I’ll start by saying there’s no easy or precise answer as to how many calories anyone should eat in a day. Your fuel needs differ per personal metabolism and body composition. Additionally, activity level, stress levels, hormones, sleep, and more all play a part, and counting calories may or may not be a helpful addition to other habit changes.
All calories are not created equal. Granted, by definition calories represent units of energy provided by a particular food, but thinking they’re all alike is like saying one of my favorite expressions, a diamond, and a rhinestone are the same because they both glitter. With calories, as with diamonds, it’s the quality that matters most and enhances their value.
Some people are triggered by keeping track of numbers. If that’s you, that’s A-OK. Take what works and leave the rest. Experts all agree that counting calories are not the be-all, end-all of living your healthiest life, even when it comes to weight loss. We here at Quest stand by that. That said, some people like numbers and tracking so here is info and discussion about how to best gauge calorie and macro amounts:
Start by getting an idea of your basal metabolic rate (BMR). The basal metabolic rate is the minimum number of calories your body burns at rest. This number of calories is required for involuntary functions such as breathing, regulating body temperature, digesting food, and keeping your circulation going. Think of this as the number of calories you would need to keep your body alive if you were merely to stay in bed all day watching Netflix. (i.e. quarantining).
Different experts use slightly different equations to figure out BMR. The best way to calculate your BMR is to go into a lab. They can measure the amount of carbon dioxide you’re expelling and how much oxygen you’re breathing to see how efficiently your body is metabolizing calories. You can get your RMR (resting metabolic rate, which is slightly different) tested with a clinical RMR test at some gyms. Don’t have $250 to shell out on a metabolic test? (I hear you!) then you can calculate your resting metabolic rate using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation or the Harris-Benedict equation below:
Harris-Benedict equation will be useful for all but the very muscular (it will underestimate calorie needs) and the very overweight (will overestimate calorie needs) because it does not take into consideration lean body mass as a variable.
If you are able to measure lean body mass by bioelectrical impedance analysis (or a fat caliper) you can predict the daily resting energy expenditure by the Katch-McArdle method.
If you know your BMR, you can calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
This represents the number of calories you burn each day through exercise and daily activity.
Takeaway: These are all valid and useful ways to use calorie information. Just keep in mind that all of these numbers—how many calories you supposedly need, how many calories various activities allegedly burn, how many calories various foods contain—all of these are really just estimates. You, my friends, are not merely numbered.
Your calories should never dip below 1,200 as your body will assume it’s starving and your metabolism will adjust accordingly.
Your BMR will increase as you gain muscle.
Macros goes a step further than typical calorie counting. You count the macronutrients—grams of proteins, carbs, and fats—you’re eating within your calorie goal, and in what ratios.
Standard American Diet: 50% Carbohydrates 15% Protein 35% Fat
Modified Mediterranean Diet 40% Carbohydrates 30% Protein 30% Fat
Ketogenic Diet 5% Carbohydrates 25% Protein 70% Fat
An online macro diet calculator or meal planning app can also help guide you along the way, by giving you an easy place to log the foods you’re eating and to calculate how many macros are them. Here are a few popular macro diet apps to try:
MyFitnessPal automatically sets your macros at 50% carbs, 20% protein, and 30% fat.
Determining Your Ideal Carbohydrate Intake FIND THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE OF CARB INTAKE: NOT TOO LOW, NOT TOO HIGH
Confused about carbs? You’re not alone. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. The most important takeaway here is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Don’t feel like you need to put yourself in a low-carb or high-carb camp – you just need to do what works for you! There’s a huge spectrum of carbohydrate intake; it’s a matter of finding where you feel best on it. Carb is not a four-letter word! Excluding an entire nutrient not sustainable. Fact: if you overeat protein it will turn into fat. There are situations where Keto is fantastic, but as always, there is no one size fits all~
Take away: you don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to carbs. Most often, I consider grains a side dish rather than an entrée, but I still eat them every day. What is important is that you consistently choose unprocessed foods over their refined counterparts.
The amount of your daily calories that should come from carbs is often influenced by several different factors, like activity level, body composition, age, and existing medical conditions. There are many conditions that affect how your body deals with carbohydrates, so you need to take these into consideration when experimenting to determine how many carbohydrates you do well with. For example, If you have diabetes 2 or PCOS (high insulin levels) you’re likely going to feel better on a lower carbohydrate diet. If you have adrenal fatigue, you’ll probably feel better on a more moderate carbohydrate diet. Breastfeeding? Super athletic? You’ll definitely need some carbs.
If you are an overall healthy person (and exercise moderately), I suggest starting on a moderate carbohydrate diet and experimenting from there.
Experiment! (And Take Notes)
If your carbohydrate intake is too high It might trigger cravings for sweets. Too low, you’ll be tired and irritable. Track your meals and take notes along the way with how you’re feeling.
Count NET carbs. Net carbs = carbs – fiber
Essentially, the net carb theory is that certain carbs don’t need to be tallied as carbs for the day.
For example, there are 40 grams of carb in a cup of cooked quinoa and 5 grams of fiber.
40 grams total carbs – 5 grams fiber = 35 grams net carb. This cup of quinoa only has 35 grams of digestible, calorie-containing carbohydrate.
Calculating net carbs can be useful as it encourages the intake of high-quality food, namely fiber. As a general rule of thumb, foods in their natural state that are high in fiber are going to be amongst the best quality options compared to those with similar carbs and less fiber.
Fiber, insoluble fiber specifically, is essential for overall health and specifically gut health. A good goal for fiber: Women should aim for 30-40 grams of fiber per day, while men should target 40-50 grams.
Track your carbs if you’re a numbers person but make sure you are counting net carbs. Are you getting 30 to 40 grams of fiber? This is extremely important for weight loss and resetting estrogen, leptin, and insulin.
Equations that take into account your gender, height, weight, age, and activity level can give you a ballpark number, but don’t stop there—track your food and note how your weight responds
Now I want to hear from you. Have you found your ideal carbohydrate intake? 100-150g of net carbs every day. More? Less? What information on macronutrients are you interested in or confused about? ~Christina Wilson