Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Issues with "Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet"

"Based on a 2,000 Calorie Diet"

That's the wording you'll find in the footnotes of our nutrition fact panels. Moreover it's repeated in the media regularly.

But is it useful?

Is the regular printing and reporting of a population average that includes men and women, tall and short, sick and healthy, young and old, active and inactive, a good idea even if it does have the proviso that yours may be higher or lower?

I understand that the numbers are there for the ridiculous and frankly nutritionally misinformative breakdown of "nutrients", but I would imagine that for many they serve as a caloric anchor. Something to aim for that's safe.

Yet the average woman on 2,000 calories will almost assuredly gain weight, while the average man on 2,000 calories will almost assuredly go hungry.

We need nutrition fact panel reforms.

We need to de-emphasize the nutrient based approach to box-based nutritional disclosures and actually emphasize real world portions, and I think part of those reforms needs to include more useful caloric guidance and at the very, very least, providing average values for men and women separately.

Calories are definitely not the be all and end all of nutrition, but they're certainly a major determinant therein. We need a better way to inform the public about their calorie needs than simply reporting on an average.

Have you ever aimed at 2,000 calories because that's what was reported to you as appropriate?

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  1. Finally, someone who agrees with me! I have no formal training in nutrition or weight loss but I do have experience. Several years ago I realized that 2,000 calories a day is way too much for my 8hr a day desk job body. Whenever I tell my friends, who struggle with weight loss, they think I'm wrong since they see this message everywhere from more official sources. Thank you for being a voice of reason!

  2. So how many calories per day does the average woman really need? Can you give a ballpark number?

    1. If you head to my office's website, you can use the calculator in the right lower corner and get a number better than an average.


    2. That's very helpful, though definitions on levels of activity would be extra useful. Someone who might be lightly active may describe themselves as moderately, or vice versa.

  3. I think it's nice to have it as a reference.

    My mom was always telling me that I should eat 1200 calories a day. When I tried, I was ravenous all day and had problems that I later figured out were because of chronically low blood sugar. I just couldn't eat that little and function. However, I did try to eat as little as possible for many years while staying active, and my weight never went to a point that put me below a 31 or 32 BMI.

    Then I tried actually eating around 2000 calories a day. I gained a little weight (like, 10 pounds), my weight stabilized, and I stopped having symptoms of low blood sugar. That was probably a 200-400 calorie a day increase for me, and yet it only made me gain a little but of weight. Mostly, it:

    1. Made my hands and feet stop being cold all the time, even in the summer
    2. Made it easier for me to concentrate
    3. Made me stop uncontrollably falling asleep in the afternoon, at work
    4. Gave me more energy when I was exercising
    5. Made me happier and less irritable
    6. Made me less obsessed with food

    A lot of people think that they're supposed to be eating a really inadequately small amount of food. Others eat thousands of calories a day more than necessary without realizing it. The 2000 calorie callout offers a good perspective on what a reasonable amount to eat really is. It's not difficult to take your size and level of activity into consideration when interpreting it. However, if you're eating half that or twice that without a good reason, then it's good to be aware that your habits make you an outlier.

  4. This has been such a stumbling block for me in my weight loss journey! I have lost well over 100 lbs through hard work - diet and exercise. It has been a very long road because I did it 100% on my own.

    The past year I have been increasingly frustrated because no more weight was coming off despite an exceptionally active lifestyle (I run ultramarathons) and being fairly calorie restrictive (1600-1800 calories - a few more on long run days but not many).

    I went to see a Registered Dietitian who performed a body composition analysis (Tanita scale) - I was in tears when she informed me that despite weighing 160 pounds at 5'6 1/2", my body fat is 17%. (I'm a 42 year old woman) Based on this analysis, my BMR is over 1700 calories a day - no wonder I was hungry all the time and obsessed with thoughts of food! Did I mention that part of the reason I went to see her is because I am currently injured and was worried about gaining weight...?

    I have since increased my calories to 2000 and follow up with her this week. I don't think I have gained any weight but I'm terrified of what the body comp analysis will show this time.

  5. Anonymous7:48 am

    Interesting - the FAO figure is 2450 a day. Of course, that's an average, too, and is applied to, for example, manual workers as a rule of thumb - where populations drop below this amount, hunger starts to be experienced. I agree with dee.calarco: mlost people eat wildly wrongly for themselves, either too much or too little. If you are seriously overweight and trying to live on 1200 a day, you will be very tired, for example. (If a normal-weight person was carrying around a 100 lb rucksack all day, how many calories would they need to stay active without fatigue?) The range is wide - I've known tiny little people who eat way over 2000 a day and yet stay scrawny, while someone whose insulin is out of whack can eat a very low calorie level and yet gain weight. Eat the level that makes you feel healthy, unfatigued and alert!

  6. Anonymous8:31 am

    Is that calorie description really on our Canadian food? I believe you have a picture of an American label? Yes, the macronutrients on Canadian labels are also based (inaccurately or not) on 2000kcal a day, but I don't believe this is written on the labels that the public sees when grocery shopping. Other nutrients on the label such as the vitamins, minerals, fibre and sodium are based (again, inaccurately or not)on the DRI's for adults. For what it's worth, I agree that our nutrition labels need reforming desperately, but I'm not sure how big this 2000kcal/day problem is here in Canada. I don't think many people realize what criteria the nutrition facts panel is based on, and as a dietitian who provides nutrition labeling education to the public, I would be surprised if I heard a dietitian instructing the public to use the 2000kcal as a number to aim for.

    1. I'd be surprised by that too. Not talking about RDs' advice - talking about what the general public hears day in and day out. This post BTW inspired by an article in the Ottawa Citizen that told readers average daily intake should be 2,000. That gets promoted by lay press constantly and as I explained in the post, I think we can do better.

  7. Anonymous9:04 am

    Having spent almost a year working with the Ottawa Hospital's Eating Disorder Clinic to rid myself of an eating disorder, I feel slightly vindicated by your post. They push a 2000 calorie-a-day meal plan for all women, pretty much regardless of height/body build, and claim it won't cause weight gain. This did not encourage me to really take their meal plan seriously, as a very short person. I can eat just under 2000 calories a day when I get about two hours of solid exercise a day, but I don't think two hours is sustainable in the long run. Thanks for this post.

  8. Anonymous9:05 am

    I guess I'm surprised at how often the lay press is promoting this info. This speaks to the not only the poor design of the nutrition facts panel, but also the poor education/explanation that Health Canada provides on it. I'm sure journalists doing their own research will find this 2000kcal number and latch onto it as the most important thing to write about. As far education provided to the public by professional sources and by the nutrition facts panel itself, 2000kcal is usually never mentioned (at least in terms of the Canadian nutrition facts panel).

  9. 2000 cals a day is ridiculous. For me, I maintain my current weight of 140 lbs eating 1200-1300 cals a day. Any more cals than that and I GAIN weight. Great blog post! :)

    1. Out of curiosity, do you know your body fat %? The reason that I ask is that 1200-1300 is a really low maintenance level.

  10. Anonymous10:12 am

    Hi Yoni,

    Can you do someting about this book:
    It is so dangerous.

  11. Lap Band Gal -- 2000 calories a day may be ridiculous for you, but not for everyone. If I restricted to 1200-1300 calories a day, I would be gnawing the formica off the counter within 2 days.

    Kindo -- it sounds as if you are incredibly healthy. It saddens me to hear that you are so terrified of gaining weight and of your next body comp. If your other numbers (lipids, glucose, BP) are good, is a little more weight such a terrible thing? At least from a health standpoint?

    Chalk me up on the side of those who say 2000 calories may not be enough for many. I'm pretty sure it's not for me (I don't track, so couldn't tell you.) I am concerned that the trend seems to be to ratchet the "ideal" calorie count down, down and then down a little more. Constant hunger is not a good thing. The body fights back -- including very strong, compelling urges for binge eating -- when it is perpetually undernourished.

    1. Great points, thank you. Last time I had a big weight loss, I was put on a 1200 cal a day diet. I stuck to it -- was very motivated to lose weight for my wedding -- but I had a hard time sleeping at night because my hunger pangs were so strong.

      Agreed that cutting calories TOO much is a recipe for disaster...and bingeing.

  12. Granger10:33 am

    The 2000 calorie base does not bother that much. The info box can only be so large and I would have to have the print be so small it cannot be easily read. My biggest concern is the serving size. A 540ml can of soup will have nutritional information based on a 250ml service, or my favourite – a “breakfast cookie” from a popular coffee shop that is about 1 ½” in diameter has their information based on half a cookie. Who the heck would bother opening the package to each half a cookie that size?!?

    1. Anonymous12:20 pm

      That's also my biggest issue with the info labels. The portion sizes are either unlogical, as the examples mentioned, or so small I wonder who actually has the willpower to follow them. I would like to eat only 34 grams or two cookies, like it's mentioned in the info label of most cookie boxes, but my typical portion is usually at least twice that much. Serving sizes are so unrealistic....As if it's labeled to say that there are X servings in the box, not so many calories in each serving, and the servings don't cost that much. But in the real world, there aren't that many servings in the box because most people won't stop at those ridiculous amounts.

    2. Anonymous9:51 pm

      Add me as a 3rd person who believes the stated "portion size" on labels is often ridiculous!

  13. Rhodia2:14 pm

    I do not think it would be a good idea to have separate women's and men's numbers. Some men are big and muscular but some are small. Some women are petite but some are big and strong. Some people are active, others are not.

    I am female and short but I need more than 2000 calories to maintain my weight. (I am very active.)

    Like Granger, I view the serving size as the more problematic part of the label.

    What I personally would like would be to know amount of nutrients rather than percentages. If my nutritionist tells me to eat 1000 mg of calcium a day, and I read a label that says 30%, how do I know how much that is? I also may want to increase/decrease something for a certain health reason, and I would like to know the actual amount. As it stands I have to look it up elsewhere.

  14. The only time I was instructed to eat 2000 kcals/day it was by a sports RD, and he meant 2000 *net* kcals, which seemed even more ridiculous. Like many other commenters, I know from trial & error that I need a different number (more like 1700 net) to maintain my weight.

    That said, the kcal calculator on your practice's site told me to eat 2088 kcal/day ;)

  15. Yes, this is right up there with thinking that "100 calorie packs" are the appropriate one-size-fits all portion or that each of us should be consuming the "serving size". More on this in an old post: http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/2010/08/size-matters-but-not-how-you-think.html

  16. Joanne Panas5:07 pm

    Dr. Freedhoff, I took your suggestion to use the Daily Caloric Intake Calculator on your BMI website, but there was one problem: there is no definition or guide for each of the levels of activity. It's left up to me to define them, but I couldn't figure out if I was lightly active or moderately active. I work out for about an hour and a quarter on a strength training program 2-3 times a week (raises my heart rate, gets me sweating), and go on easy walks 2-3 times a week that don't generally raise my heart rate.

    The problem is that the difference in calorie intake between these two levels of activity is over 240 calories a day (to maintain my weight). If I were to judge my activity level incorrectly according to your calculator, that could lead to a significant difference in my caloric intake and possibly lead to weight gain if I judged my activity as more active significant than it really is (if I were counting calories vs. using portion control & satiety).

    So while the calculator can be a useful overall guide, I would suggest that you might want to add some definitions or guidelines as to what each of the levels of activity mean or look like for the typical user.

  17. 2000 calories is just used for the daily percent. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I don't use the percent for anything. They could take that off and I wouldn't even notice. When I pay attention to the labels, it's mostly to gauge macronutrient ratios.

    Come to think about it, that might be a viable method to revise the percentage and give a more accurate picture of the food. I thinks it's much more informative if someone looks at the label and sees a Snickers bar is 49% carbs, 46% fat, and only 6% protein.

    1. There is more to a food than its macronutrients, though. Fatphobia led people to fear wonderfully nutrient-dense foods like avocado and almonds and load up their cupboards with Fat-Free Snackwells. Now carbphobia is making people afraid of fruit.