ARTICLES         BOOKS         VIDEOS         LINKS         EDU PAGE         EVENTS         CONTACT

How to Determine How Many Calories to Eat
By Don Bennett, DAS

There are almost as many dietary recommendations as there are people. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but when you consider that every animal species has a species-specific diet, it's clear that with so many dietary recommendations for humans, there are many people who are miseducated (and many people who are eating the wrong diet for their species).

One reason for this is the almighty dollar. And that's the same reason that there are so many overweight people and people with chronic degenerative disease on this planet. And the sad part is that this doesn't have to be, yet it is.

The typical answer to this question that you'll find all over the Internet is, "It depends on your activity level. It also depends on the quality of the carbohydrates. I think the USDA has finally produced a food pyramid that makes pretty good sense." The USDA food pyramid?! The one that says we should be eating things we're not designed to eat, and some of those things are (were) living creatures like us! Hardly. Carbohydrate quality is important, but "let the buyer beware" applies to which information you consume. And lastly, it is correct to mention your activity level, but it leaves out some other important considerations, which this article will address.

Okay, with that out of the way, how do you decide how many calories you actually need?

First it should be noted that you can't consume calories any more than you could consume quarts. A calorie is a unit of measure, just like a gallon. If I asked you for a gallon, you'd no doubt ask me "a gallon of what?". But we think of the fuel we eat as "calories", even though calories is the fuel value of food. So although it's more correct to say "how many calories of food do you need" we'll use the shorthand version that everyone's comfortable with.

Since my goal is to get those I teach to try and answer questions for themselves so they needn't be dependent on others for the answer to their questions (because when you think with other people's brains, you could be getting some incorrect info and philosophies). So how would you have determined how many calories of food you should eat thousands of years ago? And how do other animals, who can't conceive of a "calorie", know how much food to eat? And how do little kids who also don't know about calories know when to eat? In a word, hunger!

But as with most things dietary, you'll hear many different opinions about hunger. Some say to not wait for hunger to eat, some think hunger is when there's growling and gurgling in the stomach, and others think hunger is when you get lightheaded. I've been researching diet and issues of health for over 40 years, but more important than the amount of time I've devoted to this, is my perspective. Initially I wanted to figure out what was the healthiest way to live so I could be the healthiest I could be. It was purely out of self-interest. But once I came to realize just how much I was being taken advantage of, for the sake of profit, and the expense of my health, I was also motivated to share with all those who would listen the empowering things I had discovered; it really frosts my cookies when people are taken advantage of, even if it's "nothing personal, it's just business" (and by-the-way, everything's personal).

So what I will share with you here comes from a place where there were no biases, no personal preferences, and nothing is being parroted having come from someone else (without me giving it careful and considered thought). Even though it means there's tons of research to do, there is great benefit to being an independent thinker, and not merely adopting someone else's programs, opinions, or philosophies. In a way, I'm thankful there was no Internet back then when I started my research, and that I knew nothing of the pioneers of healthful living. Learning to figure things out for myself has served me very well when trying to recognize the truth and separate the sense from the non-sense.

So even though this is just one of the recommendations out there, understanding where a recommendation comes from, at its heart, is important if you seek information that is reality-based.

Okay, first, the reasons why some health educators don't advise you to "wait until hunger" to eat...

* Many people do not know what true hunger feels like (a description of this is in this article).

* When you make a radical change in diet (from a very unhealthy diet to the healthiest of diets) while rebalancing and detoxification is going on, hunger may not work like it would when all is well.

* Certain health practitioners do not want you losing too much weight (because that might discourage you from pursuing the diet) so they advise eating X number of calories regardless of hunger. And if you find yourself gaining weight, then their advice is simply to be more active. (But this approach can be a recipe for disaster).

* [You may have to read this one a few times to be able to wrap your head around it] Since serious healing uses lots of nervous system energy (a.k.a. nerve energy), and since digestion also uses lots of nerve energy, and since you only have a finite amount of nerve energy available at any given day, if your body wants to be able to devote a maximal amount of nerve energy to healing, it needs you to not eat. This mechanism is evident when running a high fever (which your body initiates, not the pathogen it's dealing with). If you eat with a 104 degree fever, what happens? The food is tossed back out. Your body will not tolerate dialing down its healing efforts so that enough nerve energy is available to digest the food you just ate; what it's dealing with takes priority over the digestion of food. But when dealing with non-life threatening things, your body won't throw up the food you eat, even though it didn't want any food (it didn't make you hungry). But you ate anyway, so here, digestion takes precedence, and healing will be handicapped. But you're still ten years away from a diagnosis of cancer, so your body prioritizes accordingly. So if you're always eating ahead of hunger – eating "breakfast" or "lunch" or "dinner" whether hungry or not – how would you know if your body would rather you skip a few meals, or a few days of eating, so it can "catch up" on some much needed healing that it has gotten behind in? So if with your new dietary practices, you now decide to wait for real hunger to eat, and your body says, "Thank heavens! I needed this break!" you may find that you honestly don't get hungry for a few days. And if you've got some weight to lose, you might think this a good opportunity to lose some excess weight, but since any accumulated toxins are stored in fat cells, it might not be a good idea to lose weight as fast as not eating would allow, because this can result in some pretty intense "detox" symptoms, and although detox is never pleasant, it needs to be tolerable. So when trying to lose weight, it's actually better to get down to your ideal weight slowly, and then obey your hunger or lack of it. And if you're already at your normal weight when you adopt your new dietary practices – including eating only when truly hungry – if your body wants you to fast (not eat), this may be a good time to do so, but you will obviously lose weight, and if you don't know why you're not getting hungry and losing weight, you might think that your hunger mechanism is broken, or that this new diet of yours might not be for you, when neither one is the case.

Feeeew! I told you that last one was a brain buster. And if you're thinking, "Why is this so complicated!" it's because you were never meant to get into a state of ill health, never meant to eat an unnatural diet, never meant to be overweight, and never meant to live a life without enough sleep, activity, sunshine (for D), etc. So when you did, and then you want to turn things around and regain the health you lost, there is a bit of a learning curve, especially when doing this in our modern environment that isn't designed for doing this. Oh, it's still doable, and you'll be very glad you did it after you've regained the vitality you had as a child, but there's some learning (and unlearning) to do along the way.

So now you see the various reasons for people saying "don't wait for hunger" even though that's how we're designed to eat. But knowing this, you can better decide your course of action.

Calorie counting

One reason for calorie counting when adopting the healthiest of diets is not to be sure you don't overeat, it's to make sure you don't under-eat. Here's why.

The typical Western diet contains a lot of foods that have a high "calorie-per-bite" ratio, and this is partly because of the ratio of its calorie containing components to its water content. A high-fat, low-water-content food, or a high-complex-carb, low-water-content food will provide more calories per cubic inch than a high-water-content sweet food like sweet fruit. For example, ten cubic inches of pizza will have more calories than ten cubic inches of banana. So when we stop eating a diet of foods that are "calorically dense", and eat foods that aren't as calorically dense because of their higher water content, obviously if we eat the same volume of food, we'll get less calories. Now, this may be preferable if we've got some weight to lose, but if we don't, and we don't eat more volume than we're used to eating, we'll lose weight (assuming we weren't overeating on calories previously). If we become underweight, we may conclude that this "healthiest diet" isn't working for us.

There is also the issue of lost stomach elasticity, which can make it difficult at first to eat a diet of lower caloric density than you were used to. For more about this issue, see this article on my "banana page".

So in the beginning it's good to know how many calories you really need and how many calories you are really getting. There are free services that can help with tracking this. The one I use is an online service called FitDay.com  You set yourself up a free account, and then enter what you eat each day. It will also show you the ratio of carbs-to-fat-to-protein of the foods you ate for the day. You then average those ratios for the week (which FitDay doesn't do) to see what your average percentage of fat is in your diet (it should be between 8-18% for the week). You can instead write down on paper what you eat each day, and then enter this info once a week into your Fitday.com account as if you ate it all in one day. You then divide the number of calories by seven, and you'll have your average daily caloric intake. Plus, doing it this way lets you see your average-for-the-week of carbs-to-fat-to-protein ratio in a pie chart. This gives you an instant graphical representation of how much of your diet is fat.

By-the-way, why do I say that fat intake as a percentage of total calories should be 8-18%? Our bodies don't require a certain percentage of fat, they require a certain amount of fat. So two people, with the same ideal weight, could be eating a "low-fat" diet where 6% of total calories come from fat, and the active person is getting enough fat to meet their body's EFA needs, but the sedentary person, who eats less food than the active person is bumping up against an Omega-3 fatty acid insufficiency (and maybe an Essential Amino Acid insufficiency). So a "low" fat diet may be fine for an active person, but not for a not-active-enough person. And because of my research and outside-the-box thinking, this range of 8-18% has now been adopted as part of the Woodstock Fruit Festival's official definition of the low-fat raw vegan diet. Bottom line: Whether you're appropriately active or not-active enough, if your fat intake is, on average, 12% of total calories, and it's plant-based fat, and not cooked, you'll be fine. It's fat intakes of 40-60% that present a threat to health.


Megan Elizabeth talks about "But how many calories do I need?"

But how many calories do I need?

Knowing how many calories of food you're eating is meaningless unless you know how many calories of fuel you need. One method of determining your caloric need is to multiply your ideal weight in pounds (which may not necessarily be the weight you are now) by an "activity factor".

13-15 for "mildly active"

15-18 for "active"

18 or more for "athlete activity"

That will give you a ballpark figure; it's not an exact science for many reasons, one of which is digestive efficiency.

A note about digestive efficiency as it pertains to caloric needs

The notion of "it's simply calories in and calories out", besides not taking into account caloric quality, also doesn't address digestive efficiency. The better your body is at absorbing the caloric value of the food you eat (the sugars) the less calories of food you'll need to fuel your level of activity. And this translates into less food being needed (for fuel), which means less digestion, which means more nervous system energy is available for healing. But getting this (normal) level of digestive efficiency takes time, but it is something to look forward to. After over 20 years of eating an all-raw fruit-based diet+ I now need less calories worth of food to fuel the same level of activity, and my weight remains the same. By-the-way, the "+" in fruit-based diet+ refers to the other equally important requirements of robust health and to my motto of: Food matters... nutrition matters too. And since nutrition and food can be two separate issues in our modern, unnatural, environment, we not only need to eat the foods we're designed to eat, but also get the nutrients we're designed to require, and if that can't be accomplished from the foods we buy because of the way they're grown, we've got to get those nutrients from somewhere or suffer the consequences caused by long term insufficiencies. I ensure that I get enough by adding this nutritional adjunct to my diet, to compensate for the nutritionally sub-par fruit I'm buying.

Regardless of what method of calculation is used, it's an approximation at best.

So for a 100 pound person, it breaks down like this:

Mild activity (too low): 1300 - 1500 calories

Appropriately active: 1500 - 1800 calories

Heavy duty activity (too high): 1800+ calories

For a 160 pound person...

Mild activity (too low): 2000 - 2400 calories

Appropriately active: 2400 - 2900 calories

Heavy duty activity (too high): 2900+ calories

How to Determine Your Ideal Weight

To determine your ideal weight, you'd need to know your "frame size". To determine your frame size, and then use that to look up your ideal weight, click here.


Note: There are other factors involved in how much to eat...

* Are you getting enough sleep? (if not, calories eaten can become body fat)

* What foods are making up those calories that you're eating? (2000 calories of avocado is not the same as 2000 calories of banana).

* How much "critical" healing needs to be done? (You can't know about this fully, so this is why eating according to your physiological need – as opposed to a calculated need – helps you know if your body wants you to eat lightly during a period of time, or not eat at all for a day or two or three (or more). If you're being sure to "eat X number of calories a day", but your body wants you to not eat, or to eat less, as I explained above, these two things are incompatible. And if eating, or eating more food than your body wants to be eating, interferes with healing, that's obviously not a good thing.

* What kind of metabolism do you have, and how efficient are you at utilizing those calories of fuel?

Which brings me to...

Q: Are "metabolism types" something to consider when eating a healthy diet?

A: Your metabolism does not dictate the type of diet you should eat (contrary to what a lot of diet books say), but there is a difference in metabolisms as it regards eating a raw food diet. There are those like myself who can eat 4000 calories a day, burn 2500 calories a day and who are thin and will never be overweight. That is a very different metabolism than someone who will certainly gain weight if they overeat 1500 calories a day. And I'm careful to say that it is important for "fast metabolizers" like myself to eat according to hunger so they don't overeat, not because they'll gain weight, which they won't, but because it is a horrible waste of precious nerve energy to have to process unnecessary food (although it is harder to overeat on a 100% raw food diet than it is on a typical Western diet because of the calories-per-bite issue). "Slow metabolizers" – those who can just look at a photo of chocolate cake and gain five pounds – have the advantage of being able to gauge their food intake by the number on the scale when eating a healthy raw food diet, so they can stay at a good weight even if they don't pay attention to eating according to hunger. So that's why understanding your metabolism is important when eating a healthy diet, but that's the only reason.

There are a few things that can affect your metabolism. One is the genetic determination I just mentioned ("fast" or "slow" metabolizers), and this is set in stone. But there are two things that affect metabolism that you can do something about. One is to be appropriately fit. If you are appropriately muscled (meaning not under-muscled), your metabolism will be more towards normal. This can be accomplished by doing strength exercises, which only need to be done once a week. Another aspect to fitness that affects metabolism is simply being active on a daily basis. This will help to keep your metabolism closer to normal. And this doesn't have to consist of running, which can be detrimental to the body (sorry for the dose of reality if you're an avid runner, but this is something you need to consider if optimal "future health" is your goal). Some daily spirited walking is all that's needed to keep your metabolism closer to normal.

The other thing you have control over regarding having a normal metabolism is making sure the body has what it needs, nutritionally, to control metabolism properly. The master controller of your metabolism is the thyroid gland. All glands are heavy-duty users of iodine, and the thyroid gland is the biggest consumer of them all (in fact, it has the largest iodine requirement of any part of your body with breast tissue coming in a close second). If your iodine level is lower than normal, your metabolism can be lower than normal, and this will affect how much fat-weight your body holds onto. Indeed, people I've counseled who've tested low and then normalized their iodine and iodide levels found they could then lose "that last 15 pounds" they'd been having an impossible time losing. But here, a word to the wise is called for: Unlike D and B12 (which are not difficult to self-assess and self-correct), iodine should be dealt with under the guidance of an iodine literate health practitioner such as myself because there are many ways to go wrong, so unlike D and B12, here you could do more harm than good.

Some more enlightening Q&A

Q: I've heard it's impossible to be overweight when eating a raw, fruit-based diet, so if someone is eating this way, all this calorie info you're writing about it is unnecessary, true?

A: Not true. Although calories from a fruit-based diet are healthier than calories from a typical Western diet, certain laws of physics and biochemistry apply to both. And while it is more difficult to be overweight when eating a fruit-based diet compared to unhealthy diets, it is not impossible... anyone who has either failed to lose their slightly overweight condition or has gained some unwanted weight when eating a 100% raw, fruit-based diet will tell you that it can happen. One reason for this is the following scenario: You're eating more calories than you are "burning" (easier to do when sedentary and easier to do when eating calorie-rich fruits like dates), and your metabolism is "slow" either because it's DNA determined and/or you're a couch potato or have low iodine levels, so you'll have a slower than normal metabolism which "invites" excess fat stores. Point being, there are reasons that someone can hold onto too much fat weight when eating the diet they're designed to eat. And anyone who says otherwise does not have a firm grasp of the issue, or is teaching from a dogmatic and biased perspective as opposed to dealing with reality.

Q: I was told that if I am gaining unwanted weight [fat weight], it's not that I'm eating too many calories of fruit, it's that I am not being active enough. But this advice is different from what you talk about. Please shed some light on this.

A: This is an example of backwards advice. Yes, if you increase your physical activity to warrant eating the amounts of fruit you're eating, you won't become over-fat, but what if this level of physical activity is considered overdoing it (from your body's perspective, not from society's perspective). My approach to weight management is to be as active as we're designed to be – not too little and not too much – and then eat an appropriate amount of calories to fuel that appropriate level of activity. Sounds like sound advice, but to those who are addicted to being overactive (from the body's perspective), they will require an amount of food to fuel their level of activity that, in effect, taxes the body, what with having to process/digest more food than they would if they were appropriately active, which technically is wasteful of nerve energy (and food). And if there's one thing we've learned from those dubious caloric restriction studies, it's that the less overeating we do, and the more we eat closer to our appropriate needs, the longer we'll live. Another example of backward advice is this: You're being athletically active and requiring 6000 calories a day but you can't eat enough fruit in a day to supply 6000 calories, so the answer is to add processed sugar to your banana smoothie as a way to get enough calories.

What about the concept that requiring 6000 calories in a day is too much, and that it's not that you aren't getting enough calories, it's that you're getting too much physical activity. And when eating the diet you're designed to eat, a hint that you're overdoing the physical activity spoke of your health wheel is when you can't eat enough food to get enough calories to support that level of activity. So when someone's obvious answer is to add processed sugar to a normal meal, it means they have a bias towards being as active as they are, and are not likely to consider an alternative way of looking at the problem (intense endorphin-producing physical activity can be very addictive, to the point where it prevents the use of good judgment).

Q: It's said that an advantage to being active to "athletic" levels is that we will need to eat lots more food than if we were more moderately active, and in so doing, we'll get more nutrients and be less likely to get nutrient deficiencies. So isn't this an advantage of what you call being "overactive"?

A: Yes, it is. But if you consider all the advantages and disadvantages, the downsides far outweigh the upsides, and since the advantages can be obtained in a way that doesn't contain the disadvantages, on balance, being "athlete" active is not a health-enhancing thing to do, all-things-considered. So it's good if you can acknowledge that the foods from an agri-based food supply system are nutritionally sub-par, and that we need enough physical activity and enough nutrients. But it would also be in your best interest, health-wise, if you acknowledge that getting more physical activity than the body needs is just as bad as getting less nutrients than the body needs; overworking the body and under-nourishing the body are both things to be on the lookout for if optimal health is your most important goal.

Q: I've read in John McDougall's starch book that excess carbs don't become body fat. It says that whatever calories of carbs you ate during the day that weren't used as energy for the day or stored as glycogen in the muscles are burned off as body heat and through physical movement other than sports such as walking to work, typing, yard work, and fidgeting, and are not stored as fat. And only fat is stored as fat as a hedge against scarcity. How do you respond?

A: There are a lot of things John McDougall says that are 100% accurate and spot-on. This however is not one of them. Remember that he promotes a starch-based diet and says that an all-raw fruit-based diet is unhealthy, and that we are not designed to eat a fruit-based diet. So he already has a bias and is not dealing with reality even though I'm sure he feels that he is (a downside of being human). The diet humans are designed to eat is not a matter of opinion, it's a matter of fact, so how can a dozen very different versions of what a human is designed to eat all be correct... obviously they can't. So there are a lot of experts out there who are dead wrong, yet they're all relying on and speaking highly of published studies... so much for relying on studies to find the truth.

Let's try using the tools we all have in our toolboxes: our common sense, logic, and rational, unbiased, independent thinking. Does it make sense that the human body would store excess dietary fat as body fat as a hedge against scarcity, but not do the same with excess dietary carbs (since the fuel of choice for the cells are carbs)? No, it wouldn't make any sense at all. If the body wants a certain amount of body fat for insulation against cold, storage of toxins it can't easily excrete, or as a potential future fuel source, it won't care whether it fulfills that requirement using fat or carbs, although I can see it using excess fat first. And try imagining exactly how the body would "burn off" excess carbs that it didn't need for fuel, and didn't need to store on a day when you ate an excess 800 calories for example. Would your brain convince you to walk home from work rather than drive home on that day? Would it cause you to change your workout day from Friday to that day? Would you find yourself fidgeting or pacing a lot on that day? Would your body temperature be 101 degrees instead of 98.6 so you could give off more body heat on that day? This concept makes no sense at all, especially when you consider that we use calories very efficiently. What makes more sense is that a "fast" metabolizer that doesn't store body fat will excrete carbs it doesn't need for fuel and doesn't need to top off storage in muscles, rather than waste bodily resources to burn off the excess (just as it does with excess anything else, like nutrients). And whether it does this via urine or feces is irrelevant. But in a "slow" metabolizer, someone who gains weight easily, excess carbs would be converted to body fat and stored on organs and by increasing the size of fat cells. Empirical evidence proves this, and empirical evidence is hard to argue with (but obviously not impossible).

Bottom line

If you are eating an appropriate-fat, raw, vegan diet, it is difficult – but not impossible – to overeat to the point where you have too much fat weight. You'd have to be a couch potato, or have a "slow" metabolism for one reason or another (low iodine?), and possibly also have disordered sleep (not enough deep sleep). So as you can see, you need to look at all sides of the "caloric" issue. By-the-way, another reason for having more fat-weight than you should is eating X amount of calories because someone recommended it. And those people recommending a one-size-fits-all number of calories usually say that it's impossible to be overweight on a fruit-based diet. Trust me, it's NOT impossible; it happens. If you have a "slow" metabolism for one of the reasons mentioned, and are eating 3000 calories when your activity only warrants 2000, you will gain weight. This is why it's a good idea to eat according to your caloric need (but have an appropriate caloric need).

But now I look too thin!

When you lose unnecessary fat weight, and are then at your normal body fat content, you may look "too thin" in a full length mirror. This is not because you lost too much weight, but because when you were "over-fat" you were likely also under-muscled, but you couldn't notice it because of the over-fat condition. Now that you're at a normal body fat percentage, having less muscle than you should have is noticeable. If as you lost fat weight, you also gained muscle (because you also paid attention to your physical fitness), the number you see on the scale might not change all that much, as fat weight goes down and muscle weight comes up, but how you look will certainly change... and it'll be the kind of change where people who haven't seen you in a while will comment, "Wow, you look great!"

And last but not least, a fascinating factoid

Another factor that makes "counting calories" an inexact science is this: If you ate nothing but bananas, and you need, say, 2000 calories a day, you might be tempted to think that this equates to 20 bananas; assuming a banana is 100 calories. But a banana has a carb-to-fat-to-protein ratio of about 92/4/4 which means that "usable" calories is only 92 not 100; the 8% of total calories from fat and protein are not used for fuel (at least they are not supposed to be used for fuel; fat will only be used for fuel when all available stored carbs are used up, and protein will only be used for fuel when all available stored fat has been used up... and by-the-way, when fat and protein are needed for fuel, they will be essentially turned into a form of carbohydrate because that's what your cells run on). So when you track the calories of food consumed on something like Fitday.com or Cron-O-Meter, it's not a totally accurate representation of what you're actually getting that you can use for fuel, but you can still use those "activity factors" above to get you in the ballpark.

Back to the main Health101.org website

Back to the special EDU section of the website