How Many Calories Do You Really Need?

Last month a client of mine forwarded me an email from a fitness coach. The email outlined a weight loss program, with food recommendations for adult and adolescent girls looking to lose weight. 

Some of the suggestions she made were sound (eat less processed food, cut out refined sugar and flour), but unfortunately I found much of the advice to be erroneous, unsubstantiated and downright irresponsible. I won’t pick the whole email apart here, but I will focus on one specific piece that bothered me most:

For active women working out 6 days a week, the recommendation was 1200 calories a day for weight loss.

 

I am all for people looking to support others in their journey to health, but I am COMPLETELY FED UP with the restriction model and the perpetuation of the “1200 calories per day” myth.

 

…you know this myth. I know you do. As women, it’s been imprinted on us since day one. 1200 calories hangs in our brains as the holy grail of diet #goals. Most of us believe that this is the ideal caloric intake to be sustained. 

Why?

It’s because we have a multi-billion dollar dieting industry continuing to regurgitate this number.

(For the record, I’d say about 70% of what we hear about nutrition and dieting is just that - regurgitation. The “facts” we hear have very little to do with background, context, research or experience. This is part of the reason we hear such contradictory claims and end up in a food confusion coma.) 

We also have people we deem health “experts” doing the same: telling clients and followers that 1200 calories per day is appropriate. Although often well-intentioned, this is piss-poor advice.

1200 calories is how much most of us need in order to keep our bodies from shutting down. Leave it to the dieting industry to convince us that borderline-sick is what we should all shoot for. Insert eye roll here.

 

Let me be clear: There is a huge difference between eating sufficient calories TO NOT DIE and eating to THRIVE. Unless you are a toddler, 1200 calories a day is a starvation diet.

Please, I beg you, if you are following a 1200 calorie per day diet, do one thing for me: check your birth certificate. Were you born in 2014? No? Then EAT MORE FOOD.

 

Here’s what happens when you eat 1200 calories per day:

 

1. You might lose weight at first, but you probably won’t maintain it. In fact, if you stay on a 1200 calorie diet, you might even start gaining weight.

While a slight caloric deficit can lead to sustainable weight loss (more on that later), much more than that will cause a down-regulation of your metabolism in order to keep your body in balance. That’s right, low calorie diets SLOW DOWN YOUR METABOLISM. That means you need to do MORE exercise and EAT LESS in order to maintain any weight loss you have achieved. 

 

2. You’re set up for thyroid issues, adrenal issues, and hormonal issues.

When you drastically slash calories, your body responds by reducing your overall caloric output. It does this by basically halting some of your body systems, like reducing active thyroid hormone, raising stress hormones like cortisol, and slowing or stopping the production of sex hormones. This is NOT a good thing for our overall health, and can also contribute to stalled weight loss and body fat retention.

 

3. You could struggle with infertility.

A low calorie diet and too-low body fat can lead to amenorrhea (missed period), menstrual irregularities and infertility. As mentioned above, when you're not eating enough, the production of sex hormones dramatically slows. For those of us who have been dieting longer than we can remember, this can be a problem. 

 

4. Your body will be stressed.

Under-eating is a physical stressor to the body, for some of the above mentioned reasons.

But dieting and the act of tracking calories is a mental stressor, too. Dieting is like a metaphorical bear. When we sit down for food, we're supposed to be in rest-and-digest mode. This is what allows us to extract nutrition from the food we eat. However, when we overthink, analyze and count each time we eat or think about food, our body responds as though it's being chased by a bear: our fight or flight response is activated. Some of us are so used to this, that we don't even realize that it's happening.

Constantly triggering that fight or flight mode can call on cortisol more than our bodies are equipped to handle, affecting the adrenal glands, the thyroid glands, and other hormones, exacerbating the issues I just outlined above. It can also dramatically affect blood sugar (see #5).

Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to both leptin and insulin resistance, causing the body to store fat.

 

5. Your blood sugar will be wonky.

This can lead food cravings, moodiness and sleep issues. When your blood sugar is out of whack, your body sees this as a stressor, feeding into the whole stress loop I just talked about.

 

6. You will become nutrient deficient.

Calories are the vehicles for which nutrients ride in on. If you’re not eating enough calories, you’re not getting enough nutrition to drive cellular processes. Plain and simple.

 

 

How many calories should you eat?

 

This million-dollar question has no easy answer. Determining individual caloric needs is challenging. Context REALLY matters here: physical activity, muscle mass, stress levels, sleep habits, digestion, history of chronic disease…you get the picture.

I wish I could just tell everyone to eat good food and worry less about calories. But…I know calorie counting is a tough thing for people to give up. WE LIKE RULES.

So here are some general starting points. I’m giving these to you with the one caveat: you must - MUST - tweak these to fit your own specific body and situation.

 

For Weight loss

For some people, weight loss is necessary for optimal health. For others, weight loss efforts are incongruent with optimal health. If you fall into the latter camp, you might find that your body resists your weight loss attempts. This is because your body wants to prioritize your health over arbitrary beauty standards. (If you skimmed through the section above, go back and read it thoroughly.) Do your best to listen to your body.

If you are looking to lose weight - and actually need to lose weight - a slight caloric deficit can lead to sustainable weight loss. This would mean reducing your normal intake by 300-500 calories (assuming that you’re not already under-eating).

Generally, I don’t like to see active women dip below 1800 calories per day*. This figure is geared toward weight loss. If you are looking to maintain your weight, that number should increase.

*If you are extremely sedentary and/or have a small frame, this number will probably be lower. But, I hesitate to even say this, because I don't recommend an extremely sedentary lifestyle, unless you are limited by pregnancy complications, an injury, or a chronic illness. And in those cases, your caloric needs might be increased anyway. (See why this is so tricky?)

 

For weight maintenance

Take your body weight and multiply it by 14. Then take your body weight and multiply it by 17. Somewhere in between these numbers is a rough estimate of your daily caloric needs to maintain your current body weight. The lower side is for less active individuals, the higher side is for more active. If you exercise often, you might need to increase this number.

 

For Breastfeeding

A former client emailed me recently asking how many calories she needed as a breastfeeding mom. My answer was my classic annoying one: it depends.

When you breastfeed, you expend HUNDREDS of calories per day. The actual number depends on several factors, including how often you feed, if baby is exclusively breastfed, how big the baby is, outside food baby is getting, mom’s fat stores.

Take the above number for weight maintenance, and add about 500 calories. This is a good starting point for your caloric needs.

But really, your best bet is to eat according to your hunger levels. It’s NORMAL to feel starving. Since society has taught us that hunger is bad, it’s also common to be scared and confused by this newfound hunger. I certainly was when I was a new mom! Don’t worry, mamas…I’m working on a blog post for how to pack in the calories as a new breastfeeding mom.

I’ll add this: It’s important to not stress out about losing weight quickly. If you lose weight too fast, your milk supply can suffer AND the toxic load in your breastmilk can increase. Your body is doing some pretty incredible things - miraculous things, even. Remind yourself that it took 9 months to grow a baby; give yourself sufficient healing time.

 

How do these numbers stack up?

If you track calories, cross reference your typical daily intake with these numbers. Is it much lower? Adjust accordingly. As you saw, eating too little isn’t going to help you achieve your weight or health goals.

If you’ve been dieting on and off most of your life (raises hand), or if you’ve intentionally under-eaten in order to lose weight (hangs head with hand still in air), then chances are you have a completely skewed view of what and how much food you need to thrive. This is where it might make sense to track your food intake for a few days to be sure you’re eating ENOUGH. 

But ultimately, I would encourage you to not focus on the tracking or the numbers or the portions. In fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I wrote a whole blog post about it.

When you’re solely focused on the numbers, you tend to approach food as “does this fit my calories” vs. “does this contribute to my health" or "how does this make me feel”. When you eat according to calories or specific portions, you’re teaching yourself to ignore your body. The majority of us need to do the exact opposite of this.

Focus instead on good inputs, on building a good plate, on seeing how your body feels and performs with adequate food.

No diet is going to show you how much you “should” be eating- only you can do that.