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We know this scenario so well: Deciding to “lose weight” or “tone up,” getting a gym membership, tossing all the “bad stuff” from cabinets and fridges, and becoming obsessed with eating as “clean” as possible—most times on a diet never maxing out over 1000 calories a day.
I’ve been there, too. Many times. It wasn't until after my first triathlon racing season that I realized how undernourished my body was. I was always cold and tired, every workout felt like I put my muscles through the wringer, and it seemed like I was almost always sick. The problem, which didn’t feel like a problem at the time because I was doing as I had always done, was that I was eating about 1200 calories a day. And if we’re being quite honest, the food I was eating wasn’t really even nutrient-dense. My body was burning energy, and subsequently calories, like a furnace—but I wasn’t giving it what it needed to perform. Talk about a recipe for disaster.
It took opening up to a friend, who has worked in the fitness world for many years, about my chronic tiredness and inability to push past a certain point in my training to understand that I just needed to eat more.
Initially, the idea of eating more terrified me. But I knew there was only one way out of the blunder I had gotten myself into. I worked with a guide to help put a plan in place and today and every day, I eat roughly between 2500 and 3000 calories a day. Yes, I said it. Here's what you need to know before starting a 3000-calorie diet, with insight from nutrition experts.
Meet the Expert
- Ted Munson, MSc, is a performance nutritionist with extensive experience working with a range of athletes, including Premier League and Championship Football teams, triathletes, cyclists and rugby teams.
- Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of NY Nutrition Group, a nutrition counseling service that develops personalized plans to treat all nutrition-related needs.
How to Determine How Many Calories You Need
Ok, so how do you know how much you’re supposed to eat on a given day? “We’ve all heard of hitting the wall,” says Munson. “This is basically when our glycogen (carbohydrate) stores (the fuel we use during high-intensity exercise) deplete past a certain level. This is a sure sign that we’re not adequately fueling or recovering."
If you’re interested in understanding the exact science of pinpointing how many calories you should eat in a day, you must know two things: your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and your activity factor. Your BMR is an estimate of how many calories you’d burn if you were to do nothing but rest for 24 hours. It represents the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your body functioning, including breathing and keeping your heart beating. You can find this number by having an InBody test run on you at your local gym.
Your activity factor is how much you burn from exercise on average. You can find this by wearing a heart rate monitor or watch while working out. The total of both your BMR and activity factory is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), or how many calories you burn per day when exercise is taken into account.
To give an example: Through taking an InBody test, I know my BMR is 1400 and because I work out consistently enough to burn 1100 calories a day, six days a week, I can calculate my TDEE is 2500. Once I was able to figure this out, it made fueling my body so much more effective. After I started fueling my body like an athlete, I started performing like an athlete—placing in most of the races I set out to compete in and most recently placing third at the Mighty Man Montauk Triathlon with a personal best of two hours and 37 minutes.
Who Should Eat 3000 Calories a Day?
The truth is determining daily calorie needs is a lot more complicated than most imagine. We all have individual needs based on genetics, activity level, weight, age, and gender. And according to Moskovitz, there's more. "The way we metabolize and utilize calories is also further influenced by our unique microbiomes and even certain medical conditions like hypothyroidism," she says.
That said, Moskovitz suggests that using a generic calorie counting app or equation to determine daily calorie goals might be doing an incredible disservice to your body. "Undereating can wreak havoc on energy, mood, muscle growth, and even lead to nutrient deficiencies or malnutrition."
So yes, just like me, you might be eating under 2000 calories per day when your body needs well beyond that. "In some cases, a 3000 calorie diet could be warranted if you're highly active, trying to put on muscle (or other) mass, have a faster metabolism, are taller, or weigh over 200 pounds," says Moskovitz. However, the amount of calories one requires is still very much dependent on individual factors.
How to Safely Follow a 3000-Calorie Diet
Eating 3000 calories per day is certainly feasible and safe as long as, like me, you are someone that demands this energy. While this may seem like a ton of calories, it can be easily achieved by adding in more nutrient and calorie-dense foods such as fats like nuts, seeds, oils, full-fat dairy, and avocado. "No matter how many calories you consume, it's always important to balance them between high-fiber carbohydrates, lean proteins, and anti-inflammatory fats," notes Moskovitz.
Moskovitz also warns that it's not advised to embark on strict calorie counting either as it's impossible to count every single calorie you ingest and can interfere with the ability to respond naturally to hunger and fullness cues.
Be prepared that your daily calorie needs always fluctuate. Your body does not burn the same amount of energy every single day so you can't expect to need the same amount of calories day-to-day either.
I first started upping my 1200 calories a day to 1300 calories a day for a few weeks until my body adjusted, and adding more nutrients in until ultimately I was consuming 2500 calories a day. “For someone just getting their feet wet, focus on your macronutrient intake,” says Munson. “Get the food plate right. An intense day of training should include meals that are over 60 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 10 percent fats. A light training day should be predominantly vegetables, with around 40 percent carbohydrates—simply because they may not be being used."
Foods to Eat and to Avoid
It’d be easy to reach 3000 calories eating junk food and fried food, but that wouldn’t provide the nutritional value necessary for this diet. Eating around 3000 calories per day does not mean eating whatever you want if your goal is to promote health and wellbeing.
Although no foods are off-limits when it comes to eating a balanced and nutritious diet, it is important to focus on maximizing nutrient density. "Eat a variety of plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds and include protein-rich animal foods like chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy (if you're not vegan)," says Moskovitz.
Equally, take a step back to focus on things you likely already have in heavy rotation in your life—coffee, hydration, and protein. “Why not use the benefits of caffeine (decreased perception of fatigue) around or during your training session? For protein, if you’re unsure, have a look at the ACSM guidelines. Does your protein intake fall between 1.4 grams to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body mass? There’s even evidence that if you’re injured and undergoing an energy-restricted diet that you should consume even more protein," advises Munson.
Should You Try the 3000-Calorie Diet?
Always consult with a professional to figure out how to best eat for your body. Not everyone is a candidate for a 3000-calorie diet and this is usually for people who want to gain for athletic purposes or if they’re severely underweight. According to Moskovitz, if you have a history of heart disease or diabetes, a higher calorie diet can affect these particular medical conditions. Mapping out meals and snacks will ensure you're truly benefiting from a higher calorie diet in a way that aligns with your specific wellness goals.