The BIG question everyone seems to ask when they want to lose weight is: how many calories should I eat?
And depending on who you ask, the answer will vary. Some people advise those seeking to lose weight not to count calories at all. Others state some generic number, like 1200 or 1500 a day. And then there are those who say some ridiculous amount, like 1000 calories a day—whatever you do, DON’T take this advice.
If you are really opposed to counting calories, I suggest you look elsewhere to figure out how to make this work. I’m not saying it can’t work—I know people who take this route—but I personally count calories when I am trying to lose a set amount of weight or reach a specific goal. As I approach my Hawaiian vacation, I am definitely tracking my food. If I’m at a comfortable fitness level and am consistently active, then I don’t count.
Carefully counting calories, for me, leads to successful results. But there are several things to consider when taking this approach. Let’s take a look at those now.
Make sure to eat ENOUGH calories.
1. Don’t eat too few calories. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard/read something along these lines: “Aren’t you supposed to eat 1000 calories a day to lose weight?” Where on earth did this ‘magic number’ come from? 1000 calories, ladies, is NOT enough. Everyone’s number is going to be different. I highly recommend the Scooby’s Workshop Calculator for determining how many calories you need in your diet. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you can eat every day and still reach your goals. Do this the healthy, sustainable way for long-term results, okay?
2. Eat nutrient-dense foods. Now that you know you can eat more than 1000 calories a day—YAY!—don’t make the mistake of thinking you can eat all kinds of junk. Sure, that 250-calorie chocolate bar may fit into your daily calorie allotment, but it will not do anything to keep you full or nourish your body; plus, it will spike your blood sugar and likely lead to further sugar cravings. Make sure you’re eating a good balance of complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats (P.S., don’t fear fats). You’d be surprised how full you can feel while dieting if you eat right!
3. Take cheat meals into consideration. So, you know how I just said not to fill your days with junk food? Well, that still stands -BUT- that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge every now and again. Having a treat or ‘cheat meal’ every so often can help you maintain your diet. It’s nice to not feel completely deprived of your favorite foods. That being said, don’t go overboard and undo all your hard work. If you hate math, I’m sorry, but I’m going to show you with numbers how I account for cheat meals.
Who else loves these? YUM!
Think about your weekly calorie intake as opposed to daily. If I need to eat 1,750 calories a day to lose 1 pound a week (which I do), that’s a total of 12,250 calories per week. Now, give yourself a set amount of calories you can dedicate each week to a cheat day (or two, however you like to break it up). For me, I’ll say twice a week I can eat an ‘additional’ 400 calories. Note: these aren’t actually added calories, we are just shifting the week’s calories around. You’ll see what I mean below.
Every Sunday morning, I eat pancakes—my cheat meal. And say I have another cheat meal each week—like pizza (I try to make it a somewhat healthy version, though 😉 ). Take your weekly total (12,250 in my case) and deduct all of your ‘cheat day’ calories (for me, 800). In my example, I’m left with 11,450. Now divide that by 7 (days of the week, obviously), for a total of about 1,635. On a typical day, then, I would eat 1,635 calories. If I have two cheat days a week, I would eat 2,035 calories on those days; if I have one cheat day, I would eat 2,435 calories that day. At the end of the week, I’ve ‘cheated,’ but I am still hitting my weekly calorie goal of 12,250.
This is the key to making cheat meals work. If I ate 1,750 calories a day all week, then ate 3,000+ calories on a cheat day, my total calories consumed for the week equals 13,500! I’d still be in a slight calorie deficit, but I would be drastically slowing my progress. I would lose less than a half a pound a week—and would probably become discouraged. See how only a few more calories consumed on a cheat day could cause a weight loss plateau? This is a common mistake and frustration for dieters who think: “but I’ve been good ALL week long!”
Indulge, but work those indulgences into your weekly goals. One last warning: don’t make your cheat day calories so high that you drastically cut into your typical days’ calories. You need enough calories EVERY day to keep your energy levels up and feel satisfied.
I promise, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Basically, make sure your daily calories always add up to your weekly calorie goals. Math lesson over.
4. Measure and log everything. In the beginning, at least. It’s just way too easy to overestimate or underestimate portions and serving sizes. The difference between 2 tablespoons and 4 tablespoons of peanut butter is 200 calories—think about that. If you eat PB every morning and use more than you think you are, you could unknowingly be adding 1,400 calories to your intake each week. Measuring works. Also, don’t forget to track that handful of almonds you just ate; one forgotten serving is 160 calories. These things add up! This is often why people think their diet is not working when they are “doing everything right.”
5. Re-evaluate and adjust regularly. As you lose weight and/or change your activity level, you will need to recalculate your calorie needs. Scooby’s Workshop, mentioned above, suggests recalculating your needs every time you lose more than 5 pounds. When I started, I was 159 pounds and started losing at about 1,850 calories a day. Then I moved to 1,800 calories/day at 150 pounds. Currently, at 138 pounds, I’m eating 1,750 calories each day, as I mentioned above. Use Scooby’s calculator, though—there are many individual variables to take into consideration (i.e., age, activity level, goals, etc.).
6. Add more activities, add more calories. Want to eat more? Work out more. Simple as that. Obviously, choosing nutrient-dense foods over fatty, sugary foods, as stated above, will allow you to eat more food each day (think a big platter of chicken and veggies as compared to a puny Milky Way). But if you’re looking to eat even more, up your activity level. Calories in versus calories out. I like food, so I’m happy to sweat for it.
7. Don’t get obsessive. Okay, now to seemingly contradict everything I’ve just said. Don’t let this completely take over your life. Yes, you want to lose weight and yes, being vigilant of what you eat and how much you consume will help you reach your goals. But as I’ve said before, your overall goal is to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the long haul. So one week you ate birthday cake, and had happy hour drinks with friends, and, and, and… Oh well. It’s one week out of 52 a year. Events happen, overindulgences happen, life happens. It’s okay! Enjoy the good times and the good food, and get back on track. Don’t let these moments derail you—in the big picture, that’s all they are: moments.
I hope you found this information helpful rather than overwhelming. Like I said, don’t let your entire life revolve around the numbers. After you’ve lost some initial weight and get a sense for what to eat and how much, try experimenting with not counting your calories. Carefully tracking every morsel of food is probably not sustainable in the long run, but can be a great way to get the ball rolling and see some initial success.
Right now, as I count down to Maui, I’m being pretty vigilant so that I can lose fat in a fairly calculated way. I’ve lost an inch from my waist and a half an inch from my hips since I last provided my measurements! So it is definitely working 🙂
Do you count your calories? Are cheat meals/days part of your weight loss plan? Why or why not? I welcome opposing views, but please keep it respectful!