How Many Calories Should You Be Eating?
I dunno. How many do you wanna eat?
Okay, so that was a joke, but eventually, it’ll be the right answer. When all your hormones fire right and you’re filling yourself with healthy, whole foods, your body will tell you the right amount to eat. Unfortunately, our culture has become particularly skilled at overriding our natural indicators, which is why 30% of us are obese. So, on your road back to your ideal weight, you’ll probably want to apply a little math in the form of counting calories. (I’ve divided this answer into two parts. If you want to geek out about calories, read the whole thing. If you don’t care what a calorie is and just want to know how many to consume, skip down to the second part.)
The part where I tell you what a calorie is and how it applies to you.A calorie (or kilocalorie, as it’s officially called) is a unit of measurement given to the amount of energy your body generates from the food you eat. Think of it in terms of kilowatts or horsepower. When you put an 80-calorie apple under a microscope, you won’t see a bunch of little calories floating around in there. However, if you put your apple in a fancy piece of lab equipment called a bomb calorimeter, you could burn it up and the calorimeter would tell you how much energy was discharged—in the form of calories.
Nerdy aside: Calories can also be used to measure other expenditures of energy, including explosions. A modern nuclear bomb releases 1,000,000,000,000 calories—only slightly more than your average meal at Olive Garden.
In the human body, this energy is used for all your daily functions, including breathing, talking, digesting, walking, heart-beating and, of course, working out. However, we’re an efficient race (at least, on the inside), so if you consume more calories than you burn, it doesn’t shoot out of your ears as steam or anything like that. Instead, the body turns it into adipose tissues (body fat) to be converted to energy at some future date. In other words, when you eat more calories than you burn, you put on fat. This is the case whether you’re eating carbs, fat, or protein.
Conversely, when you eat fewer calories than you expend, your body taps into those reserves and you burn fat, most of the time. This is called having a calorie deficit. However, you don’t want that calorie deficit to be too large, or a number of undesirable things might happen. In addition to tapping your fat stores, your body might start breaking down lean body mass (muscle) for fuel. Or your body might simply slow down your metabolism so that you burn fewer calories in general, much like you might dim lights in your home to conserve energy. So, with the exception of short-term practices, like jump-start diets, fasts, or cleanses, it’s generally a good idea not to let your calorie deficit drop below 500 calories a day.
The part where I (finally) tell you how many calories are right for you.
• Sedentary lifestyle (desk job): Current weight in pounds x 12 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.
• Moderately active lifestyle (server in a restaurant and/or doing one of our entry level programs: Current weight in pounds x 13 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.
• Highly active lifestyle (construction worker Current weight in pounds x 14 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.
From there, subtract 500 calories and that’s probably a good deficit for weight loss. (But make sure that number stays about 1,200. Anything lower can be dangerous in the long term.) Conversely, if you’re trying to gain muscle mass, add 300 calories or so—but make sure you’re also doing a solid weight lifting program like Body Beast so those calories have a place to go.
Sometimes, people micromanage these numbers by increasing or decreasing daily calorie intake based on the activities for the day. Don’t do this. Unless you’re hooked up to millions of dollars worth of monitoring equipment, you’ll probably get those numbers wrong anyway. Your best bet is to account for exercise in broad strokes, like the calculations above.
With that in mind, whichever calculation you follow, don’t get married to the numbers. I know it feels official, with all those digits and equations and such, but even the most complex calorie equation will miss countless factors. Ethnicity. Air temperature. Illness. How hard you exercise that day. Stress. Unexplained shifts in your metabolism. Hormone imbalances, etc.
So use that number, which will probably fall somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 calories, as a starting point. If it works, swell. Hold steady until it stops working. If it doesn’t work, don’t panic; you just need to experiment a little to find your sweet spot. Try dropping another 300 calories for 7 to 10 days. If that doesn’t work, increase your calories (beyond your original number) by 300 for 7 to 10 days. If you’re still not getting any love, come on over to the Team Beachbody Message Boards, where our friendly advice staff and coaching community will be able to throw your diet up on the racks to find the issue.
On a final note, keep in mind that not all calories are created equal. You generally need to do a little more than just hit your calorie deficit to lose weight in a healthy fashion. If your low-calorie diet is packed with refined sugars and flours, it might be wreaking havoc on your insulin, which can inhibit results. If you’re lowballing protein, you might not be giving your body the amino acids it needs to repair muscle. Again, results will be hindered. If you’re eating a really fatty diet, fat is more caloric by volume than protein and carbs, so you might be badly miscalculating, which (say it with me) can also hinder results. So an important key to weight management is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. More on that in the next issue.