A 2,000 calorie diet plan has long been the standard recommendation for caloric intake by the USDA. I can’t claim that I learned much at all about nutrition in middle and high school – or even my Undergrad, honestly – (I sincerely hope things have changed…), but I do remember learning that 2,000 calories was a standard goal.
Now, I have much more nutrition education under my belt. And it didn’t take me long to figure out that a person’s actual calorie and nutrient goal is completely individualized. Every body is different, lifestyles are different, goals are different, and that means we all have different intakes we should aim for.
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The history of the 2,000 calorie diet
I was curious why 2,000 calories seemed to be the standard, so I did a little digging. According to The Atlantic, the FDA wanted the number to be something that people could calculate percentages off of easily and relatively close to what an “average” diet would be. They used information gathered from self-reported calorie intakes from people around the United States. Reports ranged from 1,600 calories up to 3,000 between men, women, and children.
The FDA first proposed 2,350 calories as a benchmark – even though this number is still below what most people should be consuming in a day. When the FDA requested feedback on this number, nutrition educators thought 2,350 was too high and would encourage people to eat more (mostly in regards to postmenopausal women who they thought would gain weight too easily…) than they needed. It’s also harder to figure out percentages on 2,350 vs 2,000.
So, they took the feedback from the general public and certain nutrition professionals at the time. They decided to round down off of their original number. That’s how we ended up at 2,000 calories a day for a standard goal.
Calories are only one part of the picture
There are an infinite number of ways to reach 2,000 calories a day. You could legitimately eat 2,000 calories worth of ice cream and could consider that good. I don’t recommend that…but you could.
This is why it’s important to remember that calories are only one small piece of the puzzle. More than just hitting a calorie goal, we want to make sure we’re eating a well-balanced, varied diet. That means that we’re eating a healthy amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. These are called macronutrients – they’re called macronutrients because our bodies need them in large quantities to function properly.
And don’t forget about the micronutrients! These are the vitamins and minerals that can be found in the foods we eat. We don’t need these in such large quantities – hence why they’re called micro – but we definitely still need them. It’s one of the reasons why that ice cream diet won’t work out well for you in the long run.
One way I recommend people do this is to ensure that every meal they eat contains a source of protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fruit or vegetable. This is a very simple way to ensure that you’re hitting on all the macro- and micronutrients.
A 2,000 calorie day of eating
This is a screenshot from the popular food logging app called Cronometer. This screenshot shows a sample day of a 2,000 calorie diet. Again, this is focusing on whole foods and a well-balanced, varied diet. It’s not necessarily strict paleo, keto, or any other specific diet. It’s just whole foods.
3 eggs and spinach scramble cooked in olive oil. 2 slices of bacon. ~0.5 cup of blueberries, and 0.5 cup strawberries.
Pesto shrimp salad on arugula with a baked sweet potato + butter
One apple with ~1 tablespoon of almond butter
Ground beef taco bowl (lettuce, cheese, salsa, avocado) with basmati rice on the side
Honestly, this is a pretty solid day of eating. But as the title of this article says – this probably won’t work FOR YOU.
Why this probably won’t work for you
The number of calories a person needs a day depends on a number of factors. This includes sex, weight, age, height and physical activity. It also depends on the person’s goals.
Do you want to lose weight? Put on weight? Gain muscle? Maintain right where you’re at? It all depends.
If you’re trying to adhere to a standard 2,000 calorie diet, good on ya. I commend anyone who gives a damn about their nutrition. That being said, you are probably not eating to properly fuel your body.
If you check out the 2020 dietary guidelines from Health.gov, you’ll see some recommended intakes based on age and physical activity level. If you’re an adult sedentary male , you need a baseline of around 2,200 calories a day. A woman of the same age and activity level needs 1,800.
Sedentary, in this case, means the activities that are required for independent living. Unless you’re not doing much other than fidgeting, eating, going to the bathroom, and breathing, you’re probably not truly sedentary.
Let’s assume that you’re not just sitting on your bum during the whole day. Let’s say you walk a lot for your job AND exercise 4 times a week. Your recommended intake it going to be WAY higher from those baselines.
How to calculate your caloric intake
One way to calculate your personal intake is to use a TDEE calculator. TDEE stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure. This calculator will use your sex, age, weight, height, activity level, and body fat percentage. (Body fat percentage is not required, but will give you a more accurate estimate for caloric intake.)
Let’s say you’re a 35 year old female who weighs 140 pounds, is 5 ft 5 inches tall, and 23% body fat. You work out 3-5 times a week. According to the TDEE calculator, you need at least 2,211 calories a day to maintain that body weight. Most of the women I’ve worked with in an individualized setting are barely eating 1,500 calories a day.
For myself, the 2,000 calorie goal was beat so far into my head that I always thought if I ate 2,000 calories, I would immediately gain weight. That was the goal for grown men. Me, being a smaller woman, should eat way less than that. The fact that, for some reason, women have been taught that we need to be eating 1,200 calories continues to feed into that narrative. (Where did this pathetic 1,200 calorie diet come from?! If you know, leave a comment and let me know.)
This led to years and years of under-eating. There was a point I was anemic and deficient in other certain vitamins and minerals. I felt like hot garbage. I had a dysfunctional relationship with food and my body. It was not a good time for me.
When I finally learned that I had been chasing a very arbitrary, very incorrect calorie goal, I felt dumb. I realized I needed to eat – without guilt – much more than I had ever ate before.
And after working with countless nutrition clients, most of the people are in the same position that I was so many years ago. So – throw that 2,000 calorie goal out the window, and use a TDEE calculator to get an idea of how much you need to be eating.
Use a food logging app and food scale to see how much you’re currently eating and to hit your correct calorie goal.
If you’re not in the headspace to log your food, no worries. Start with the basics. Eat well-balanced meals following the formula I outlined above. Or outsource the work to a meal planning service like Ultimate Meal Plans with paleo, keto, or “clean” plans.
I want to give you permission to eat – choose whole foods, eat the rainbow, and enjoy your food! Your body will thank you.
If you like this article, check out these others:
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