This is a popular question with my clients and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
First, you'll need to identify which category to place yourself based on your goals: losing, gaining, or maintaining your weight. In very simple terms, to lose weight you need to be in a deficit, burning more calories than you consume. In order to maintain your weight, you should burn the same amount as you consume. Gaining weight requires that you eat more calories than you burn.
Let’s use losing weight as an example. To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. Most people have tried these types of diets before, and they usually work, UNTIL the calories are dropped too low. We do not typically do a great job of assessing just how low to drop our caloric intake is. A problem with dropping the calories too low is that this can cause your metabolism to slow down. Over time you are giving your body less and less fuel, and because it has less fuel your body will stop burning fat at a high rate to conserve energy.
Let me give you an example of my own experience with this. I participated in a calorie deficit plan a few years ago, and because of my short height I was in the lowest calorie bracket (about 1,200). This was problematic because not only was I active during the day, but I was also exercising. When you calculate how many calories I burned during those activities, I was likely only getting about 800 calories each day. And that's not enough for anyone!! I was MISERABLE and it's clear now why.
Now that I have learned about Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR, I finally understand why I was so miserable while I was doing this plan. I was hungry all of the time! Not only that, but I did not see the changes in my muscle definition that I was going for. I wasn’t seeing muscle tone; I was just getting lean.
To figure out how many calories your body needs to just EXIST (not counting activity or exercise), you'll want to figure out your own BMR. You can use a simple online calculator for this.
As a guide, my BMR is about 1200, which explains why my low calorie plan wasn’t working! 1200 is the MINIMUM number of calories I should be consuming each day on a day when I just lay in bed. And let me tell you...I can't remember the last time that happened! Long story short, I could have still been in a deficit, but I didn't need for it to be quite so low! 1500-1600 would have been much more reasonable. And enjoyable!
As you learn more about BMR, you might notice symptoms of too-low calorie intake in yourself:
Poor Sleep Quality - It can take you a long time to fall asleep, and you wake up in the middle of the night. You wake up not feeling rested at all.
Low Energy levels - Because you are not fueling your body properly, you feel sluggish throughout the day.
Bad Mood - They don’t call it “hanger” for nothing! If you aren’t getting enough calories, you are miserable, and that will reflect itself in how you act.
Calorie intake can be a huge part of what I call The Study of One. Your body and the way it feels can tell you best if you are getting enough, too little, or too many calories. For example, if you are getting the right amount of calories for your body, you go to bed feeling satisfied but not stuffed.
How do you learn more than just what your body is telling you? I would recommend tracking your calories for a solid week using an app like MyFitnessPal. It is easy to use, it syncs with nearly every brand of smartphone and fitness tracker, and it has a barcode scanner for specific food items. It even has a recipe calculator!
Don’t change anything about your routine; just collect some data. Then, go online and look up a couple of BMR calculators. Try using multiple because you will get different results, but keep in mind that everyone’s body is different, so these will not have 100% accuracy. These BMR calculators are based on an average for height, weight, and age. Compare your intake to the results of these calculations. This will let you know if you are way over or way under.
Once you have collected data for a week, compare it to your BMR. If, for example, you see that you are eating way too little, you don’t want to suddenly add in another 500 calories. You need to add them in gradually. This is called “reverse dieting”. You want your body to slowly rebuild. You can still keep yourself in a deficit while rebuilding, but chances are your deficit is a lot higher than it needs to be. Closing the gap can make so many changes in how you feel.
Once you have used this data to calculate how many calories you should be eating, feel free to keep using MyFitnessPal. Under the settings and profile section, there is a place to input goals. It asks for your current weight and your goal weight. If you don’t know what your goal weight should be, try looking up general guides of ideal weight for various heights, but always remember that these are based off of averages! You may run above or below because of your frame size, so do not be too hard on yourself if you do not fit perfectly into their model.
Next, the app will ask your for the timeframe in which you are looking to lose this weight. A good rule of thumb is to try losing half a pound to a pound per week. Anything more than that is really an unhealthy expectation, though you may lose weight fast at first if you haven’t exercised or eaten healthily in a long time.
If you go to the bottom of the home screen of MyFitnessPal and click diary, it gives you the option of tracking your macronutrients: carbs, protein, and healthy fats. I like looking over this at the end of the day to make sure that I am keeping up with my carb cycling. I use this feature to make sure that my healthy fats are higher on my low-carb days and that my carbs are much higher on my high-carb days.
Do you need to track to be successful with your goals? Absolutely not. For the longest time, I didn’t. I hated the idea of tracking everything I ate, and I found the simpler approach of “eat this, not this” much more appealing. What I mean by all of this is, if you feel great and are seeing results, you do not necessarily have to start tracking. As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.
Tracking also isn’t necessarily something that is beneficial for everyone. For example, if your personality type is obsessive, and you cling to things, MyFitnessPal might be distracting. Also, it can be a trigger for eating disorders, if that is something that has affected you in the past. Tracking can be great, but if it is going to get in your way or affect your mindset negatively, there are other ways to monitor your body.
In my IF You Carb Cycle program, I do not require tracking. I try to leave it up to the clients because it is such an individual preference. Usually, I start with the method of, “eat this today and this tomorrow.” After a few days, I prompt clients to try tracking if it is something that they think will work for them.
I hope this makes you more comfortable with trying out MyFitnessPal and calorie tracking. If you have any questions, as always, feel free to reach out to me!