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How many calories do I need?

When people find out I am a registered dietitian with degrees in nutrition, they often ask me “How many calories do I need?” For years, I struggled to find a good answer. “It depends” seems evasive. A generic response such as “between 1600 and 2400 calories for women, 2000 to 3000 for men” is well, generic, and probably not that helpful. Now, after dealing with the demons of burnout and exhaustion and bewildering health problems in my own life, I’m more likely to answer “Why?”

Talk about your motivations for health.

I think that’s a good response. Why do you want to attach to an absolute number for a diet, a cleanse, or a twenty-five or thirty-two or fifteen-day challenge? Did having a number to shoot for work for you in the past? For how long did it work? What happened after you gave up on that number? The reality is that most of us do give up on rigid, restrictive regimes, even if we adopt them with the best of intentions and the firmest of goals.

In my opinion, after years as a credentialed health care professional, diets don’t work. What works is modifying your environment and adopting daily habits that make the healthy, wholesome choice the easiest choice. Any other approach is likely a short term intervention that adds stress and complexity to your already busy life. You may get results for a while. They probably won’t last.

Healthy Habits

I can’t advise how many calories you need without doing a personalized assessment of your medical history, physical activity, and lifestyle and goals. However I can tell you simple steps that are likely to improve your health, increase your vigor and enthusiasm, and even help you enjoy life more. How does that sound? Do you want that? Effective healthy habits include things like:

  • Drink more water and unsweetened tea and coffee, and less sweet and artificially sweetened beverages.
  • Eat five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Consume them in a natural, unprocessed form, either whole or cooked simply, not fried or as juices or blended beverages.

Eat more fruits and vegetables.

  • Sleep for seven or eight hours every night.
  • Move your body in physical activity three to five times a week. Aim for the goal of 150 minutes of exercise a week, but if you’re just starting out, even ten minutes a day is great. It is never too late to start. During a study of fourteen years, adults who didn’t start exercising until middle age were thirty-five percent less likely to die than those who remained inactive. http://bit.ly/2XMHLkB
  • Eat fewer processed packaged foods, sugary sweet desserts and snacks.
  • Eat more nuts, beans, and dark green and deep orange leafy vegetables.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Deepen your connections with other people, and join groups where you share a meaningful purpose.

Simplify

These are simple suggestions, and I expect you have already heard them. In our time of ready information, the roadblock may not be knowing what to do. The challenge is figuring out how to do it consistently. That’s the focus of my work at http://deborahrankinrd.com It’s what I learned as I recovered from gut-wrenching grief, the depression of unemployment, chronic vertigo, and high blood pressure. Small changes, practiced every day and week until they became so routine I no longer thought about them, delivered big boosts to my health and happiness.

Build automatic habits that don't require a conscious decision.

Exceptions

Now that I’ve confessed that I don’t like the question “How many calories do I need?”,  there are exceptions. Here are a few I’ve encountered:

  • If you have been diagnosed with diabetes and require insulin or other medications to keep your blood sugar stable, a specific calorie intake and consistent meal pattern can be helpful. Even so, consult with your dietitian, nurse, or physician to learn how to adjust for variations in your activity.
  • If you are an endurance athlete with training or events that last longer than ninety minutes a day, specific calorie and carbohydrate intake can help fuel your workouts and support your body’s needs.
  • If you have an infant or young child diagnosed with failure to thrive, a certain calorie intake is often prescribed to make sure there’s enough nutrition for growth and weight gain.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women find it helpful to know how much they need to eat to nurture the growth of their baby and produce adequate milk.

De-stress

Your reason for a new behavior matters. If your motivation is an external validation, such dieting or exercising to lose a certain number of pounds, or look so another person finds you attractive, your chance of lasting success can be low. While those external motivations may motivate for a while, they also add more stress. That is not good for your health.

Exercise because it releases stress and gives you a calm, relaxed feeling. Instead of worrying about “How many calories do I need?”, enjoy eating whole grains, nuts, unprocessed fruits and vegetables because you have fewer headaches, feel calmer, or have more consistent energy throughout the day. These are internal motivations.

I love bicycling even though I don’t ride particularly fast, nor do I log many long rides. It is fun, and reminds me of childhood play. I always feel great afterward!

I enjoy biking even though I'm neither fast nor ride long distances.

For many years I loved sweets—cake, cookies, and candy. I ate them everyday, and did not think I could give them up. When I got chronic vertigo I noticed that the sugar “high” I got after eating sweets was followed by a slump in my energy and mood. That made my dizziness worse. Then, when my dizziness got bad, I was more likely to end up in the bathroom with my head in the toilet, throwing up. That was a strong internal motivation! Suddenly I found it easy to cut those sweet foods out of my diet.

What’s Your Why?

Release the stress of trying to be healthy because you feel pressure to hit a number on a scale, or range on a laboratory test. Instead of obsessing over “How many calories do I need?,” tap into how you feel. You’ll find it much easier to make meaningful changes. I’ve made a guide to help you drill down to your deep motivations. It’s called “What’s Your Why?” You can get it by signing up here.

Remember: "People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures."

2 thoughts on “How many calories do I need?”

  1. My ‘why’: watch the 2015 documentary on Youtube called, “The Sugar Film”. Data and science have effectively been used to misrepresent good nutrition. Try eating no sugar, corn syrup, honey, splenda, nutrasweet, high fructose corn syrup on a daily basis. To not eat cake, cookies, brownies and ice cream is simple. A home cooked hamburger: bun with 4g sugar, ketchup with 7 g sugar, etc. Instead, use no sugar added salsa. Lettuce leaves instead of buns?

    The Sugar Film is an apolitical example of data fraud and shows how a concerted effort by government, doctors, sellers of sugar can get together over a period of time to influence education and pretty much all aspects of our so called ‘health’.

    1. Hi John, It’s good to hear from you! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I have not watched that documentary, and I will definitely make a note. I think it’s important for all of us to start where we are, and make gradual improvements we can sustain. For many people, including me at one time, not eating cake, cookies, brownies, ice cream, doughnuts is not simple. It’s a big deal! I celebrate with anyone who makes a meaningful change! Hurrah! And then we can drill down to other items. I think about 39 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce can of soda, or 34 in a 20 ounce bottle of Gatorade, and start there. Salsa is a great alternative to ketchup on a hamburger, I love it! (But I actually use jalapenos!) I can buy ketchup with 4g sugar per Tablespoon, and if I squirt about a teaspoon on a sandwich that brings it to a gram or less of sugar.

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