As trainers, one of the most common questions we are asked is "How many calories should I eat everyday?"
There are two ways to determine the answer to that question. Unfortunately, neither of them involves simply plugging your height and weight into a formula and coming up with a magic number of calories which, if you stick to, will change your weight in either direction.
One way to determine your caloric needs is to have a metabolic test performed. Such a test can tell you exactly how many calories your body burns at rest. The tester then uses your daily amount and intensity of activity level to determine exactly how many calories your body needs everyday. This method of determining your caloric needs and prescribing a specific daily intake is very accurate and helpful, especially if you don’t mind carefully counting your calories.
The other way to determine your caloric needs is much simpler, less costly, and involves little more than common sense. Weigh yourself regularly and consistently. Are you gaining weight? You probably need fewer calories than you are getting. Are you losing weight? You probably need more calories than you are getting. Is your weight staying the same? You are most likely taking in the approximate amount of calories that you expend daily.
Of course, the quality of calories that you take in is important as well, but is not the topic of discussion today.
Once I answer the question, "How many calories should I eat everyday?" with the response I’ve outlined above, I often then hear, "Well can you just give me a plan to follow for a week or two, just to get me on a weight-loss jump-start?"
To a trainer’s ears, that may be interpreted as, "Can’t you just give me a short-term diet to follow to get off a few pesky pounds?"
I’m sure I could make a lot of money developing a diet for clients – a meal plan to follow for just a few weeks - that would decrease their caloric intake and result in a few pounds lost. However, eventually the diet would end, the old habits would resume, and chances are that not only would the lost weight return, but a few extra pounds along with it. I’ve seen it over and over again.
The truth is, "diets" just don’t work. Call it what you will – fat-free, sugar-free, carbohydrate-free, liquids only, high protein, low-carb, etc. – ever since the 1860’s, we’ve been inundated with ways to cut calories and lose weight.
So why is it that diets don’t work? Why is it that, despite the flood of diet-related products, low-calorie foods, quick fixes and fads, that as a nation we are experiencing record numbers of obesity in both adults and children?
Going on a diet gives us instant results and can satisfy our need for instant gratification. But research has shown that the slower one loses weight, the longer that weight stays off. Losing weight rapidly is almost always a guarantee that you’ll see it again, and probably more of it. When your body experiences a shortage in its energy supplies, that sends an emergency signal to your system, and your metabolism slows down to hold on to those diminishing energy sources. Then the diet ends and caloric intake returns to pre-diet levels, while the lowered metabolism continues to plug along burning calories slower than ever.
Yo-yo dieting – taking weight off and putting it back on over and over – has been shown to lead to increased risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. A slow decrease in weight that can be maintained for years is certainly more desirable. But most diets are not something that we can live with for years. Most diets require us to cut out something we crave or greatly enjoy. Successful weight loss has to be the result of something you can live with for the rest of your life, and the most effective way to make this sort of change is to do so little by little. For example, instead of having a foot-long sub sandwich with deli roast beef, ham, provolone, mayo, and oil & vinegar, try switching to a turkey pita, with mustard instead of mayonnaise, and stuffed with veggies (like the same veggies on your sub). Such changes may be minor and insignificant, but they are changes that add up, and that can be lived with.
Why do we have the need for dieting, anyway? The lack of activity we exhibit is greatly to blame. Not to mention our horrendous eating habits. As a nation, we often eat because of external cues – social settings, there’s still more on the plate, the television show is still on, the drive-through is convenient and inexpensive. So we eat. Other societies - and those of us who maintain a reasonable weight - seem to pay attention to internal cues instead. They eat simply because they are hungry, and stop eating when they are full. Try eating a small amount, then waiting twenty minutes or so before deciding to go back for more. Chances are you’ll realize you are no longer hungry anyway, as your brain has had time to receive the cues from your digestive system that you don’t need anymore food.
Yes, these changes are small but difficult. However, they are not as difficult as depriving yourself for weeks at a time. But the efforts eventually pay off, and the gains - in the form of losses – can be great for life.
Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, on Sullivan’s Island. A Daniel Island resident, Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 883-0101, or Meredith@primetimefit.net.