How Much Should You Really Be Eating

How Much Should You Really Be Eating

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1

How Much Should You Really Be Eating?

The question seems almost too obvious to ask, as I sit down for a nutrition consultation with someone interested in coaching services. More often than not, this individual is meeting with me because they're looking to lose weight, or at least some body fat. At the very least, they understand that in order to do so, they need to do SOMETHING different with their diet.

"So, can you tell me how much you're eating now?" 

9 times out of 10, that question is met with hesitation, followed by some vague description like "Well, not sure exactly, but I eat pretty clean/healthy/well." Clean, healthy, and well huh? Not sure what you need me for then!

To be fair, many times I don't ask this question explicitly, because I already know what the answer is going to be. Most people have little idea what their caloric intake actually is, but they look in the mirror and tell themselves that whatever that amount is, it's too much. So off they go, charging into their new diet of eating "less". And sometimes, eating "less" works out pretty well! For a little while.

They start seeing the number on the scale go down, they might feel a little lighter (including in their head), and some of that stubborn bloat starts to decrease. Sure, they might feel a little tired in the afternoon, even sort of dizzy sometimes. And their workouts are hard to get through. And yea, they might have to white knuckle through their painful hunger between lunch and dinner, but the weight is dropping and they're doing it!

A couple months pass, and they're down 20lbs. They show off their more slender physique at the pool or the lake during the summer, and collect their shine from friends and family. Mission accomplished. Now finally, they can eat a bit again. This dieting thing has been hard to sustain, but it was worth it.

Cut to that winter, and it's déjà vu on the bathroom scale. After months of restriction followed by a loosening of the reins, that summer ‘bod’ is a thing of the past and they're back to square ONE (1). Unfortunately, what they don't realize is that now, they may actually be at square MINUS TWO (-2).

Pretty familiar sounding story, right? This is the vicious cycle of unplanned, flying blind, crash dieting that so many people find themselves caught up in for years at a time. So the question then becomes, how do we do this right?

The Energy Balance Equation is arguably THE most fundamental factor in weight management. Better known as calories in, calories out (C.I.C.O.), modifying body weight ultimately boils down to manipulating the amount of energy we consume vs. the amount of energy we expend. So eat less, move more right? 

If only the human body were quite that simple. For many, eating less and moving more is definitely appropriate. But how much less should they be eating, while keeping up with the physical energy demands of moving more? Burning the candle at both ends by severely restricting calories while simultaneously cranking up exercise intensity is an all too common pitfall for those looking to lose weight. If continued over an extended period, this practice will eventually lead to unfavorable metabolic shifts that could sabotage long-term weight loss success.

Thanks to an evolutionary adaptation mechanism designed to keep us alive during periods of food scarcity, prolonged undereating as compared to caloric expenditure triggers a sort of "calorie conservation mode" from the body. In the absence of adequate calories to fuel physical activity, the body will make certain metabolic shifts to become as efficient as possible at utilizing the limited energy it's receiving.

Ever had to "stretch" a paycheck, by downshifting your spending on certain items? Think of the dollar amount of that check like the calories you're consuming. If there isn't much coming in, we're going to try to hang on to as many of those dollars as we can, in order to make sure all our basic needs are covered. That's what the body begins to do with calories under conditions of prolonged caloric restriction. The problem is, if we're trying to lose weight we don't want our metabolism hoarding calories like a cheapskate, we want it out spending them freely!

Note we've emphasized this adaptation is the result of extended, severe caloric restriction. When properly planned and managed, the temporary, strategic restriction of a moderate amount of calories is precisely how we stimulate weight or fat loss. The process begins with estimating an individual's Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), or the total amount of calories they likely burn in a day based on factors like age, gender, body type, and current activity levels.

An individual's TDEE represents their "maintenance" calories, or the amount of calories they should consume to maintain their current weight. In order to stimulate weight loss or gain, we simply adjust up or down from this maintenance number. The key to sustained success over time is properly managing that caloric deficit or surplus, in terms of both quantity and duration.

So how much should you really be eating? If you're looking to lose weight, it's probably more than you think. The bad news is, the sustainable approach will take longer to see noticeable results. The good news is, once you put those "fat" pants away, they'll stay away.

If you’ve made it this far and are curious about how much YOU should be eating, we’ve created a whole program designed to answer questions just like this. If you’re interested in learning more about our programs, check out the link HERE for more information.