: 2 parts x 350 = 700 calories allotted to protein intake (/4) = 175 g
Carbs: 3 parts x 350 = 1,050 calories allotted to carbohydrate intake (/4) = 262.5 g
Create a Meal Plan to Follow
The biggest mistake many people make in trying to lose weight is they don’t create and follow a proper meal plan.
Like a road map, your meal plan tells you what’s on the menu. You wouldn’t eat and then choose what to order, nor would you arrive at a destination and then refer to a map on how to get there – that’s just backwards. In the same way, to be successful, you must create your meal plan ahead of time and then stick to it! This removes the guess-work — you simply wake up, and eat what’s laid out in your plan.
Fortunately, doing this right is quite simple:
- Open up an Excel Spreadsheet, or an equivalent such as Google Docs (spreadsheet)
- Visit www.calorieking.com OR www.myfitnesspal.com for a complete food database and tracking system.
- Start looking up the macronutrients and calories of various foods you like to eat.
- Build meals one food at a time, and include EVERY substance with calories (sauces, creamers, condiments, etc.)
- Play with balancing meals and eating foods that you enjoy. Think ‘protein, carb, fat’ for each meal or snack – this way, you’re getting a good balance of nutrients at each sitting.
- Adjust as needed until everything jives and adds up. Your proteins, carbs and fats should be within 10 (plus or minus) of your final targets. Ideally, the closer to completely balancing, the better. Making your macronutrient targets jive will naturally bring your overall daily calorie target very close.
- Follow your new meal plan every day. If you get tired of a given food, change it, but the simpler you can make things the easier it is to follow.
It really is this simple. This is what I do, and it’s what I teach my clients to do. Those who follow this process and work out each day get the best results. Those jaw-dropping transformations you see on our site, blog and Social Media platforms are all coming from people who follow the simple rules.
Final notes: Common sense should dictate that whole, unprocessed and natural foods should comprise your ‘diet’ (do you feel a bit better about that word now?). As a tip, when you go shopping at the grocery store, avoid the aisles as much as possible, and stick to the perimeter of the store for 95% of your items. This will insure you’re buying whole, healthy foods. Here are some examples of what to pick up:
- Lean red meat
- Veggies and fruits, especially fibrous ones
- Low-fat dairy like cottage cheese and Greek yogurt
- Oils such as olive or coconut oil
- Nuts (unsalted, dry roasted – avoid those cooked in vegetable oil)
- Grains like brown rice and quinoa
Be sure to include generous servings of fibrous veggies with meals. Most people don’t get enough fibre in their diets.
Don’t stress too much about ‘good carbs / bad carbs’. Overall calorie intake really trumps everything else. Again, eat less than you burn and you’ll lose weight; This is true even if some of your foods are less than ideal. Common sense should dictate that whole foods replace everything else, but if there’s something you love and it can fit into your plan, enjoy it in moderation. We’ve talked about macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats); There’s a common acronym in this industry, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) – if it does, and you can make a food work within your allowances, enjoy it. That may mean some butter on your veggies, some cheese or a piece of dark chocolate — these little ‘treats’ can help us psychologically and serve to keep us on point.
Meal timing and frequency is a tad overrated. New research is showing that eating 6 meals per day or 2 meals per day has little-to-no effect on metabolism. What is more accurate is that eating one huge meal with all of your calories at one sitting, is likely just going to burn you out (Think ‘food coma’) due to the energy required to digest the sheer volume of eating all your food in one sitting. If you can do it and it works, then carry on. What does matter is that you are getting all of the calories in each day and that you hit your macronutrient targets. Of course, you don’t want to load up on a big meal and then hit the gym. Allow yourself a good hour to digest prior to working out and do consider post-workout nutrition within an hour after your workout.
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Make your Meal Plan ‘Non-negotiable’
I already stated this above (point #7), but I’ll reiterate because it’s ‘that’ important.
Eat ONLY what’s on your meal plan, and nothing more. No taking bites of your kid’s food, no handfuls of snacks while in the pantry, no adding butter or oil when your cooking… everything that you eat must be accounted for.
These little ‘snacks-on-the-go’ add up! Remember, it is the compound effect of our daily choices that make or break the results we’re after.
NOTE: A word on ‘cheat’ or ‘treat’ meals. Once at your desired leanness level, cheat/treat meals can be highly beneficial. However, I do not recommend cheat meals while trying to lose weight. These are just going to slow down your progress.
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