It’s a timeless question, and one that can get you many answers – some overly complicated and others extremely simple.
Am I Eating Too Many Calories?
The most frequent answer is that to lose weight, you must eat less calories than you take in:
Calories In > Calories Out = Weight gain
Calories Out > Calories In = Weight loss
This is, in the end, what it boils down to. I made a post about this subject on my own blog (in a rather extensive post about carbohydrates), which I’ll shamelessly quote here:
“Now, many low-carb enthusiasts will scream all day “A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE!!” While I certainly agree with this (as if you couldn’t tell based upon this post) your calories still matter. If you only burn through 2000 calories a day and you eat 2500 calories of eggs (About 35 1/2 eggs, good luck), protein taken in is extremely capable of being turned into fat. It’s just a little bit harder to take in more calories than you need when all you’re eating is steak and broccoli – you’ll get full quick, whereas I’m pretty sure I could eat 3000 calories of cheesecake without even thinking about it.”
Unfortunately there is no escaping it! But how do you know how many calories you’re burning in a day? If you’re a Type A kind of person, this may lead to frantic searching for a good Base Metabolic Rate calculator (BMR is how many calories you burn just existing, sitting around on the couch), formulas for how many calories you burn weight lifting (not an easy task) as well as how many you burn in your typical lifestyle of walking up stairs, walking the dog, etc.
That is a lot of calculations! Not to mention, I’ve found that many online BMR calculators grossly overestimate how many calories you burn in a day. For example, using this random BMR calculator:
As a 5’7, 155lb moderately active female, I apparently need 2,388 calories per day to maintain my current weight. I can say from my own dieting efforts (which I’ll make a post about next week!), this is very, very false. A tool like this would need to also take into account your body fat percentage in order to be very accurate, as well as the simple fact that people have widely varying metabolic rates! (This is not to say that if you want to track specific numbers that this method couldn’t be successful – but if you do try and don’t see success, it’s because there are potential flaws in the formulas and calculations.)
So we’re back to square one! What’s a person to do? Unless you have access to a good laboratory that can accurately measure your BMR, how can you be sure how many calories you’re burning throughout the day?
What I find is that it is easier to see what effects taking in a certain number of calories a day has on you rather than trying to calculate out how many you’re burning. It’s far less effort to make a to measure out and eat 1500 calories a day and seeing if you lose weight than to guess how many you’re burning. And if you’re like most people and don’t workout everyday, on the days you don’t workout, it would make sense to eat a little less than days you do.
Too Few Calories?
Then there is the worry that if you’re not eating enough calories, your metabolism will slow down and you’ll start actually gaining weight! This is one that I’ve heard tossed around a lot, and while it can be true, it’s not going to be a concern for a new dieter. There’s a good study about this topic where 3 groups of women were each given 800 calories per day (very low!) and regularly had their BMR measured:
“In a study … published in the Journal of Obesity, researchers examined the effects of losing 25 pounds on 94 women who either
A) Followed a resistance training workout program
B) Followed an aerobic training program
C) Did not workout at all
These women were asked to follow a diet consisting of 800 Calories until they reduced their BMI down to less than 25 (The average 25 pounds of weight loss). The women continued this diet for as long as 5 months straight.
The researchers found that the women who were following the resistance training workout program maintained their Fat Free Mass (muscle and bone density) during the time they were on the diet. This means that even though they lost 25 pounds they were able to preserve their muscle mass. Therefore all 25 pounds that these women lost were from fat.
They also found that the group of women who were following the resistance training workout program preserved their metabolic rate. In other words they did not see any metabolic “slow down” as a result of losing 25 pounds, or from being on a 800 Calorie per day diet for 5 months.
Interestingly, the researchers found decreases in Fat Free Mass in the women who did not workout AND in the women who performed aerobic training.”
Now, this certainly isn’t an advertisement on my part to say that you should eat 800 calories a day. After all, the best diet plan is the one that you can stick to, and I don’t know of any person who would find satisfaction on an 800 calorie a day diet. Plus, this study only lasted 5 months – while a very good amount of time for such a study, doesn’t let us know what happens when this chronic under-eating continues over the course of a year or more. It could very well be that over the long-term, some decrease in metabolism would occur. Plus, you’d be grumpy and hungry; a sure-fire way to fail your diet.
So, what’s the succinct answer to this question?
In order to start figuring out how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, follow these steps:
1) Try to figure out approximately how many calories you’re consuming at your current weight.
2) Subtract 500 calories from that number. At this rate, you’d be losing about a pound per week – you can adjust this number based on your comfort level, but I wouldn’t detract more than 1000.
3) Weigh yourself at the same time, wearing the same clothes on the same day about once every week or two weeks. Track your progress. Take pictures, take circumference measurements, take note of how your clothes feel. Use a wide variety of methods of measurement! Sometimes the number on the scale doesn’t correspond to changes in body composition.
4) Cut down on the starches, eat more vegetables. That’s just a good rule of thumb for life.
If you’re doing a resistance training program, following the above advice but you still aren’t losing weight, you can try cutting down calories a bit more. If you feel like at 1200 calories a day you should probably be losing some weight (which, more than likely, you should be), it may be time to see a nutritionist or a doctor about any underlying issues.
Hopefully this helps clear up some of the confusion around this issue. Have any more questions? Let us know below or tell us in person!