Q: I’ve heard that the older we get, the less we need to consume. Meaning the average calories for a man should be 2,200, but a man like myself who is approaching 50, this number would be less. Is this true?
A: Yes, in general, for Americans, our need for food goes down as we age. But it’s important to note that what is true for a sedentary population that eats nutrient-deficient diets that are loaded with refined carbs and processed oils might not be what is true for healthy humans with age.
That does not necessarily mean that your calorie intake should be less than the mythical average American male. While most people your age are losing muscle mass and bone mass (and replacing both with fat mass), you are not if you’re doing the opposite and are very physically active.
The bottom line is, “How much should I eat?” I can use one of the various equations that I had to memorize in college for all of the nutrition courses, but I don’t believe those formulas actually give you any practical information.
For calorie counts in foods, those numbers are plus or minus 20 percent for digestive efficiency. The microbes in some people’s guts are more efficient than others. That’s plus or minus 20 percent from person to person.
Then, you have to account for how well people do in terms of counting calories. With training and diligence, that is another plus or minus 20 percent. So, I can give you a number that, if you were diligent, would be accurate plus or minus 60 percent.
How much to eat? Good nutrition, like smart exercise choices, is self-limiting – both are hard to do wrong. These guidelines are in priority order:
1. Eat clean: There are good calories and bad calories. Good calories make you feel full and satisfied, and bad calories make you hungry (sick, fat, tired). This stuff is simple:
• You can find food on the perimeter of the grocery store – it has names like meat, fish and strawberry. Sugar-free this and fat-free that are what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances,” but not actual food.
• Get your carbs primarily from veggies and some fruit. Remember that fruit juice is the nutritional equivalent of soda, and dried fruit is the nutritional equivalent of candy.
• Have protein with your meals.
• Eat right 90 percent of the time if you want to lose weight. This means you can deviate twice a week and make progress. Three times a week is not one more, it is 50 percent more deviations, and no amount of complaining about how unfair it is that your friends can eat whatever they want will change this.
2. Eat about three times per day: Usually not more if you are looking for fat loss. Higher meal frequency makes people hungrier and less satisfied with the quantity of food they’ve eaten. Anything you do that makes you hungrier will work against your weight-loss goals. The idea to eat five to six times per day comes from bodybuilding and was about helping them gain weight faster, and there has yet to be any compelling scientific evidence that supports that idea.
• Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day – the one after your workout is, and a lot of people are better off without breakfast because it just makes them hungry. As counterintuitive as it seems, the same is true of snacking – it increases meal (feeding) frequency and makes people hungrier, even though they’re eating more.
3. Portion size: At the simplest level: Too much food equals tired after meal; too little food equals hungry soon after meal. Shoot for the middle. Here are some more specific guidelines, but your mileage may vary. Use the below as a starting point (since there is no such thing as average), and adjust portions based on how you feel.
• Protein would be about the size of the palm of your hand.
• Veggies – eat as many as you want (or more than you want, if you tend not to eat many veggies).
• Nuts and cheese – fit within your cupped palm.
• Fruit – fit within your cupped hand.
4. Avoid foods that undermine your self-control: Even if a food is technically “clean,” everyone is a little different, and for some people there are some foods that are “hyper palatable” – they hit the right combination of notes on your tongue and make you want to eat and eat and eat.
Non-starch and sugar-based foods that are most commonly problematic include roasted and salted nuts (especially the flavored nuts), cheese (seems to be much more of a problem with women), and “compliant” treats (sweet tastes are addictive for many people – it’s better metabolically to not have the sugar and flour to go along with the sweet taste).
Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, D.C.-area certified fitness expert and co-author of “Results Fitness.”