Calories matter for weight and fat loss. Plain and simple. It is the basis of energy balance and your ability to change not only scale weight in the LONGTERM, but more importantly your body composition.
If you eat fewer calories than your body expends on a daily basis, scale weight WILL go down. This hopefully will be mostly bodyfat…..as long as you are eating enough protein and strength training. That is a topic for another blog post though. “Ryan, how do I find the amount of calories I need to eat to lose these 20lbs though??” I got you, just a minute though.
If you ever read or hear that “calories don’t matter when you are trying to lose weight,” please, please don’t listen to that. There has been a huge trend in the past 5-10 years that has exploded in the nutrition world. That is, “eating clean” or “eating organic” or “going Paleo” to lose weight. These approaches sometimes (not always) say that you don’t need to count calories, or even worry about calories as long as you eat “clean.” I am not going to bash so called “clean eaters” or “organic eaters” because that is a very healthy way of eating and living. If you read my blog a couple weeks back called “Is eating healthy actually more expensive?” you know that I eat very “clean.” I eat a ton of green veggies, fruits, lean meats and limit my processed food intake. But, I am also veryyyyyy self aware of my caloric intake of those “clean” foods, because that will affect my body composition more than the type of foods I am eating.
Hold on. Before you ask yourself, “well why can’t I just eat pizza, candy bars and burgers to lose weight and look better naked?” Well, technically you can do that. But, that only works for people starting a weight loss journey and who have a quite a bit of weight to lose; I am talking like 50+ lbs. You can simply eat half the pizza instead of the whole pizza every day and probably lose some scale weight and body fat. The more weight you lose though the more the “type” of food you eat matters. The lower your body fat percentage gets the more the “quality” of food you eat matters. And not to mention you just feel better eating “cleaner.” Just be aware of that. But, that isn’t the point of this post so I will stop there.
Back to “clean eating” vs “tracking calories.”
So, we know that “clean eating” is important for your overall health, how you feel and your workout quality. But, “clean eating” doesn’t automatically provide scale weight and body composition changes. You can also eat too many of those “clean”or “organic” foods which can lead to you gaining bodyfat and thus scale weight. Even if you only eat strictly organic quinoa and grass fed beef with a side of non GMO nuts you still need to be aware of your serving sizes (calories) if you are concerned about your body composition and scale weight. If you are happy with how you look, feel and your overall health then the rest of this talk on calories might bore you. Buttttt, if you want to lose some lbs or change how your body looks in the mirror keep reading.
Steps to find out “how many calories I should eat?” the longer, but more accurate way:
- Download an app such as Myfitnesspal or Loseit so you can track your calories. Don’t worry about the calories the log gives you. Just simply use the HUGE food database to track literally EVERYTHING you eat and drink for 7-14 days. Track as accurately as you can; this means weighing and measuring everything (or as much as you can). If you don’t track accurately there is no point in tracking. Don’t change your normal habits, because you are trying to get an accurate depiction of your “normal” eating before making health changes. You need to see where you are starting from so you know where improvements need to be made.
- Weigh yourself at the beginning of the 14 days and at the end.
- At the end of the 14 days add up your total calories and divide by 14 to find your “average daily caloric intake.”
- At the same time, find an online calorie calculator that will give you an estimation of how many calories you should eat for your goals (lose fat or gain muscle). Notice I said estimation, because that is exactly what those online calculators are. The good ones usually can be pretty accurate, but they are no exacts in the game of finding recommended caloric intake. The calculator I am currently using for clients is: Here.
- This is when things get interesting, or maybe more complicated so I will try to explain as best I can. From here you take the average calories you ate over the past 14 days and compare that to your scale weight change. If scale went down, you are in a calorie deficit (you ate less than your body burned for 14 days), which is what you need for weight loss. If scale weight went up then you ate too much for weight loss and you were in a caloric surplus (you ate more than your body burned in 14 days). If it stayed relatively the same then you ate a range of “maintenance calories” or calories needed to maintain your weight. Finding this number is crucial because this is the number you adjust from to gain or lose weight. Online calorie calculators will usually give an estimated “maintenance” range based off of your age, gender, height, weight, BF% and activity level. Other factors such as sodium intake, menstrual cycles affect scale weight, but let’s keep it as simple as possible here.
- Now, you want to use the calorie number estimated by the calculator and compare it the average calories you ate over the past 14 days. If you averaged 1500 calories per day over 14 days, lost 2lbs and the calculator says to eat 1500-1600 calories don’t change anything. If you lost 2lbs but the calculator says you should be eating 1800-1900 calories you should try to eat in that range and you will probably still lose weight next week. I always want my clients eating as much as possible while still losing weight because it avoids bottoming out your metabolism and staves off early weight loss plateaus…not to mention allowing you to eat more food! If you gained weight, take away 250-500 calories per day, no more than 500 calories though!. If your weight didn’t change and you still ate less calories then the calculator said to eat then you might be in a phase of metabolic adaptation or metabolic slow down. These terms mean your metabolism is working slower than it should probably due to under eating for a long period of time. What you need to do from here is reverse diet. My post describing reverse dieting is: Here
- From here, you simply track your calories as much as you can, weigh in weekly at the same time of the same day under the same conditions and adjust calories up or down as you need to. If scale weight hasn’t changed in 2-3 weeks take away 100 calories per day…unless you are already below the range of calories your online calculator (or coach) has suggested. If you continue to eat less and less and not lose any weight, you need to begin a period of reverse dieting. See above link.
If that was too much, you glossed over it and think I am nuts that I think that stuff is fascinating then try this method:
- Multiply your bodyweight by 15 or 16 to find your maintenance calories.
- Subtract 250-500 calories from the maintenance calorie number you found.
- Try that for a 2-3 weeks and see what happens. Adjust accordingly by dropping 100 calories per day IF scale weight hasn’t changed in 2-3 weeks.
- If weight loss stalls for 4-5 weeks and you have already dropped calories 2-3 times then try reverse dieting. Again Here is the link describing that process.
**This approach can and often works great for someone starting a weight loss journey and has quite a bit of weight to lose. If you are 12-18 months into your journey and stalled out though, but still want more progress that is where the longer, more complicated approach comes into play…and where I do all my work.
I have said it many times and probably won’t stop saying it. You NEED to track your calories (and protein, carbs and fat) for some period of time to see sustainable weight loss. This could be 6 weeks or 6 years, whatever it takes for you to be happy with your body. I won’t track my calories every day for the rest of my life, but by tracking probably 350 of the last 365 days I am pretty aware of the portion sizes I need to lose and gain weight at will. I am in control of my weight and body composition and you won’t have that control until you have an idea of your typical caloric intake.