Every 5 years, the United States Department of Agriculture releases a report called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that outlines the newest information and guidelines for the American public. These guidelines are designed to outline the calorie and nutrient recommendations for the majority of the population, which is estimated to be around 2,000 calories.
Is 2,000 calories right for me?
Although these guidelines are set using nutritional research from the general public, these guidelines are not personalized for every single person. In other words, these guidelines are not a “one size fits all” approach to a healthy diet. Calorie intake and daily nutrient values differ due to a variety of different factors such as height, weight, age, sex, and health related goals. A young athlete who is trying to gain muscle mass for peak performance is going to require a higher caloric intake than an older adult who is trying to lose weight.
How do I know how many calories I should be eating?
The amount of calories you should be eating per day is initially determined by your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which is the amount of calories you burn by simply living. From here, you can adjust your calorie requirement based on your daily activity level as well as whether you’re looking to lose weight or gain weight. The easiest way to find out your BMR is to use the Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation, an equation popularly used in the field of dietetics to find a person’s BMR based on their age, height, weight, and activity level. Let’s go through an example person to show how you’d use this equation:
Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation
BMR = (10 x weight in kg ) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 5
BMR = (10 x weight in kg ) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161
Note: 1 kg = 2.2 lbs 1 inch = 2.54 cm
Let’s use this person for the example:
John Doe, Male, 5’11”, 195 lbs, 38 years old
Using the equation, we’d calculate that John Doe’s BMR is 1,828 calories/day. This means that if John Doe didn’t do anything for an entire day, his body would be using 1,828 calories just to stay alive.
To make this number more accurate, we then take that BMR and multiple it by what’s called an activity factor. An activity factor is a number between 1.2-1.9 that we use to take in to account how active a person might be on a daily basis. If we say that John Doe is moderately active, we might assign an activity factor of 1.5. Once we’ve assigned this number, we then multiply it by the BMR we found using Mifflin-St. Jeor.
1,828 x 1.5 = 2,742 calories/day
Taking into account his activity level, we’ve now determined that John Doe uses roughly 2,742 calories/day. Using this number, he can then decide how many calories he will eat depending on his goals. If he wants to lose weight, then he can reduce this calorie amount by 20% so that he is in a calorie deficit. This will put him around 2,194 calories each day in order to lose weight at a healthy rate.
Using this method to find out the amount of calories you should be eating is a great way to get a rough estimate on your needs, but does not need to be a strict diet plan. You can use BMR to decide what your goals are and what path you’d like to take to get to those goals, instead of just using the 2,000 calorie standard that might not be suitable for you.
How do I know if I’m eating good enough if I’m not counting calories?
Counting calories can get tedious for a person who has a busy schedule, and can sometimes lead to negative associations with food and self-image. The most important thing to remember when tackling a healthy diet is not necessarily HOW MUCH, but the WHAT. In other words, it’s more important to focus on eating a balanced diet of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein sources instead of obsessing over the number of calories you’re consuming. These healthy, energy dense foods are also typically low in calories, so you’re able to eat more food and not be in a caloric surplus. Let me give an example:
100 calories of spinach = 1 lb vs 100 calories of M&Ms = 23 pieces
Here are two foods equaling the same amount of calories, but far different in the amount you can have to get to that amount of calories. Eating 23 pieces of M&Ms would hardly satiate someone’s hunger, and provide little to no nutritional benefits. One pound of spinach would be tough to consume in one sitting, and would provide an enormous amount of the vitamins and minerals you need on a daily basis. The point here is that although these two foods are both 100 calories, the portions and nutritional benefits vary drastically.
The Bottom Line-
Although the US guidelines recommend a 2,000 calorie diet for the average American, this isn’t always the best suited option. Given the variety of factors that can influence what a person’s diet should be, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to diet. Consistency over time with an overall balanced diet, regardless of counting calories, will make you feel and look the best in the long run.
Written by David Levinson, BS Nutrition, NASM CPT and CES