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Health and Nutrition

How to Find the Right Amount to Eat

Determine how much you need to meet your training needs

Steph Saullo, RDN | October 30, 2017

How much do you need to eat? You can Google this question and get a few million results. A big chunk of those results points you to calculators to estimate your metabolic rate based off the Harris-Benedict equation and others that ask you to input your gender, age, height, weight, and activity level, and then it spits out a number.

The amount of food required to sustain life is different for everyone and you can do variations of calculations all day and still end up with a number that doesn't work for you. There are other factors that these important formulas don’t take into consideration: genetics, your general state of health, stress, environmental factors, and any medications you might be taking.

As an athlete, you need to consider the volume and intensity of your training as well your performance goals, so simply typing your basic info into a few fields on the Internet is not going to give you an accurate answer.

With all of that said, how do you get an accurate number and do you even need an accurate number? Then if you were to get an accurate number, do you need to track calories and macronutrients to keep your weight in check and perform your best?

Numbers Not Needed

Energy requirements are unique to the individual but that doesn’t mean you need to track every morsel of food you consume. There are tons of apps on the market now so it seems easy and logical, but tracking takes time. It's tedious. It can be overwhelming. It can make you feel trapped. It's not a sustainable undertaking.

Some athletes come to me with a false sense that they need to track. Some use it as an unnecessary crutch when they don't trust themselves around food. If this is you, know that you do not need to be dependent on tracking. It may take some getting used to, but with time you can rid yourself of counting calories and grams of protein.

Calculations can be helpful to get a sense of how many calories you need in a day; however, the body is its own computer.

We are human and were born with cues that orchestrate our food intake. If you listen, it will tell you what it needs and guide you to eat the right amounts. It's called intuitive eating. Some days we need less (e.g., off days) and others we require more (e.g., high-intensity training days).

For many, listening to internal signals is difficult because we have fallen out of touch with our hunger cues. Instead of listening to our bodies, we eat because it's time for lunch or because we are bored, tired, or upset, among other feelings. We eat distracted in front of the television, at our desks, or on the go. Sometimes we don't even remember what we ate or how it tasted.

At other times, we skip meals because our training volume decreased or we didn't exercise hard enough to "deserve" that snack. Unfortunately, these mindsets are common and don't get us very far when it comes to training. In fact, this mindset can set your efforts back.

Getting back in touch with your hunger cues can help you to facilitate a better relationship with food, your body, and as a bonus it can help you to adequately fuel to optimize your performance.

OK, No Numbers. But Why a 2,000-Calorie Diet?

The values for nutrient needs (Percent Daily Value) on a Nutrition Facts Label are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This number was chosen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because it represented a nice round number that was somewhat close to an amount men and women reportedly consumed, it is/was commonly used to develop food plans, and it is easier to use for nutrition education purposes. But it is a number that does not necessarily represent how much you should eat.

As mentioned, calorie requirements are highly individual. You might require 2,000 calories a day or you might require a bit more or less. Even if you don't know exactly how many calories you require in a day, you can utilize the Nutrition Facts Label to find certain foods that are high or low in certain nutrients.

For example, if you need to incorporate more calcium into your diet, you can use the Nutrition Facts Label to determine if a particular food is a good choice when it comes to calcium. If the Daily Value listed for calcium is 5 percent or less, you can assume that the food is low in calcium. If the Daily Value is greater than 20 percent, the food would be considered high in calcium.

The Starting Block

Understanding why you eat and how you eat is a process, especially if you have forgotten what hunger feels like, so where do you begin?

First, if you are struggling with disordered eating behaviors, emotional eating, or body acceptance, please reach out to a therapist or other supportive person or group for help. If you've simply been eating by the clock or under constant distraction, here are a few steps you can take to help increase your awareness around eating and food.

  • Get rid of food rules and forget about diets: If you only eat white foods, are avoiding sugar, or see foods as "good" and "bad," throw these notions away. Food rules are unreasonable and interrupt any healthy relationship with food.
  • Eat without distractions: We are all busy, so fitting in your favorite television show or scrolling through social media while also eating helps you to fit more into your day. Unfortunately, when you do other things while you eat, it becomes more difficult to hear what your body is telling you. It's almost like trying to read while simultaneously singing along at a concert.
  • Eat if hungry: If you are full, stop. If you ignore hunger, you'll eventually overeat. If you ignore fullness, you'll feel uncomfortable.
  • Be satisfied: If you want a cookie, don't eat a piece of celery. By eating the cookie when you want the cookie, you'll be content and satisfied. If you deny yourself treats or consider certain foods forbidden, you could actually end up overeating them. A common-sense, flexible approach to treats is more realistic and will lead to healthier habits.
  • Be kind to yourself: Remember the Golden Rule? Treat others the way you want to be treated. In this case, "others" is your body.

If you aren't sure about hunger and fullness cues, you can utilize this hunger scale to help guide you. Ideally, you should feel like a three or four before eating and a five or six after eating. It will take effort and practice, but eventually you will be able to really gauge your internal signals with ease.

Eating should bring you pleasure, not worry. You shouldn't have to obsess over what and how much to eat even if you are an athlete and regardless of your training level. If you find that you are really stuck, seek out a registered dietitian who understands the concept of intuitive eating for assistance.

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About the Author—Steph Saullo, RDN

Steph Saullo is the performance dietitian at RITTER Sports Performance. She is a registered dietitian nutritionist, has a master of science degree in food and nutrition, and specializes in nutrition for athletes of all ages and levels. She believes that although quality nutrition is a basis for health, there’s also room for cookies (or insert favorite food here). Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @StephSaullo or like RITTER Sports Performance’s Facebook page for updates and tips.

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