You’ve heard me say, quite a few times, that you should eat “adequate calories” to meet your fueling needs. I’m NOT suggesting that you start counting calories. Quite the opposite. In the same way that our car runs on gas, we get our energy from food. Look up the word “calories” in the dictionary, you’ll discover that calories are simply a measurement of that energy. So, to maximize your energy, some people find it helpful to have an idea of how many calories they need in a day.
When we don’t eat enough calories – think of that last time a meeting ran through lunch – you get hungry, weak, irritable, and concentration goes down. You would think that if we overeat, we’d feel more energized (since calories are a measurement of energy). But, of course, the opposite happens. We feel sluggish.
I think it’s helpful to think of your calorie needs in the same way as a financial budget. Do you ever look at the price tag before you buy something? Even if you don’t look at the grocery store, I’m guessing there are still some price tags you look at – such as a car or house. Why do you look at the price tag? Because it’s one way to evaluate if the product is “worth it.” So, having some idea of our calorie needs helps us to evaluate what and how to eat…for maximal energy, productivity, and fun! For example, I’m not going to “spend” 1000 calories on a cinnamon roll…but I will spend the same amount on a great piece of New York style cheesecake.
What’s the Most Accurate Way to Find Out How Many Calories You Need?
If you want to accurately know how many calories you need in a day, you’d need to check yourself into a research laboratory for the day – or longer. And, then, even if you knew how many calories you burned on that particular day, realize that no other day will ever be the same. Because we never sleep, exercise, move, and fidget exactly the same every day.
That’s why most people search, instead, for a formula to get an ESTIMATE of how many calories they need in a day. The formulas, readily available on the internet or in an app use information including your age, height, weight, and activity level. But none of them are accurate because there are so many other variables that factor into our calorie needs. Like how much muscle mass do you have? Are you a fidgeter? And even if you exercise an hour a day..what are you doing the other 23 hours? Genetics plays a role, too.
The formula I like the best is Mifflin-St. Jeor’s. It’s been tested with a large number of participants and found to be the most accurate compared to laboratory evaluations. That said, it’s still off – and sometimes can be as much as 80% off. So, if you calculate this number, remember it’s still just an estimate. It could still be way off of your actual calorie needs.
Is There a Better Way to Know How Many Calories to Eat?
The best way to find out how much food your body needs is to…wait for it…actually listen to your body. Just like we did when we were young kids. Unfortunately, so many of us have gotten away from listening to our bodies that we can no longer hear our body speak to us. But, we can get this ability back. I promise.
The benefit of listening to our body’s hunger signals is that we SHOULD be eating differently from day to day. There are plenty of people who maintain their ideal weight by eating a set number of calories. BUT, their actual needs vary from day to day. So, for proper fueling – and optimal energy, they should NOT be eating the same amount every day.
In fact, there was this study done comparing women who felt hypoglycemic (shaky, dizzy) versus those who did not. The researchers found that the women feeling hypoglycemic were those that were rigid about their eating…eating the same thing regardless of their activity that day. Not good. It’s important to match your calorie intake with your actually fueling needs. And, that number is not going to come from a formula.
How to Match Your Calorie Intake with Your Needs
It’s a good idea to eat when you’re hungry. Some people don’t actually feel this hunger sensation in their stomach, but perhaps notice hunger as feeling weak or dizzy…or irritable or grumpy. Here are a few more tips to help you.
- Always eat breakfast. After a nighttime fast, it’s important to start fueling the body again. People who eat breakfast tend to be leaner, healthier. Not hungry? I hear this all the time – and there are a lot of explanations. Think back to a time when you were hungry, but didn’t have access to food. What happened as time went on? You got hungrier and hungrier…and then the hunger went away! So, maybe when you wake up and you’re not hungry, it might be because your body is overly hungry. Keep in mind that caffeine can cut hunger signs, too. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s way healthier to fuel the body early in the day – rather than consuming all those calories late in the evening.
- When you eat, stop when you feel satisfied (and the hunger goes away)…not full. You always want to eat with the intention of feeling better, more energized, after eating. Overeating makes us feel sluggish afterwards. So, eat slowly so you can stop when the hunger goes away. Realize that it takes fifteen minutes for your brain to feel this fullness.
- Stay in the moment while eating. Have you ever sat down to a bag of chips, popcorn, or cookies while watching a movie. Then, found yourself hitting the bottom of the empty bag? That’s mindless eating. When we mindlessly eat, we don’t get the satisfaction, so we still feel hungry. So, give yourself permission to actually enjoy the food – you’ll actually eat less.
- Don’t wait until you’re too hungry. Chances are you’ll overeat. That’s why I always say to eat on a “regular basis”. It doesn’t have to be like clock-work…at the same time every day. But, it helps to make time in your busy day to eat three solid meals a day. Not snacks on-the-go, but three times that you actually sit at a table and focus on your food.
- Don’t wait until you get shaky. So often I hear people say that they eat when they feel shaky. Unfortunately, that’s way too late. Shakiness comes after hunger starts. That means you’re now overly hungry – and you’re probably going to overeat. That shaky feeling is coming from the hormone, adrenaline. This is released when you’ve ignored your hunger for too long and your blood sugar has dropped. Adrenaline and cortisol respond to this “stress” and help to bring back up your blood glucose. So, your body brings it up…AND prompts you to eat. So, more likely to bring blood glucose way up…and then way down. Not a good feeling.
When you follow these simple rules, you’ll naturally eat what your body needs for fueling…without overeating.