Many people turn to resolutions this time of year to eat better, exercise or lose weight. One important component of successfully losing weight is understanding how many calories a person’s body really needs each day, and how many calories are in the foods consumed. I commend restaurant chains such as McDonald's, among the first to put calorie counts on their menu. Unfortunately, many people don't understand what these numbers mean, making them far less helpful than they could be.
Based on tables from the Institute of Medicine, a 40-year-old male of median height and weight with a sedentary or light physical activity level should consume about 2,200 calories per day to maintain the body’s needs. Thus, a typical 40-year-old male might decide to consume about 400 for breakfast, 600 for lunch, 200 for snacks throughout the day, and 800 for dinner. Or, if they favor having a large breakfast, they could eat a bigger breakfast and a smaller lunch or dinner.
If this same 40-year-old has no idea how many calories they should eat per day, they have a smaller understanding of what items to choose from the McDonald’s menu. For example, a Big Mac (530 calories) plus a large fries (510 calories) and a large, 30-ounce, non-diet soda (280 calories) adds up to 1,320 calories of that daily allotment, and that person would have only 880 calories left for the day. If this same 40-year-old male wants to avoid gaining weight, they would need to eat two small meals for the rest of the day, and a minimal number of other snacks. If one is armed with this information before ordering at McDonald’s, perhaps they would choose differently. Perhaps, they would recognize that 510 calories for a side dish like fries can be a poor choice. And, perhaps, they would recognize they could save 280 calories for a snack later in the day if they simply drank water. They might also save some money.
I recommend anyone trying to lose weight first learn how many calories are typically needed to maintain weight the way it is, then work on a plan to lower it. The use of online calorie calculators or fitness apps are good resources. One free calorie calculator available online can be found at www.lifespanfitness.com/fitness/resources/calories-calculator . A free fitness app that can provide this on your smartphone is the MyFitnessPal app. Both resources enable a person to input their gender, weight, height, age and estimated activity level to determine how many calories they need to consume each day to maintain their weight.
Once a person knows what the expected intake is to maintain weight, they should set a goal to stay under that on a consistent basis. They now have a better perspective for understanding what the numbers mean on the restaurant menus.
Many fitness apps provide a free resource, allowing the user to input everything they eat into a food diary, keeping track of how many calories are remaining for the day. It also will provide information such as the proportion of macronutrients and salt consumed. I usually recommend patients set these apps with the target calories needed to maintain weight, then try to stay under that target as frequently as possible.
One reason diets fail is that patients set too ambitious of a goal and try to cut too many calories at one time. For example, if someone wants to lose a pound per week, they have to cut about 3,500 calories per week, or 500 calories per day. This is a lot, and eventually most people rebel. Some people call these “cheat days,” but it only takes one large meal to undo all the progress that was gained the rest of the week. That is what is often referred to as yo-yo dieting, and it is frequently ineffective.
Instead, a person may find that they only stay under their calorie threshold by 50 or 100 calories per day, and that is OK. If a person stays below their set calorie point day after day, week after week, month after month, they will see the pounds come off in a more sustainable fashion. If they use a fitness app to record a food diary, they will also begin to learn where calories hide. For example, not all salads are low in calories, and not all pasta meals have as many calories as you think. In addition, some vegetables, such as green beans and broccoli, have few calories, but other vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, have a lot more. Some desserts are a sensible treat, and others are so high in calories, one might truly be offended.
Being armed with this information is a key element in success.
Dr. Janet Hurley is operational chief for primary care of the southern region for Christus Trinity Clinic, practices family medicine at the Herrington-Ornelas HealthPark in Tyler and is president-elect for the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.