Sometimes when we are working toward losing weight, it’s easy to focus so much on calories that we end up losing sight of the bigger goal- which is being healthier overall. Over the last few years, helping guide people through nutrition changes and weight loss journeys, I would say that one of the most common topics that comes up is daily caloric needs. Are you eating enough? And often, the answer is no.
We, as a society, seem to be convinced that less is better when it comes to food even though it has been shown over and over that that’s not exactly true. Eating as little as possible is not the best way to live your best life and although you may see an immediate weight loss, it will soon start working against you and may not only stall your weight loss progress but leave you feeling tired, weak and worse than before you started.
If you have been trying to dial back your calories and noticed a marked decrease in your energy level, increased fatigue, foggy memory, or generally feeling unwell, it’s important to take these signs seriously and evaluate whether you are providing your body enough nourishment.
Calories are not the enemy, they are fuel. Your body needs them to function and exist. Now, of course there is a difference in the quality of the calories you consume, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want you to think about today, is making sure that you are eating enough calories to sustain your body, and provide you energy to exercise and live a healthy active lifestyle. Everybodyis different and everyone’s needs are different in regard to the number of calories their body requires. Things like age, sex, height, weight and activity level all go into the calculation for your personal needs.
It’s very common for women to set their calorie goals extremely low, thinking this is a test of willpower and the less tthey eat the faster they will get where they want to be. You should really NEVER eat less than 1200 calories no matter what your size and truly, most of us need significantly more than that every day to function at our most efficient level. I know you may not want to hear that, but adding more healthy, nutrient dense calories may be just what your body needs to launch off a plateau or for you to improved power, energy and focus throughout the day. Yes, you need a caloric deficit to lose weight, but if you should be eating 1900 calories/day, you can still eat 1550 calories a day and see good steady weight loss in most cases. However, if you need that 1900 calories and are only eating 1200, that deficit is too much for your body to handle over a period of time and it will start to rebel.
So how do you know if that is happening to you?
Look out for these signs of underfueling your body:
1. You Think About Food ALL THE TIME!
Are cravings running rampant in your head, having trouble focusing on anything except when your next meal is? Maybe you even dream about food. It can be a sign that you are not eating enough. Your body is fixated on food because it needs it. If you are depriving yourself of the necessary fuel to live, the brain starts sending out distress signals in the form of hunger pains and cravings. The problem with this is it can lead to binge eating because we have left ourselves feeling so deprived that our impulse takes over and we end up eating ALL THE FOOD!! That can start a horrible cycle of eating too much, which leaves us with feelings of guilt, so then we limit our food again, until the deprivation becomes too severe so the cravings start again and thus we find ourselves on a unhealthy yo-yo which doesn’t feel good physically, mentally or emotionally.
2. You Didn’t Eat that Much, but You Feel Full, Bloated or Gassy
You may think that even though you are well under your calorie goals for the day that since you feel full all the time, you should not eat more. This is sort of a trick your body plays on you, that feeling of fullness may be just gas. If you eat a lot of high fiber foods like raw vegetables or things that take some extra effort for your body to digest, this can result in excess gas and bloat. Because you start to feel full, you stop eating. If this happens too often your body can start to react to the lack of sufficient nutrition and trigger all sorts of not fun digestive issues. To prevent that from happening, eat a good balance of carbs/fiber, protein and fat to help the body not get locked up and hopefully relieve any discomfort.
3. Your Metabolism Slows Down
Most people roll their eyes at me when I tell them eating too little will not help them lose weight, but it has been proven. Severely restricting your food intake will cause your metabolism to slow, rather than speed up. This is because when you intake too few calories your body drops into starvation mode to protect itself. Your body doesn’t realize you are choosing to eat less, it just knows it is not getting enough fuel and starts to protect itself by storing as much energy as possible. This means that your metabolism slows down to use less energy and it also means that the food you do give it is more likely to be stored as adipose tissue (better known as fat) so that it can easily access it. Another nasty side effect, is that your body may start to use muscles and other tissue for fuel when it does not get enough energy from your diet. This means that while you are working so hard to lose weight by restricting your calories and working out, your metabolism goes down instead of up, your organs and internal systems slow down, your physical ability, power and reaction times can decrease and you can end up gaining fat tissue while losing that muscle you have worked hard for. No thank you!
That doesn’t seem like the payoff you may be hoping for. So, pay attention to your body and watch for these warning signs. Of course, just because you may notice these things happening in your body doesn't automatically mean you’re undernourished, and they are by no means the only warning signs to watch for, but you should take them seriously and evaluate your daily diet to see if you may be eating too little for your body and lifestyle.
So the moral of this story is….
Know how many calories your body requires every day.
Eat that amount of nourishing calories in a balanced way (protein/fat/carb)
If you are trying to lose weight limit your calorie deficit to 350-500 calories (but NEVER eat less than 1200 calories)
Use exercise to aid in your calorie deficit rather than severe food restrictions
Listen to your body- and treat it well!
So how many calories do you need?
Here’s the math:
The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of energy (calories) your body needs while resting. This accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of calories burned in a day. In general, men have a higher BMR than women. One of the most accurate methods of estimating your basal metabolic rate is the Harris-Benedict formula:
Adult male: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
Adult female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
To determine your total daily calorie needs, multiply your BMR by the appropriate activity factor, as follows:
If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725