2,200 Calories

by Mike Shea on 4 October 2014

30 Second Summary

While there are a million diets and a million ways we can track our health, the one that resonates with me the most is a very simple daily metric:

Eat under 2,200 calories each day

It isn't ideal but it's easy, it's doable, and it will probably have the greatest single impact in my overall health. Many people try many different diets and yet 8 out of 10 people who "diet" fail. Why not make it easy on ourselves and pick the single numeric that matters the most?

Not A Recommendation

This article isn't a recommended diet. This article is a way for me to get my hands around a single simple concept, mark it in time, discuss it with some people, and study it. Each of us needs to find what works for us independently.

Fifteen Years of Failed Dieting

I've been overweight my entire adult life. Aside from a successful but temporary weight loss in 2000, I've been going up and down for the past 15 years. I've never tried a bunch of crazy crazy diets, but I know that focusing on calorie intake gave me the greatest success. For a year I ate under 1,000 calories and lost 100 pounds. It was great. I felt great. I looked great. I went to the doctor and got the first and only clean bill of health I ever got. It was also totally unsustainable. I can remember the very day I said "Ok, I've hit 199. Now I can up my calorie intake and sustain." Next thing you know, I gained most of the weight back, lost some, gained some, and lost some again.

Simplifying the Problem

There are tons of reasons obesity is a problem in our country but it really comes down to overeating. We live lives with a glut of calories and little need for strenuous physical activity. Calories are cheap and we don't need to burn them with exercise so we don't. It's a simple problem.

We're also getting smarter at the same time, learning all about metabolism and the different types of muscular exercise and the specific contents of food but that doesn't seem to help. It's easy to know what's wrong but really hard for us to do anything about it.

Let's keep it simple. If you eat less than 10x your weight, you'll lose weight. It's a fact and it's easy.

If I eat less than 2,200 calories a day, I'll lose weight and eventually sustain that weight for the rest of my life.

But What About Nutrition?

Whenever I describe this idea to people, I almost always hear about the flaws in it. It isn't how much you eat, I hear, but what you eat that matters. What if you ate nothing but Big Macs every day? What if you ate only Snickers bars?

Well, I'm not. Within that 2,200 calorie diet there is a good mix of foods. There are probably more carbs than I need, but overall it's relatively balanced. I hear all the time that a simple 2,200 calorie diet is too simplistic to really get to the heart of weight loss. Reducing calories gets to the heart of the problem and, as simple as it is, it's really hard to do.

You probably aren't going to be healthy eating Krispy Kreme donuts every meal for your 2,200 calories a day but that's a straw-man argument anyway. No one does that.

It's Still Really Hard to Do

I've had a good run this year but the past few weeks haven't been so good. Here are some charts backed by some data I've collected over the year.

The first shows weight fluctuation over time as recorded by my Withings scale. The scale begins at 0 as the baseline weight at the beginning of the year and then shows the negative and positive gain throughout the year.

This next chart shows a self-assessment of health on a 1 to 10 scale recorded daily with my Lifetracker app.

This last chart is a sparkline of days where I ate well and days where I ate poorly tracked as tags with my Lifetracker app.

These charts, generated with some R scripts I posted to Github, give us some clear observations. I did well during the beginning of the year, started to fluctuate in the middle of the year, and now I'm a mess of inconsistency.

It's not easy to stay on it, even when I have a philosophy so simple.

One Day at a Time

In AA, they have lots of simple philosophies to help people quit drinking. "One day at a time" is a pretty strong one. Instead of worrying about one's whole life, we just worry about today and maybe tomorrow. Don't overeat today. If you overate yesterday, don't worry about it. Just focus on today.

When we make life complicated it's easy to throw the whole thing away as a huge complicated mess. Instead we can set realistic expectations and simple formulas and try to stick to them as much as we can.

Eat under 2,200 calories a day.

That's it. It isn't a recommendation or a brilliant diet cheat sheet for you. We each have to figure out what works for us. This is the one I'm trying now. I'll tell you how it works.