How much to eat?
This is one of the most popular nutrition questions. But before getting into specifics, It’s important to understand “how much” is measured.
Many times people will use things like volume (a full dinner plate) or feelings of fullness (“I’m stuffed”) to judge how much they eat (“a lot”).
However, that is not the proper way to measure food quantity to achieve weight, health, and fitness goals. Instead, the quantity of food needs to be measured in calories or macronutrients.
While calories are not the same thing as macronutrients, there is a mathematical relationship between the two such that you cannot have one without the other. They are inseparable.
“How much to eat” is a total number of calories that is divided among the three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat (where 1 gram of protein and carbohydrate equals 4 calories each, and 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories).
So how many calories should I eat per day?
Many people will Google “how many calories I should eat per day” to find a website where they plug in personal data like age, weight, and activity level that will then spit out a certain caloric target and macronutrient breakdown.
Should you go to more than one website or compare your online target to your latest wearable, you will learn every different app and wearable gives you a different target number. How frustrating, right?!
But that’s the problem with digital calorie calculators: they are all estimates! They have errors because they don’t know your unique genetics nor are they very good at estimating the calories burned in your body’s movement (even when it tracks your steps and workouts).
So the answer is to stop using digital calorie calculators and instead, use the more accurate and sustainable data right in front of you every day. “How much to eat?” can be answered by simply weighing and measuring what you are eating now. Take a period of at least a week, and without trying to change a thing, weigh and measure your current diet.
The key is you are not trying to be “good” or “clean up” your diet during this data collection period. You are trying to observe your diet as it is now. And if we get a true baseline, yes, you will have to change the calories to lose weight, but this is a more accurate and sustainable place to start.
Why is this better than using an online calculator?
The goal for many is not just to lose weight, but to keep it off indefinitely. It’s much easier to do the former versus the latter.
Due to the calculator’s inherent error, as well as people’s aggressive goal setting when using them, many people get caloric targets that are completely unrealistic for long-term weight loss. They get a number where they can in fact lose weight, but it’s too low of a number to live at for years to come.
Once you weigh and measure your intake for a week, you can then average the number of calories (and macros) consumed to determine your average daily intake. Then, take a small deficit from there (e.g., 10%) assuming you want weight loss, and that becomes the answer to “How many calories should I eat per day?”
Instead of working from an online estimate (read: guess), you are making a small change from where you are now. I’ve worked with many individuals in my Masterclass who learn they can eat 500 calories or more to achieve weight loss! This isn’t magic, it’s just that if you need 2,500 per day, you can lose weight at any number under that. And you would much rather lose weight at 2,000 calories per day instead of 1,200 (hello, sustainability!).
Many people get frustrated that this process of data collection means they don’t get an answer immediately. But if someone is not interested in taking a week to find a more accurate and sustainable weight loss target, they aren’t particularly interested in knowing the answer to “how much to eat?” Weight loss requires comittment and patience far beyond a week.
But, “how much food should I eat per meal?”
Now that you have a caloric target to hit for the day, many people want to know how to break this down into meals. The good news is: it doesn’t really matter. My Principle 3 as discussed in depth in my Masterclass explains this: timing only matters to the extent it affects quantity.
Said another way: hit the total right amount of food across the entire day and you do not have to worry about “how much food should I eat per meal?”
Of course, this can be incorrectly taken to some really wacky extremes, like eating once per day and then complaining you feel bloated or not having as much energy to workout when it falls 18 hours after your last meal. But most people taking a “natural” approach to the day, meaning a few meals and/or snacks, don’t need to put any restrictions around timing above and beyond existing schedule logistics and preferences. They just need to consume the right total quantity is achieved across the day.
“I’m eating 1200 calories and not losing weight”
One of the frustrations with weighing and measuring food is that at the end of this time-consuming process, some will find their caloric intake is rather low, yet they don’t see any progress on the scale.
This podcast episode (listen, above!) goes into more detail about understanding the prevalence of underreporting, if you are in starvation mode, and how to determine if you’ve calculated the right number of calories from this process.
(If you choose to open this podcast in another player, like Apple or Spotify, scroll back to September 2021 for the episode!)
Do you want help determining how much to eat?
One of the problems with people weighing and measuring their food on their own is that in attempts to be “good” and/or rush the weight loss process – they inevitably over restrict when counting calories. Again, this leads to a number where you may in fact drive weight loss, but it likely won’t be sustainable.
Before trying to cut calories it’s best to be sure you are fueled and satiated (ahem, eating enough fruits & veggies and protein), as well as taking a true period of observation. Then and only then are you ready to reduce the calories.
(There is a version for those who are already or want to be coaches – see here.)