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Weight loss: How many calories per day?


Weight loss is a real issue that many of us have had to deal with at some point in our lives. With our desk jobs and busy lifestyles, its incredibly hard to balance all aspects of our lives, and our physical health and weight can suffer the consequences. We've been told in the past that we can lose weight by counting and restricting our calorie intake. But is that the answer?

How many calories per day should I eat?

woman with food choicesA very popular Body Transformation program suggests that to lose weight, women reduce their calorie intake to 1200 calories er day - that compares to the Australian Healthy Food Guidelines of 1800 calories per day.

For men, calorie intake is to be reduced to 1800 calories per day to lose weight compared to 2400 in the Guidelines.

This is a substantial restriction in daily calories, for women it’s a whopping 33% reduction on recommendations. On such a restricted diet, there's a good chance that you will lose weight, as in reality you're slowly starving yourself. At the same time, with a large energy deficit, you're going to be feeling tired, lethargic and irritable. The real question is whether this weight loss is sustainable in the longer term. 

Not all calories are equal

An extreme example provides a vivid illustration of this. Lets say you eat your full 1800 calories per day of vegetables, compared to another person who eats 1800 calories per day of take-away food. Its very obvious to everyone which person is going to achieve not only a better weight outcome, but a much better health outcome as well.

This is an extreme example, and nobody should eat from a single food group and nothing else, but it provides a very clear example that the type of calories does matter. Proper nutrition is going to be key to sustained weight loss.

The Calorie Myth

Different nutritionists have different takes on the calorie argument.

The ones making the argument for not focussing on counting calories state that nutrition is the more important factor. Counting calories is not only tiresome and potentially socially isolating, restricted calorie diets are unsustainable as they simply make us feel tired and horrible because we're starving ourselves! A more sensible and sustainable approach to achieving a healthy weight that is right for you is to eat a balanced diet with limited junk food, coupled with adequate exercise.

There's a great book called 'The Calorie Myth' by Jonathan Bailor that states that "counting calories leads to failure 95% of the time". This is because of sustainability of the diet, as well as suggesting that the restricted calorie diet slows metabolism. And when the dieter eventually returns to a more normal diet, which everyone eventually does, the body which is used to restricted calories, is unable to metabolise the greater food intake as fast as it once did.

On the other hand, those that argue for counting calories, suggest that one of the key benefits is that it brings accountability and knowledge about what you're eating. Accountability and knowledge are important to take ownership of any issue, in particular your weight loss issues. But we would argue that counting calories is a very blunt tool for this as it does not lead to any knowledge of what we should be eating as part of a sustainable healthy lifestyle.

Food Diary

food diaryA good start for building up your knowledge and keeping accountable is to keep a food diary. This first lets you understand what you're eating and drinking throughout the day. This can be a very revealing process as most people eat more than what they imagine. It assists with mindful eating and gives some insights as to what can be changed in order to improve your day to day diet.

There's multiple food diary and calorie tracker apps out there, My Fitness Pal is a popular one. It does still focus on calories but also provides an analysis of macronutrients which is useful. It can be a little frustrating to use at the start because the data is setup for common American foods and serving sizes. But if you can get your head around that, its got some good features. Why not give it a shot for a week and see how you go!

So how many calories per day should I be eating to lose weight? Well as you can see from the discussion above, its not as simple as that. But if you have a good grasp of what you're eating, and you're focussing on eating good quality, nutritious foods, then you've made a good start at being healthy and maintainable a sustainable healthy weight.

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