To really be able to define yourself as someone with “good nutrition” there are a few things that need to be in check. The first thing is proper energy balance. This means your calories-in (eating) and calories-out (exercising, daily living) support your activity level and are in line with your personal goals. The other factor is nutrient density. Food that provides substantial nutrients with only the necessary calories is nutrient dense food. The opposite of nutrient dense is calorie dense. This means that there is not a lot of substantial nutrients in comparison to the calories of a given food. For example 100 calories of carrots is 2 full cups of chopped raw carrots. This is packed with vitamins, fiber, etc. and is very nutrient dense. In contrast, 100 calories of soda is calorie dense and provides little nutrition for the body. Even some calorie dense foods (like nuts) can be good for you but portions are key here.
Most American diets are filled with a lot more calorie dense food than nutrient dense food. When you choose calorie dense foods, and especially foods with “empty calories” you run the risk of suffering from nutrient deficiency & disease. Your food choices DO matter. They matter for your health, your body composition, energy, and performance.
So we have two steps to take:
- Identify how many calories you need
- Choose more nutrient dense foods to supply those calories
Calculating your calorie intake:
Equation: Your body weight in pounds x _____ = Daily Calorie Target
Sedentary or minimal exercise:
- weight loss= 10-12
- weight maintenance= 12-14
- weight gain = 16-18
- weight loss = 12-14
- weight maintenance= 14-16
- weight gain = 18-20
Very Active(Exercise 5-7x/week):
- weight loss = 14-16
- weight maintenance= 16-18
- weight gain = 20-22
So for example if you weighed 140lbs, worked a desk job, exercised 3 days per week, and wanted to lose weight you would use the moderately active weight loss range in your equation. To find out your calorie range you would do two simple equations. One with the first number to figure out the low end of your range & one with the higher number to determine the high end of your range.
140 x 12 = 1,680 and 140 x 14 = 1,960
This person would shoot for a calorie intake range of about 1,680-1,960 per day
“But what about eat less to lose weight?”
Honestly, more than almost anything in the health & fitness world I hate the concept of EAT LESS. I think we can all agree on the EAT LESS CRAP, but I can’t agree on eat less nutrient dense food. Of course in the given situation above with the 140lb person wanting to lose weight we could adjust and go a little lower calories for a quicker results or to break through a plateau but the general rule I follow is slow & steady wins the race AND creates long term fat loss. Your body needs to be fueled a certain level of calories to not start STORING everything you are eating as fat–which I believe is the opposite of what we were going for, right?! So ditch that belief and fuel your body with enough calories… now let’s get to the next part, food choice.
Choosing More Nutrient Dense Foods
For nutrient dense foods think whole foods, that are least processed. This should make up at least 80% of your daily calories.
- Fresh Vegetables & Fruits
- Lean Meat/Proteins (Ideally: Local/Grass-Fed/Organic)
- Whole Grains
- Almonds/Flax Seed/Chia Seeds
Keep the calorie dense foods to less than 20% of your daily calories. These are just a few examples:
- Baked Goods
- Bacon/High Fat Meat
- Added Sugar/Candy
- Refined Grains (white bread, pasta, etc)
Remember with CALORIE DENSE foods you often get LESS FOOD and less nutrition for the same number of calories. Let’s go back to our example. 140 lb person seeking weight loss gets 1,680-1,960 per day. That’s about no more than 300-400 calories per day from calorie dense foods. There are some calorie dense foods like oil, grass fed butter, avocado, nuts, nut butters that can be healthy choices for your calorie dense foods. Choose these as your calorie dense choices (within portions) as more regular choices. Keep the processed foods, alcohol, candy, refined grains & sugars (“empty calories”) as the exceptions not the regulars.
So should I count calories?
I would always prefer for people to not focus on calories alone. If you are going to count calories know that your food choices DO matter and try to keep to that 80/20 principle of nutrient dense to calorie dense foods AND choose the healthy calorie dense options over the “empty calorie” options. I personally prefer to teach people simple methods of controlling the types of calories and portions they are consuming without counting calories. Counting calories can be a pain in the behind… but learning a lifestyle of the types of foods you should eat and what those portions should look like on your plate is much more sustainable. If you’d like more info about working with me to help you develop life long healthy eating habits click here to apply for one of my online 1:1 or group nutrition coaching programs. I’d love to help you reach your individual goals.
I hope this helped you better understand how to calculate your body’s needs and what types of foods to choose for your health.
MS Human Nutrition