I get asked this all the time, and finding the answer to this question is one of the first things I do when working with a client who wants to lose weight. Calories are a big deal; the fact is, if we eat too many, we gain weight and if we eat too few we lose weight. There are different ways to control your calorie intake, including calorie counting or tracking, following a calorie-controlled meal plan, and eating mindfully by getting in touch with feelings of hunger and fullness. The most important thing I want my clients to know about calories is that although to lose weight you need to eat less, going too low in calories while dieting can have detrimental effects.
You may have heard of this equation before: There are 3500 calories in one pound of fat, therefore if we create a 500 calorie deficit each day, we will lose 1 pound per week, and if we create a 1000 calorie deficit each day, we will lose 2 pounds per week. I recently watched “Fat Head,” a documentary starring Tom Naughton. I did not care for the movie, mostly because he was very good at pointing out problems but fell short in offering solutions. One of the problems he pointed out was that this equation does not always translate to producing the expected result when put into practice.
Most people who work in the health and fitness industry already know this (Mr. Naughton is a comedian and computer programmer). The reason for the discrepancy is because when your calorie deficit is too large, your body decreases your metabolic rate, this closing the gap of deficit. This is a survival response and prevents you from starving. Although this will happen any time you reduce your calorie intake for a prolonged period of time, the effect is much more significant the more severe the calorie deficit.
If you are just starting a weight loss program and doing it on your own, I advise limiting your calorie deficit to 500 calories per day. You can further help protect your metabolism by splitting the deficit between calories and exercise; eating 250 fewer calories, and burning and extra 250 calories. Then, be patient. We all know time passes so quickly, except when you are waiting for a pot of water to boil, or weighing yourself daily waiting for those pounds to fall off. Keep in mind as with everything, weight loss takes time, and since time will pass anyway, you may as well set some very achievable habits into place to do consistently that will help move you toward your goal weight.
Here are some helpful steps to getting started:
- Determine how many calories you need per day given your age, gender, weight, height, activity level, and other factors that affect total calorie expenditure. A great resource to help you get started is the Healthy Body Calculator created by my fellow RD Joanne Larsen MS RD http://dietitian.com/calcbody.php. Select “maintain weight” in the assessment form, and that way you can create your calorie deficit manually. Or, call me for an appointment at 480-703-8883 for help determining what your appropriate calorie intake should be.
- Decide how you will burn an additional 250 calories daily. Choose a physical activity you enjoy enough to be able to stick with. Cut your daily calories by 250 per day; use a calorie tracking tool, or contact me about getting weekly meal plans for your target calorie level to take the hassle out of calculating and planning your menus.
- Implement your plan and log your progress. You can’t measure something you have no data on, so it is crucial while changing your habits to lose weight that you log your daily food consumption, fluid intake, and exercise. Then, each week, decide on 1 or 2 things you are going to improve upon next week. Perhaps you will add 5 minutes to your daily walk, or increase the speed of your walking. Or maybe you will decrease episodes of eating out from 5 to 2 times per week. Make the goals specific, because a goal like “eat better” is very difficult to track and measure, and is usually not effective in helping you change your habits.
For assistance personalizing these recommendations to you, I provide one-on-one in-person or phone consultations. Please call (602) 422-9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule, or request a consultation here. For free email tips, subscribe here. Healthy regards!