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How much is enough?

Do you believe that you should be consuming 2000 calories a day as is stated on most food packaging?

Well may be you should be, however it is more likely than not that adequate nutrition for you is very different from the “average” stated on food labels. The number of calories you need per day is a factor of many things: your gender, you height, your weight, your age, even your average body temparature….

We are all unique!

Did you know that the body typically needs to use about 10-20% of the energy it gets from food just to digest the food!!

Recently, I have being going out for walks as part of my movement regime during lockdown, on occasion I am able to drag my daughter along. It is so annoying though, that at the end of the walk – same distance, same time, tracking the workout using the same watch app, she has burned around 50% more calories more than I have!

Why – Lots of reasons: she is 6 inches taller than me and 33 years younger; her resting heart rate is higher, and her average core temperature is higher. Recommendations on food packages assume the she and I require the same amount of food, however, if I tried to eat the same as amount as she needs to function, I would be as big as a house!

First rule of Thermodynamics

We can try all the diets we like however they will not work if they contravene the first rule of thermodynamics which states that energy can never be destroyed, only changed from one form to another.

We all need energy to run the automatic processes that keep us alive – like breathing, and keeping our hearts beating. The energy we gain from the food we eat is what runs our bodies. If we eat more than we use, the excess energy will be changed to fat and stored in or bodies.

Different bodies have different energy needs. Lots of factors impact on how much energy we need/use – our age, gender, height, etc.

A good dietician or nutritionist can help work out your body’s calorie requirements (note this fluctuates based on what else is going on in your life); determine which nutrients you should be looking for in your foods; and, what portion sizes suit you as an individual.

As a quick hack – you can use the health app on your phone to work out how many calories you burn on a typical day and then tailor your intake to match this (or aim for fewer calories if you wish to lose weight). You can also go to the calculators page on the gr8newme website to get an estimate of your calorie requirements and your BMI

Having a reasonable idea as to how much energy one’s body needs to stay alive is an excellent starting step to understanding how much we need to consume.

That said, relying blindly on the numbers on packaging can become frustrating as our bodies do not necessarily process and use the energy in food as efficiently as the devices used to calculate how much energy such foods contain. And we certainly do not all react the same way to the same foods.

It is also in the mind and the gut

Feelings ranging from contentment to stress to depression can impact the choices of what we eat and how hungry we feel.

Also, our brains and our guts are inextricably linked. Stress can inhibit signals sent to/from gut and brain and cause gastrointestinal problems – changing the flora in our guts.

The flora in our guts has an impact on how and what we digest so different gut flora means two people eating the same food will extract more or less nutrients and energy from exactly the same food.

So, if we cannot rely on counting the calories listed on our food packets what are our options?

A few areas to explore include:

  • Balancing your macros

  • Managing portion sizes

  • Listening to your body

Balancing Macros

Are you getting all the nutrients you need or are you overdosing on a particular macro?

Typical proportions we should aim for (calorie intake)

  • Carbohydrates 50-55% (note, it is better to focus on non-starchy carbohydrates – a good clue is the colour not beige)

  • Protein 10-20%

  • Fat 30-35%

However, these are just indicators – as I said at the start of this blog – we are all different and will process these foods differently.

Did you know that the body typically needs to use about 10-20% of the energy it gets from food just to digest the food!! Furthermore, did you know that processing food – i.e. cooking, refining etc will reduce the energy our body expends to digest the food.

I guess the only rule here is that we all need to find the right balance; and, trying to focus on getting all your nutrients from one macro type is unlikely to keep you feeling nourished or energised.

Managing Portion Sizes – how much is enough?

Many of us grew up being told to finish what is on our plate; food packaging suggests portion sizes – for average people; there are even diets that suggest how much you should eat based on the size of your hand!

How on earth can we work out how much is enough?

The only recommendation I can have is to move on to the section below and start the process of learning how to listen to your body.

Getting to know oneself

It is easy to be swayed by the messaging in the press and on social media about super foods and perfect diets, but the reality is that none of the people promoting these strategies know your body the way you do (or could do).

If you would like to improve your relationship with food, a fundamental first step is getting to know oneself better.

This is much easier said than done – trust me I know this. However, I do believe it is a journey and like any journey, you make progress as long as you keep taking steps even if they are small steps.

A few pointers about understanding yourself and your requirement for food…

  • Slow down and ask to yourself questions – you feel something… is it hunger, thirst, pain, anger, stress, sorrow, fatigue – run through options and try to listen out for what resonates. Then as much as possible, respond to the actual need you have identified.

  • Movement – try talking and listening to yourself when you are on the move, perhaps out on a walk or practicing yoga (no headphones). Trying to hear how your body is feeling while it is moving is very good practice for starting to hear yourself.

  • Be kind and patient with yourself – this is a different behaviour and we are wired to resist change. Set a few reminders (perhaps around the time you are likely to resort to unhelpful eating) to check in and ask yourself questions. And if you choose to ignore what you might be hearing, don’t worry, over time you will start to change your behaviour – you need to give yourself time.

When you can hear yourself better you are more likely to select the foods your body needs and eat the amount you need. Most women that have had a baby can attest to the fact that our bodies can and do tell us what they need; we just have to learn to listen more closely.

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