How many calories do we need?



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I do not have a lot of time to read opinion pieces on health and nutrition – in general my work commands that new scientific research and applied clinical experience drive my client education and public messaging but yesterday Sophia Herbst’s piece posted on Daily Life caught my attention.

The article challenges the commonly held belief that women should adopt a 1200 calorie diet in order to achieve their weight loss goals, and the concept of calorie monitoring altogether. And while I do somewhat agree with Herbst’s critique of a universal prescription of 1200 calories for all, as is often the case with all things diet and nutrition, things are a little more complicated than this.

When it comes to determining how many calories the average person (or female) needs there are so many variables that can impact this on a daily basis that it is virtually impossible to give an average. In fact, equations that were originally used to calculate metabolic rate could be described as dated and grossly inaccurate. While we were taught at university that adult females require up to 1800 calories per day, it does not take long after working with weight loss clients to realise that we need far, far fewer calories than this, especially if you have other metabolic disturbance such as insulin resistance OR if you sit down most of the day – as many of us do, whether we go to the gym or not.

In my experience, an exercising female will lose weight easily on a 1400-1500 calorie meal plan but when it comes to these more complicated metabolic conditions, a restriction of 1200 calories is often required, at least initially during the weight loss process. And here in lies the message of this piece – there is no set rule, nor is there a constant when it comes to calorie intake, just as in life there are few constants. Sometimes you will exercise a lot, other times you may sit far more and as such altering calorie intake is generally the way to go, with fewer calories on less active days and 200-300 more on more active days.

And perhaps what is missed in Herbst’s critique is that people always eat more than they say they do, and that they think they do. Dietitians know this, and trainers know this, which is why a general 1200 calorie prescription is unlikely to do the damage inferred in this opinion piece – we know that a 1200 calorie plan actually becomes 1400-1500 in real life – that’s just the way human nature is.

Now, when it comes to calorie monitoring, unlike many of the ‘anti diet’; brigade I am a big fan. How on earth are individuals able to learn to self-regulate their calorie intake, if they remain unaware of where their calories come from in the first place? It is not about calorie restriction; calorie monitoring is simply about awareness. And the more aware we are, the better the position we are in to take control of our weight, our health and our life.

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  • Ray says:

    Great post Susie. I read that report and found it full of generalisations. I think you hit the nail right on the head with this one, and I also found myself nodding my head and smiling when I got to the part about 1200/day really being around 1500/day :)

  • Jackie Beckinsale says:

    OMG, as a personal trainer I have been preaching everything you said down to the last calorie, glad I’m not the only one with common sense. Good stuff.

  • Georgie barnett says:

    Great post. Can you tell me about cutting out all sugar. Is it safe and a good idea for a detox – I feel I am quite addicted to fruit/dried fruit/fake sugars – but i exercise at least 2 hours a day and have a busy lifestyle. Is it ok to cut sugar all out?

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