Calculating calorie goals for weight loss are dependent largely on the calorie expenditure of your typical lifestyle, and it varies from individual to individual. If you’re weighing more than you’d like, figuring out your recommended calorie goal in order to lose weight might seem like a daunting task at first. This article will walk you through various steps that may help you achieve your weight loss goals.
What are calories?
Simply put, a calorie is a unit that measures energy. Calories are usually used to measure the energy content of foods and beverages.
To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns each day. Conversely, to gain weight, you need to consume more calories than you expend
Keep in mind that while the “calories in, calories out” concept of weight loss may seem simple, many factors contribute to weight loss or the inability to lose weight, including medical diagnoses, hormonal changes, genetics, and age
Developing a healthy diet and lifestyle plan that will help you lose weight and keep it off in the long term requires much more than determining your current calorie needs and eating fewer calories in response
Calories are units that measure the energy content of foods and beverages. While many factors can influence weight loss, you generally need to eat fewer calories than you burn to lose weight.
How to reduce calorie intake
Although decreasing the number of calories you consume can be effective for weight loss, cutting calories without considering which foods you eat isn’t a sustainable way to lose weight.
For example, choosing more nutrient-dense foods — think whole grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits — benefits your health more than opting for nutrient-poor ones like soda, donuts, and candy.
For this reason, it’s highly recommended to make a few other changes to your diet and lifestyle that can help you maintain a calorie deficit in the long run without feeling hungry or deprived.
1. Eat more protein
When it comes to losing weight, protein is incredibly important.
Studies show that increasing your intake of protein may help keep you full and curb your appetite
Protein may also help fight cravings. According to some research, high protein snacks help enhance feelings of fullness while decreasing hunger and appetite
In addition to promoting weight loss, some research suggests that maintaining a high protein diet may prevent or reduce weight regain and help maintain muscle mass
Therefore, if you want to achieve long-lasting, sustainable weight loss, consider increasing your protein intake by eating more eggs, meat, poultry, tofu, nuts, seeds, or legumes.
2. Limit sugary drinks
Another relatively easy change you can make is to limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas, fruit juices, chocolate milk, and other drinks with added sugar.
Your brain doesn’t register liquid calories the same way it does solid calories, so they affect your feelings of hunger and fullness less significantly
Additionally, studies associate drinking sugary beverages with an increased risk of obesity
The harmful effects of sugar also go far beyond weight gain. In fact, added sugar may contribute to other health issues, including heart disease, liver problems, and type 2 diabetes
3. Drink more water
One simple thing you can do for your health is to drink more water.
Adequate hydration is associated with improved brain health and weight management, as well as a reduced kidney stone risk
What’s more, drinking water immediately before meals may reduce hunger and help you eat fewer calories
When combined with a healthy diet, drinking more water — especially before meals — appears to be helpful if you need to lose weight. Try other unsweetened beverages like coffee, tea, and sparkling water to meet your hydration needs.
Calorie restriction, especially significant calorie restriction, may slow your metabolic rate and increase appetite. Plus, cutting calories too severely may lead to muscle loss, which can harm your overall health and lower your metabolic rate.
Resistance-training activities like weightlifting have been shown to limit muscle loss, which may help minimize metabolic changes during long-term calorie restriction
If you can’t get to a gym, consider doing bodyweight exercises, such as pushups, squats, and situps, at home.
Cardio exercises, such as walking, swimming, or jogging, are also important — both for increasing weight loss and supporting overall health
Additionally, exercise has a variety of other benefits that go beyond weight loss, such as increased longevity, enhanced energy levels, improved mental health, and a decreased risk of chronic disease
5. Reduce your intake of refined carbs and ultra-processed foods
The term “refined carbs” refers to grains that have lost their bran and germ, including white bread, pasta, crackers, and white rice. It also includes sugar and other sweeteners.
Refined grains typically lack fiber, which supports weight loss by decreasing your appetite and increasing feelings of fullness
Eating fewer carbs, including fewer refined carbs, may also promote weight loss by altering levels of specific hormones that regulate your appetite, such as peptide
While a low carb or ketogenic diet definitely isn’t right for everyone, replacing refined carbs with a variety of nutrient-dense, fiber-rich carb sources — such as whole grains, root vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes — may be beneficial.
It’s also best to avoid ultra-processed foods, which include fast food, packaged snacks, candies, and sugary beverages. These items not only pack refined carbs but also preservatives, sugars, unhealthy fats, salt, and other ingredients you should limit in your diet.
Eating more protein, exercising, staying hydrated, and limiting your intake of refined carbs and sugary beverages are a few simple ways to decrease your daily calorie intake.
How many calories should I eat to lose weight?
Just like there is no one right answer for how many you might need to eat to maintain, the number of calories you will need to consume to drop weight is also going to vary. We recommend eating 500 calories less than what you burn in a day, if you are trying to lose weight – but you should never eat less than 1200 calories. This rate of deficit can also be attained by burning 250 extra calories through exercise, and consuming 250 less in calories, and it will result in a weight loss of 1 lb a week (a safe, sustainable rate that will help you keep the weight off for good).
There are many different ways to figure out your daily caloric expenditure (BMR calculators, daily calorie burn estimation calculators, relatively accurate calorie counting mechanisms that you wear, etc) and while it is helpful in the beginning to have an idea of what those figures are, we also recommend taking a more natural approach. Learn to listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Stay active, do cardio and strength training on a regular basis. Watch for changes in your body and make exercise and nutritional changes when necessary, but try not to obsess about every single calorie consumed, and every single calorie burned. In the end, it makes for weight loss and bodily changes that are much easier to sustain, and it helps you keep a healthy mindset about food and working out.
Recommended Calorie Intakes Based on Activity Level
Below, you’ll find an activity level and a recommended calorie intake for each level. If you are consuming more calories than this guideline, then you’re probably gaining weight! Find the appropriate category and take note of your recommended calorie intake before moving on.
Very Active: This category is for those who exercise vigorously for an hour or more each day, or work in a highly physical job. The calorie needs for women range from 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day, or 2,500 to 3,000 for men.
Moderately Active: This category describes active people who exercise 30 minutes to an hour each day. The calorie needs for women average 1,900 calories per day, or 2,500 for men.
Slightly Active: This is the category for those who average between 5,000 to 8,000 steps per day. The calorie needs for women average 1,800 calories per day, or 2,200 for men.
Sedentary: This category describes those who take less than 5,000 steps per day. The calorie needs for women are as low as 1,600, or 1,800 for men.
How Many Calories Should I Eat
Everyone has heard about the 2,000 calorie diet. But, as you can see from the activity level section above, this is an average not a recommendation. Some women might need to eat 2,500 calories, whereas others only need 1,600. On the other hand, because men have more muscle mass than women, they can eat more calories in general – up to 3,000 a day!
To lose weight you’ll need to create a calorie deficit, which means cutting out the calories. A general rule of thumb is to reduce your calories by 250 a day to lose 0.5 pounds per week, or 500 calories a day to lose 1 pound per week. Losing more than 2 pounds per week is not recommended, as the weight generally comes back on as soon as you stop dieting.
In order to figure out (roughly) how many calories you should be eating in a day, you need to figure out (roughly) how many you actually need.
Start by getting an idea of your basal metabolic rate (BMR). “The basal metabolic rate is the minimum number of calories your body burns at rest,” Anna Z. Feldman, M.D., an endocrinologist at Joslin Diabetes Center, tells SELF. “This number of calories is required for involuntary functions such as breathing, regulating body temperature, digesting food, and [keeping] your circulation going. Think of this as the bare minimum number of calories you would need to keep your body alive if you were to stay in bed all day.”
Different experts use slightly different equations to figure out BMR. Feldman’s go-to for women is as follows:
655 + (4.35 x your weight in pounds) + (4.7 x your height in inches) – (4.7 x your age in years)
So if you were a 135-pound, 25-year-old, 5-foot-6 woman, your BMR calculation would look like this: 655 + (4.35 x 135) + (4.7 x 66) – (4.7 x 25) = 1,435.
But other experts use a formula called the Mifflin St. Jeor equation. Here it is, courtesy of Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., M.P.H., C.D.N., founder of the New York-based BZ Nutrition:
(10 x your weight in kilograms) + (6.25 x your height in centimeters) – (5 x your age in years) – 161
Using the same stats as above, your BMR calculation would look like this: (10 x 61) + (6.25 x 168) – (5 x 25) – 161 = 1,374.
As you can see, the results are slightly different, but not by too much. That’s fine, because any BMR calculation you do on your own is just a general guideline, and you shouldn’t stress about pinpointing an exact number. “The actual best way to calculate your BMR is to go into a lab,” Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and professor at the Harvard Extension School, tells SELF. “They can measure the amount of carbon dioxide you’re expelling and how much oxygen you’re breathing to see how efficiently your body is metabolizing calories,” she explains.
BMR is at the root of the main hard-and-fast rule for safe weight loss: Your calories should never dip below 1,200, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Most people’s BMR falls above this number, unless they are quite small,” says Feldman. So, in general, most people need more than 1,200 calories per day to keep their various physical systems healthy. What happens if you drop below that number? “When you eat less than 1,200 calories per day, your metabolism can be majorly affected, your muscle mass can start decreasing, and you won’t get the vitamins you need to sustain daily activities,” Jim White, R.D. and spokesman for the Academy, tells SELF. Point is, eating is great for you (not to mention fun), and you shouldn’t cut out too much of it whether you’re trying to lose weight or not.
To figure out how much you should eat for weight loss, you’ve got to factor in your activity.
Now that we’ve calculated how much calories your body burns in order to stay functioning, we need to take into account everything else you do that burns calories including your morning walks and regular Tuesday night yoga classes. To do that you can try the interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This tool incorporates your activity level along with your BMR to give you a more specific number providing you with a rough estimate of how much you should eat in order to maintain your current weight (BMR + activity level).
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to cut calories from your maintenance mode to see results. “One pound of fat is around 3,500 calories, and safe fat loss is one to two pounds per week,” says White. To lose one pound of fat per week, you’d need a 500-calorie deficit each day. Instead of creating that deficit solely by eating less, White recommends mixing in exercise as well. Beyond taking the pressure off of yourself to curb your eating too much, it’s also just good for your health.
This is a good formula to use as a guide, but weight loss is more than just calories in, calories out. “There are other factors that affect how much weight you will lose and at what rate,” says Feldman. A few of them: your age, because metabolism slows as you get older, your starting weight, because a person with a high one generally sheds pounds quickly, and your lean muscle mass, which can help spur weight loss.
What Happens If I Don’t Eat Enough Calories?
Consuming too few calories can certainly be detrimental to your body. It can not only cause a deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals, but it can also derail your weight loss goals. Diets consuming less than 1,200 calories for women (or 1,600 for men) are not recommended. You see, when you eat too few calories, your body’s metabolism can actually slow down. The body thinks it needs to conserve fat and energy, so it starts breaking foods down more slowly. This could actually cause you to gain weight instead of losing it.
Since your body is conserving fuel, it will also start burning muscles for energy. This is the opposite of what you want to happen – weight loss happens when your body burns fat, not muscles! Since burning muscle doesn’t provide effective energy for your body, you can also become sluggish and devoid of energy if you don’t eat enough calories.