On the heels of last week’s blog post, weight loss & running, let’s talk about calories. We get tons of questions asking how many calories to eat. We all know runners <or were that runner> following 1,200 calorie weight-loss diets while trying to train. Or, thinking we should consistently eat 2,000 calories a day not thinking about the running mileage that is piling up each week. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and there may be factors you haven’t considered when it comes to determining your calorie needs. Let’s take a look into calories together.

The Problem with Counting Calories

Calories are a unit of energy and come from carbohydrates, protein, fat & alcohol. Last week, we discussed the main principle behind weight loss, you need to expend more energy than you consume (calories out > calories in). But, it’s not that simple. It’s actually very complex. There are LOTS of ways that we can under or overestimate calories & plenty of ways our body can adjust how many calories it needs for different activities if we under-fuel it long enough.

Calories In

Did you know that nutrition facts labels can be off 20% and still be considered accurate? That margin of error means the difference in 200 calories vs. 240 calories in a serving of your favorite snack. Multiply that by X foods that you eat in a day, and you can be looking at hundreds of calories different from what you thought you were eating. There’s also human error in estimation. As a whole, humans usually underestimate portion sizes and overestimate calories burned through exercise, leading to much less of an energy deficit (if any deficit at all).

Calories Out

There are many factors that determine how many calories you burn in a day, including heart rate, body temperature, weight, hormones, body composition, exercise & NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis aka activities of daily living). These factors vary by individual and some change on a day-to-day basis. We know that extreme caloric restrictions, large intra-day energy deficits, hormone changes, excessive stress or exercise, and lack of sleep can change our body’s calorie burn through all of these factors.

But can't my smart watch accurately estimate my calories out?

Smartwatches estimate calories burned based on heart rate, however, the estimations can vary greatly between different brands of watches, the temperature outside, cadence lock, etc. The number you see is truly an estimation, and you should not rely on this for accuracy.

Calories for runners

Most Americans have heard of the recommendation to consume 2,000 calories per day for an adult. This number was determined by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) as a standard for the average adult. It might be a good place to start for some people but varies based on height, sex, weight, activity level, etc. As runners, we are not the average American. We are asking our bodies to perform at a high level, requiring more energy. Calorie needs for runners can range from 1800 – 4000+ calories per day.

Does timing matter?

The average American has a very calorie-heavy back-end of their day (i.e. little to no breakfast & lunch and then eats a large dinner & snacks at night). If you remember from last week – any periods during the day with large calorie deficits actually have negative consequences for men & women. There are certainly better ways to time your nutrition and distribute your calories throughout the day. Balancing your nutrition intake throughout the day and surrounding exercise with supportive nutrition is best for body composition, performance, recovery and injury prevention. Give your body what it needs, when it needs it. Do not ‘save’ calories for dinner & beyond, especially if you are running, lifting, or cross training in the mornings.

Mental health considerations

Counting calories or tracking nutrition may work for some people, while it can be detrimental to others. Or, what may start out as helpful accountability & self-education can turn into unhelpful or even harmful to your mental health, and thus, your performance. Counting calories can lead to an obsession with numbers and restriction. That is why I generally recommend NOT focusing on calories. There are other ways we can get the right amount of nutrition to support your daily life & performance goals.

Shift your mindset

Instead of focusing on calories, think about supporting your body for daily life & performance. Your meals should have a balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fat, and color. This balance will help keep you satiated and support your performance goals. You should surround your exercise with solid nutrition to provide fuel for the work you are doing & for recovery. Once you start to make this shift, great things will happen!

How do I know if I'm eating the right amount of calories?

You are eating 3 meals per day + snacks if you need them

Your meals are balanced with carbs, protein, healthy fat & color

You are fueling before + after exercise

You are nailing your protein at all meals

You aren’t binging in the afternoon/evening

You aren’t starving at any point in the day

You aren’t overly full after meals

You aren’t waking up at night hungry

You feel good and well-fueled during exercise

If you need help moving away from calorie counting & focusing on supportive nutrition for your daily life & performance, complete a coaching application to work with Meghann!

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Disclaimer: The content in our blog articles provides generalized nutrition guidance. The information above may not apply to everyone. For personalized recommendations, please reach out to your sports dietitian. Individuals who may chose to implement nutrition changes agree that Featherstone Nutrition is not responsible for any injury, damage or loss related to those changes or participation.