So far this week, I've discussed eating tips, how to track weight and calorie intake, the philosophy of losing weight, etc. But we haven't talked about how to pick a goal yet.

My method starts with a fairly unscientific method and then follows up with something a little better.

Take a Guess

For the first week or two, take an educated guess at how many calories you should aim for. There are dozens of on-line references that will try to tell you how many calories per day you need. Some ask a lot of detail (height, weight, age, lifestyle) while others are fairly generic. They will all give you different answers, and that's okay. Everyone is different.

I'm not going to recommend any, but if you try a few of them you'll get a sense of what the right ballpark is. Whatever that number is, you'll need to subtract a substantial number of calories from it (something on the order of 500 to 1200) to arrive at a goal.

If that's too much work, just pick a number. Common numbers I've seen are 1,200 (that's pretty low), 1,500 (reasonable), and 1,800 (quite comfortable).

The number you choose isn't critical at this point. But pick something and stick with it for the first two weeks unless you find that you can't function without more intake (maybe you exercise a lot).

Remember, the size of your daily "calorie deficit" will determine how quickly you lose weight.

Use Data

After your first few weeks, the data you've collected in your spreadsheet will make it easier to adjust your choice. Simply figure out the average number of calories you consumed in the first few weeks as well as how much weight you lost. Then do the math to determine what your daily calorie deficit was and, therefore, your daily calorie needs.

For example, suppose you lost 4 pounds in 14 days by eating an average of 1,600 calories per day. 4 pounds is 14,000 calories (4x3500). Divide that by 14 and you get an average daily calorie deficit of 1,000. That means your body actually needed 2,600 calories per day.

Knowing these ballpark numbers, you can make a much more informed decision about the targets you'd like to use in the future. If you're really happy with your weight loss so far (you should be!), you might keep on aiming for 1,600/day. But if you found that you were always on the edge of hunger and a bit uncomfortable, you can increase your daily intake by a few hundred and know how that's likely to play out.

It's really that simple.

My Numbers

Just for reference, I aimed to consume roughly 1,500 calories per day for my first few months. After doing that and losing a substantial amount of weight, I raised the target to 1,800. That ensured that I still lost weight at a steady pace and gained some flexibility in my diet.

Then, as the end of last year came up, I adjusted the numbers upward again, aiming for 2,000 – 2,200 each day. I also allowed myself to slack off a bit more on the weekends and on trips, which put me into a mode where I either held constant or lost weight at a fairly slow pace.

Nowadays, I have a soft limit of 2,400 per day (on average) and try to exercise a bit more.

Remember, this is a system that worked for me. It may or may not work for you. Tomorrow, I'll talk more about maintaining the diet over time and provide some closing thoughts and tips (including exercise).

Previous installments:

For more recent diet and health tips, see our new blog: How To Eat And Live

Posted by jzawodn at June 08, 2006 07:34 AM

Reader Comments
# erin said:

One of our subscribers told me about your plan. I just read through the last posts. Cool.

On this one, knowing calories is crucial, but also knowing the nutrition bang you get for those calories is equally important. Nothing illustrates this more than the variability in serving sizes. Have you ever tried to compare cereals or energy/protein bars?

If you look at serving size, calories, protein etc., you can determine the food's calorie density. For athletes, more calories per gram of food consumed is the goal, for those looking to shed the pounds, it's the opposite. We actually did this for energy bars on a past blog, "weighing in on energy bars" and like you created an excel spreadsheet to ease comparison.

Point is simple. You can eat a ton, it it's low calorie food like veggies--and if you're not topping it with a bunch of crap. You can eat more high fiber cereal (in terms of a calorie) budget, than most sweet cereals etc.

For those who want a somewhat full feeling, this really helps.

on June 8, 2006 08:24 AM
# Jeff Costantino said:

Hey, I just want to let you know that I found your blog and diet plan on BoingBoing and I'm embarking on my own plan to get from 241 to 215!

Some sort of SmartPhone app would be great to log progress but I haven't found one for some reason. Right Now I'm using PTab on my phone to enter data into the Excel sheets directly and it's clunky but working. Since I'm no Excel whiz, I'm just zeroing out your existing sheets, replacing the dates with a range of current dates and going from there - it's easier for me to keep your existing calculations rather than try to make my own. Why reinvent the wheel, eh?

I'd say I consumed about 3500-4000 calories a day before starting your diet. Various online metabolism calculators suggest that I burn 2700-2800 a day. If I stay at 1800-2000 a day, I should be loosing weight but my goal is to TRY and eat only 1700-1800 a day.

The hardest thing about eating is that so many calories can creep up on you in such a short time... yesterday for "breakfast" i had a cereal bar (440), 1 liter Mountain Dew (460) and a candy bar (200)... over half my target caloric intake just in the morning! I would've probably packed on another 2500-3000 by dinnertime!

My weight has steadily increased, although not that much. The last time i weighed myself was a year ago and I think I was 230-235. I'm eating more than I burn but I guess it isn't THAT much extra since I'm gaining very slowly. Hopefully a sharp reduction in calories will equal a similar drop in weight.

Your diet is extremely simple and allows you to see your progress on a daily basis to reenforce the fact that you are actually losing weight. The best part is that you technically don't have to exercise! I'm going to try to walk more at home, swim, and do more yard work to help the metabolic process along, too.

Thanks a lot!

on June 8, 2006 09:54 AM
# Adam said:

The concepts and the diet are indeed interesting, but in addition to the calorific counts, calorieking is very useful in making you analyse what you consume. I would say I am pretty healthy having run over 100 marathons, but I got some surprises when I looked at the constituent breakdown of what I ate e.g protein, far, carbs at the most basic level. I realised thsat I ate too much fat as a proportion of my diet.

So I would just say that it's important to consider what you are eating as well. No disrespect meant, but Jeff that Mountain Dew and Candy Bar gave you minimal nutritional value - and the cereal bar is very processed so you consumed largely useless calories.

As Jeremy said, "fat" soda has got to be one of the most useless forms of calorific intake.

So what am trying to say? Try not to get too hung up on calorific intake/expenditure. Its what you eat thats important too. And sometimes even thats a bit crazy e.g. if you eat fish - they're fatty, but not in such a bad way for you as bacon fat. Enough - thank you Jeremy.

on June 8, 2006 11:47 AM
# Darren said:

I gather everybody's keen to do this the geeky way, but there's a half-decent tool that's helped me lose weight in the past: It eliminates a lot of the guesswork, and streamlines (a bit) the data tracking.

on June 8, 2006 11:57 AM
# Paul said:

This is off topic, but I was wondering what kind of towplane you were using to get your glider up to 25k feet. We used to use a cessna 152 that was converted to conventional gear with an O-360. It wasn't capable of such high altitudes.

on June 8, 2006 01:36 PM
# ben said:

I know metabolism can change - when I was younger (so much younger than today) I quit smoking and gained thirty pounds in a month. It took me almost three years of strenuous exercise (running plus cycling hundreds of miles a week) to lose it again. And then? I graduated college and was hired to my first desk job. I've never seen that (low) weight in the twenty years since.

I think most of my problem is intake, but I'm convinced that getting the body moving (non-sedentary) is vital to success, especially long term. I've lost weight on various diets before only to have it come back because I lost focus.

Er, I don't really have a point. Cool system you got here.

on June 8, 2006 02:16 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


The towplane didn't take me to 25k. I released at around 6,800 MSL (2,500 AGL) and climbed in wave.

on June 8, 2006 03:17 PM
# Joe Zawodny said:

When the nurse practitioner told me at my last annual physical (December 2005) that my ideal weight was 187 lbs I laughed saying that I'd never see that again. At the time I was 224 lbs (down from 230 the year before) and quite (dumb, fat, and) happy about it. As noted earlier, I decided in March to lose weight seriously and went on a 1200 calories/day diet during the week and kept it under 2000 on weekends. I could still eat what I liked - just in moderation. Now, 3 months later, I'm at 192 lbs and thinking about how I am going to find the extra 1100 calories/day of food to achieve a soft landing in the vicinity of 190 lbs. I did not plan to add exercise to the mix, but at the lighter weight I found myself with substansially more energy. As a result, I want to do more and be more active. I do not need to eat more bulk in order to keep hunger at bay. What do you recommend to add calories, yet keep down the bulk/volume? I have no desire to stretch the stomach back to where it was. I tried adding a bottle of wine (600 cals) or a nice snort of scotch (600 cals) in the evening. Today (and yesterday) I made a couple of real chocolate cheesecakes (gave most of them away). I'm thinking of swapping out my lowfat yogurt for "regular" and going back to having some more bread in my diet. One other limitation I discovered in the past few months is that I need to stay away from dairy products - no adding Ben & Jerry's to my diet.

on June 8, 2006 06:33 PM
# Marc said:

When did the Jeremy Zawodny blog close down and become the diet and weight loss blog? Man, this reminds me of when KSJO disappeared one day and became a Mexican radio station. :-)

on June 8, 2006 11:39 PM
# AC said:

Jeff, a liter of Mountain Dew for breakfast? That's nuts. If that is a daily thing, you have it made. All you need to do is stop doing that and not change anything else and you will start losing weight.

on June 9, 2006 12:27 AM
# grumpY! said:

adam - 100 marathons! a great accomplishment. i know you aren't fishing for praise, but as someone who is at the 20 mark, i know just how impressive your feat is.

on June 9, 2006 09:59 AM
# Adam said:

Thank you GrumpY. Seems a good excuse to travel - I am about to commence work on an e-Commerce solution for Marathon Tours and the associated Seven Continents Club - I have entered the Antarctica Marathon next February. Where is your next one? Anyway, for other people out there who want to join a group to work up to a marathon I would suggest joining the Galloway group which does run/walk. Not fast and I am not a member of them, but I know a lot of people who are and they seem to be very supportative and help people to reach their goal of running a marathon - and of course in doing that most people would lose weight. Hence the link to my ramblings on Jeremy's blog here. Enjoy those marathons!

on June 9, 2006 10:10 AM
# grumpY! said:

adam - my "next one" is not likely this year, we have twin two year olds. i have been on a few organized trail 25ks though. my wife went with the Galloway group once, a great organization. in recent years i have migrated to trail races - 25k, marathons, etc. i am a convert now. i have read about the seven continents group, looks like a blast. my favorite road race has to be big sur, although for difficulty i would say lake tahoe. oddly enough the last time i did the tahoe race, a fellow yahoo employee finished 2nd among women. needless to say i was in no danger of meeting her time.

on June 10, 2006 02:41 PM
# Diane said:

Great tips!

on December 1, 2006 03:50 PM
# john watkins said:

does any one have a calorie calculator in excel format so i can enter my daily calories and it will tell me what i have eaten.

on March 14, 2007 12:02 PM
# david said:

Hi great tips...thank you...

Thus that’s the trick: people by doing one small thing each and every day, they are bringing themselves just a little bit closer to their ultimate goal. When self improvement is approached in this way, it does not seem to be a difficult task as it used to appear initially.

on August 4, 2007 09:51 PM
# cholesterol lowering foods said:

Thank for sharing your diet plan. I have seen before a diet calculator but I forgot the url of the site. If I find it again I'll share it here.

on September 4, 2008 12:06 AM
# Diet Programs said:

count my calories/ is it works for me to lose my weight?can you describe me how can i count my calories easily,,so i can start my diet from now..

on March 29, 2009 07:21 PM
# Cherry said:

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on May 12, 2010 07:18 AM
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