by Marion Nestle
Aug 3 2011

Where did the 2,000 calorie diet idea come from?

I’m in the midst of working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (University of California Press, March 2012) and spending every minute I have on it.  So I’m going to take some shortcuts on the blog this week and deal with some questions I’ve been asked recently.

One is right on the topic of the book:

Q.  Could you address the 2,000 calorie a day number (both its history and speculate on how an individual can arrive at a more personalized amount)? Short of metabolic testing (and I read conflicting opinions on that, too), it seems rather difficult to figure out how much I should be eating.

A.  Nothing could be easier, and here’s a preview of the kind of thing that will be in this book (with footnotes, of course):

If you look at  a food label, you will see ingredient contents compared to a 2,000-calorie average diet: “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.”

Here’s the history of where that came from:

The FDA wanted consumers to be able to compare the amounts of saturated fat and sodium to the maximum amounts recommended for a day’s intake—the Daily Values.  Because the allowable limits would vary according to the number of calories consumed, the FDA needed benchmarks for average calorie consumption, even though calorie requirements vary according to body size and other individual characteristics.

From USDA food consumption surveys of that era, the FDA knew that women typically reported consuming 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day, men 2,000 to 3,000, and children 1,800 to 2,500. But stating ranges on food labels would take up too much space and did not seem particularly helpful. The FDA proposed using a single standard of daily calorie intake—2,350 calories per day, based on USDA survey data. The agency requested public comments on this proposal and on alternative figures: 2,000, 2,300, and 2,400 calories per day.

Despite the observable fact that 2,350 calories per day is below the average requirements for either men or women obtained from doubly labeled water experiments, most of the people who responded to the comments judged the proposed benchmark too high. 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 2,000 calories as:

  • consistent with widely used food plans
  • close to the calorie requirements for postmenopausal women, the population group most prone to weight gain
  • a reasonably rounded-down value from 2,350 calories
  • easier to use than 2,350 and, therefore, a better tool for nutrition education

Whether a rounding down of nearly 20 percent is reasonable or not, the FDA ultimately viewed these arguments as persuasive. It agreed that 2,000 calories per day would be more likely to make it clear that people needed to tailor dietary recommendations to their own diets. The FDA wanted people to understand that they must adjust calorie intake according to age, sex, activity, and life stage. It addressed the adjustment problem by requiring the percent Daily Value footnote on food labels for diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, the range of average values reported in dietary intake surveys.

 As to how many calories you personally need, I think they are too difficult for most people to count accurately to bother.  The bottom line: If you are eating too many, you will be gaining weight.   

The best advice I can give is to get a scale and use it.  If your weight starts creeping up, you have to eat less.

The book will go into far more explanation of such issues but for that you will have to wait until March.

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  • Macca

    I think they got it wrong, And everyone wonders why more than 50% of western civilization is not fat but OBESE!
    I am lucky to get 1000-1500 calories a day and I am active, I am correct weight for my height and it hardly varies year after year, I don’t have good genetics and I don’t even eat healthy food!
    Want to stay normal then stop eating this 2000 calorie a day nonsense, It is way too much energy, Take a look around at everyone and see for yourself. Especially in this day and age people are not as active be it in personal life or work life, We have machines that do the heavy stuff for us now, Everything is easier you don’t need such a ridiculous amount of food unless you want to get fat or you want to be a bodybuilder and gain muscle!
    A normal small meal has so much energy in it that it would be impossible to burn it off even exercising for 2 hours, Now if you are constantly feeding your face every few hours to make up the 2000 calories how is your body going to use it up? It doesn’t, What it will do is store that excess energy as fat(energy) for a later date.
    2000 calories is rubbish, It will vary from person to person on so many factors that it makes that number irrelevant, Simple maths if you put in more energy than you burn off you will get fat I don’t care what these studies say. If you don’t eat enough then your body will use whatever energy stores it can find in your body, Usually fat cells although if you are not careful and don’t get any protein at all then it will also begin to eat away your muscle cells to get the protein(amino acids) out of them!
    You can last for just a few days without water, But food wise you can go for a few weeks with no food at all depending on individual, All those fat people out there could probably survive for a month on water alone but of course it isn’t a healthy way to lose the weight.
    2000 calories should be dropped to 1500 and I just bet people all around would be skinnier!

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  • Truth

    You clearly know nothing about nutrition. If you are only eating 1000-1500 cal a day then you must be a female under 110 lbs/50kgs or have destroyed your metabolism to be so slow.Based upon the nonsensical drivel you posted it;s clear you’re very uneducated about nutrition.

  • Squats

    I completely agree. 2000 is way too much. I eat a very healthy diet and am quite active, exercising everyday. I have to average 1000-1200 Calories per day, otherwise I start gaining weight. I’m a male of 140 lbs, with a BMI of about 21 – fairly ideal. But, I can’t exceed 1200 calories per day.

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  • abu fadhil

    People who are a metabolically normal (i.e., non-Syndrome X, Metabolic
    Syndrome or Insulin Resistant) have a greater tolerance for eating
    carbohydrates without weight gain or blood glucose spikes. It sounds
    like your mind is made up, but it might be useful to review samples of
    Gary Taubes writing (it is prolific online) on metabolism, fat storage
    and carbohydrates.