If you've ever tried to lose weight, you've most definitely spent some time crunching the numbers on how many calories you should eat in a day, and you also know that it can be a tough mystery to crack. The truth is, there is no one number that is going to be right for everybody and there is more to it than just calories. Here's how to determine the right number for you.
Find Your Baseline
Before making any dietary changes, track your food intake for a couple of normal-for-you days using an app like My Fitness Pal. This will give you a good idea of how many calories you are currently eating. From there, reduce your calories slightly by about 250 to 300 calories per day.
You don't need to make drastic changes to lose weight — just like the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race. The best way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is by making adjustments you can stick to for the long term. Drastic calorie reduction can be dangerous for your health and it just isn't sustainable.
Julia Visser, a holistic nutrition consultant, agrees: "A short-term, restrictive mentality for quick-fix weight loss should not be the driver. There's a reason that 99 percent of diets fail — eating too little can slow the metabolism and may reduce your basal metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain and continue weight loss."
Once you have your baseline, you can continue to track for a few days to a week to make sure you are hitting the number you are aiming for, but after that, there is no need for most people to track their calorie intake every single day.
Dr. Preeya Alexander, an Australia-based general practitioner, refrains from focusing too much on calories with her patients, warning that "it can become an obsessive counting ritual." Instead, she focuses on which healthy foods a patient can add to their diet, which will typically also help to lower their calorie intake.
Break It Down
While you're tracking to get your current calorie numbers, you can use the features in your calorie-tracking app to also figure out your macronutrient (protein, carbs, and fat) breakdown. These numbers should be pretty evenly balanced. A good rule of thumb for most people is 40 percent of calories from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fat. If you want to customize these numbers, Visser adds that "your natural build (or bone structure) should also play into your macronutrient ratios."
Ectomorphs, those who are naturally thin and typically have a smaller build (who may not need to lose weight in the first place), typically do better with a ratio of about 55 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 25 percent from protein, and 20 percent from fat. Mesomorphs, those who have a more athletic build, may find that the 40-30-30 breakdown works just fine. And, finally, endomorphs, who are naturally larger-boned and have a higher amount of body mass, may be happiest in the range of 25 percent carbs, 35 percent protein, and 40 percent fat. "It really all comes down to biochemical individuality," Visser added.
All macronutrients provide us with different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are vital for health, so you don't want to cut back too far on any one of them. Finding a good balance as described above will keep your body happily chugging along as you work toward your weight-loss goals.
Keep It Simple
You don't need expensive diet shakes or teas to lose weight. You'll get more nutrients from good ol' real food — fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, eggs, and whole grains. Your body knows what to do with real, whole, unprocessed foods. Keeping your diet simple, instead of trying to follow all the latest trends, will be better for the scale and your sanity.
Give It Time and Reassess
There is only one surefire way to know if your lower-calorie diet is working for you — you have to track your progress. The scale is not the only nor the most effective way to track your progress, however.
I always recommend to my clients that before they make any changes to their diet, they weigh themselves, take front, back, and side photos, and measure their waist, hips, and biceps. I then ask them not to step on the scale or take any measurements for at least two weeks. This gives your body enough time to adjust to the changes you've made so you can determine if your new plan is working the way it should. Visser also recommends checking your bloodwork variables, such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar, periodically to see if improvements are being made internally as well.
After two weeks, you should weigh, measure, and/or photograph again to compare your numbers. If you don't see any change, you can make another small downward shift in your calorie intake, but I never recommend anyone go below 1,600 or 1,700 calories per day. You can also adjust your macronutrient ratios a bit. Some people do well with fewer carbs and some with lower fat. Try shifting some calories away from carbs or fat if your weight loss stalls.
If you are already around those numbers or don't feel you can cut back your calories any more, a better way to get where you want to be is to increase your physical activity. Even adding in a daily long walk, joining a soccer or volleyball league, or trying a new class at the gym a few times a week can give your calorie burn the jolt it needs.
Visser notes that stalled weight loss can also be a result of:
- Poor sleep
- Imbalanced hormones
- Food sensitivities, allergies, or intolerances
- Poor gut health
- Inadequate hydration
Sleep and water intake can typically be corrected on your own, but you may want to work with your healthcare practitioner or a nutritionist if you feel any of the other reasons listed above may be the issue.
When it comes to weight loss, it really is a marathon and not a sprint. By making small, realistic changes to your diet, you'll be more likely to hit your goals and stick to them. Hey, it worked for the tortoise.