Despite the stupid and unhealthy fad diets out there, there is only one plan that will result in healthy weight loss: “Eat less and exercise more.” (I know some of you are rationalizing fad diets by thinking, “Me/so-and-so lost X number of pounds on Y diet.” But I propose that 1. You did eat less on that crazy diet, and 2. it is not a healthy plan and 3. will not work long term.) So when Chad started the 40 X 40 project, we focused on, you guessed it, eating less and exercising more. We set primary and secondary calorie goals (for weekdays and weekend days) that would cut his calories, but not have him lose too dramatically. While 1-2# of loss per week is recommended, Chad started at such a high weight that he was able to lose more than that while still eating a healthy diet of meals and snacks. This was also due to his starting to exercise like a fiend, which gave him extra calories.
So now he’s down to 2010 calories per day, plus the calories he earns by exercising. Due to the 600+ calories he earns by exercise and the fact he is still working with a calorie deficit to continue to lose weight, he comes pretty close to the range for an active male of his age group recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.
But that isn’t the whole story. When you are trying to lose weight, or even maintain your weight, it is important to use your calories wisely. There are two things to consider here: the nutrition density of those calories, which I will address at a later time, and how your calories are spread throughout the day, which is today’s topic.
- Logically, let’s start with breakfast. It’s not just a meal; more and more studies are showing that it really IS the most important meal of the the day. Having a breakfast with whole grains, protein and healthy fats provides fuel and nutrition to keep you both energized and full until lunch. (There are even a few small studies showing if you have a small amount of something sweet, it may help you keep your junk food cravings in check. NOTE: These are new studies, and have small sample sizes. It is still not wise to have a doughnut and a caramel latte with whip for breakfast!) Chad’s breakfasts are a good start to his healthy day, and he tries to stay around 400 calories. A couple examples:
Banana+Trail mix+Granola bar+Coffee=~400 calories
Toasted peanut butter sandwich=~440 calories
- Chad’s lunches probably vary more than any of his other meals. He will often have meetings over lunch where a meal is provided, and it is often unhealthy. He will either bring a lunch (made and packed by his personal chef) or try and eat responsibly. He tries to keep this meal around 500 calories. The time of his lunch also varies, which can impact the rest of his meal pattern.
- Because he usually works into the evening or doesn’t start working out until most people are finishing dinner, he has a snack in the afternoon. Note that this is not a “treat” like a candy bar, but a “snack,” a healthy, mini-meal. (I feel the blending of these two terms is one of the many things that has gotten us into the food culture problems we are in today.) His snack might be some beef jerky, or some low-fat cheese with crackers or pretzels and is between 100-200 calories. (This is a pretty good snack calorie range for almost anyone.)
- If you have done the math, he has eaten about 1100 calories up to this point. He still has at least 800-900 calories left in his day, almost half of his total. While this division of calories may not be ideal, it works well for us for a few reasons.
- First, our main meal continues to be supper, though some think that isn’t the wisest way to set up a meal pattern. Because we are food geeks, we like to have different ethnic dishes and new foods often, and we tend to do that cooking in the evening, giving us more food than someone who perhaps made a TV dinner. (Though I often use leftovers for the next day’s lunch, so we do not eat 6 servings between the two of us.)
- Second, we may sometimes eat late, but we also stay up late. There are sometimes we don’t eat dinner until 8 PM, so on the days we eat at 6 PM, we may still have a light snack.
- Third, as we are of legal drinking age and live in the alcohol-rich culture that is Wisconsin, we often have a cocktail or wine with dinner.
- Fourth, there are days when Chad still ends the day with calories to spare, meaning not all of the 2010 are eaten; this is also more likely if he had a large workout that day.)
This plan has worked well for Chad, who has reported to me often that he is not starving, and can easily handle the plan as it stands. Chad is obviously not like anyone else, as no two people are the same. This is why I encourage people to look at their own daily schedule and activity patterns to determine what their meal pattern should be… and then stick to it!
Quick story: My meals are generally the same time every day, but there is an occasional weekday where I get to sleep in. I workout, and end up having an early lunch as my first meal of the day. Despite how big or small or healthy that meal is, I’m “off” all day! I seem to be hungry all the time, and never feel quite satisfied, even right after a meal! I have learned this about myself, and therefore try to avoid that, or be sure I eat a snack before I workout; that extra snack can make all the difference in how I feel for the rest of the day.
When people “on the street” ask how many calories they should eat, or how often, or when, I don’t mean to blow them off when I don’t give them a straight, complete answer. There is a lot involved. Let’s say you want to eat 2000 calories per day; a 600 calorie breakfast, lunch and dinner will still give you 200 calories to eat as a snack. But what is your daily schedule? What if you workout hard that day? What if you want two snacks? Or no snacks? How many waking hours do you have to account for? How long after you wake up do you usually eat? When do you go to bed, and how long before that is your last meal? Knowing your desired calorie intake is a great first step (especially with more caloric information posted at restaurants,) but pay attention to your body as you choose your next steps, and develop a meal pattern that works for YOU.