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October 2, 2010 / elodie kaye

Three Thousand Calories

I don’t have any exotic sensitivities to nuts, shellfish, sugar or gluten, and I’m not an ideological eater, which makes for dull reading so you won’t find many posts from me about nutrition.  My interest in food cleaves closely to need; if I follow hunger, I don’t gain or lose weight when training, tapering or injured.  While some people eat mindlessly when they’re under stress, I become mindlessly distracted and forget to eat.  I don’t mean I forget to sit down at a meal.  I mean I will literally become preoccupied with whatever is my worry of the moment, then bored of my food, and finally wish the meal were over, so I can wander off and worry some more.  This makes me an unpopular dinner companion.

It also makes me drift slowly to an ever lower weight, because after the period of stress has passed my natural tendency is to maintain my new lower weight, which is how I’ve landed at 116 lbs. stretched over a 5’7″ frame.  I’m a long way from actual health issues, but this is moving into the range where I’m forced to take some action.  If I drop any more weight my running is going to get slower and weaker.

On average, I’ve burned 900 – 1200 calories a day over the past month, which includes running, cycling and swimming.  That amounts to 2800 – 3000 calories a day to hold ground on my current weight.  To gain a pound a week, I have to jack that up to 3300 – 3500 calories daily.

Three thousand calories is a lot of food.  For some perspective, it’s a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns, for lunch, a Big Mac with fries and soda, and at dinner a porterhouse steak, potatoes and green beans slathered with butter.  To gain a pound a week, I’d have to add a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  Every day.  This is a truck-driver-sized diet, and given that I weigh 90 lbs. less than the average truck driver, it’s not easy to pack that much food into a much smaller gut.

Does that make you queasy?  Me too.

An interesting side effect of needing that many calories is the distribution.  Trying to get most of my carbohydrate needs as vegetables, whole grains and fruit isn’t impractical, it’s impossible.  Those foods take up more volume, and take longer to digest.  There aren’t enough waking hours nor storage space in my body to accomplish this.  My requirements for protein, essential fats, and some minerals are about the same whether I run 30 miles a week or 60, since these needs primarily hinge on your body weight.  I can comfortably build a healthy diet on about 2000 calories which fuels everything but my running, et al.  It includes about 50% carbs, 25% protein, and 25% fat.

It’s fairly natural to take in an additional 600 – 800 calories as refined carbs and sugar around or during my daily workouts.  This changes the distribution to 64% carbs, 18% protein, and 18% fats.  Isn’t that tricky how it looks like a low-fat diet now?

Having done this analysis once, I don’t plan to do it again.  I can’t keep a food journal, either.  Appetite for food, like all kinds of arousal, is a shy animal.  If you spend too much time thinking about whether it’s better to eat this versus that, appetite scampers off into the brush and you eat nothing at all.  Meal-planning a stealth midnight raid on ice cream pretty much kills any chance it will happen.

Three thousand calories is also numbingly boring.  Coming up with that many new and interesting meals is a creative skill, and when I’m busy, I fall back on familiar foods.  Boredom is as fatal for appetite, as it is for that other kind of arousal.  For me, gaining weight revolves around how to make eating a recreation, something stimulating, novel, and sociable, but not so sociable that I’d rather mingle than eat.  This is one of the more pleasant problems a runner can have, but it takes time to solve.  Not every meal can be a dinner party.



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  1. Geoff Cordner / Oct 3 2010 12:32 pm

    This is a more interesting post than you might realize, at least to me. First of all, it seems incredibly scientific and full of obscure facts and lots of measurements. The source of all this info seems exotic and only for those in-the-know. Not meant as a challenge but as curiosity: how do you come up with this stuff? Apparently I’m not in-the-know. All this food measurement stuff seems terribly arcane, and yet I suspect some people are doing it all the time. Here’s what I know: according to daily mile, I burn between 5000 and 5500 calories a week running. Here’s what I don’t know: everything else.

    • elodiekaye / Oct 3 2010 10:56 pm

      It’s true, I’m a poor journalist. It comes from having a day job where I have to reference everything that can possibly be referenced, and read everything else to make sure it shouldn’t be referenced. On my own time, I’m lazy. However, you (actually anyone who might be dropping in on this conversation, too) should feel free to challenge. I don’t take it personally, and it would probably make my posts more useful.

      I think maybe you aren’t in-the-know because you don’t need to be. My ultra friends simply eat whatever they can get their hands on. I learned most of what I wrote above from a professional nutritionist after I got discharged from the hospital once, weighing 102 lbs. (due to surgery+chemo, not anorexia or anything dramatic like that). It’s a slog for me to gain weight whether I’m running or not.

      For the calorie counts in my example meal plan, I used Their database is pretty comprehensive. If you log a week’s worth of food into their website, you’ll get a decent picture of how your eating stacks up, but I warn you they will spam you forevermore. They give a handy macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, fat) breakdown, and their suggestions are sound for people running less than 40 mpw, with the goal of general health.

      To get calorie needs at rest (without exercise) the search term you want is ‘basal metabolic rate’. Here is a wiki article to get you started:

      Unfortunately, I have to tell you that you don’t know you burn 5000 calories a week, either. Dailymile calculates that number based on your current body weight and the distance you travel. It’s a very simple physics law, but it’s too simple for something as complicated as the human body in a running motion. Your Garmin isn’t very accurate either. These numbers can be off by 20% – 40%, and if we look at my calories per day, 20% = 600 calories. If my numbers are off by that much, it’s a difference of more than a pound a week.

      Also, you have to realise that your body burns calories just to keep a heart beating, blood pumping, and lungs inflating (basal metabolic rate). Even your brain needs a few calories to think. The real calorie burn of running has to be what you burned per mile (which will depend on terrain, speed, heat, efficiency, etc) minus what you would have burned sitting at the computer.

      I realise I just threw down a critique without reference yet again, but here’s why the exact calorie burn doesn’t matter:
      People losing weight on their own get hung up about what their minimum calorie requirement is and how much they burn, so they can come up with a prescription for what to eat. Nutritionists go in the back door. They look at what do you eat now, how much do you exercise now, and are you gaining/losing weight now? If you’re not gaining or losing, you’re in balance. If you’re in balance, then the calories you consumed last week are exactly what you burned last week. It’s much easier to add up what you ate, than to figure out how much you metabolically consume while sleeping, coding or running. You can look at your week’s diet and add or reduce by 500 calories a day to get to whatever goal you want. The key is to work with differentials rather than with absolute totals.

      If I cut 2.5 miles a day but don’t gain a pound over 2 weeks while keeping my food the same, it has to be because those 2.5 miles were worth less than 250 calories. That’s how I know empirically that dailymile’s formula is wrong. The whole business is very dirty and inelegant — much more tech than geek.

      • Geoff Cordner / Oct 6 2010 10:11 am

        Yikes. I just looked on sparkpeople. See, the problem is have no idea how many grams or ounces my food weighs. I had a girlfriend once who was trying out some health kick and weighed stuff and used a measuring cup and ran her kitchen like an organic high school chemistry lab. But I’m too vague for that sort of thing.

        Just read up on my basal metabolic rate. Interesting that the wikipedia article cites the penis (and other private parts) as a vital organ but not the brain. I guess it’s probably true, though. You never read about smart people getting a bunch of plastic surgery to look like Angelina Jolie and then having octuplets. (Octomom is in the news again, selling her used panties to avoid having her home go into foreclosure).

        Here’s what else I know. I must be balanced in some regard because I weigh exactly as much now as I did last week, last month, last year. I believe the pounds are denser than they once were, but I’ve the same number of them. Bummer. I wasn’t really planning on becoming a high density guy. It’s alarming, too – if a couple of ounces of shoe weight can impact me on a 20 mile run, imagine what would happen if I could get rid of 15 pounds of excess density…

        Anyhow, lots of food for thought in your post and comment.

      • elodie kaye / Oct 6 2010 3:48 pm

        Are you sure your own brain wasn’t unduly influenced? I see ‘nervous system’ in the first paragraph. Maybe there’s another reference farther down; the brain is the only organ whose blood supply never varies, so its energy consumption isn’t subject to metabolic variation. (Why would anyone want octomom’s used panties?
        No, don’t answer that.)

        How do you know you have 15 lbs. to lose? I mean, my best racing weight (for 10K+) seems to be 120 – 122 lbs. and within (+/-) 5 lbs. of that range, there really isn’t much difference. If anything, I can generate slightly more power (faster peak speed) at the high end. Is not wanting to be a high-density dude an aesthetic ruling? Because it’s generally thought that higher density makes you a better runner. OTOH, I’m a big fan of determining these things for yourself.

        You don’t need to weigh all your food as long as you’re consistent about portions. Once you decide where you want to cut your 500 calories each day, you’ll have to weigh or measure those bits of food to be sure they add up. Also, since you’re training through all this, you’ll want to cut those calories from meals that aren’t around the time of your daily run. For the rest of your meals you just have to be careful they’re the same size they always were. No weighing required.

  2. gpetitto / Oct 4 2010 3:16 pm

    Interesting how you said so little about the source of your trouble in all this, the stress. Not that I’m asking you to go into it on here, but I hope you get better at dealing with it in such a way as to not ruin your appetite much more since eating is becoming such a challenge. Does your running really help you deal with stress or is it an avoidance mechanism?

    Do you have a blender? I was thinking magically delicious smoothies might be a good way to gradually suck down more calories while you’re out and about fretting over your stressors. You could add a quality protein powder to get even more calories and to help with muscle repair. I’m also a big fan of nut butters– almond, peanut, cashew, etc. I can spread that stuff on just about anything, like tree bark or old tires, and happily gobble it up. I’ll probably never have to deal with the challenge of struggling to take in enough calories though, because when I run hard and often, I turn beastly and my appetite skyrockets.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 4 2010 4:01 pm

      Cashew butter on tire tread, mmmm… 🙂 I have a blender, but it’s at home while I’m at work, so it doesn’t get used during the week very much. I do successfully manage to go through about 2700 – 3000 calories, so I’m not losing any more weight now. As I described though, it’s quite a lot of food for someone my size even if I choose calorie-dense options. It’s just that I can’t process much more than that, to gain weight back once I’ve lost it.

      If it came to a serious health issue, I’d cut back on running and make a proper campaign of eating, but I hate that. I associate it with being sick. I come to resent the chore of eating, which really tanks appetite quickly.

      The sources of stress that I face these days are very ordinary, and probably much less than most people who have to juggle families, too. My computer literally had a meltdown of its insides the day before classes began, which made the first two weeks more chaotic than they usually are. I lost about 3 lbs. during those 2 weeks which isn’t really a lot, but I’d lost 5 more in the summer which I hadn’t quite put back yet. That’s kinda the way it goes. I do eventually put the weight back on but it takes a while, and sometimes I get hit by some other mundane bump in the road before I make it back to even. The pattern is remarkably similar to people who try to lose weight.

      Never say never, Greg. If you go ultra next year, your appetite (and stomach) may get all they can handle.

      • gpetitto / Oct 5 2010 2:23 pm

        If it came to a serious health issue, I’d cut back on running and make a proper campaign of eating, but I hate that. I associate it with being sick. I come to resent the chore of eating, which really tanks appetite quickly.

        I’m glad you’re keeping your health a priority. I imagine it would become rather difficult if eating ever became a chore. Not sure I can really imagine what it’d be like since I come from a long line of food-centric people and have that near food obsession deeply ingrained into my pysche.

        Never say never, Greg. If you go ultra next year, your appetite (and stomach) may get all they can handle.

        Very true. Significantly increasing my mileage will certainly bring changes.

      • elodie kaye / Oct 5 2010 2:58 pm

        To me, it feels unnatural to eat past the point where I’m satisfied. This makes sense in a way, because the point of satisfaction coincides with adequate maintenance of my weight, whatever it is. The task then, is to override a normally healthy signal at every opportunity, for weeks at a time. You can imagine it as overeating at a Thanksgiving feast, every day. I kinda think even the most tempting activity can become a burden if it’s mandated as a duty that you must fulfill to excess, day after day. Use your imagination Greg, it’s not a far reach. 😉

  3. gpetitto / Oct 5 2010 3:03 pm

    Use your imagination Greg, it’s not a far reach.

    HA! Wow. I’m not usually an argumentative person anyway, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to debate you. 😛

  4. Anne / Oct 5 2010 8:07 pm

    Sure wish I had your same reaction to stress. You can always layer on calorie-dense dressings and creams to raise the rankings on those veggies. Load up a baked potato with sour cream and butter and you’ve got a good 1k in calories right there.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 5 2010 8:38 pm

      I try to add rich condiments after I’ve eaten a little of everything so as to avoid filling up on fat at the expense of carbs and protein, but you’re right to point out that additions in general are my friend. I’m also eating out a lot, simply to be able to vary flavours and textures. It’s not always torture. 😉

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