December 13, 2017

Should I really stick to the 2,000-calories-per-day diet?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

Wellness Food
pasta iStock/for PhillyVoice

This number was chosen as a best “average” for most Americans, but does not take into account individual metabolism, genetics and physical activity.

For decades, dieters have carefully apportioned a day's calories based on the 2,000-calories-per-day recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration.

But are those recommendations actually reliable for everyone?

Curious, we reached out to Monica Crawford, a clinical dietician in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolic Disease at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. 

Why do we abide by the 2,000 calories per day rule?

Who came up with the "2,000 calories per day" standard on the nutrition label, and how old is it? What is it based on? 

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The FDA came up with the 2,000 calories as part of their Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990. 

One might assume that the 2,000-calorie reference has some sort of scientific basis. But, In fact, the mark of 2,000 calories was based on self-reported caloric intakes of Americans from surveys conducted by the USDA around the time of the 1990 NLEA, when the need for standardized intake references was recognized. Survey results found that males self-reported daily calorie intakes in the 2,000 to 3,000 range and females reported intakes in the 1,600 to 2,200 range.

The FDA proposed using a single standard of daily calorie intake—2,350 calories per day, based on this USDA survey data. 

Nutrition educators worried that it would encourage overconsumption, be irrelevant to women who consume fewer calories and permit overstatement of acceptable levels of “eat less” nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium. Instead, they proposed rounding down to 2,000 calories.

It's fair to say we don't all have bodies that crave specifically 2,000 calories, right? Some of us need more, some of us less? 

Clearly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intended the 2000-calorie diet to be an "average" reference of sorts to help the typical consumer put all these percentages into some context. However, the diet of 2,000 calories per day is more likely an exception to the norm, rather than the norm.

Currently, many people consume more calories than they expend, which is helping fuel the obesity epidemic.

Any sense of how many people actually accomplish that 2,000 target? I only loosely count my calories, but I always seem to be at least a few hundred above that. 

Study results vary regarding the average number of calories that Americans consume daily.

The American Heart Association recommends that moderately active adults eat around 2,500 (male) or 2,000 (female) calories per day, respectively, and according to CDC’s NHANES study from 1999-2000, males consumed, on average, 2,475 calories daily and females consumed 1,833 calories. 

However, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the average American consumed about 3,180 calories per day between 1979 and 1981, and is up to 3,770 calories consumed between 2005 and 2007, as per the FAO 2010 Statistical Yearbook.

The 2,000 calories is not a “one size fits all.” It is just a starting point.

Is there any kind of push to change how the nutrition label approaches calories? To me, what seems to be the biggest issue with it, is it assumes all calories are created equal. 

Not that I am aware of. There is nothing to distinguish between calories from carbohydrates, which may be more detrimental to those with insulin resistance, for example, and calories from protein. 

Any sense of what the political pushback is with updating the nutrition label? Oddly, Michelle Obama's push for transparency about added sugars on the nutrition label--which was supposed to be enacted soon, actually--has been postponed "indefinitely." What's controversial about food transparency? 

I don’t believe it is the food transparency that is controversial, but rather the imposition of strict regulations by the government on the food industry. Both congressional Republicans and industry groups have come to see these regulations as overly strict or even wasteful; they have long been opposed by business groups that say they are burdensome to the food industry. 

After sustained lobbying from the packaged food and beverage industry, the FDA initially announced an indefinite delay in the launch of Nutrition Fact labels that were intended to help Americans eat more healthfully. Since then, a new deadline has been set. Manufacturers with annual food sales of $10 million or more would have until Jan. 1, 2020, to come into compliance, and manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales would have until Jan. 1, 2021.

Is there a way to tell how many calories your specific body needs? Also, how should we be doing the math if we know, for example, that we burn X amount of calories in a workout each day?

One thing I recommend to clients is to take advantage of the latest technology to track calories using an electronic food diary app, like MyFitnessPal, Lose It or Spark People. Monitor your weight regularly, and if it stays fairly stable, your average daily calories are roughly what you need to maintain. Losing weight will require cutting about 300 to 500 calories per day. These apps allow you to factor in your physical activity as well and are a great way to learn more about how many calories your body needs and uses.

Anything you'd like to add, or that people should know?

It can be hard for the average person to know what calorie level they should be consuming for optimal health–but that doesn't mean defaulting to 2,000 is necessarily the best approach. This number was chosen as a best “average” for most Americans, but does not take into account individual metabolism, genetics and physical activity. It was meant to provide a frame of reference when looking at the percent daily values of nutrients on the label, not to be a caloric recommendation for everyone.