Calorie Math and Why the “What I Eat in a Day” Trend Doesn’t Add Up

Counting calories like your favorite influencer is not the recipe for good health.

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Photo by: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Oscar Wong/Getty Images

If you’re confused about calorie counting and how much you should eat, you’re definitely not alone. It seems like everyone is talking about it, and I mean everyone. Medical professionals, celebrities and influencers on TikTok, especially. Here’s the issue: Someone can be a fit influencer or have MD at the end of their name, but that doesn’t mean they have the education or credentials to counsel people in nutrition or that you should take their advice. Registered dietitians are the nutrition professionals you should seek out to clear up your confusion. Here’s the scoop on the chaos of calorie counting and how to navigate it, from a registered dietitian.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

Let’s talk about the basics. Calories in versus calories out is a major determinant of weight. Calorie math can be helpful, as it allows you to figure out a calorie range you should eat to reach your goals. At the most basic level, calculating your daily calorie needs and then consuming below those needs will put you in a calorie deficit and should result in weight loss. However, weight loss is anything but basic — sigh. There’s no “one secret” that will help you drop 10 pounds in 10 days — which, by the way, would be incredibly unhealthy. The key to weight loss looks more like a janitor’s utility key ring with 40 keys hanging from it — it’s multifaceted.

What to Know About Counting Calories

You can calculate your daily calorie needs by first determining your basal, or resting, metabolic rate. This is individual to everyone and based on factors including age, weight, height and gender. This number represents what you burn at rest. Multiplying that by an activity factor that reflects daily movement from lifestyle and physical activity results in your daily needs. So simply eat less than that and you’ll lose weight, right? Unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

Calorie math fails to ask this very important question: Is your metabolism functioning correctly? Calorie counting works under the assumption that your metabolism is functioning properly. However, there are other factors that affect metabolism: a history of under-eating and over-exercising, underlying medical conditions, genetics, body composition, inflammation, hormone dysregulation, inconsistent eating patterns, poor sleep quality and stress. As you can see, calorie math isn’t so concrete, and this quick calculation doesn’t factor in the whole picture. The quality of your diet also matters. A registered dietitian will take into account your individual health and weight history, and help you learn to eat in a way that best supports a high-functioning metabolism.

Why You Need More Than 1,200 Calories Per Day

Food should be thought of as something to fuel your lifestyle, not as something to minimize in order to become smaller and thinner. This touches upon the age-old, “I eat 1,200 calories and workout every day but don’t lose weight,” dilemma. If you’re eating in such a deficit, you may in the beginning, but 1,200 calories is likely not enough calories for any adult. Eating an amount this low over time while also over-exercising results in metabolic adaption. Your metabolism drastically slows down to meet your needs, and your body starts to chip away at lean muscle mass to use for energy. Loss of lean muscle mass can also negatively affect the rate of metabolism. You’ll end up torturing yourself with a restrictive diet and be stuck with a slowed metabolism, a recipe for weight loss disaster.

The Problem With “What I Eat In a Day”

The confusion around what calorie range is right for you may lead you to your favorite social media influencers. I’m sure you’ve seen a video that looks something like this: an in-shape, beauty-standard body type posing in workout clothes flexing their abs or showing their glute gains followed by, “I look like this and here’s what I eat in a day!” The “What I Eat in a Day” trend is super skewed, and quite frankly, toxic. It shouldn’t matter what someone else eats in a day or what works for them, as it may not be healthy and may not work for others. This might be a hard pill to swallow, but someone’s good looks do not mean they are giving correct or responsible health information. And just because someone looks a certain way, does not mean that you can achieve that look by eating exactly what they eat. (Also: filters.)

There might exist a “What I Eat in a Day” video that shows 1,500 calories a day. And although this may very well be healthy and correct for that specific person, it could be too low of a calorie range for you, not meet your needs, and may result in slowing your metabolism. You may see a similar video with a similar looking body type showing that they eat 3,000 calories daily, but that person is likely weight training at a high level of physical activity, so they have different needs. The common theme here is everyone is different! What works for some may not work for others, especially given genetic factors, health history and physical activity level. Don’t fall into the “Eat like me, look like me!” trap. We can definitely use others as a resource for inspiration, tips, recipes, and advice, but trying to emulate exactly what they do is not a good health plan and won’t give you the results you’re looking for.

How to Figure Out a Calorie Count That Works for You

If you feel stuck with where to start your weight loss journey and want to make sure you are eating in line with what is healthiest for you, schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian. Together you will discuss your goals and develop a nutrition plan to reach them. Keep in mind that everyone comes with a diet and health history, and this is a big factor in “where to start.” You’ll likely achieve weight loss in phases, beginning with a phase that ensures your metabolism is functioning as it should and using food to support it. An RD can also provide a true metabolic test, to accurately determine the level at which your metabolism is functioning. From there you will develop a “What YOU Eat in a Day.” Neither nutrition nor weight loss are fast and easy, and if someone is selling it to you like it is, run for the hills. It’s important to eat a quality diet with adequate protein, whole grains, fiber, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, and to eat in a calorie range that is specific to you. Using food to fuel your health and lifestyle will allow you to be your own influencer and your own body goals, and that’s empowering.

Vanessa Rissetto received her MS in Marketing at NYU and completed her Dietetic Internship at Mount Sinai Hospital where she worked as a Senior Dietitian for five years. She is certified in Adult Weight Management (Levels I & II) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the founder of Culina Health. Her work in private practice also includes treatment of GI disorders, bariatric surgery, weight management, PCOS, and family nutrition. She loves helping clients take an active role in their health journey, motivating them and ensuring that they always achieve success. Vanessa was named by one of the top 5 black nutritionists that will change the way you think about food by Essence magazine. Vanessa lives in Hoboken NJ with her husband, two kids and their new goldendoodle Freddie. An exercise enthusiast, she is always up for a class as long as it's after she rides her Peloton.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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