The Hierarchy for Dietary Success - Part 1: Calories

In 2011, Michelle Obama along with the USDA spearheaded a campaign to update the nation's outdated dietary guidelines.  It marked the end of the good old 1992 Food Pyramid.  In its place came the friendlier, kinder, more 21st century MyPlate.  It was advertised as revolutionary, the antidote to American obesity.  Four years later, American obesity continues to climb!  While MyPlate is a step in the right direction, it still has a lot of limitations.

The USDA praises MyPlate as being simple.  So simple that you merely need to take a look at one diagram to know exactly what to eat for every single meal, for the rest of your life.  Eat a little bit of fruits, grains, vegetables, protein, and dairy and you will be good to go.  And that's it!  So simple, right?  Nope.  One of the many issues with MyPlate is that it does not mention the importance of portion control and calories.  I don't have to tell you what will happen, if you follow the diagram rules, but consume 5,000 calories.

What's more, MyPlate does not educate the public about nutritional facts, macronutrients, and micronutrients.  You can follow the MyPlate guidelines by having a lunch that consists of three sausages, deep-fried vegetables, an ice cream and fruit smoothie, and a whole grain muffin. Obviously, I am exaggerating, but you get the point. 

What to Do?

After significant thought, I decided to create this nutritional blog series to get some things straight and possibly even help you look at what you eat a bit differently.  Every house needs a foundation, so see this as your nutritional crash course to understand the basics of nutrition. After that, I will let you know how to use these components in your busy everyday life to get to your fitness goals. 

What if I told you that by the end of this series you will not only be smarter, but you will also be able eat delicious things and still accomplish your goals?  I know, I know, it sounds too good to be true. In fact, it sounds like an informercial.  But, I promise it's true!  

So lets get to it!  Time to build that foundation!

When it comes to diet, what is important?  There are 5 main variables that influence your dietary success.  They are shown in the graph below created by Eric Helms.

                                                                       Photo Credit: Eric Helms

                                                                       Photo Credit: Eric Helms

The component that has the largest influence when it comes to weight gain or weight loss are calories in versus calories out.  Calorie balance is by far the most important variable that can make you or break you.  Why?  Well, regardless of all the other factors, if you eat more calories than your body uses in a day, then you will gain weight and if you eat less calories than your body uses, then you will lose weight.  Simple math.

Now, to successfully maintain, gain, or lose weight, you need to know how many calories you are consuming on a daily basis.  However, how many people do you know that actually have an idea of how many calories they consume in a day?  The truth is that very few people track their calories.  

HOw to figure out your maintenance calories?

So before we move forward, what exactly is a calorie?  Without getting overly scientific, it is a way to measure energy.

Well then, what would be your maintenance calories?  It would be the approximate amount of energy that you need to maintain your weight.  This is important to know, because if you want to lose weight, then you need to consume fewer calories than maintenance, and if you want to gain weight, then you need to consume more.  

How do you figure out your magical number?  Put your thinking caps on, we'll be crunching numbers!  Actually, it's just a simple formula and some basic arithmetic.  Noting that a 5th grader can't do!

                                                                         Photo Credit: Wiki Logos 

                                                                         Photo Credit: Wiki Logos 

So without further ado, the simple formula is Bodyweight X 12-16 Calories/per lb of bodyweight. Obviously, like everything, this is just an approximation.  Now this formula assumes that you are a healthy, active adult with no medical issues.

How do you choose your multiplier?  

1. Women: Use your bodyweight multiplied by 12 to 14 calories/per lb of bodyweight.  If you tend to have a slower metabolism, then start at 12.  If you tend to have a faster metabolism, then start at 14.

2. Men: Use your bodyweight multiplied by 14 to 16 calories/per lb of bodyweight.  If you tend to gain weight easily, then start at 14.  If you tend to struggle with weight gain, then start at 16.

I know some of you out there, who are slightly more experienced than this are probably screaming at the computer monitor, but what about all the other variables like lean body mass, resting energy expenditure, thermic effect of food, and activity levels.  To be honest, for most busy office professionals this won't make a huge difference.

Now that you have have your number, what is the next step?    Well, time to figure out how many calories you are actually eating per day.  I have two recommendations. The first is the easier of the two, but both don't require a ton of time.  This is especially important for all of you busy professionals.  As my girlfriend always says, "ain't nobody got time for that."

how many calories are you actually eating?

Option 1:  

Step 1 - Eat normally and exercise normally.  This is not the time to go on a crash diet, change your eating habits, or start a grueling exercise program.  Just do you.

Step 2 - Weigh yourself tomorrow morning.  Write down the number.  For the next two weeks, you are going to weigh yourself every other day in the morning after going to the bathroom, but before drinking or eating anything.

Step 3 - After two weeks, look at your weight trend.  Have you stayed within +/- 1.5lbs of your initial weight, then you are eating at your maintenance calories.   If you have gained or lost more than that amount, then you are eating either above or below your maintenance.  

Step 4 - Download an app like MyFitnessPal on your phone.  Track your food intake for 3 days. No need to buy a food scale.  In fact, if you eat at many well known food joints, you can search the dish on MyFitnessPal.  If not, just log things in like one medium potato or one medium chicken.  Use your judgement.  By the end of the three days, you will now exactly how many calories you are consuming per day.

Step 5 - Compare the three day average with formula number.  How did it compare?  If you gained or lost weight, then scroll below to the next section.

Option 2:

Some of the steps will be the same as above:

Step 1 -  Eat normally and exercise normally.  This is not the time to go on a crash diet, change your eating habits, or start a grueling exercise program.  Just do you.

Step 2 - Weigh yourself tomorrow morning.  Write down the number.  For the next two weeks, you are going to weigh yourself every other day in the morning after going to the bathroom, but before drinking or eating anything.

Step 3 - Download an app like MyFitnessPal on your phone.  Track your food intake for the next 2 weeks.  Before you tell me that it's too much work, it will take no more than 5 minutes per day at maximum.  Simply log the food right after you finish eating.  As mentioned above, you don't need a food scale to do this.  

Step 4 - At the end of the two weeks, did your weight increase, decrease, or stay relatively (+/- 1.5lbs) of your initial weight?  How did it compare to your formula calculation?  If it stayed relatively the same, now you have an accurate maintenance number. Congrats!  If your weight dropped or increased, then read below.

HOW to manipulate your caloric intake based on your goal?

1. Weight Loss - If your bodyweight stayed the same in the experiment above, then simply reduce your caloric intake by 250 calories for weight loss.  If you gained weight, then decrease your caloric intake by 250 calories.  Monitor your weight for the next two weeks.  If it doesn't decrease, then decrease by another 250 calories.  If you lost weight during the experiment, then continue to eat at that caloric intake.  If your weight loss stalls, then decrease in increments of 100 calories.

2. Muscle Gain - If your bodyweight stayed the same in the experiment above, then increase calories by 250 calories, if you are looking to put on some muscle.  Track your weight.  You should aim to gain .5 to 1lb every 2 weeks to minimize fat gain.  If you stall, then add another 250 calories.  If you gained weight, then awesome.  Continue to eat at that caloric intake aiming to gain .5 to 1lb every 2 weeks.  If you lost weight, then increase calories by 500.  Track your weight for two weeks. If it doesn't increase, then add an additional 250 calories.

I can't stress this enough, but moderation is key, when it comes to manipulating caloric intake for your goal.  Increasing or decreasing your calories in large amounts in the hopes of gaining weight or losing weight faster will be counter-productive in the long run.  Adjust, monitor, and adjust.

I'm sure some of you will be horrified by the idea of tracking your calories for the rest of your lives. Worry not!  After a short period of time, you will get to know your body and you will be able to subconsciously control how much you eat for your respective goal.  However, if you like tracking, then you can also continue!

Hope this helps!  Next Thursday, we will discuss macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats) and their role within a diet.  Also, how to breakdown macronutrients to fit your calories and your goals.

If you have any questions at all, feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me a message on my contact page.  I will make sure to get back to you in a timely fashion.