One of the most frequently asked questions that I receive related to metabolic damage is how to go about increasing your calories. If you are currently eating less than 1500 calories per day, then this post is for you!
Long-term caloric restriction can cause all kinds of problems as I have discussed here, here and here. If you are consuming between 1000-1500 calories per day I would recommend increasing that figure gradually following my instructions below. If, however, you are eating less than 1000 calories per day and have been doing so for a long time, then I recommend contacting a nutritionist you can work with in-person.
Ideally, women should aim to maintain their weight on around 2000-2500+ calories per day, while men should consume 2500-3000+ calories per day. The exact figure will depend on a whole host of factors including age, height, weight, exercise background and current routine, hormone levels, basal metabolic rate and previous diet habits. The best way to find the magic number involves a lot of experimentation but if you are losing sleep about it, I would recommend working with a professional who can design a nutrition plan specifically for you.
Let’s consider a common example of a female who eats 1300 calories per day (130g protein, 90g carbs and 47g fat), lifts weights five days per week and does cardio six days per week.
Firstly, let’s consider the exercise part of the equation. Hopefully, if you have been following my blog for some time, you will immediately recognise that our imaginary subject is performing too much exercise. Unless you are an athlete or bodybuilder weeks out of competition, you don’t need to be performing any more than four resistance-based workouts and three cardio sessions per week.
If you suspect you have metabolic damage (here’s my checklist!), I would recommend cutting back on the cardio first. If you are doing cardio six to seven days a week, start by dropping back to three. If you are doing cardio three days per week, I would suggest cutting it out completely while you allow your body time to heal.
Recently, a few people have emailed me to say that they were told to stop all exercise while repairing their metabolism. I think that is ill advice; in my opinion, weight lifting is essential to healing and developing a healthy metabolism. If I didn’t lift heavy weights, there is no way I could eat the amount of food I do. Weight lifting increases your muscle mass which boosts your metabolism and in turn assists with fat loss. But too much of a good thing can have the same effect as doing too much cardio – lifting more than four days per week can create too much stress within the body, and wreak further havoc on already damaged hormones.
The nutrition side is slightly more complicated. I generally recommend that people immediately add 200-300 calories to their diet, depending on what side of the spectrum they fall. For example, if someone is only consuming 1000 calories per day, I would immediately up their intake to 1300. If they are already at 1300, an increase to 1500 calories should be sufficient as an initial step. Most people can handle an overnight increase of 200-300 calories without any problem if their current intake is 1000-1500.
The majority, if not the entirety, of this increase should come from fat. This is because it is a caloric dense food that is not only easier on the stomach but also easier to process. Most people find it easier to fit in an extra tablespoon of oil or nut butter than increasing their protein and carbohydrate intake – consider that one single avocado contains around 300 calories, yet you would need approximately 1.5 cups of brown rice to hit the same number of calories.
There are some exceptions to this rule. If someone’s carbohydrate intake is dangerously low (70g or less) I would add the increase via carbohydrates. Most people nowadays are consuming at least 100g of protein, but there are always some cases where a protein increase is the first step.
Again, this is a generalisation as everyone is different, but I usually allow three to four weeks for someone to adapt to this new level of calories. You will know if you have adapted when you feel as though you have more energy, when any temporary bloating from the increased intake has disappeared, and when you regularly feel hungry between meals.
From then, I typically add 100-150 calories to someone’s diet every two to three weeks. This time, the increase will come from both protein and fat. At the end of the three week cycle, I typically “switch out” the additional calories for carbohydrates. I will then wait another week or two before once again increasing calories via protein and fat. The reason for doing this is that most people with damaged metabolisms have a very poor tolerance of carbohydrates, so this teaches their bodies to first process the increased amount of calories in an easier format.
So, using the example above:
Starting calories/macros: 1300 calories, 130g protein, 90g carbs, 47g fat
Immediate increase: 1500 calories, 130g protein, 90g carbs, 68g fat
3-4 weeks later: 1600 calories, 150g protein, 90g carbs, 70g fat
1-2 weeks later: 1600 calories, 130g protein, 110g carbs, 70g fat
1-2 weeks later: 1700 calories, 155g protein, 110g carbs, 70g fat
1-2 weeks later: 1700 calories, 130g protein, 135g carbs, 70g fat
1-2 weeks later: 1800 calories, 145g protein, 135g carbs, 75g fat
1-2 weeks later: 1800 calories, 140g protein, 140g carbs, 75g fat
I would continue in this pattern until the woman has reached around 2000 calories with 150g protein, 170g carbs and 80g fat. This is assuming that the woman responds exactly the way I expect, which hardly ever happens! Keep in mind that I’m making some huge generalisations here – please don’t feel that these are the perfect numbers for everyone. Some people just naturally respond better to higher levels of carbs, while others prefer higher levels of fats.
From then, there is no reason you can’t continue to increase your calories. Most women don’t need more than about 150g of protein per day, and will struggle with more than 100g fat per day. It makes sense then that, once you reach 2000 calories, the bulk of your increases from that point onwards come from carbohydrate. I would typically skip the protein/fat increase step, and go straight for an increased amount of carbohydrate.
By increasing your calories slowly in this manner, you will limit the chance of gaining unwanted weight and overwhelming your body with excess calories. It is much easier to consume an extra half chicken breast daily than trying to increase your calories by 1000 overnight. Some other tips for almost effortlessly increasing your calorie intake include choosing full fat dairy, increasing red meat consumption, drinking more non-water beverages (by this I don’t mean Pepsi and milkshakes – I’m talking about coconut water, almond/regular milk and protein shakes) and not wasting stomach space on too many vegetables!
Some people adapt quite quickly, while others with more extensive metabolic damage may take several months to handle a single increase. If you are worried about undertaking this process on your own, check out my metabolic repair program.
Have you ever increased your caloric intake? How did you do it?
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