How many calories are you consuming?

In my last post I explained how you can estimate your daily calorie expenditure. So now you know how many calories you need to maintain your target weight we can take a look at how many calories you are actually consuming.

This requires some effort, but it really is worth it

This step will take some real work. You are going to have to start a food diary, weigh or estimate portion size and look up how many calories are in everything you eat. However it really is worth it, you will become much more aware of what you are eating.

My surprising discovery

I did this when I decided I didn’t want to hit 200lbs and needed to loose some weight. And what I discovered was stunning – at least it was to me at the time.

I had become quite comfortable with my routine of three trips to Starbucks everyday and I usually had something from the pastry case with my latte. I thought I was being sensible with a non-fat latte and occasionally opting for the healthy sounding apple bran muffin .

The lattes were only 100 calories each, so not a big deal, however each of the pastry case items was around 400 calories even the apple bran muffin was 350 calories. I was looking to get my weight back down to 175lbs which would be about 2500 calories a day. My trips to Starbucks accounted for about half of my calorie budget!

Start a food diary

The first step is to start a food diary – find a convenient place to record what you eat. I spend most of my life on a computer so I used Microsoft OneNote, but a notepad and pencil will do fine. Record what you eat and how much you eat for about a week. Don’t worry if it’s not quite perfect, you are just trying to get a rough idea here.

You may need to record the portion size as well. For instance if you sat in front of the TV with a bowl full of salted nuts you will need to know the approximate weight of the nuts. If however you ate a meal at big chain restaurants or out of a box or packet – then you will often be able to look up the calories for the whole meal. I invested $20 dollars in a digital kitchen scale.

Looking up the calories

Finding the calories for packaged foods is pretty easy – just look on the back of the packet. Pay close attention to serving size or number of servings – as the manufacturers idea of a serving may be different to yours.

If you have eaten a meal at a big chain restaurant you are in luck as they usually provide nutritional information online or in the restaurant. I got all my Starbucks nutritional information from their website:

The health care reform bill that President Barack Obama signed into law a year ago includes a provision requiring large chain restaurants to clearly post calorie counts.

There are also lots of great websites out there for looking up nutritional information. The definitive source is and there are lots of sites like which present this data in a nicer format.

And if all else fails you can just do a search on Google or Bing.

Taking stock

Do this for about a week and you will develop a good sense for the calories contained in the food you are eating – which is a very helpful skill. You will also know how big the gap is between your calorie consumption and your calorie expenditure. If you are anything like me, this will be a disturbingly large number. In future posts I will talk about how to address that gap.

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Estimating your daily calorie expenditure

As I mentioned in my last post about the three age-related weight gain challenges, the key to managing your weight is to balance energy input with your energy expenditure.

In this post we will take a look at the energy expenditure side of this equation. Once we understand approximately how many calories you are burning we can compare this to the number of calories you are consuming. I have included a simple calorie expenditure calculator below if you don’t feel like doing the math.

Resting Metabolic Rate

Your body requires energy just to keep you alive. So even when you are resting you are burning calories. This is known as the resting metabolic rate, RMR, or Resting Energy Expenditure, REE. There are many factors which affect your RMR, but the main ones are age, gender, height and weight. There are a number of formulas that can be used to estimate your RMR from these factors.

Mifflin – St Jeor Equation

The Harris – Benedict equation (1919) used to be the standard equation for calculating minimum calorie expenditure, but the more recent Mifflin – St Jeor equation (1990) is now considered to be the most accurate and is a better match for today’s typical diet and body composition. So we will use the Mifflin equation below.

REE = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years)
+ 5 if you are male
-161 if you are female

Activity Level

Given that you are likely doing a bit more than lying in bed all day, we will also want to factor in your activity level. If you live a typically sedentary lifestyle we multiply the REE number by 1.2, if on the other hand you are extremely active we multiple the number by 1.9. The calorie expenditure calulator below shows a range of activity levels, by judging where you are on this scale you can estimate your daily calorie expenditure.

Maintaining Your Current Weight

If you plug your current weight into the calorie expenditure calculator below then you will discover how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight. Consume more than that and you will get heavier, consume less than that and you will get lighter. Yes the mechanics of weight management really are that simple.

Reaching Your Target Rate

Now here’s the magic – plug in your target weight to the calorie expenditure calculator below and you will find out how many calories you should consume in order to reach your target weight. The trick here is not to just go on a diet, but to make a permanent change to your lifestyle – I will talk more about this in future posts.

Calorie Expenditure Calculator

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The three age-related weight gain challenges

Whether you are eating healthy food or unhealthy food you need to balance your energy input with your energy expenditure. If you are consuming more calories than you are burning, then you are going to struggle with weight gain and get a little more overweight every year.

Unfortunately as you get older multiple factors typically combine to create an imbalance:

  1. Your metabolism slows down
  2. You become less active
  3. You eat more

Your metabolism

Your metabolism starts slowing down after age thirty and levels off in your seventies. There is a 40% to 50% decline in muscle mass over this period which leads to a corresponding slowing of your metabolism. Scientists refer to this as sarcopenia and whilst they don’t all agree on the causes this decline is well established. This means that you will burn less calories.

Activity level

If you’re anything like me, you take things a little easier as the years go by. When I was younger I walked frequently and drove rarely; I played sports and rode my bike. But things change. Maybe you live too far away from your job to walk and there is a cafeteria in your office. You become too busy building a career or looking after your kids to find time for sports. And you watch TV to relax at the end of the day. You’re just not as active as you used to be.

Eating more

And its easy to end up eating more. Now you can afford to eat out more and the portion sizes are larger than they used to be. Eating out is your primary way to socialize with friends. You eat snacks in front of the TV. It seems like there’s a kids party every other week and there is always cake. Your daily routine involves one or more trips to Starbucks for a hand crafted beverage and a snack from the pastry case. You’re just eating more than you used to.

Quantifying the gap

So if you want to manage your weight you need to understand your calorie intake and calorie expenditure. Armed with that information you can make informed choices – splitting that desert with a friend just may not be enough to make a real difference.

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Welcome to Vegan Health and Fitness

Adopting a plant-based diet to lose weight, improve health and improve fitness is becoming increasing popular these days.

This site will help you understand how a vegan diet can help you reach your health and fitness goals.

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