How much food is just right?

June 1, 2009

This is a question that seems to circulate around and around our heads day after day without any clear answer. Look all over the Internet and you’ll find hundreds of calculators to determine basal metabolic rate and what our calorie allowance can be if we do x amount of exercise. And each of these calculators can vary from the next by as much as 500 calories. Five hundred calories can go a long way when you consider that adding or subtracting that many from your diet every day can cause a gain or loss of 1 lbs a week.

Walking up and down the magazine aisle in any store, it’s obvious that these calculators aren’t helping us. The stories are all out on how we can lose 10 lbs fast, get in shape for “bikini season”, and how to give the illusion that we’ve lost weight with well-fitted clothing. We don’t know our bodies. We don’t know when to stop eating. We don’t even know when to start eating, judging by the number of people who do not eat breakfast in the morning.

“Is this enough? Is this too much?” I have a fair amount of people who like to tell me what they have eaten today (which, to be honest, I love. There’s something really fascinating about hearing what people eat. I’m a foodie at heart!), and much of the time they’ll conclude with “is that okay? Is that the right amount to eat?”

This article in the Globe and Mail identifies that Canadians- and, I’m sure, North Americans/Westerners in general could be lumped in this as well- are not getting any smaller, even though we are apparently eating a little less than we did several years ago. That being said, even though we’re eating less than we did, we still eat too much. Far more than is necessary.

When I was waiting in the airport in Phnom Penh on Thursday, I passed the time by people-watching. One of the first observations I made was how much bigger the foreigners were compared to the locals. I hadn’t noticed it as much when I was living there because there just aren’t that many Westerners wandering the streets, but at the airport there were many foreigners and just a few locals behind the counters. It’s not as though all of the foreigners were overweight- but there was an obvious difference in living a life of excess. Carrying around just a little bit of extra, unnecessary weight. We don’t know when to stop eating, and we’ve got so many options available to us that it’s convenient for every day to be a non-stop eating fest.

Diets are shrinking, so why aren’t we? states that we consume roughly 2,382 calories each day, which is reportedly too much for the average person. Many diets and eating plans recommend consuming about 1,400 calories to lose weight. Some go as low as 1,200, and other plans are adamant that 1,200 is far too low and could cause all kinds of metabolic problems.

The problem is that height, weight, body shape, how much we exercise/the type of exercise we do, and how much we eat/what we eat, along with many other factors, all makes a difference. That’s the issue with many diet plans. They are designed so that many people can follow them- but what works for one person very likely will not work for the next.

I have gone anywhere from a time in my life of eating only about 1,000 calories a day to a time of eating nearly 3,000 a day. That is a huge amount of fluctuation, especially because each of these times lasted for at least a couple months. But they were at different moments in my life when more or fewer calories were necessary to keep me fueled.

Although I have spent the last five weeks eating mostly at restaurants, now that I’m back home and able to weight myself, I discovered that I’ve maintained my weight without any difference. That’s a victory right there. I’m still writing down everything that I eat and guesstimating my calories, which might have been a big part of maintaining my weight simply because I myself don’t always know when to stop eating, but I think I’m on the right track.

I like having a general idea of how much I “should” have, and yes, that means I check those metabolic rate calculators any chance I get (because numbers are fun when they involve health issues!). If I didn’t track that in my head or on paper, or consider just how much I’m eating on a regular basis, then I’m not so sure that I would be able to instinctively know when to start and stop. The very fact that my weight had been creeping upwards until a couple years ago is perfect evidence of that. And I still follow the old tricks that every diet/health book advises: when you’re eating with other people, pace yourselves with the slowest eater; eat every few hours to keep your metabolism going and to prevent yourself from overeating later on; don’t eat a big meal right before going to bed; a portion of meat is the size of a deck of cards and so on and so forth.

Do you know how much you need to eat intuitively? Do you like to keep a record of it or track it in your head? How do you know how much food is just right?

Don’t forget to answer this month’s poll regarding medication and supplements!


  1. My strategy is to eat the right foods in abundance, avoid the wrong ones. Once my body realizes that it’s going to continue getting lots of nutrients in their natural state, my appetite will decrease by itself and I will automatically eat less. You can’t measure this! It’s working very well for me… and I’m losing weight nicely even though I’m technically still overeating.

  2. I k now Ive yammered about this too many times but Im finally at the intuitive point.
    That isnt to say I cant mess with that (hello this weekend, party for Toddler, cupcakes!!) by eating too much junk and throwing my intuition off—-but for the most part Ive finally gotten it right.

    for me.

  3. I sort of keep a running total of calories in my head. It’s more a question of being mindful of what I’m eating than of limiting myself at this point. Mostly I like to keep up, because then I know when I can splurge. 🙂 (Like I might have if Miz had bothered to offer me any cupcakes.)

    Glad you made it home safely, Sagan.

  4. I’m working on the intuition and I think I’m getting it pretty much right.

    A great read is The Don’t Go Hungry Diet by Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis. She talks about how our bodies regulate calorie intake through appetite, that little thing many of us westerners have totally lost touch with.

  5. That’s great, Sagan!! You have that body and brain “set point.”

    I can go for months, and usually do, without weighing myself. I stay very consistent, and I feel it’s a good plan.

  6. Hanlie- I’ve found something very similar; when I eat real/whole foods, I can eat huge amounts of them without it having a very great effect.

    MizFit- “for me”: love that 🙂

    Cammy- I want in on those cupcakes, too…

    Berni- ooh thank you for the recommendation, I’ll look into that.

    Dr. J- consistency is so important!

  7. I have a similar thing going on to Hanlie.

    I have no idea how many calories I actually need. I’ve done the online calculators and they seem high. But I think sometimes I underestimate how much I eat. When I do sit down and try to count out the day, it ends up being way higher than I’d expected.

    When I eat crap, I feel like crap, and I can’t eat much. When I eat whole foods, I feel awesome (most of the time), I can eat a lot, but I often eat too much because there aren’t any side effects (aside from the miserable fullness from my oft-mentioned nighttime eating). When I say “too much”, I just mean that I stuff myself because I like eating and I have no foresight to realize that being too full feels like yuck.

    I like this topic 🙂 Very interesting to me.

  8. Welcome home Sagan!
    Gosh, this is a topic you could write a whole encyclopedia about! I’ve read so many stduies linking calorie-restriction with longevity and healthfulness, that I am bound to believe it! Plus, I have experienced it myself. I don’t count calories, but I feel my most energetic and better overall when I’m eating “light”. I heard that the scientist who pioneered the calorie-restriction studies himself consumes like 900 cal/day, and he’s in top healthy condition! Last time I say a dietitian, she calculated I ate about 500-600 cal/day. Sounds like so little, but it’s enough for me. I eat mostly veg and I graze around all day… how that doesn’t add up to more, is beyond me! I work out about 2.5 hours a day too, so I don’t understand how 600 cal/day can support that. But I’ve been living like this for about 3 years now and I’ve never felt better. In fact, when I eat more (like I did this weekend) I honestly feel like poo for the next couple of days (like I do right now). My tummy hates me, I feel bloaded and lethargic… it’s weird!

  9. Well, I’m finding that I do know how much I need to eat. Sometimes the problem is that I know I should stop, but I still don’t. Often the problem is that I’m at odds with how much I’ve actually eaten and what I think I should be able to fit. Because of this I’ve sometimes justified more food based on the calories if I served ‘one portion’ and only managed to fit half and it varies meal to meal and day to day. So I think there is truth in Berni’s comment above that the body regulates calories through hunger and satiety over time.

  10. I always over due it on my calorie intake when I go over 3 hours without eating. Once my blood sugar gets to low i grab the highest calorie food i can find justifying it with “well i am hungry and behind on calories.” Thanks for all the great info…As I down a slim fast because i was to busy today and don’t want to skip a meal.

  11. This is an interesting topic indeed as too many people I know today get too caught up in counting calories instead of consulting their intuition – conscious intuition that is.

    It is so true as you say, people eat way too much today, but I believe this all points to our life habits in general.

    Personally, I am a firm believer of conscious eating. When we eat consciously we naturally choose better food choices, natural foods specifically and we also are more in tune with our innate needs. Our bodies never lie, they know how much we need and when. Unfortunately listening to popular media is one of the most confusing things. It is a whole other story when we listen blindly to our emotions or taste buds or other people.

    While there can be recommendations this way or that way, ultimately all of our bodies have amazing balance systems to regulate our food intake, but we have to get in tune with our bodies and really start listening to them, first and foremost.

  12. This is a tough one. Especially because most westerners’ intuition for how much they should eat is totally wrong! So how do you change something as, well, intuitive, as intuition?

    For me, I was able to do that through counting calories. It helped me understand how much I’m eating, and change my diet so that I’m eating the “right” amount of food for me. Over time, I got used to this, and my intuition changed. I’m still amazed when I go on vacation and find that I haven’t gained weight.

    Now, having said all that, I’ve been counting my calories recently again because I want to put on some muscle and I find that I have to fight intuition to get a few extra calorie in every day. But your right, numbers are fun (that is, if you’re a data geek like me).

  13. Nice to have you back, Sagan!

    For years, I struggled to learn the best way to eat for me. During my year as Shape magazine’s Weight-Loss Diarist, I finally mastered it. But it’s still easy to get thrown off by stress, deadines, a string of parties or a week’s vacation.

    What works for me — right now — is smaller, more frequent meals of mostly fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and complex carbs. My dietitian taught me to ask myself before every meal, “Where’s my vegetable? Where’s my protein?” By doing that, I feel great, I’m not hungry and my weight seems to naturally regulate.

    I can definitely feel the difference (from an energy perspective, not even a weight perspective) when I abandon this style of eating.

    Interesting topic!

  14. But you fail to mention how much more physical activity the locals are getting compared to the foreigners. If Cambodia is anything like the China country side that I visited, then you need to factor in all the walking and the freshly prepared food the locals as eating compared to the foreigners at home. With our desk job and love of convenience food, of course we come off looking bigger.

    I remember when my cousin from China washed her jacket on a HAND CRANKED washing machine. I just turn the dial when I want to wash something in at home. So even if I was eating the same amount of calories as my cousins in China, I would still have to say they will come out ahead because of all the physical activity (I am not talking about recreational activities like the gym or shopping) they have to do just for their basic living.

  15. Maggie- I’m with you on this! What we eat, we feel like.

    Marta- I had no idea you were on CR, that’s super interesting. It’s really fascinating the way we all vary so much in how much we need to keep our bodies running.

    Spring Girl- yes, there’s definitely some regulation in the body going on. Thank goodness for that, because otherwise it could (and often does anyways!) spin out of control for many people.

    Fitness Surfer- the EXACT same thing happened to me yesterday with almonds. Started cramming them in and poof, there goes a couple hundred calories like THAT.

    Evita- beautifully worded. Too many of us have formed very UNnatural habits.

    Monica- “So how do you change something as, well, intuitive, as intuition?” So true.

    Dara- I think you’re right about the energy, it makes a huge difference. That’s such a good idea to ask those questions beforehand to really think about it.

    Asithi- and this is very true. But, as a rule, they really don’t seem to eat nearly as much as we do, and their choices are often of the healthier variety. Granted, that could also be because it’s too damn hot to eat 🙂 But you’re absolutely right; the lifestyle activity is vastly different from the Western sedentary lifestyle.

  16. This is an excellent question! Like you my calorie intake has fluctuated depending on my needs at the time. Back when I was training for Ironman I ate a lot – and when I stopped training it took some time to get used to not eating as much. Changing diet and calorie consumption habits is challenging, but I find that by sticking to REAL FOODs (nothing in fancy packaging making scientific claims) is the best path for staying slim and eating well. 😀

  17. Sagan, what a fantastic post!

    I have been thinking about my food a lot lately (something I didn’t do much of before) and I think I do ok not calculating or keeping track of anything, but there are definitely times where I go over and my body tells me so! Which is a great feeling…i mean, that i recognize it, not when i eat too much..argh that’s the worst!

  18. What a fantastic post indeed!!! I love it , and couldn’t have imagined writing better! It was such a great read. I have been contemplating this same issue, with all this stigma on too less, too thin, too much, oversized-sometimes it can be so overwhelming!

  19. I eat when I am hungry and when I am not. But I am getting better with that. Trying to ask myself asm I hungry? or am I eating for others reasons, boredom,stress,anxiety etc.

  20. Squawkfox- hurrah real foods! My body gets so confused when it’s used to needing lots of fuel and then all the sudden I stop training. Poundage tries to package on.

    Rupal- eating too much makes me feel just as cranky as when I eat too little. But it’s great when our bodies recognize when to stop!

    bhealthier- I’m really glad you got something out of it. I agree, it can all be far too overwhelming.

    Kristisummer- when I know that I can’t deal with preventing the boredom/anxiety etc eating, I keep my hands busy. Sometimes asking myself if I’m hungry can prevent me from overeating, but other times I’ll just continue and feel bad. So keeping busy is important for me.

  21. Welcome back, Sagan!

    I think this is something I’m getting better at…but still not all the way there. I think sometimes (when I’m very active), I know I “have to” have a certain amount of calories, and I find myself eating when I’m not hungry. Now that my knee is hurt and I’ve had to take it easy, I’ve actually been doing better about listening to my hunger cues. It’s very difficult…but the more I do it, it does get easier!

  22. I mostly do this by hunger and appetite, but I still don’t eat everything I want anytime I want. I try to eat mostly whole food, some vegetables, huge amounts of fruit, a bit of bread, meat, cheese, beans, etc.

    I do step on the scale every day, and if it started rising, I would downgrade my appetite.

  23. i am desperately trying to get back to intuitive eating… i haven’t been on a scale, but i know i’ve put on some weight due to the way my clothes fit and i’m conscious of my eating when not hungry. i need to keep busy, so i don’t eat out of boredom, and get back some mental strength!

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