Counting Calories Correctly

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Most of my dieting clients are afraid to eat real meals. They believe that eating, let's say, a tuna sandwich makes people fat. Eating diet foods, such as rice cakes and carrots, feels safer. The problem is that self-created diets commonly allow too few calories and too limited a selection of (boring) foods. The dieter ends up becoming too hungry and craves calorie-dense foods (Gilhooly et al. 2007). As a result, he or she blows the diet and regains any lost weight, plus more.

I calculate for my clients an appropriate calorie budget so that they know how much is OK to eat to maintain or lose weight. Just as you know how much money you can spend when you shop, you might find it helpful to know how many calories you can spend when you eat. A calorie, or more correctly, a kilocalorie, is a measure of energy. It is the amount of heat needed to raise one liter of water by one degree Celsius. (If you need to convert kilocalories to kilojoules, you can do so by multiplying the number of calories by 4.1868.) To assess your calorie needs, you should meet with a registered dietitian. Alternatively, you can use a "calorie calculator" on the Web (see appendix A), or you can make a ballpark estimate of your calorie needs by using the following steps.

1. Estimate your resting metabolic rate—the number of calories you need simply to breathe, pump blood, and be alive (see table 15.1)—by multiplying your healthy weight by 10 calories per pound (or 22 calories per kilogram). If you are significantly overweight, use an adjusted weight, a weight about halfway between your desired weight and your current weight. That is, if you weigh 160 pounds but at one time normally weighed 120 pounds, use 140 as your adjusted weight. For example,

Table 15.1 Resting Metabolic Rate

Organ Calories per day* Percentage of resting metabolic rate

Brain 365 21

Heart 180 10

Kidneys 120 7

Liver 560 32

Lungs 160 9

Other tissues 370 21

*Number of calories burned by a 150-pound (68 kilogram) man while resting in bed all day.

Roberta weighed about 130 pounds but could healthfully weigh about 120 pounds. Hence, she needed approximately 1,200 calories (120 X10) simply to do nothing all day except exist.

2. Add more calories for daily activity apart from your purposeful exercise. If you are moderately active throughout the day, add about 50 percent of your resting metabolic rate (RMR). If you are sedentary, add 20 to 40 percent; if very active (in addition to your purposeful exercise), add 60 to 80 percent of your RMR. Roberta was moderately active throughout the day with her two kids and her job. She burned about 600 calories (50 percent X 1,200 calories) for activities of daily living. Her totals were as follows:

1,200 RMR + 600 cal daily activity = 1,800 cal per day (without purposeful exercise)

3. Add more calories for purposeful exercise. For example, when Roberta went to the health club, she exercised aerobically for about 45 minutes and burned about 400 calories on the treadmill. Hence, this was her total calorie need:

1,200 cal RMR + 600 cal daily activity + 400 cal purposeful exercise =

2,200 total cal/day

Be honest and accurate in assessing your calorie needs. Athletes who exercise hard are often very sedentary as they rest and recover from their rigorous workouts. This affects their daily calorie needs. In one study, men and women (aged 54 to 76) who added one hour of brisk walking ended up eating the same number of calories per day and did not lose weight. They simply napped more and reduced by 62 percent their overall energy expenditure throughout the rest of the day (Goran and Poehlman 1992).

4. To lose weight, subtract 20 percent (or even less; small deficits add up and can be easier to sustain) of your total calorie needs. Roberta deserved to eat about 2,200 calories per day to maintain her weight. Subtracting 20 percent of 2,200 calories (20 percent X 2,200 = about 400 calories) left her with about 1,800 calories for her reducing diet.

In the past, Roberta had tried to reduce on 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day. She was skeptical about my proposed reducing plan of 1,800 calories. "If I can't lose weight on 1,000 calories, why would I lose weight on 1,800?" she questioned. I reminded her that when she cut back too much, she'd get too hungry and blow her diet. She also lost muscle, slowed her metabolism, and consumed too few of the nutrients she needed to protect her health and invest in top performance. I reminded her that slow and steady weight loss stays off; quick weight loss rapidly reappears.

A reasonable weight-loss target is 0.5 to 1 pound (0.25 to 0.5 kg) a week for a person who weighs less than 150 pounds (68 kg); 1 to 2 pounds a week is reasonable for heavier bodies.

The theory of "the less you eat, the more fat you will lose" contains little practical truth. Generally, the less you eat, the more you blow your diet and overeat because of extreme hunger. For example, if you knock off only 100 calories at the end of the day (the equivalent of two Oreo cookies or a spoonful of ice cream), you'll theoretically lose 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of fat a year, because 1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. If you eat 500 fewer calories per day than you normally do, you should lose 1 pound per week. Now think of the number of times you've tried to knock off 1,000 calories per day and have ended up gaining weight.

Remember, though, that weight loss is not always mathematical. Nature makes weight loss harder for people who try to get below their set-point weight (Leibel, Rosenbaum, and Hirsch 1995). If you have no excess fat to lose, nature will cause your body to conserve energy. I've had thin clients who claim they eat far less than they deserve yet maintain weight. They have cold hands and report they are "always freezing"—just one way nature conserves calories.

Once you've established your total daily calories, divide them evenly throughout the day. Some people like having six small meals: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. Others, like Roberta, find that four meals per day work well for them.

Roberta was initially skeptical about this four-meal plan; meals, after all, are "fattening." She complained, "I'm afraid I'll get fat from eating so much at breakfast and two lunches." I reminded her that the purpose of the daytime meals is to ruin her appetite for dinner. By eating more during the day, she would then be less hungry that evening, have more energy to exercise from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., and be able to eat less (diet) at night.

If you hold the fear that meals are fattening, think again and remember these ideas:

  • You won't gain weight from eating a substantial breakfast or lunch. You'll have more energy to exercise and burn calories. Even if you were to eat too much at those meals, you could compensate by eating less at night.
  • If you skimp on daytime meals and develop a deep hunger, you'll be likely to overeat at night because of the strong physiological drive to eat.
  • You'll end up eating fewer calories, even though the breakfast and lunch and second lunch may be larger than before. You'll simply trade in the evening blown-diet calories for wholesome foods earlier in the day.
  • If you are not hungry at night, you can skimp at dinner and simply eat soup or salad. But don't have just soup or salad for lunch. It's not enough.

Become familiar with the calorie content of the foods you commonly eat, and then spend your calories wisely. That is, include at least three of the five food groups at each meal (see chapter 1) and two kinds of foods per snack. Too many dieters repetitively eat a single food, such as cottage cheese, for a meal. This practice limits their intake of the variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients offered by a range of foods.

Roberta was an expert calorie counter. In fact, she expressed fear about becoming neurotic about counting calories. I reminded her to count calories loosely (0, 50, or 100) and to consider them a general guideline and helpful tool to determine how much (rather than how little) food she could appropriately eat.

More important, she needed to start listening to her body and learn what, for example, 600 calories feels like. She could then use that feeling for future reference. For example, she could tell the right amount to eat at a restaurant by listening to her body's message of being pleasantly fed. Calorie counting can be a helpful bridge to get you in touch with your body's ability to tell you how much is OK to eat so that you feel satisfied. You can and should quickly replace calorie counting with listening to your body's signals for hunger and satiety. Calorie counting should not become an obsession.

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