I tend not to give very specific eating guidelines, mostly because every body is unique and every person has unique needs, goals, tastes, cultural traditions and local food systems.
I want you to learn to tune into your own body and how it responds to what you eat, and it’s REALLY hard to do that when someone is telling you that foods are good or bad, or that you should or shouldn’t eat such and such.
I don’t believe there are any truly bad foods. Even processed simple carbs can be beneficial for some people and in some circumstances (specifically recovery from starvation/anorexia, participation in endurance sports, or in the case of malabsorption and digestive problems that make it difficult to keep weight on).
For every study showing that a food is ‘unhealthy’, there’s another study showing that it’s ‘healthy’.
So I won’t tell you what to eat and what not to eat.
How to Get Started
If you’ve been struggling with diets, feel overwhelmed with all the conflicting information out there, just feel hopeless and fed up: forget EVERYTHING you’ve learned about food. Toss out ALL the rules, right now. Use my metabolic calculator to figure out how many calories your body needs to support your activity and a healthy weight (it’s probably a lot more than you think, and in many cases more than you’ve conditioned yourself to eat), and then just eat *whatever you want* within your calorie needs. For a few weeks you will probably go crazy eating all the foods you’ve been denying yourself for months or years. But after a while, you will notice that those foods are less and less appealing. You will start to want to eat a more balanced and rich variety of foods. Vegetables will probably start sounding appetizing. You can still eat those ‘bad’ foods (except that they’re not bad) whenever you want. But you’ll find that you don’t want them all the time any more. It’s true. It really happens this way. Just ask the people who’ve tried it!
Your body isn’t your enemy and if you start actually listening to it and letting it guide you, you will learn so much about how foods affect your own individual biochemistry. Pay attention to energy levels, digestion, recovery after workouts, and all the other little signals it sends you that you’re on the right or wrong path. You are your own guru!
Want to know more about this approach to eating? Check out Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2 for another take on escaping the mental maze.
This is such a wonderfully clear, simple post! Thank you Amber! And it’s absolutely true. I’m sure you’re aware of how much back-lash this kind of thing is capable of producing, so I just wanted to pipe up with something positive. People get really, really, REALLY scared when you say this kind of stuff.
And that metabolic calculator that you link to totally blew my mind when I first found it a few months ago – because the way it’s laid out, it’s impossible to avoid/misunderstand that your *activity level* matters. Most “calorie calculators” will give you your BMR – basal metabolic rate – and then encourage you to shave 500 cals off of THAT to lose weight. In reality, when activity is factored in, this creates a deficit of between 1000-2000 calories a day – completely unhealthy, unsustainable, and a fast track to impressive initial loss followed by metabolic slow-down and weight regain. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to develop a full-blown eating disorder, in which case the disorder – NOT you – sustains the extreme deficit and then you maybe die. Sometimes I feel like shouting out, “It’s the TDEE, people! Total daily energy expenditure! TOTAL! You subtract the calories from THAT!” Aiiee.
YES! I followed this advice, and after 5 months of eating the food, my metabolism is healing, I feel better and I am eating like a normal person. Thankyou Amber, I do believe you saved my life! xx
Hey, so we eat the basal calorie amount Cos my expenditure was like 4,500 cals..I really need some guidance
The bigger number. That’s the one that accounts for your activity level. The lower number only accounts for keeping you alive (like in a coma).
Wow!! Thanks for replying, it just seems like a huge amount
I would love to follow your block through facebook. How do I do that?
I think negative backlash would come from people who have not tried eating the food. I love the calorie counters you posted. I was using a food log that had me eating under 2000 calories a day, while lifting and running at the least a half marathon schedule. I suspect some sites are not well adapted to more serious athletic endeavors.
The calorie counters put me between 2300 and 2600 a day. Diet recovery 2 was an eye opener. I just ate ice cream for the first time in over a year. My weight is up. my smallest jeans still fit. My work outs are more energetic and productive. And, I’m much less annoying than when I ran around saying, “I don’t eat that.” Yes, I even annoyed myself. Thank You.
Thanks Amber. I like that calculator- puts me between 600 and 900 calories more than other calculations I’ve seen. When you commented that you track calories to ensure a minimum, that struck a chord for me. I still sometimes have trouble eating enough.
What do you recommend to get appetite up, when even unrestricted access to tasty foods isn’t enough? Anything aside from eating more often, being more active, stocking up on tasty food, those usual suspects?
Thanks for explaining it! I’m so grateful to have found something that might explain what’s been going on with me for all of these years. I am tired of being sick and wimpy. I’m ready to be healthy and strong again!
This is the best calculator, much better than the ones that make you decide between “sedentary” and “active.”
Thanks for the great info and the link to the calculator. Maybe I am just being dense here, but if my calculations say I should be consuming around 2,700 cal per day and currently I am consuming around 1700, why does it seem like I am gaining a couple pounds every week? I am definitely one of those “have tried everything” people: macronutrient restriction, ketogenic, vegan, meatarian, etc. Yet, it seems all the “science” (especially basic biochem) still points to calories in vs calories out as the main determining factor in weight loss. I am a new reader and I am wondering whether your take on it all is the need to increase physical activity? Do you recommend intense exercise every day?
I recommend physical activity every day for metabolic health, but it doesn’t need to be intense. I have an idea of what’s going on with you, read this blog post and see if it rings any bells: https://gokaleo.com/2013/01/25/adrenal-fatigue-as-a-cover-for-starvation/
What does it say your Basal Metabolic Rate is? Is it somewhere around 1400-1600? Eating only 1700 will ensure your body holds onto all the weight it can, because the deficit is too great – especially if you’ve restricted to such a varied extent, as you say. Yes, the “science” is correct in terms of calories, but the science is only accurate when you’re looking at a metabolically “normal” person. Severe restriction changes things; your metabolism adapts. It’s not broken though. Try going up to 2500 and adding in 300 calories “worth” of exercise – you’ll probably appear to gain weight for about a month, most of which will be water, and then your metabolism should come back up and stabilize and then in theory your weight will start coming down. I say in theory, because if you’ve restricted for a long time then your body may have more physical damage than you know, and it might take a while to repair that.
Oops, about the exercise, I meant to add “every other day, and don’t worry too much about the exact calories.” Gokaleo’s exercise recommendations are spot-on. Rest is just as important.
Thanks! The adrenal fatigue article is very interesting because a self-diagnosis of debilitating “adrenal fatigue” is why I stopped doing crossfit.
@Neesha – thank you for that. It would explain why for whole years in the past I was able to “eat whatever I wanted” and be quite thin. Now it seems like when I eat a significant amount more (like holidays) I gain 5 pounds immediately. I have also been wondering why I have had so little motivation to get back into an exercise routine – maybe because my cal intake was too low. I am definitely going to try eating more and get back into strength training.
Thanks for the link. I must say…..it makes me nervous. Not only with the amount of calories – but the idea of tracking my food for a week or so to get a more accurate account. I keep saying I’m going to do it (the tracking) but it seriously makes me a little crazy doing it. Maybe this week.
Keep doing what you do. It is much appreciated.
Ok GoKaleo i keep coming back to you – I’ve read Matt stone, and alas can’t justifiably classify myself as a fad dieter – but would love an excuse to eat even more ice-cream!!!! I love eating, have a good homemade diet just not enough fruit and veg, and from your last reply to me on FB I accept I ought to do a bit of food/calorie logging. My fitbit has helped me realise I don’t sleep nearly enough usually 6 hours, but too often fewer than 5. But how does BREASTFEEDING fit into your calculators little wheels? Currently feeding 8mo several feeds a day/night and a 36 mo 1-2 guzzly feeds. I previously saw bf as a secret calorie-burning weapon…..
Add 500 calories a day (give or take) to support breastfeeding.
Thank you, will do. Hey ho!
I’m just like this. I love Matt Stone for giving me an excuse to eat more ice-cream, but have not been prone to fad dieting…except for a 6 week stint against the middle aged middle, per Eades. I’ve dabbled in Schwarzbein, Special K, and general portion control. I’ve certainly had periods of time when I was a food-nazi and felt guilty for giving my kids frosted mini wheats for breakfast because they weren’t soaked or sprouted. So, I’ve had my share of food issues, but my love of food and cooking never allowed me to be strict about it all for very long. His advice has helped me get rid of any of the remnant of that, but I cannot justify eating more than I need, just to gain until an undetermined time when it will all just miraculously fall off. I’ve gained a few pounds, have improved a few health issues (I think it’s from the reduced stress of thinking about food quality all the time), but some have stayed or gotten a bit worse (skin).
So I need to move forward. Stress, sleep and exercise are the three areas that need more attention from me, for sure.
HA! Sarah! You just described me
Ha, ha. I’m sure we’re not alone either.
I’ve never counted calories before, but think I should for a week or so. I’m maintaining my weight at the moment I think, or still adding very slowly. My temps are good, stress level and sleep are variable (have 4 kids, a small business…pretty stressful sometimes). I am at a healthy weight of about 145, but fluffy and in need of more activity, which sounds good. What is the best approach (calorie-wise), if I want to get leaner and work on the problem areas, but not lighter? Do I eat at maintainance, surplus or deficit? I plan to do my weights 1 or 2 times per week, and add in some gardening and walking this spring/summer.
I used to count calories and it was the only thing that ever helped me lose weight. I did try one fad diet and it resulted in weight gain. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and counting calories causes me extreme anxiety, but luckily I already learned how much I should be eating in a day. I use measuring spoons for high calorie foods such as oils, but I eyeball most things. I’m learning to listen to my body. Hopefully I will be able to lose the weight I gained from the fad diet. I don’t follow any gurus anymore! I used to take them all seriously – people like Mark Sisson, David Wolfe, Matt Monarch, Daniel Vitalis, etc. No more! I’ve learned that no diet out there fits me. I eat what works for me, not what people tell me should work for me. Thank you for your wisdom!
I am currently 111 kg and my target would be 75 kg. Should I input my current weight into the calculator and deduct 300-600 calories or should I use the my target weight instead? I understand the numbers I get isn’t final. I would still need to find the sweet spot.
“You can still eat those 'bad' foods (except that they're not bad) whenever you want. But you'll find that you don't want them all the time any more.” Nope, not true for a sugar addict. That is like telling an alcoholic they can drink as much as they want and eventually they won’t want to drink anymore. Absolutely not true for me. I *have* to eliminate sweets or I am “off the wagon” and on crazy sugar binges for weeks on end. (Even fruit can trigger it.) It never goes away for me. YMMV.
‘Sugar addiction’: one of the greatest myths created by the fad diet industry to date.
I’ve been binging on sweets since I was 16. I didn’t even know what a diet industry was then and had never “dieted”. Didn’t diet until the constant gorging on processed chocolate food day and night caused me to continously gain weight through my 20s (eating whatever I wanted, not restricting). Perhaps you need a blog post on this topic because I’m confused. I will eat sweets until my stomach physically hurts and then I am ill for hours. I can’t stop at one or even 10. I will go buy more and more every day, thinking about going to the store for the next round while I’m still eating the current. It doesn’t go away. It’s been 20+ years now. I’ve tried the not restricting thing and it just causes more and more weight gain and a spiral of constantly thinking about sweets, all. day. long. (When I remove it from my diet, I don’t think about it at all or crave it and eat at normal frequencies.) Perhaps this is not the norm for most but seems a bit disingenuous to just toss it off as industry B.S.
Gracie, I have heard that these insane cravings for sweets can be caused by a vitamin deficiency. You might look into that. Sometimes as simple as a magnesium deficiency could cause it.
I recently had all kinds of nutritional testing done but don’t have results yet. I’d love that to be all it is. (In this case though, I don’t think it is Mag as I do supplement with a highly absorbed form. We’ll see!)
So you’re supplementing now and not having cravings?
I’ve been supplementing Mag since August. Just had a chocolate binge from Christmas through 2 weeks ago. (The damn Reeses PB Trees, then Hearts, now Eggs). It only stopped because I stayed out of the grocery store for a full week purposely so I wouldn’t buy them or something else sugary. I’m not craving sugar now but I’ve not had anything sweet since. (The first few days were rough.)
Here’s my take on ‘sugar addiction’: humans are biologically programmed to seek out (and enjoy) sweet foods, because historically, sweet foods provided the fuel necessary to support our high level of physical activity. We’re no longer as physically active, so sweet foods aren’t as necessary, but our brains are still wired to seek out sweet. Calling what is essentially a normal biological drive an ‘addiction’ is a way to shame people.
As our culture becomes less religious, diet dogma has stepped in to fill the moralistic void. Sugar is the Great Evil, and eating sugar is the Great Sin. I think sugar vilifications causes more problems than sugar itself.
All that said, if what you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it!
Thanks for your thoughts. Hmmm, well what I am doing is keeping me sane, in terms of not thinking about my next sugar fix 24/7. (I know you don’t like to think of it in terms of addiction, but as an ex-smoker, it fits perfectly for me.) I can function in between meals without roaming the cupboards for something sweet and I don’t feel like I’ll pass out if I don’t eat something immediately. However, I’m still far too overweight. So clearly, I still need to figure something out.
Gracie, I am the EXACT same way. I cannot stop myself when I am on the sugar wagon. I’ve tried. I’m in my mid-30’s and if there was some way, ANY way, for me to be able to “moderate” my sugar intake, I would have found it. I’ve been binging since I was a teenager and there were only 2 times in 20 years that I’ve not been plagued by the sugar demon. Both times I was off sugar and all processed food. Reading your words really helped me. I know that, regardless of what anyone says, I am not alone. Thank you.
Nichole – saw this study today. I don’t think we’re alone. “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward”. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000698#.UUIK9AXKEv8.facebook
Exactly. The desire for sugar is hard-wired into our brains. For millions of years, it served an evolutionary advantage. It is not pathological or shameful. Leave it to our culture to pathologize a trait that has served an evolutionary purpose and led to our species’ survival and success. Much like body fat.
And because I know someone will interpret this as ‘go binge on twinkies’, that’s not what i’m saying. I’m saying stop shaming yourself for something that is completely natural and normal.
So true about what you said when you stop forbidding yourself food, you may start craving/gorging on certain things before leveling out. For me, it was peanut butter. I would want to polish the entire jar sometimes. Then it was a week of apples. Then chocolate. Now I just know not to deprive myself.
My only issue is with the recommendation to use a “canned” calorie counter to determine intake. They are hopelessly flawed. It might be better to log intake for a couple of weeks and then match that. If I ate at the level of calories predicted for me with that calculator I would gain weight. If folks can find a place that does the testing, the 10 min CO2 basal metabolic rate test would be optimal.
This one is less canned than others as it takes you activity level into account. That said, it’s not 100% foolproof and I’ve had it overshoot AND undershoot clients, although not by much, and fo rmost people it’s really pretty dead on.
How do you know for sure that you’d gain? Have you tried it?
For quite a lengthy period in 2009 I logged all of my foods. I was still LC at the time but experimenting with other plans, and even during my weight loss I did “cheats” (terrible word for just eating whatever I wanted to on occasion). I found I could eat the same amount of other stuff and not gain, but if I ate more, I gained weight. I do believe I had achieved a new homeostasis around 1500-1600 cal/day where I could go up to almost 1800 for a few days and naturally compensate so I didn’t gain (or lose). To lose weight I needed to be in the 1000-1200 range.
This is one area where I have differences with Matt Stone & Company because I’ve seen little if any evidence that eating more raises one’s metabolism w/o weight gain. I think if you are switching to a more whole foods diet, especially a heavily veg one, the effective calories might be lower so it appears you can eat more, but other than that this hasn’t been my experience. And my metabolism has never been super high to begin with before I ever thought of dieting.
So if I were to try to eat 2300 cal/day for a month? I’d be buying bigger pants. Eventually my metabolism would be higher, but I’d be fatter too.
There’s plenty of valid scientific evidence that undereating/starvation can depress metabolic function. One doesn’t need to believe that overeating will raise metabolism to believe that undereating will depress it.
I’m more of the opinion that increasing lean mass will raise metabolism, and eating at a small surplus while strength training is the best way to do that. I know some people claim that women can’t build muscle, but I’ve got studies that show otherwise.
These women gained 4.4 pounds of lean mass in 12 weeks:
PS: I agree that a metabolic test would be the best way to determine your daily calorie expenditure.
How do you get such a test? I’d be curious.
If you are healthy, and strong, what’s wrong with bigger pants and a little bit more fat?
I’m having such a hard time with this. I started “eating the food” in Jan 2013 after being Paleo for years, and having little luck dropping weight, which I absolutely need to do. A recent whole 30 was great for dropping 10 lbs, but too difficult to maintain with a toddler and full time job. I just started eating food. I started feeling more energetic immediately and generally felt better. I began yoga and kettle ball and I’m loving it. I began to notice my clothes feeling tighter, my workouts more uncomfortable and generally pudgy. I try to avoid the scale on a regular basis, but weighed this morning. 12 lbs' How can eating loads of fruit, veggies, real food and exercise put me up 12 lbs? I’m 250 now, there’s no doubt this is fat gain, and I need to lose lots of weight. I don’t think I can bear the self doubt this extra weight has created. I like eating beans, quinoa, sweet potatoes, fruit, yogurt…. all these things that were forbidden in Paleo-land. I’m loosely tracking my calories, and I’m doing 1800-2200 per day. I’m feeling horrible about this and I can’t get my mind off the pudge, tight pants and the number on the scale. I want to be healthy, work out and eat right, I just must be missing something.
That sounds really frustrating, Jill. There’s some bright spots: you’re feeling more energetic and enjoying your workouts (HUGE!), and it sounds like this is a more sustainable eating style for you.
Do you have any health issues?
It might be a good idea to track more ‘strictly’ for a few days to see if your intake is really what you think it is.
I’m interested in doing this, and I’ve been eating whatever, whenever, and however I want for about 2 months now. I had been holding steady at the same (too high) weight until this last week. We also moved this last week, so I think stress has more to do with the gain (about 5 pounds) and eating out too much more than anything.
However, I have a question. I currently weigh 233, and I put in an ideal of 170 (I’m 5’7″ and muscular under the fat, so at 20% body fat I get about 165 as my “ideal”, which is why it’s so high). My TEE at my current weight is 3,600 kcal, with a BMR of 2000. For the ideal of 170, I have a TEE of 2,800 and BMR of 1600. Which do I start with? It’s a large gap! Do I eat the TEE of my ideal weight? Do I cut off 500 kcal from the TEE at my current weight, and keep dropping that until I hit my ideal? The difference is 800kcal, which is enough I’m worried I’ll damage my metabolism (which is only just starting to heal!) and I don’t want that! Please help with some recommendations!
Anna, it sounds like you’re exactly where I was when I started! An 800 calorie deficit at the stage you’re at is perfectly reasonable (a deficit that large becomes problematic when you get closer to your goal weight, but for now it’s fine), so setting your calorie target at 2800 should be ok. That’s essentially what I did! Give that a few weeks and see what happens. If you don’t start losing (slowly) let me know and we’ll brainstorm.
PS: I wouldn’t worry too much about the 5 move-related pounds, it’s probably mostly water.
Thanks! I set it for my current activity level, which is a decent amount of walking (I’m a teacher, I “circle” a lot) but not much else. Think if I add some short-duration weight training (think kettlebells) that it will make a significant difference in calorie needs? I’m talking maybe 10 minutes of high effort. I used to crossfit, but I’m not in financial or physical shape to do it any more, and I want to start slow. I’m more interested in getting healthy for long term than short, now.
Yes, even 10 minutes a day of high intensity exercise can make a difference in calorie needs! Sounds like you’ve got all the pieces in place, I think you’re gonna do GREAT.
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I’ve been following your facebook page and blog posts for some time, but somehow just now stumbled upon this one.
I used the metabolic calculator. My “daily expenditure” is 2x’s more than the calories I usually eat per day. Is that ok…? I mean I guess my question is, so I know this… what’s next
Here’s the data:
I usually consume around 1300 cal/day…
154 pds, 28 years old, female, 5’1
Do I need to up my calorie intake Does being hypothyroid and having a ridiculously slow metabolism factor in here at all?
Please help. I am at the end of my rope….
Hi Amber, I read your blog regularly and love it. I’m studying to become an ACE-certified personal trainer and wanting to stab myself in the eye with a fork regarding the nutrition chapter after reading your blog, plus numerous paleo/primal/weston price-esque info over the past few years. My question for you is, after using the health calculator you recommend, my caloric intake number is 2600 roughly. The government calculator however, estimates my daily needs as being 2000. Do you have an opinion on this discrepancy? Like, if I wanted to lose weight, a 2000 calorie diet would feel just fine, but I know from experience that I’d be a hot mess on a 1500 calorie diet. Any insight you can offer on this subject would be greatly appreciated.
The govt. calc gives me 2600 to maintain my current weight, which is several hundred too low but still FAR better than most calcs out there. I encourage my clients to experiment and eat as much as the can while still allowing for gradual weight loss.
Thank you Amber!