For someone who has always claimed to be bad at math, my life these days is governed by numbers.
Let me start with the big picture. Based on my age, height, weight, and activity level, I’ve calculated my total daily energy expenditure–or how many calories I burn per day–to be approximately 2,000 calories. I’m currently in a fat loss phase of my workout. Simply put, if I want to lose weight, I need to consume fewer calories than I burn.
I believe in moderate calorie restriction; cut too many calories while following a regular workout schedule, and your body won’t have the energy it needs for exercise. So I’m cutting 300 calories per day, which means I’m consuming 1,700 calories per day. (The photo above is of yesterday’s caloric and nutrient intake; I recalculated this morning based on recent weight loss and adjusted accordingly.) A pound of fat equals roughly 3,500 calories, so my current diet should equate to about half a pound to two-thirds of a pound of weight loss per week. I say should because there are so many factors involved in weight loss that it can be unpredictable from week to week. A month is a better window for measuring progress. Several months is even better.
When dividing my calories by macronutrients–carbohydrates, protein, and fat–I follow three simple rules. First of all, I get 50% of my daily calories from carbs. Carbs are our bodies’ primary fuel source, and when I don’t get enough, I feel it during my workouts. Second, I eat as close to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight as I can. This comes out to 25% of my daily calories. I spent most of the past year building muscle, and while losing weight, protein helps to minimize muscle loss. Finally, I spend the remainder of my daily calories–25% of the total, in this case–on healthy fats.
Ideally, I would divide that day’s calories among four meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. But that’s pretty hard to do unless I plan out my meals days in advance (which I frequently do) and do all of the cooking myself. I add calories burned through cardio exercise to my total calorie allowance, giving myself anywhere between 130 and 300 calories of wiggle room, depending on that day’s workout.
I weigh or measure measure almost everything I cook at home. This gives me a pretty good amount of control over the calories and nutrients I’m consuming. It’s obviously harder when I eat out or order in. In those cases I estimate. I try to estimate conservatively, because it’s really easy to underestimate the calories in a dish.
What I eat changes from day to day, though I tend to eat a lot of similar snacks: bananas, apples, almonds, Greek yogurt. I also almost always start the day with a smoothie containing a cup of skim milk, a handful of kale or spinach, a half cup of rolled oats, a cup of frozen blueberries, a tablespoon of chia seeds, and a 15-gram scoop of pea protein powder. This comes out to about 480 calories, 69 grams of carbs, 32 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fat (57%, 26%, and 17% of my daily calories, respectively). The slightly higher percentage of carbs and slightly lower percentage of fat ensures plenty of energy and gives me room for higher-fat meals (like dinner). Smoothies are great because they’re so customizable; it’s easy to adjust quantities and ingredients depending on my meal plan for the rest of the day.
To stay hydrated, I drink 13 cups of water a day. On days that I do intense cardio, I drink an additional two cups for every pound I lose through sweating. (This means weighing myself when I arrive at and when I leave the gym.) I like to drink out of Mason jars because they make measuring easy and make me look super hip in blog posts.
Okay: Why did I just detail all of this boring information for you? I guess partly to show that, while weight loss or maintenance or gain is more or less a simple formula, it requires a decent amount of commitment and attention to diet and exercise. (Duh, right?)
But I also want to stress that this isn’t about being hyper disciplined or anything like that. In my past few years of really focusing on my diet, I’ve found that moderation is key. 300 calories spread out over the course of four meals is just 75 calories per meal. 75 calories is a little more than half a tablespoon of oil, or a tablespoon of salad dressing. And 300 calories can be burned through about 30 minutes of jogging.
And another thing: While tracking calories makes weight loss or gain easier (and apps make the tracking process itself very simple), it’s not 100% necessary to either. Slightly changing maybe two daily habits–one nutritional, and one physical–makes a difference. If you’re trying to lose weight, swap dessert for an apple, use a smaller plate, eat more protein and fiber with breakfast, take the stairs, or park farther away. If you’re trying to build muscle or gain weight, add a nutritious snack, use a bigger plate, have an extra serving of carbs, or slightly reduce cardio. Hopefully this grueling discussion of numbers shows how little changes can add up.