Many people have been asking me questions about daily caloric intake recently. The funny thing is I could give 5 people with similar goals the same daily caloric total solution, and it may only work for one of them. Understanding the basic math that a pound of fat = 3,500 calories is important to determine a baseline and to be able to be consistent, but perhaps more important is to STAY consistent and monitor changes that occur in YOUR body over time.
For example, many of you decide "I want to lose a pound of fat per week" and therefore create a 500 calorie deficit at the end of every day by working out and eating right. This "should" work -- but your weight doesn't budge. Then you add 400 calories back, and all of a sudden you bust through a plateau. However, another person with the same weight might have benefited from your original 500 calorie plan because of the weirdest factors, like the types of workouts you are doing, when and what you are eating (that one isn't so weird), climate and elevation, internal temperature, lifestyle, and even average daily stress level. Some people lose weight when stressed out, others gain weight.
So WHAT DO WE DO? Well - I gave you the answer. "Pick a number" that isn't too extreme, and see how your body reacts, and then take note and adjust accordingly.
I can tell you one thing though - in general, extreme calorie cuts and extreme calorie surpluses will never give you the body you want. And by extreme, I might even mean anywhere above or below 400 calorie deficit or surplus. That is going to be the first part of my discussion today, and the second will be "micro" energy surplus and deficit throughout the day -- the little peaks and valleys in your daily energy level. There is some disagreement about the first point, but little to no disagreement about my second point.
The first most important factor:
These conclusions I am about to make are primarily for people who are working out daily, or at least 4-6 times a week. The truth is good diet without exercise will lead to being HEALTHY but not necessarily getting you the BODY you want. So if you want to read on, you have to realize what I'm about to tell you is reliant on the fact that you are already active (which most of you are!)
Moderation in Your Daily Energy Deficit/Surplus
What if I told you that someone with a devastating case of anorexia might have a higher body fat percentage than you do?
If you want to look what we call "toned" (who doesn't?) there is a balance of building muscle and burning fat, which can only happen in a healthy eating situation. What we are all striving for is to have a very high percentage of our body weight be "lean mass," which is muscle, bone, connective tissue, etc. - everything but fat. Having a high percentage lean mass and low percentage body fat not only makes us better performers, but makes us look how we want to look (there is definitely an evolutionary connection there :) )
So how can someone with severe anorexia have a higher than average body fat percentage? Well even someone who is 80 lbs, if that person has hardly any muscle, which is a side effect of extreme caloric deficit, the percentage of that body composition as fat will be quite high. So it's important to know that to achieve healthy weight loss, muscle must be sustained while fat is burned, and likewise, with more muscle performance in your workouts will increase, which will only lead to better results!
A very interesting study was conducted in 2000 among female athletes. Four groups of athletes were polled on their daily caloric intake. Gymnasts were averaging over 500 calories in deficit, rhythmic gymnasts were averaging 600-800 calories in deficit, middle distance runners were averaging between 200 surplus or 200 deficit, and finally long distance runners were averaging mostly over 400 calorie surplus (because of carb loading most likely). Body fat % was measured among all 4 groups, and the middle distance runners consistently had the leanest body mass - whether they were 200 over, or 200 under their daily caloric balance! The type of training for a middle distance runner (5k's and 10k's) needs both anaerobic and aerobic energy pathways, as does the training for a gymnast, so it is safe to say that both were training in similar manners, yet diet was a huge factor in the development of lean body mass.
What can you take from this? If you are doing p90x, Insanity, Turbo Fire, ChaLEAN - any of these Beachbody programs which - let's be honest, are HARD work! - you might be better off keeping your calories in check within 200 calories in either direction of perfect balance.
Deficit/Surplus Within a Day
As I said, the above point may be somewhat controversial - but I assure you, if you are heading into a plateau, give it a try and see what happens!
However, the point that several smaller meals, versus 3 big meals, during the course of the day is a preferable course is nearly inrefutable!! Take a 1996 study of Boxers - two groups were formed. Both groups netted the same daily calories, but one group ate 6 equal value meals, and the other ate 2. Consistently the 6-meal group had a leaner body mass. A similar study with wrestlers showed the athletes that ate 6 smaller meals had a high resting metabolism.
But - another study showed that most people will fall back into the eating pattern they are most familiar with over time. For example, the athletes in a study which clearly proved 6 small meals a day was a valuable schedule mainly went back to their usual diet of 3 big meals, with dinner being the largest after the study.
That is just human nature - to fall back into our old patterns!
In general having a huge energy surplus for too long will lead to the storage of fat (eating a ton early and not exercising until late), and being in a deficit for too long will lead to muscle catabolism (going through long hours without eating and working out while hungry). Obviously both states are undesirable.
For me, the ideal time to workout is either 8:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. One of the primary reasons for this is that it is easy to refuel after both those times. If you do the 8:00 a.m., I advocate a very small, carb breakfast an hour before the workout, and then your big breakfast afterward. Likewise, if you workout at 11:00, I'd advocate a big breakfast 3.5 hours earlier, a small pre-workout snack around 10:00, and then a big meal after the workout.
Answering a Couple Questions about You and Your Shakeology
I do have to say - for people doing the 5 or 6 meals a day plan, having a Shakeology shake as one of the meals is perfect. I know a few of you have been telling me that you are hungry after a couple hours after taking your shakes, but if you actually look at the "fine print," Shakeology is meant to replace a meal in the 5-meal a day structure. if you have 3 big meals and make one the shake you might run the risk of being in caloric deficit partway through the day. I alternate between having mine around 12:00ish or around 3:30ish depending on my daily schedule.
Your Body Might Be Smarter Than You
Last thing I'll say, if you are working out vigilantly and you find you are hungry throughout the day - you probably aren't eating enough. If you have a lot of weight yet to lose, a few hunger pangs are ok - it might just be the fact that your stomach is used to being enlarged (do you remember when I talked about Ghrelin, the hormone that controls stomach size a couple weeks ago?). But in general, if for a whole week you find you are hungry throughout the day, seriously - it's ok to up your calories.
So - again - EVERYTHING is about balance. Your body won't like you if you start cutting out 1,000 calories a day for extended periods of time. Yes, doing cleanses, the TurboFire "inferno" diet, or reducing calories here and there is fine, but I wouldn't do that while doing intense physical activity - save it for recovery weeks! Additionally, remember that the studies I referenced were done on athletes. BUT if you are doing any Beachbody program, you can consider yourself at some level, an athlete. The workouts are no joke and especially for anyone in Shaun T's camp, you need to eat to have the fuel your body needs!
I've told you this before, but I started getting closer to the body I wanted (I'm still working on it!) when I turned my mind less onto "how much weight can I lose???" to "how can I best perform in the workouts?" When I focused on a diet that was balanced and gave me the energy I needed to get through my workouts, not only did my performance improve, but my body improved too.