The Trick to Losing Weight: Let’s Talk Calorie Counting
Note: I’m not a doctor. Not even close. I read a lot, and I’ve tried this out for me, and it works for me, and nothing bad has happened to me yet. Calorie consumption and how it affects you is science based, but any medical advice you need should come from your doctor. Also, I make some unsourced claims here, and while I believe them to be true based on my own reading, I encourage you to do your own research as well.
When I started losing weight, I weight in at 175 lbs. I’m also 5’3″ tall, so that’s fairly overweight for me. I’m now down to 145 lbs, and aiming to hit closer to 130 lbs – 140 lbs by the time I’m done. And probably leaning closer to 130 lbs at this point.
Now I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. The good news is that based on how I’ve been eating, I expect my weight loss to move at the pace it has been. And if I were willing to make certain adjustments, this could go much faster.
So the question is why so long? And why not faster if it’s possible?
For that, let’s talk about how weight loss (and weight gain) actually works. Then I’ll get back to those questions.
There’s a few simple things to know about weight management.
1. If you eat less Calories in than you use, you will lose weight.
2. If you eat the same number of Calories as you use, you will maintain your weight.
3. If you eat more Calories than you use, you will gain weight.
Sweet, right? So now you need to know two things. How many Calories are you eating, and how many are you using?
Starting with how many you are using, there’s a few different ways this can be estimated, but I often go straight for this TDEE Calculator. I recommend setting your activity level to “Little or no exercise,” which I’ll explain in a bit.
It’s very important to note that this number is an estimate. Everyone’s bodies are different, and so there is a certain level of variance among people even with similar body types. However, it is likely this number will be close for most people, and close enough is what we need.
So what is TDEE exactly? It stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure, and it’s the amount of Calories you burn in a single day. Calories are a measure of energy, so it’s the amount of energy your body uses each day. You need those Calories in order to live and do the things you do from day to day
So this number is the number of Calories you need to eat in a day to maintain your weight. Eat less than this number, and you will lose weight. Eat more than this number, and you will gain weight. Now, there are ways to make this more complicated and get better results (eat more protein and lift more weights to preserve muscle while losing weight, for instance), but for most people, just starting with understanding Calories is a good start.
So, if you haven’t yet, go plug in your numbers. Done it yet? Yes? Good.
Now, if you want to lose one pound per week, you should eat about 500 Calories less than your TDEE. About 3500 Calories makes up a pound, and 500 X 7 = 3500. This is also an approximation, but it works reasonably well if you’re counting accurately. Incidentally, eating at a 1000 Calorie a day deficit would put you on track for losing 2 pounds a week. This pattern continues, though for most people, eating at a deficit between 250 to 1000 Calories per day is going to be the right basic spot. In fact, for most people who don’t have a lot to lose, I’d recommend sticking with a 500 Calorie deficit or less. Though again, I’m not a doctor, so if you have specific needs, you should speak with your doctor.
Also worth noting, you should recalculate your TDEE every 10 pounds or so you lose. Since your TDEE depends on your weight, as your weight goes down, so will your TDEE. It won’t be by a lot, but it may be enough over time that you need to make slight adjustments to your diet.
So, how do you know how many Calories you’re eating? Count them.
Now, there’s different methods to doing this. For prepackaged foods, it’s as easy as reading the label, checking how many servings you’re eating, multiplying Calories per serving by number of servings eaten, and writing down the number. At the end of the day, add the numbers up. For fresh foods, like fruits, veggies, and meats, you can Google it and get reasonable estimates. For restaurant foods, if they don’t list Calories in restaurant or online, Google that food or a similar food and use what you find as a best guess. Be honest when you make your best guess estimate though. Alternatively, you could use an app/website like MyFitnessPal.
Protip: most veggies (the non-starchy ones, sorry potatoes and corn) are very low Calorie, but nutrient dense, and make great fillers and snacks when you want to add to your plate or find something to munch on without adding a lot of Calories to your day.
Once you know how many Calories you’re eating, and how many you’re burning, you can make a solid estimate at how fast you will lose (or gain) weight.
An important thing to recognize is that these deficits don’t really discriminate between losing fat and losing muscle. And when you eat at higher deficits, your body is more likely to pull energy from muscle rather than fat. Also worth noting is if you have more fat, your body will pull more energy from fat, whereas if you don’t have much fat left to lose, your body is more inclined to pull from muscle. This means smaller deficits preserve more muscle, at the trade off of a lower pace of losing weight. It also means as you get closer to your goal weight, you have less fat to lose, and you have a lower TDEE, you may need to eat at a lower deficit in order to lose weight in a healthy manner. Preserving muscle is important because it also burns Calories, helps you look good, and of course does the heavy lifting when it comes to movement and lifting things.
Also worth noting, as a general rule, the minimum recommended Calorie consumption per day is 1500 Calories for men and 1200 Calories for women. Again, your doctor may say otherwise in some cases, but often, eating less than this will prevent you from getting adequate nutrition on a day to day basis.
As a 5’3″ dude, this kind of sucks for me. My TDEE is about 1850 Calories. Meaning the lowest healthy deficit I can eat at is 350 Calories, putting me right at 1500 total Calories a day. This means, without exercise at least, the most I can lose in a week in a healthy manner is about 3/4 of a pound.
So, let’s discuss why I asked you to choose the option “little to no exercise.” The simple reason is that most people are prone to overestimating how active they are. By choosing little to no exercise, you’re getting a baseline for being fairly inactive, and if you do some exercise here and there, it becomes bonus weight loss. But your diet is the biggest factor in losing weight, so it’s where the biggest focus should be, especially starting out. If you already have an active exercise routine, you may need to eat more than this guideline, so that’s worth keeping in mind.
Also, these numbers are both estimates and averages. In a hypothetical example, if I had a TDEE of 2000 Calories, wanted to eat 1750 a day to maintain a deficit of 250, and then ate 1600 Calories one night and 1900 the next night, I’d be right on track. Generally speaking, if your Calories average out to your the Caloric goal you set for yourself over the course of the week or month, then you’re doing it right. This means you still have flexibility to eat a high Calorie treat once in awhile as long as you’re eating right most of the time.
As well, since different people have different bodies with different variations on how they burn energy, even the TDEE provided by the site I linked is an estimate. If you’re not losing as fast as you would expect based on the deficit you’re eating, it’s been a month or so, and you’ve ensured you’re accurate in how you are counting Calories, then you may need to tweak it a bit and try 100 less Calories a day and see if that gets you where you want to be. On the other hand, if you’re losing more rapidly than you expect, it may be wise to up your Calorie intake a little to lose at a healthier, more manageable pace.
So, remember what I said earlier about it being possible for me to lose weight faster than I have been? Well, here’s the thing. I currently average a deficit of 100 – 200 Calories per day. Depending on the week or month, sometimes I usually average eating 1600 to 1700 Calories per day. This keeps me just a bit above my healthy minimum of 1500 Calories per day. I eat healthy most of the time, but I also like eating out with my friends, and occasionally treat myself to an Iced Chai or other sugary drink. I work these treats into my Calorie goals, but I’ve set them a little higher than I would have otherwise in order to allow me to do this. In short, I’ve made the choice that I’m willing to lose weight more slowly because it allows me to do food related things that make me happy more often.
Likewise, I could also exercise more. By exercising more while maintaining the same diet, I would also lose weight faster. But I already exercise about as much as I want to, and I’m ok with the pace that I’m losing at, so I’m leaving that option alone too.
So, that was a lot to take in. I’ll summarize the key points below:
- Learn your TDEE. You can do so here. Recalculate this number every 10 pounds or so that you lose.
- Count Calories. You can do this by reading labels and writing down the numbers or using an app/website like MyFitnessPal.
- Eat less Calories than your TDEE to lose weight. Eat more than your TDEE to gain weight. Eat at your TDEE to maintain your weight. Eating 500 Calories less than your TDEE each day will result in a loss of about a pound a week.
- Don’t eat at too high a deficit. Doing so could cause you to lose more muscle than fat, which is counterproductive. Also, don’t drop below 1500 Calories per day for men or 1200 Calories per day for women. Most people who need to lose weight can safely lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. 1 pound per week as you get closer to a healthy weight though.
- Pick a deficit that allows you to balance quality of life with losing weight. If you’re happy while losing, you’re more likely to stick with it.
- Only briefly noted, but consider eating more protein and adding strength training to preserve muscle. (More on this in a future post.)
All of this sounds like a lot, but start slow, and if need be, just do one thing at a time. Today, just learn your TDEE. Tomorrow, just start counting Calories, but don’t worry about changing your diet. Then, after a week, you can start changing or removing a few foods in your diet each week (more tips on this coming in a future post as well) until you get to a Caloric deficit that lets you lose weight at a safe pace.