The most basic reason we eat food is too meet our energy requirements. During this time of self-isolation and social distancing, most of us are moving a lot less than what we are used to. The question becomes: how to eat less when you move less (and when you have 24/7 access to a fridge and a pantry)?
Important note! Keep reading only if you want to control your energy intake while you are spending less energy. Some people have too much to worry about at the moment to care about energy intake, and that’s ok.
Estimated energy requirements
The amount of energy (i.e. kilojoules or kilocalories) you need to consume per day depends on two factors: your basal metabolic rate and your activity level.
Basal metabolic rate
Your basal metabolic rate is how much energy you spend just by being alive. It varies from individual to individual but can be estimated based on age, weight and gender. The amount of fat-free mass also has an impact on how much energy you burn, so the more muscle you carry the more you need to eat.
The other factor that affects how much food you need to eat is your activity level. If you have a full-time desk job or are a full-time student, you likely fall in the sedentary category, even if you exercise most days of the week for an hour or so.
On the other hand, if you are on your feet all day for work, have a physically demanding job or are an athlete, your activity level will increase.
Estimating your requirements
There are several equations to calculate estimated energy requirements. All of them have limitations so results should be taken with a grain of salt. You can use the following calculator to get an estimate of how many kilojoules/kilocalories you should eat each day.
You can compare how much energy you need normally vs how much energy you need when you are less active (e.g. when staying at home).
How to eat less when you move less
Below are some strategies you can use to reduce your energy intake. Please note that if any of the following recommendations make you more stressed or anxious, don’t worry about it.
Don’t over-consume liquid foods
Liquid food such as smoothies and juices can deliver a lot of nutrients but are easy to drink, get absorbed quicker and are usually less satiating than solid foods. Soups are an exception, as they often contain solid bits and are eaten with a spoon, which slows you down.
Avoid “empty calories”
“Empty calories” is the name often given to foods that have little to no nutrient content but still contain energy. Examples include soft drinks, processed snack foods and alcohol, especially of the sugary kind.
Try intermittent fasting
Although under normal circumstances intermittent fasting should not equal caloric restriction, it can be used as a tool to reduce energy intake if you have issues controlling how much you eat. You can try different protocols and see what works for you. Options include:
- 16:8 time-restricted feeding, where you eat during an 8-hour window and fast for the other 16.
- 5:2 energy restriction, where you eat a normal number of calories on 5 days and eat significantly less (e.g. 500 kilocalories) on the other 2 days
- Real fasting, where you don’t eat for 1, 2 or up to 5 days. Please note fasting might not be safe for everyone, so talk to your physician before attempting this.
Cook your own food
When you cook your own food, you can control what goes in it, potentially making meals that are satisfying and nutritious without packing a lot of kilojoules. If you want to support your local restaurants and cafes, you can cook most of your meals and get takeaway/delivery once or twice per week.
If you cook for more than one meal, store the leftovers in individual-serve containers, so that you don’t feel tempted to eat more than intended.
Eat more vegetables
Vegetables provide nutrients that are important for general health and immunity. They also provide fibre and are low in energy. As a bonus, they are still plentiful unlike toilet paper, rice and pasta.
Eat less fat
I’m not suggesting you eat low-fat necessarily because dietary fats are important for many body functions. However, fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient, so controlling the amount of fat we eat is a good way of controlling how many kilojoules go into our bodies.
I recommend prioritising fat-rich foods that are also nutrient-rich. Examples include avocados, eggs, fatty fish, olives and extra virgin olive oil. Not so important sources of fat that you can cut down on include sauces (such as mayonnaise and aioli), dressings, oils other than extra virgin olive oil, visible fat in cuts of meat, butter, cheese and cream.
Nuts and seeds are also an important source of healthy fats but they can be easy to over-consume. Although not environmentally friendly, I find single-serve packs can help with portion control. Also beware of nut butters – although there’s nothing wrong with moderate amounts, they are easy to overeat.
Sign up for a meal kit
If you want to cook your own food but find the planning and shopping daunting, consider getting a meal kit. There are a number of companies that will send you a box with pre-portioned ingredients and recipes (which you can choose) to cook during the week. All of them will give you the nutrition information in each recipe, so you can choose the meals that fit your “energy budget” the best. Check out my reviews of HelloFresh, Marley Spoon and Dinnerly.
Get ready-made meals
If you can’t or won’t cook but don’t want to rely on takeaway or delivery, you can order ready-made meals such as We Feed You. Similar to meal kits, most ready-made meals come a full nutrition panel, so you can choose the ones that fit your “energy budget”.
It seems that alcohol intake has gone up since the lockdown started in Australia, which is understandable as many people turn to alcohol to cope with stress. Unfortunately, alcohol is the second macronutrient that contributes the most to energy intake per gram. Drinking alcohol also breaks rules #1 and 2 above (don’t over-consume liquid foods and avoid “empty calories”). Moreover, drinks tend to go hand in hand with other unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and eating unhealthy food. Finally, alcohol can also have a detrimental effect in your immune system and sleep.
I’m not telling you not to drink, though. Try to stick to general health recommendations of no more than two standard drinks on each drinking occasion, preferably with alcohol-free days in between. Also, limit sugary/high-energy beverages such as pre-mixed drinks, cocktails and creamy liqueurs. See my previous post on alcohol to see charts that can help you choose.
For some people, a large percentage of their daily energy intake comes from snacks. Some triggers for snacking include being bored, stressed, anxious, busy working or mindlessly staring at our devices. Sadly, most of us are doing all of the above a lot more at the moment.
If you are currently eating snacks you can try one or more of the following:
- Reduce the number of daily snacks
- Reduce the size of each snack. As mentioned before when talking about nuts, having snacks in single-serve packages can help with portion control.
- Choose less energy-dense snacks. Some options include raw vegetables (with or without hummus), plain unsweetened yoghurt with fruit, and popcorn.
Set up an alarm
Eating too close to bedtime is not a good idea as this can lead to digestive discomfort and weight gain. Ideally, we should stop eating 2-3 hours before going to bed. Setting an alarm can help you stick to this habit. It also helps to brush your teeth when you’re done eating to avoid the temptation to keep snacking after your last meal.
Summary and recommendations
The strategies presented in this article can help you eat less kilojoules when your energy requirements drop. This applies to the current lockdown situation, but also to when you are injured, sick or you switch from a physical job to a desk job. You don’t need to implement all of them, often a few little changes make a big difference if you do them consistently.