I had a reminder yesterday about how important it is to have a ballpark idea of how many calories you burn. After a week focusing on the other reasons we eat besides hunger – – stress, boredom, or my personal specialty-procrastination – – I did a metabolism test for someone. The test measures how many calories are burned at rest, and then I add an estimate for activity to get a grand total for an average 24 hour day.
A perfect candidate for the test, Katie (not her real name) has been trying to lose weight for a while now, and in the past has lost and gained several times. She just couldn’t ever get the weight to stay down. In fact, while working out regularly, she has stopped losing altogether.
Learning that she has been aiming for 1200 calories, and some days only eating about 1000, I suspected that the reason the weight wouldn’t move was probably not a low metabolism. Why? Because 1200 calories a day will cause almost anyone to lose weight at a good rate, but . . . very few people can keep eating like that. Usually those who try will lose and gain like Katie, and never get anywhere, because they are on and off of the 1200 calories plan. I asked her, “Are there days when you don’t track?” Her response – “Yes.”
That was when I recommended the test. It infuses logic into the plan. When we did the test, it showed that she burns about 2000 calories a day. That means that 1200 calories should be causing a 1.5 pound loss per week. The problem was that she could not eat just 1200 calories continuously for more than a few days. I couldn’t either! That’s why I would almost never recommend aiming for such a low figure. It is a setup for failure, along with all of the negative emotions that arise when the reason is not clear.
My point? It’s not so important how quickly you can theoretically lose at a given calorie level. What you actually can do is so much more valuable. How many calories do you need to keep from being hungry? . . . and how will you incorporate foods you like within the calories you have to work with?
In Katie’s case, we decided that 1500 would be a good place to start. I expect that she will have fewer highs and lows, and more days she is willing to track. With that comes more logic, and more predictable results.
Of course, logic will not take care of the more human side of eating. If Katie is like most of the people I know, including myself, a good plan will only provide a reasonable starting point. She will need to continue practicing how the plan should bend and flex to fit into her unpredictable life . . . and how to proceed when the plan seems impossible to follow. While those are the more challenging refinements of any lifestyle change, having a logical starting point is certainly the first step.