The 2000 Calorie Scam

12 Dec

Nutritional LabelI’ve never been on a diet per se, and I didn’t own a scale until I was 30. In fact, I’ve never “really” counted calories.

But somewhere in my head, the 2,000 calorie number just roamed around. And that should be no surprise because it’s on every nutritional label.

Last year I noticed some overall chunkiness (you know, that super sexy roll over the waistband). And combined with my trip to the ER from my fainting incident, I definitely reevaluated my health habits. (Which quite frankly, were more like unhealthy habits, to say the least.)

Why Am I Not Losing Weight?

I stopped eating out. I began working with a trainer. I ate breakfast and vegetables and drank more water (which were all significant improvements for me). And although I was not a beacon of health, you would think that going from a fast-food-eating-couch-potato to a protein-and-vegetable-eating-exerciser would result in a pound here or there.


Because in my mind, 2,000 calories is like 4 generous sandwiches or a bunch of bowls cereals or.. or… or… Right?

Sure it is. But I learned that 2,000 calories is an AVERAGE guideline. That number is a total scam in my book and I think many of us have been suckered by having it out there on everything.

The 2,000 Calorie Scam

I started doing some research. And what I found scared me a LOT. Calorie needs vary based on age, gender, weight, height, & activity. And after some research, I learned that the 2,000 calorie number was not just a little off, but it was VERY far from what I needed to lose a few pounds. And the amount of activity that I was now getting was another significant scam even though I went from ZERO to MANY minutes per week. Don’t get me wrong, those minutes count, but based on what I learned, it was probably not enough to be above the “baseline” for these calorie intake guidelines.

And after a few colorful tweet exchanges with my very first on-line fitness friend Lisa Johnson (@lisajohnson), we decided a rant was in order.  You’re not going to believe what she learned about the 2,000 calorie number! (View Lisa’s Post.)

How Many Calories Do I Really Need?

Calorie Counting Made Easy – Harvard Medical School

  • Source: Harvard Medical School (Of course I had to start with Harvard because of Lisa ;-))
  • To Maintain Your Weight: Multiply your current weight by 15
  • For me, now: 120 lbs x 15 = 1,800 calories per day
  • This assumes 30 minutes of exercise per day (brisk walking – getting mildly sweaty)
  • So if I want to LOSE, even 1 lb per week, I would have to create a 500 calorie DAILY deficit
  1. Reduce intake by 250 calories per day (1,550 total) AND
  2. Increase activity by 250 calories (that’s in ADDITION to 30 minutes of brisk walking per day)


  1. Reduce intake by 500 calories per day  (1,300 total)


  1. Increase activity by 500 calories  per day (that’s HARD exercise ABOVE the 30 minute per day baseline)

You see where I’m going with this….

How Many Calories Do You Really Need? Web MD

Source: WebMd

This has a handy table that also incorporates age – but the age “brackets” are very broad (and we need less calories as we get older). Also, this defines “sedentary” as someone walking 1.5 – 3 miles per day at a 3-4 mph pace (that’s pretty fast in my book). I am still qualifying myself as sedentary (maybe a smidge above), because although I do go to the gym & work out harder than a brisk walk, I only do that a few times per week. Overall, it’s probably the equivalent of doing something less every day.

  • Age 43 & “Sedentary” >> 1,800 calories per day to MAINTAIN
  • Again, see the comments above about LOSING weight.

Determining Your BMR & Adjusting for Activity

Source: The Office Diet

Although this is not a medical site, they use a widely referenced Harris-Benedict formula and have the handy conversions for lbs and inches. This calculates one’s Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), or the amount of calories you’d need to stay in bed all day. (You can use the Discovery Health Calculator too.) The BMR is then adjusted for activity.

  • BMR For Adult Women: 655 + (4.3 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
  • For Me: 655 + (4.3 x 120) + (4.7 x 62) – (4.7 x 43) = 1,260 BMR
  • Determine Activity Factor
    • Sedentary – Desk: 1.2
    • Light – On Feet: 1.3
    • Moderate – Exercise 30 min x 3x/wk: 1.4
    • Active – More: 1.5
  • Based on these guidelines, I used the “Moderate” activity factor (1.4)
  • Calories to Maintain Weight: BMR (1,260) x Activity (1.4) = 1,764


  • The calories for me to maintain weight range from 1,700 – 1,800 calories assuming about 30 minutes of lightly sweaty activity each day.
  • Even making generous assumptions, the 2,000 calorie number is WAY OFF – both in terms of “maintaining weight”, but especially in terms of creating a calorie deficit.
  • Based on these guidelines, even with going to the gym a few days a week  (because they EACH reference DAILY activity to equal about 3.5 hrs of brisk walking per week), I’m still in the “light” activity range & am probably not creating much of a calorie deficit to lose weight above the baseline.
  • For me to drop a few pounds, it will take quite a bit more effort to create the calorie deficit (both in terms of calorie intake & activity).

I still don’t “really” count calories, but I certainly am being more mindful about labels and portions. And I’m also not “overestimating” my time in the gym – because quite frankly, in a normal week, it’s probably not much more than these I-walk-every-day baselines. And since I’ve shifted my mindset towards about 1,500 calories, I started SLOWLY dropping a few pounds.

What do you think? Are we scamming ourselves a bit in terms of calories?

Additional Sources & Related Posts:


46 Responses to “The 2000 Calorie Scam”

  1. Heather @ Not a DIY Life December 12, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    I think we are totally scamming ourselves. Not only in the daily caloric intake, but in portions sizes as well. To see the difference between a 3 oz portion of chicken breast and what is served in restaurants in appalling.

    Great info, Kris!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 12, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

      Thanks Heather – yes! The portion thing – for me – when I started trying to learn a bit about this – was totally depressing. I used to eat out a lot – and my sense of appropriate portions was whacked (to put it mildly). I started cooking, bought smaller (but very pretty restaurant type plates) and worked on portions that way. But I’ll never forget that tweet that you mentioned a portion size for almonds. I think my response was “Eeeeeek!” Thanks again!

  2. deb roby December 12, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    That 2000 calorie number is usually for a male under the age of 50. Never took women into account although it’s more likely that we read labels and count calories.

    At my age, I can normally eat 1550-1750 calories a day. So to lose weight, I’m down in that 1200-1300 calorie range. Makes every calorie count. Also is great encouragement to hit the gym more and work in the “sweaty as all get-out” range. Heck, sometimes I even do cardio.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 12, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

      Hey Deb ~

      Lisa did some research on the calorie thing and where that came from, and it’s even worse than that. You should totally check it out. And that 1200 – 1300 range is killer. BUT, more veggies go a long way in terms of nutrition/calorie ratio, so that has helped me to not feel like I’m starved. I’m still not really counting, and I’m positive I’m still way off, but at least my whole mindset around where it should be has changed.

      Dang men…. Ha!

  3. Sweet Life Laur December 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    Loved this post, Kris! It’s nice to see a reminder about calories and how important counting them can be!! Great info!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 13, 2010 at 7:34 am #

      Hi Laura! So good to see you floating around the non-blog (hehehe). I’m still not a calorie counter per se, but I’m certainly more mindful for sure! And you are young, so no worries for you. But gosh, I turned 30 then 40 & I didn’t really realize that I probably shouldn’t be eating what I did when I was 20. Hehehe

  4. Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana December 12, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Indeed, this average is totally misleading. It’s probably based on a man, yes? I was confused too until I did tons of research online when I was trying to figure out how much a tiny person like myself should get while also working out at least four times a week and trying to build muscle. I finally came to the (in)conclusion that I should get about 1,500 calories per day. But I’m still not sure if this is right.

    It’s complicated b/c as you said, it’s based on your activity level. And it brings to light that many people are basing their diets on this number while this country faces an obesity epidemic.

    Thanks so much to both you and Lisa for your well-researched and thought-provoking posts on this subject.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 13, 2010 at 7:37 am #

      Hey Suzanne – I’m actually happy to hear that you were confused too. It’s funny, cuz we’re bright and educated, but for me, I was really UNeducated about this kind of stuff. And whether it’s 1525 or 1610 or whatever, it’s still off from the 2000 calorie “average”. So for me, when I look at a label & it gives “calories” of a “serving” and “% of daily”, I didn’t “know” I should be doing some math and adjusting that number down.


  5. Lisa Johnson December 12, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    I think it is based on a typical male, yes. I couldn’t get a clear answer on that either, but if I dig a little longer I should come up with it. The fact that I’m pretty adept at squeezing data from US Government reports and struggled on this really says something.

    I love Kris’ research, she did a great job rounding up different perspectives. Unless you go to a medical evaluation you’re never going to get your exact “number.” And that’s always a moving target anyway …

    So, take the good info you can get and adapt it to your needs. Thanks for suggesting the post Kris, this was fun!


    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 13, 2010 at 7:45 am #

      Indeed Lisa – this was totally fun! And I find it AMAZING that the number comes from the average of what people ARE eating vs the average of what they SHOULD be eating. That made me even more mad! Granted, any change would be hard & who knows what the best solution is (diff cal averages on a label? new cal average as the base? moving the 2000 cal disclaimer to the TOP of the label, rather than under the 1st table?). But any way you slice it, the 2000 calorie number is misleading. Sigh….

  6. Yum Yucky December 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    Whoa! This is jam-packed with good information. I gotta read it over to make it seep into my brain more. Thanks for taking the time to break this down!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 6:55 am #

      Hey Sunshine – Thanks so much for stopping by! Sigh – it is a bit long, but I was curious if other folks could related. Weird, because I’m educated in some stuff, but some of this fitness stuff is very new to me. So it has been fun to learn.

      Thanks again ~ K

  7. Susan@Home Workouts December 13, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    It’s a food manufacturing conspiracy. If you think you should be eating more then you should then chances are you will eat more of whatever processed food item you happen to be eating. It’s a $$ thing.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 6:57 am #

      Hi Susan ~ Thanks so much for stopping by. I work in agriculture actually (but in California, I work with specialty crops – fruit & vegetables). Can you believe that produce is considered a specialty crop? Ha! It is time for the Farm Bill again, so there will be lots of opportunity for folks to weigh in to have $$$ for specialty crops be proportionate to how much of those we should be eating 😉 Thanks again ~ K

  8. Karen December 14, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    I know there is this theory about math – calories in vs. calories out. Makes sense. But somehow I am not sure it holds true. There seem to be some mystery factors at work that impact our weight loss/gain beyond the simple calorie math.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 6:45 am #

      Yes! I also believe that there is more to the calorie in – calorie out ideas… Sort of “a calorie is not a calorie” idea or “all calories are not created equal”. I really think there’s something to the cortisol/insulin stuff/glycemic index stuff – so when I started paying attention to even the good carbs (fruits & whole wheat grains) and protein grazing for snacks, I got good results. So on a “good” day, I’m basing my food around protein & veggies (eggs & spinach for breakfast instead of good cereal and a banana), for example. So good to see you Karen – have any good book recommendations? xoxo

      • Karen December 16, 2010 at 7:12 am #

        I agree!!! And try to do the same when I am “being good.”

        Ah, books. I just read the new Jonathan Kellerman. My memory is so bad that I am blanking out beyond that. My husband rates books on his Facbook page and reads them after me so I should go see what he has on there. What kinds of books do you like to read?

      • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 16, 2010 at 8:30 am #

        I WILL read over the break (if I ever get one). Sometimes I read mindless crime stuff… Sometimes I read soul medicine stuff… But mainly, I don’t read enough… Sigh… TYSM Karen!

  9. Joanna December 14, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    This is a great post. It really worries me when I read diet books, like the ones from The Biggest Loser, and they just universally prescribe a 1200-1500 cal/daily diet. If someone is trying to start a weight loss journey and they are around 300lbs, then by your calculation here they need 4500 calories a day just to maintain that weight (300lb x 15). I’m certainly no doctor or expert, but I believe that assuming a 1500 cal a day diet will work for everyone sets many people up to fail. The deficit is just too huge. I also think that this is why we hear stories about people making small changes and getting big results–when you have more to lose, that scenario is an easier possibility.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 7:15 am #

      Yes Joanna – we are all different! Imagine that… sigh… I’m a BIG believer in incremental change – just for today, I will eat breakfast – just for today, I will drink water – just for today, I will walk for a few minutes. And little by little, those habits have stuck & now I eat really well (most of the time) and get many minutes of movement in. Thanks so much for stopping by! K

  10. Lakia Gordon December 14, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    Wow, thanks for the article. It’s good to know that it’s just an average. lol

  11. Charlize Robertas December 14, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    The calorie mystery is this: a calorie is, supposedly, a measure of potential energy contained in, or stored from, the food you eat. But how is that measured? In whose body, whose metabolism, etc? How old is that person? How active? What body type? If you start researching what a calorie is, you may be surprisd at how difficult, confusing and discouraging it is to find out anything definate. Some confusion also from the fact that weight, diet and exercise advice and information seems always to be based on twenty-somethings, especially twenty-something males. Age, body type, present fat/muscle proportion, and, of course, fashion ideas also play into it. Sometimes I think I’m the only one thinks good diet and exercise habits should center on a desire for good health, not a particular body size or weight.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

      Dang 20 somethings… I wish I could eat like a 20 something – those were the days.

      But alas, today I get to eat herb flavored veggies, chicken with balsamic reduction, and carmelized onions.

      Wait – I’ll have what I’m eating now!

      And yes – granted the weight was a “bit” of my journey – but overall, I’ve really been focusing on health and wellness.

      TYSM for stopping by!

  12. aka gringita December 14, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks for this post! I started counting calories for the first time recently, and was totally shocked (1) how many “extra” calories were in my day and (2) how FAST I can eat 500 calories without even thinking about it, and how SLOW it is to burn them back off!

    The 2000-calorie-lie is so important to understand. If I tell someone my target is in the 1300-1500 range per day, I get a lot of “But that’s terrible; you’ll be in starvation mode!” responses. Um, no. I’ve done the math, and I won’t. But I *might* lose a pound here or there, if I stick to it.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

      Oh many – I know! 500 calories in can be sooooooo quick! And 500 calories out, well…. Yikes!

  13. Joyce Cherrier December 14, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Great post! This is such an eye opener! Thanks ladies!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

      Aw – thanks! And yes, Lisa’s post is unbelievable actually! We both learned so much – it was sooooooo much fun! Perhaps we can plot sometime? hehehehe

  14. Megan December 14, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Oh yes, I’ve known for a long time the 2,000 calorie guideline was way off for me. Many moons ago in my high school health class I determined from my age, height, weight and physical activity that I only needed about 1,600 calories a day to maintain my weight! Yeeshk! And no one realizes that those 100 calorie packs add up quickly…

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

      Oh gosh – I never had that healthy class! But I’m older… who knows what we learned in health back then LOL

      And those snack packs – uh – I could eat a bunch of them – ha!

  15. 40 Pounds by June December 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I think we don’t realize how many calories we consume and burn each day and that runs us into problems. At least that is true for me. So now I track and count hoping I will learn instinctively over time. I also have a scale that tells me the number of cals I need to maintain. Very helpful!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

      I know for me, I had NO CLUE as to how many calories I was eating, because I just ate what I ate. I still don’t “really” count, but I’m certainly more mindful, and when I’m eating more protein & veggies (tough habit for me, but well worth it), I don’t get hungry, I don’t “crash”, and I seem to do ok. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Mark Lewis December 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Hi. I lost 10 kg from the basic I-dont-mix-pasta-with-meat and low fat diet, which I believe is the Atkins diet. Perhaps that helps … 🙂

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

      I think there’s a lot to food combining – I think everyone’s body is different in terms of how we metabolize & process different foods – so glad you found something that works!

  17. Moe December 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    Congrats on getting front page today – I did as well. It was an unusual day at the old blog for sure. HOw did it go for you?

    This is helpful – thanks for doing all the research – timely too. I am about to get serious about losing post-smoking weight (quit 4 years ago, gained 30 lbs overall).

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 14, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

      Hey Moe!

      An unusual day indeed! I didn’t even know what was happening until someone mentioned something in a comment – and even then – I still didn’t understand LOL

      Ah – we have a great online fitness community that is so supportive – please join us on twitter – we all share the love!

      And congrats to you! On my way over right now 😉

  18. Minka December 15, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    wow, i had no idea! Thank you for sharing. shouldn’t be a surprise though.. i mean stuff like your BMI is an average.. a person with more muscle mass will be considered overweight on the BMI chart even though they are way more fit and require more calories.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 15, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

      Yep – go figure… I’m not sure why I was the last person on the block to figure it out! hehehe

  19. mynakedbokkie December 15, 2010 at 3:27 am #

    Hey, hey. I turned 29 this year, and suddenly i went from being conscious of what i placed in my mouth to actually realising that if i dont change it- i am going to have problems. I have always been quite health conscious, but still have enjoyed all the awesome things we should avoid. Sucker for chocolate.

    I put on a few kgs, all my clothes got really tight, and i then realised that new clothes woudl be expensive. I went onto one of those high-protein, low carb diets (puerly because the ladies were dropping dress sizes as quickly as they were eating), and i did not loose weight…..i put it on!!!! I was so dissapointed that it hadnt worked, it was an awesome diet.

    The fact is that calories in and calories out is what counts!!! I have spent huge amounts of time trying to find low calorie tasting recipes. I have downloaded applications onto my phone, and i have managed to still eat chocolate every night. IF i actually got off my butt and did some exercise, it would help. (I dont have time….. you know that!)

    It has worked!! Going to ease off now for a week or two over silly season….always more difficult when you home with the family. But straight after Christams- i am getting right back into it.

    I wrote something on it a littel while ago. It was called “Forget balanced… obsessed!!!!” Have a read.

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

      I love the “mindful” part – just paying attention is so important. In terms of the food “proportions” (protein-carbs) – I think everyone’s body is different – so we respond differently to different programs. That’s great that you’re having fun with your new tools – so cool! And yes – as long as we’re “moving” – chocolate is fabulous!

  20. samantha pollack December 15, 2010 at 5:31 am #


    I am a personal trainer and a health and wellness coach. This is a nice discussion you’ve got going on — far more informed people chiming in here than on some other sites I’ve come across.

    I’ve left the security of the big gym and am starting my own business in NC. Your trainer sounds like my trainer — tabata and kettlebell craziness. Love it! I’m still building my online empire…but I’d love to become a part of your online fitness community if you’ll have me!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

      So kind! I’m glad that sharp people are hanging around here – it’s amazing to see what can be out there in the digital world, eh? I’m by no means a pro… just a fairly capable, educated woman wondering what I missed in health class (hehehe – although that was a while ago). We’d love to have you in our little (big) fitness community – are you on twitter? Try the #fitblog & #sfcfit tags and you’ll find lots of us! I’m on my way to your site right now!

      • Samantha Pollack December 17, 2010 at 3:21 am #

        yes I’m on twitter but I’m still new to it. My twitter name, or whatever you call it, is girloutofboston. FInd me!

  21. workingtechmom December 15, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Great post. The average numbers are so deceiving and I am with you with needing to think differently about what I eat now vs. when I was 20. Every step counts so I’ll try to remember that in daily life.

    Congrats on being freshly press – keep up the blog!

    • Kris O'Connor @Krazy_Kris December 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

      Sigh… to be 20 again… NOT! I just have to eat less now, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go back LOL TY for your kind words and stopping by! I’m trying to get to everyone’s blog – but it’s going to take me a while 😉

      • workingtechmom December 15, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

        No pressure – just enjoy all the new blog friends! Nobody really wants to go back to being 20..just some of the things that were easier then, including eating, flexibility, and being able to go without sleep!

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