Some time ago a co-worker mentioned that she had just started on an exercise program and was told to limit her intake to 1300 calories per day. People immediately started reacting: 1,300 calories?!?! That's too low! That's not enough! You're starving yourself!
I wonder if we've gotten so used to seeing "2,000 calories/day" on food labels that we think that it's the standard for everyone. But it really all depends on a number of things: your height, your current weight, your target weight, age, gender, activity levels....they all help determine your target intake. Elite athletes may need 4,000 to 8,000 calories a day to perform at their best and maintain muscle mass depending on their training load, while Juan de la Cruz, your typical 5'4'' male Filipino in his forties, at 140 lbs with little to no exercise may need just a little over 1,700 calories to maintain his weight.
I had never met my co-worker in person, so I had no clue if she was petite or 6 feet tall. Nor did I know anything about her exercise program. 1,300 may or may not have been the right number for her.
So...how much SHOULD you eat?
No matter what you have heard or read, it's never as simple as "calories in vs. calories out." Simply consuming less calories and exercising more will not always lead to weight loss. There are so many other factors at play.
It's tricky to answer this question. Regardless, there are a couple of approaches we can take:
First, the mathematical approach. Follow the steps below:
1. Get your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
BMR is the number of calories your body needs to sustain day-to-day functions assuming you are completely at rest. There are several calculators available online to help you calculate this. Our Juan de la Cruz as described earlier would have a BMR of 1,454 calories/day.
2. Calculate your daily calorie needs by factoring in your daily activity. Depending on your activity level, multiply your BMR by the corresponding factor below. This is based on the Harris-Benedict Equation.
Sedentary (little to no exercise)
Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week)
Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week)
Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/week)
Extra active (very hard exercise/sports or physical job)
So if Juan gets little to no exercise, then his daily calorie needs would be 1,464 x 1.2 = 1,757.
The result you get from following these two steps is the number of calories you need to stay at your current weight. Now if you wanted to lose weight, say, at a reasonable pace of 1 pound a week, then you would have to reduce your intake by 3500 calories per week or 500 calories per day (because 1 pound = 3,500 calories).
But what does 1,757 calories (or whatever number you come up with) even look like? Some calorie counting may be needed for you to have an idea how much you're consuming on a daily basis. Apps like MyFitnessPal and several websites can help you estimate your intake, and yes it's a tedious process, but useful to do even just for a few days especially if you want to establish baselines.
The second approach requires mindfulness and self-control. It's about eating only when hungry, and only until no longer hungry. Sounds confusing? Let's break that down:
1. Eat only when hungry. As Filipinos, we were raised to have breakfast, merienda, lunch, merienda-cena and dinner. And if we stayed up a little too late, then maybe there'd be after-dinner snacks too. And a lot of the time, we'll eat just because there's food on the table, or because it's offered to us, and not because we're actually hungry.
So the first task here is to be able to determine what HUNGER feels like. And you have to be able to differentiate it from cravings, or just boredom.
One way to do that is to delay your next meal (or snacks. Try to go for as long as you can before hunger pangs strike. If water won't stave them off, then that's probably the real deal. Actual hunger. Take note of that sensation and get to know it.
Many people surprise themselves when they go through this exercise and find that they don't actually need their morning or afternoon snacks.
2. Eat only until no longer hungry.
For a lot of us Filipinos, we eat until we're absolutely stuffed. We always ask each other during meals, "Busog ka na ba? (Are you full?)" And if the answer is no, then that's unacceptable, and you're expected to keep going until you hit your absolute limit (and maybe more).
I had written before about the Japanese practice of hara hachi bu or "eating until you're 80% full". To do this, you need to have smaller serving sizes, and take your time eating. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal the brain that it's full, so savor and enjoy your food instead of gulping it down in a hurry. Before reaching for another helping, take the time to assess -- are you still hungry? If not, then put down your utensils and push your plate away.
Combining these two approaches are a good way for you to determine how much you should be eating. But don't forget that WHAT you eat is, of course, equally if not more important.