This is probably BY FAR the most complicated, argued over topic in nutrition.
You should eat more to gain weight, and eat less to lose weight, right? But then what about the nutrition coaches like me that say: you need to eat MORE to lose weight?
And then what is your day to day food intake supposed to look like? Should you be low carb, low fat, low protein, vegan, keto, intermittent fasting, high carb, or maybe the carnivore diet? How are you supposed to “eat intuitively” if that intuition led you to being overweight? How are you supposed to track your macros when you don’t know what to set them to?
Holy cow. It’s no wonder so many people stop their diets just days or weeks after starting them. And it’s no wonder people struggle to maintain a healthy weight, because who knows the ground truth on what is actually right?
Well hopefully this article will help a little, if not a lot.
First, let’s start with your macros (macronutrients- also known as carbohydrates, protein, and fat).
In a balanced diet, without limiting any of these nutrients, our bodies like roughly 30-50% of our energy intake to come from carbohydrates, 15-30% from protein, and 10-30% from fats. I get there’s a whole lot of variation here- and that’s how it SHOULD be. We are NOT machines. Our bodies change SO much throughout our lives, even just day to day, and so should our intake.
What factors into to what we need? Things like age, gender, activity level, height, weight, pregnant vs not pregnant, and even our hormone cycles.
Our bodies use carbohydrates to fuel our bodies. We need at the minimum 50g per day. And yes, we can get by with less or even none for a period of time, but this is NOT typically sustainable or even considered healthy.
Our bodies use protein to build muscle, keep our immune system working properly, and a whole bunch of other processes. At the minimum we need about 10% of our daily intake to come from protein (0.8g per kg of body weight). If you are someone who is trying hard to build muscle on a daily basis, or someone fighting an illness you will most likely need a lot more than that (and you can safely consume up to 3g per kg of bodyweight).
Lastly, we need about 20% of our total calories to come from fat. Our bodies use fat to protect our organs, provide additional fuel when our carbs run low, help make hormones, and help us build healthy cells.
Thus far, I’ve been discussing percentages of our “total calories”, so the next question needs to be asked- how do we know total calories? And then, what about all the talk that calories don’t even matter??!!
Okay, lets unpack this. Calories are the most common method we have to communicate food intake needs. At the moment we don’t have a more exact system, and for things like hospitals and formulas for babies we need SOMETHING. A dietary calorie is “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories and often used to measure the energy value of foods” (www.dictionary.com).
Since the only way to truly estimate a human’s needs is through laboratory equipment and blood sampling, the next best thing is mathematical equations (like this one- the Harris-Benedict formula).
These equations take into account age, gender, height, weight, and activity level and provide us with baselines. This is how apps and websites create recommendations for increasing or decreasing your daily intake. The more data you can provide the better. If you are tracking your macros this is what we use to decide how much you need.
Now what happens when you meet a coach like me that tells you to eat more? How is that a thing? Your macro tracker has you at 1200 calories to lose weight, and I lose my shit when you tell me that. What gives?
We have a thing called our basal metabolic rate.
This is an estimate of how many calories you need just to exist (like making your heart pump and your brain work). Beyond just existing, we need more calories to do things like go to work and take a jog and live your busy life.
When you come to me and tell me you’re eating 1200 calories a day, you’re telling me that you’re consuming just enough to exist. This might be okay for a day but long term your metabolism slows down to conserve energy (homeostasis at it’s finest). Yet, here you are, hardly eating anything and with lots of body fat to still lose.
Without making this another article altogether, in the simplest form your body is doing what it’s designed to do from an evolutionary standpoint – it’s trying to protect itself. If you stayed at 1200 calories long enough you will eventually lose all the weight; along your muscle and you will with severely screw up your metabolism in the process.
But Shawna, you just said calories aren’t even that accurate. In this case it doesn’t matter- undereating is undereating, whether it’s 1200 calories or 1500.
Okay, now we’re back at square one. You still don’t know how much to eat, and now I’m telling you to not trust your diet trackers cause they put your calories too low. What. The. F*ck.
What’s the alternative? Don’t tell me its intuitive eating… I don’t trust myself and that’s what got me here in the first place.
WRONG. That’s NOT what got you here in the first place!
Here’s how you got here:
- Not eating all day then eating everything in sight as soon as you got home, including ordering Uber Eats
- Drinking beer and wine and fun cocktails most nights of the week
- • Starving yourself and being super strict all week then completely going buck wild on the weekends
- • Sleeping 5 hours a night and existing on coffee all day then eating crappy take out food for lunch and dinner
- • Inhaling your food in front of your phone, computer, and or TV
- • Not eating any fruits and or vegetables
- • Hardly drinking any water
- • Minimal to no exercise
And most of the time it’s a combination of the above.
Want to know why the vegan diet, MyFitnessPal, Keto, and all the other diet systems really work? Because they make people pay attention to what and how they’re eating and they make them cut out the bad habits that created their weight issues. You can’t binge on donuts if it doesn’t fit into your diet. Want to know why most people gain back the weight after they get off their diets? Cause they binge on donuts again.
So, how much should you be eating for your goals?
A little less than your eating now to lose weight, and a little more than your eating now to gain weight.
What does that look like?
• Two to five meals a day of a lean protein, a complex carbohydrate, and a vegetable.
• One to two snacks a day of fruits, veggies, lean protein, and maybe a small amount of fat.
Want it to be more exact? Precision Nutrition has a calculator and a whole guide individualized to you to show portion control.
I don’t support cutting out whole food groups because for most of the population it isn’t healthy nor is it sustainable. I support eating balanced meals, eating your veggies, and figuring out a system that works for you that is in line with ACTUAL human physiology. You have canines and you need B-12, you’re designed to eat animals. Women lose their menstrual cycles on keto- we are designed to use carbohydrates. We need fat in our diet to build healthy cells- going too low fat IS actually bad for you.
Beyond Balanced Meals, Eating as Fuel
So you already have great eating habits, and you’re an athlete that trains 4 hours a day?
Now I will give you macros. Why? Because they most likely have a solid foundation in place, they eat their veggies like good little kids, and I need to make sure they are getting more than enough to fuel their days.
I don’t have to worry about them binge drinking or gorging on pizza. If anything, I have to worry that they aren’t getting enough food. So we track to ensure that they have everything they need.
How do I figure that out? I use calculators I know are accurate, and I have the education to know about what my clients require.
If I referenced a calculator that put my 24-year-old competitive CrossFit athlete at 240g of protein and 100g of carbs a day and 2000 calories, I know that isn’t right. What WOULD I put this athlete at? Most likely a minimum of 3000 calories, with that being 40-50% carbs, 30-40% protein, and the rest in fat.
And if this is you, and you don’t have a nutrition coach, you can use these calculators to determine your needs:
How do you know if you’re not getting enough?
You are most likely undereating (most likely undereating in carbs and protein) if you are: not recovering between training sessions, having a hard time sleeping, and/ or are feeling fatigued in training.
Okay, so that’s it. Head HERE to see how to begin eating intuitively balanced snacks and meals throughout the day. Head HERE if you’re an athlete or an individual with healthy eating habits who needs to get their intake dialed in even more.
Then you’ll need to tinker with it. You’ll need to lose the mindset that there’s an exact amount of calories for your needs. And you’ll need to be patient with it. Despite the name, nutrition is NOT really a science – it’s more of an art. But that’s the cool part about it, we get to customize it to YOU.