Calories In, Calories Out: The Common Sense Guide to Weight Loss
NOTE: This article is the second part in our guide to nutrition. It is IMPERATIVE that you read and apply the tactics in Eat to Fuel Your Fire first. Part 1 is foundational material; success in nutrition comes ONLY with behavioral change. Behaviors must be modified slowly, starting with meal design and timing, for the change to stick.
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Imagine that… You come to me for advice and this is what I hit you with?
Spoiler Alert: You CAN lose weight eating Oreos, but I definitely am not suggesting you do so.
In our Eat to Fuel Your Fire article, we spent lots of time teaching you foundational nutrition information, especially WHAT and WHEN to eat. When you Eat to Fuel Your Fire, you ensure your meals are properly balanced and you stay satiated throughout the day, which helps keeping energy levels high and your metabolism revving. It teaches you, in basic terms, that varying your foods is crucial to introduce different micronutrients - vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.
What it doesn’t teach you is how MUCH to eat. This is part two of our epic series on nutrition. We’re going to multitask a bit in this article. First, I’m going to tell you about the basics of how much to eat. Then, I’m going to teach you how to lose weight, if that’s your goal, using my own fat escapades as an example.
Diets Don’t Work
The conversation around calories and how much to eat is normally only discussed when someone wants to lose weight. We’ll talk much today about calories and weight loss, but I will try to wrangle it back to what really matters: maintaining a healthy weight.
In fact, I have a little drawing I’d like to share:
I drew that with my laptop in 2 minutes, just for you. Autographed copies are available. What this is showing is the typical vision of someone in our nutritional consults. The focus is on the nearer goal of losing weight: “I want to lose 10 pounds.” I remind people that, more importantly, we should look up towards the horizon at the bigger, better goal, and declare, “I want to maintain a healthy weight.”
If you take away nothing else from this article, please understand this: It is EASY to lose weight. Every gimmick diet on the planet WILL knock weight off, and some rather quickly. Those results won’t last.
I want this to be said, once and for all, forever and ever: We know, beyond a doubt, what needs to be done to maintain a healthy weight. No new fad, gimmick, or trend will solve the problem better than what is the fundamental knowledge I present here today.
You’ve heard this a million times, yet we get enticed when we hear about “miracles” that a new diet promises. My suggestion: if you hear someone tout the benefit of paleo, keto, intermittent-fasting, raw, Oreo-only, or whatever thing, your response should be, “I’m glad it works for you.” These are distractions and make people feel bad about themselves. Learn from our common-sense guides, and you will never need to diet again.
Maintaining a healthy weight requires a lifelong commitment, an understanding of your relationship to food, and implementing behavioral changes. It also requires monitoring and attention. Most importantly, it requires empathy and compassion for yourself. This will be challenging. You will get off course. No judgement, just begin again.
Healthy Weight - Simple, but Not Easy
We purposely approach this in a stepwise process for a couple reasons. First, how much you eat is secondary to changing the behaviors around how to assemble your meals and how often to eat. If you don’t change that, trying to eat less will be a miserable and short-lived event. Second, figuring out how much to eat adds a few complexities to the discussion. Those complexities begin and end with what some believe is a curse word: calories.
Calories are the amount of energy a food has. No matter the source, a calorie is a calorie. Some foods have lots of calories, some have few. Some healthy foods (rich in macronutrients like proteins, fats, or complex carbs) have low calories. Some unhealthy foods have LOTS of calories. I’m looking at you, Big Mac.
It really is simple. If you want to maintain a healthy weight, all you have to do is follow this simple formula:
CALORIES IN = CALORIES OUT
If you want to lose weight, then “Calories In” must be less than “Calories Out.” Simple.
“Calories In”, of course, is our diet. Whatever you put into your mouth counts toward this number. “Calories Out” is the amount of energy you burn in a day just being you.
If you were to just sit on a couch all day and not move, we will burn a set amount of calories. This is based on our current weight, age, height, and gender. This is referred to as our Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. We can influence our BMR by the amount of physical activity we do beyond nothing. Someone who runs 5 of 7 days a week will have a much higher BMR than someone who is sedentary but is the same weight, height, age, and gender. Our “Calories Out” is our BMR.
Simple concept, right? We often make things harder than they are with all these fads and gimmicks, but really, it’s as simple as that. You should not spend more money than you get paid, otherwise you’ll go broke. If you drive your leased car more miles than you are allotted, you’ll owe big bucks when it’s time to turn it in. If you eat more than you burn off, you get fat.
The thing to always keep in the forefront of your mind is that if you’ve spent too much money, you can’t make your bills go away. If you’re over your mileage, you can’t stop driving - you have to go to work! And if you are overweight, you just can’t stop eating. It took time and some bad decisions to get where you are, it will take time and good decisions, and some sacrifice to get back on track.
An important thing to note: these are just estimates. We have no idea what your EXACT BMR is. In fact, it’s practically impossible to know what your actual calorie intake is. We are not going to get into the nitty-gritty, nor should this fact discourage you from moving ahead. Don’t let the lack of perfection be justification for not trying. For almost all of us, these numbers are VERY accurate and will get us VERY close to and keep us at our target, healthy weights.
One more point to drive home: The gym is about fitness. Regularly exercising will increase your BMR. Do not go to the gym, burn some calories, then proudly eat those calories back. We’ll talk in future articles about the proper nutrition surrounding physical activity, but as of today, know that healthy weight is 85% what goes in your mouth.
Doing the Math - My Story
People are resistant to the calories discussion because it’s a huge pain. Think about what we have to figure out:
- How many calories we should eat in a day
- How many calories we should eat in a meal
- How many calories EVERYTHING we eat has
As if that isn’t enough, we then have to do the math. We have to track it, add it all up, divide it, multiply - your head hurts trying to figure it all out....
I can make it real simple-like for ya. Oreos. Seriously, let’s just consider it for a second…A bag of Oreos (not Double Stuff - they’re awesome though) has about 2300 calories in it. If you need 2000 calories in a day, you can eat practically the whole darn bag and lose about 2 pounds a week. That’s like eating 3 cookies every hour. Who doesn’t want that? And - you’ll lose weight.
Gimmick diets take away the work and try to simplify it all. Again, it’s really easy to lose weight. It goes without saying: There is a LARGE difference between calories and nutrition. Let’s get our priorities straight: How much you weigh should come in third place to 1. the quality of your meals (and snacks) and 2. your behaviors or habits surrounding food.
I want to get the math part out of the way first, though. Think of it like this: the numbers and the math is your strategy - what you are shooting for over what time frame. We must plot our course before we set sail!
Plotting a course involves 2 coordinates: where we are and where we are going. Our target, healthy weight number has to come from somewhere realistic. Ideal Body Weight (IBW) is currently what is used, but I think it is a bit aggressive for most people. If you add 10-15% to Ideal Body Weight, are making healthy food choices, and have light to moderate physical activity, I think it would be hard to argue that shooting slightly above IBW is a bad decision.
Here’s my story. I’m a 37-year-old male who has been overweight for most of his 30’s. I’m doing not too bad, though. I’m harder on myself than I should be, others have said. Still, I peaked out at 250 pounds last Easter after pounding a loaf of Monkey Bread by myself practically. My 60ish-year-old uncles-in-law were chunking up at that time too, but dropped weight seemingly effortlessly. In your own weight control journey, don’t forget that genetics play a BIG role in all of this, and can either increase or reduce the friction you face.
I’ve been trying to get to a healthier weight for a bit now. I’ve got a wonderful wife and 4 kids (3 of them are triplets, in case you didn’t know that!), so I want to reduce my long-term risks as best as I can. Plus, they want me to make more videos for you fine folks. The camera adds 10 pounds on top of the 40 that M&Ms already have...
From here on out, I’m going to discuss me and common sense strategies I’ve implemented, as well as my goals and results. I’m going to enter my “before” numbers as they were a few weeks back.
Step 1: Let’s set our goals.
- What is your current weight? 238 pounds
- What is your target weight? Ideal body weight for my age and height is 185. That’s insane. My target is 205.
- What is the difference? I am 33 pounds overweight
So I must lose 33 pounds. It seems like a lot, but with small changes and a short amount of time, I’ll be back on track. Healthy weight loss (or gain) should be no more than 2 pounds weekly. Realistically, ½ to 1 pound a week is an AMAZING result.
To lose my 33 pounds, it will take me between 17 and 33 weeks. It’s important you say this outloud. Heck, write it down and have it notarized. It will take time to get to where you need to be, just like it took time to get where you are. I am on week 3. It takes work, but I’m seeing great results already.
Step 2: Figure out our calories.
The accepted, old-school number is 3500 calories = 1 pound. Yes, nutrition nerds, we know that it’s not exact, but for this purpose, it works VERY well.
To lose 2 pounds a week, you would need to have a deficit of 7000 calories each week, or 1000 per day. That’s pretty tough and I wouldn’t recommend going that nuts. To lose 1 pound a week, you need a calorie deficit of 500 calories daily - very doable!
You don’t really have to do any math anymore, there are calculators out there to help! Visit this validated, referenced calorie calculator. Enter your information. Be honest about the activity levels! Here’s me:
I run 15 minutes and walk 15 minutes 2-3 times a week. For me, 1800 calories is challenging at first, but easy to do overall. I shoot for 2 pounds a week because I’m a go-getter. I need to consume no more than about 1800 calories daily, and I will lose 2 pounds a week (approximately).
Step 3. Beat it into your head
“I will lose 33 pounds in 17 or so weeks if I commit to eating 1800, well-balanced, nutrient-dense calories throughout the day.”
“This will take time. This will not happen overnight.”
Step 4. Write it down
This is the most challenging for people. We now have to calculate how many calories everything we put into our mouth has, then track it throughout the day.
You can go old-school and hit up Wikipedia or other nutritional reference sites. Ideally, though, you leverage technology. MyFitnessPal is the app I use (my phone is always within arms reach). It has a database of foods, allows you to set goals, tracks your daily calorie intake, and tracks your results. It is VERY simple to use. Our Myocep Protein Powder is even in the database!
If I eat a ham sandwich, I can select ham and bread, then enter the number of slices. Then enter how many tomatoes or lettuce I add. If I take a little time, I can assemble frequently eaten meals as a custom item to make entry even easier. At worst it’s all of 30 seconds, at best it’s 5 seconds. This really isn’t an obstacle.
The truth is, this is only difficult if your behaviors around food are jacked up. If you are rushing around, eating when you can, shoveling food down, tracking is going to be difficult.
Step 5. Grind it out
There isn’t anything else to know because this is all there is. It isn’t sexy, or exciting by default.
Here’s the thing - we want it to be sexy or exciting because that’s what these peddlers of magical fixes tell us it should be. In reality, we need to adjust our caloric intake to normal, healthy levels. Then just live that way.
If you are TRULY disciplined, you may not have to write things down after a few months. How well would that work out for your leased car or your finances if you stopped paying attention? Just like everything else in life, it takes disciplined execution to get and maintain the results. Growing up stinks.
As you get closer to your goal, you can relax the calorie deficit a little bit. My recommendation for maintaining a healthy weight is to always keep track of your calories and always run a slight deficit. Birthday cake and bottles of wine won’t ingest themselves; there will always be times you’ll get off course, so running a slight deficit as a normal practice will be a realistic way for you to maintain a healthy weight.
I’m already at 230.5 pounds. I had lots of fat stores, so the early weight came off kind of quick. I still have a way to go - about 14 more weeks by my calculation!
For Us, It’s About Behavior
I can’t say it enough. This concept of calories in and calories out is simple. The tough part is changing our behaviors to make eating normal levels of calories easy.
I, like many, go through cycles with food. I gain weight because I over-indulge, finally get motivated when I get short of breath tying my shoes, eat healthier than I had been, and drop weight. A typical pattern for a typical American.
While eating better, I’m obviously eating less than before. No fad diets for me, just keeping a better, tighter caloric budget using more nutrient dense foods since every calorie counts. As you eat less, your stomach gets less stretchy and shrinks down a bit. In the two weeks or so it takes for this to complete, you get lots of hunger pains. That’s no fun. This requires a bit of discipline and intestinal (nyuk nyuk) fortitude.
I then go through what I call my awakening. “Dude, that was horrible,” I say to myself. “I feel and look great, plus I never want to go through that again!” Every single time. This time, though, is different, because I’ve taken a harder, deeper look to my relationship to food than ever before. I’m opening my soul to you, don’t tease me when you see me.
Here’s what I became more aware of:
- I shove food down my throat. I’ve been in retail pharmacy for 17 years now in a serious capacity. No time to eat! We don’t get breaks. Just bite and swallow. Plus, I’ve always been around people that eat quick. If you don’t eat quick, you don’t get as much. So silly, right?
- Food is a big indulgence, especially socially. When I kick back, reward myself for hard work, or get together with others, I consume LOTS. Drinks, desserts, big meals.
- I use food for stress management. If I get stressed, I practically teleport to the nearest bag of chocolate covered whatever and down a handful (usually without chewing).
- I rush around and spend no time planning ahead. I get up, run out the door with no breakfast. Get to work, get REAL hungry, but have nothing. Eat a snack. Order lunch - whatever is close. Typically a high calorie, but awesome, sandwich. Eat a big dinner when I get home. All because I didn’t take 15-20 minutes a week to plan my week, then take 5-10 minutes to plan my day.
These behaviors are all pretty common, I would imagine. They all have a couple things in common: time, and compulsion.
I have no time, so I eat what’s there. I don’t take time to chew, so my brain doesn’t know I’m full. I eat until I hate myself, instead of listening to those signals from my stomach and brain. I didn’t take any time to plan, and I have no time throughout the day, so I do what’s easy.
No amount of calorie restriction or campfire building will address these problems.
All of this is behavior driven. How much you eat. How you eat. When you eat. The reasons diets fail is because they don’t address the underlying behavior.
Here’s what I have done that has worked very well:
- Chew my darn food. Seriously, what’s wrong with me? Food is awesome, I need to enjoy each bite. I’ve started putting my utensils down in between bites. I’ve counted to 20-30. Sometimes I miss, but I try to be more mindful of it. No judgement, just begin again next bite.
- Planning my week and day. I know what I need to do. I need 2 meals and 2 snacks during work time. Every morning, I take 10 minutes I would usually spend on social media (another compulsive behavior - see the theme?), and head downstairs earlier to put together a balanced breakfast, lunch, and 2 snacks. I bag it up and put it with my laptop.
- Set a recurring alarm. I set an alarm for every 2.5 hours in case my head is down working and I miss a meal time. Have to keep that campfire cooking!
- Managed stress differently. This is like wrestling a bear. It’s a lot of work, and it takes mindfulness of my patterns to break the cycle. Food doesn’t take the stress away. It releases dopamine which makes me feel better, but then I gain weight, which makes me feel worse for longer, plus adds more work I need to do to get back on track.
- Cut back with friends. Spending too much time out at restaurants or socializing over decadent food is a bad habit. I slowed it down, plus control my portions better. After the first couple weeks of calorie restriction, your stomach shrinks down a bit and makes future weeks much easier. Now, I get full on 1 & ½ pieces of pizza, where before I could easily crush 4
Before you move onto this second step of the nutrition journey, I highly recommend you take some time and just try to observe your own behaviors. Be mindful of what you are doing. What is motivating you to behave as you do around food? What is your relationship like with it? Why have past attempts not worked out?
In the end, you have to work with what you have. Maintaining healthy weight and controlling how much you eat is a tough climb, so it’s best to address your behaviors and personality stuff FIRST, then move on to the bigger challenges.
Simple Tactics to Reduce Calories
We’ve laid out our strategy. We’ve redefined what healthy food is. We’re going to eat properly balanced meals frequently throughout the day. Now I know to reduce my calories to 1800 each day to achieve a goal weight of 205 in 17-33 weeks.
It’s time to discuss the tactics. What specifically are we going to do to get those calories down? What has to be true if I want my daily caloric intake to only be 1800?
We’ve made up a short list of some SUPER easy steps to take to help reduce your calories. These are easy moves. They break some bad habits and build some new ones without much resistance.
Always Think In The Camp Fire Mindset
A calorie is a calorie, sure, but we want to ensure we are eating enough of each target macronutrient. Most of our calories should come from protein and healthy fats. A bowl of Lucky Charms is 150 calories but is all simple carbs. Nutrition must come first!
Keep the Food in the Kitchen, Not on the Table
It’s too easy to scoop food and be enticed by it when it’s in front of your face. At mealtime, keep extra servings of food out of view. The small extra step of having to get up will usually be enough for many people.
If you’re out at a restaurant, ask for the to go box WITH your meal. Place half of it in there. At most restaurants, you are DEFINITELY going to be over the calories per meal. Some restaurant meals are close to the calories PER DAY most people need.
A simple tactic to reducing your calories without rocking your world is to just simply start reducing your portions. Set your plate up like you normally would, painting the picture of what you are going to eat. Then put back a scoop or two. That simple action can shave off 100-200 calories per meal, which could quickly equal your 500 deficit.
Make sure you get permission from everyone else at the table before you put food back into the serving dish… you can’t double dip!
Have Light Beer or Diet Booze Drinks
When I was at my peak weight loss days, long before children or marriage, I would get made fun of for how I’d make up my mixed drinks. I’d do a calorie-free flavored drink (think Crystal Light - gross I know) and mix that with Vodka. I often have Southern Comfort and DIET Coke.
It seems silly, but remember you’re getting about 9 calories per gram of booze, or about 70 calories per shot. A mixed drink can be upwards of 400 calories. That’s what most people should be getting from a meal.
Having fewer drinks, or moving to low-calorie alcoholic drinks helps.
Avoid Unnecessary Calories Like Sugary Drinks and Sodas
Here’s my simple opinion on fluids: If something you drink has more than say 50 calories in it, it’s technically food. You should NOT have drinks that contribute significantly to your calorie intake. Substituting water, plain coffee (vs the franken-sundaes they’ve turned into), or a low-calorie drink like real coconut water will provide a SIGNIFICANT reduction in calories.
Properly made smoothies can be a low-calorie meal or snack substitutes. Use a good protein powder, or better yet some Fage Greek Yogurt (fat and protein) along with fruits and vegetables in a reasonable serving size, and you can have a filling meal for 200-300 calories. Subbing out a meal like breakfast or lunch for a smoothie just once a day may be enough to put you at a healthy calorie level.
Meal Replacement Shakes
Using a properly made, healthy nutritional shake is another tactic in reducing weight. This provides nutrients you need at even less calories than smoothies, especially if it is mixed with something no or low calorie (water or homemade almond milk). Many people love our Complete Nutritional Shake as an option. We love it because it’s formulated correctly and has real quality controls, which is something that can’t be said for many meal replacement shakes!
What If You Go Over?
We’re all human. You’re going to have a bad day.
Some people recommend cheat days. I don’t think they’re a good idea. A cheat day turns into a cheat weekend and then it’s your birthday, then Thanksgiving, then you’re crying and shaking in a corner because you haven’t eaten a dozen cookies yet today.
The Rock (who seems to be an awesome guy) has some EPIC cheat days. The guy is SO very disciplined, he allows himself 1 single cheat day where he goes ABSOLUTELY MAD. Here’s a picture:
We’re not The Rock. We don’t have the discipline to be The Rock, nor the eyebrows. Because we’re not going to be so conservative with our calories, we can’t really afford to be liberal with it either.
There are three options for you, if you do fail to meet your calorie intake for the day:
- Reduce your calories an equal amount more the next day
- Do extra physical activity to negate those effects
- Take the hit, get back on course, but realize you just pushed out your timetable a wee bit
Before I met my lovely wife, I remember hating junk food. I tell people this and they look at me like I have 3 heads. I hated junk food because I felt like I would have to work out harder or make more sacrifices later to enjoy the junk food. It was a big waste to me. That’s a pretty decent mindset, if you can get into it. Look at unhealthy food as a cause of the pain you have to go through to eat better.
Getting Back on the Nutritional Track
We’re moving the needle now. We’re stepping through our nutritional understanding to help you get and forever stay on track.
From redefining a healthy food, to balancing each meal and snack to better satiate you, to now monitoring your caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight, we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Common sense. Small changes. Behavior and patterns addressed first. These are the drums we beat.
These concepts are simple. Diets are easy. Maintaining a healthy weight is simple, but not easy. You can do it, and we’ve got your back.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth