How many calories should I eat a day for weight loss? That’s one of the most asked questions in the diet industry, and it needs to be answered with a word of caution. While there’s no magical calorie number that will make you lose weight, there are some well-known numbers that can help you shed off a few pounds.
What are calories?
Calories are a measure of how much energy food or drink contains. The amount of energy you need will depend on:
- your age – for example, growing children and teenagers may need more energy
- your lifestyle – for example, how active you are
- your size – your height and weight can affect how quickly you use energy
Other factors can also affect how much energy you burn. For example:
- some hormones (chemicals produced by the body) – such as thyroid hormones
- some medicines – such as glucocorticoids, a type of steroid used to treat inflammation
- being unwell
Calories and kilocalories
The term calorie is commonly used as shorthand for kilocalorie. You will find this written as kcal on food packets. Kilojoules (kJ) are the equivalent of kilocalories within the International System of Units, and you’ll see both kJ and kcal on nutrition labels. 4.2kJ is equivalent to approximately 1kcal.
Maintaining a healthy weight
To find out if you are a healthy weight, use the BMI calculator.
To maintain a healthy weight, you need to balance the amount of calories you consume through food and drink with the amount of calories you burn through physical activity.
To lose weight in a healthy way, you need to use more energy than you consume by eating a healthy, balanced diet with fewer calories while increasing your physical activity.
For more information on weight loss, download the NHS weight loss plan, our free 12 week diet and exercise plan.
A GP can also give you advice about losing weight.
How MyNetDiary calculates your calorie needs
Weight maintenance calories
Your weight maintenance calories are the foundation of your calorie planning, whether your goal is to lose or gain weight. You will see (and can adjust) your maintenance calorie value in “My Weight Plan,” found on your dashboard.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) and resting metabolic rate (RMR) represent calorie needs to sustain basic body functions, such as breathing and circulation, at rest (as if you were in bed all day). Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they differ slightly. BMR is measured under stricter conditions and tends to be slightly lower than RMR.
Your weight maintenance calories include RMR/BMR, plus your daily activities and deliberate exercise. The majority of your calorie needs are from your BMR/RMR.
The method of determining calorie needs is up to you
To calculate your weight maintenance calories, MyNetDiary uses the scientifically validated Estimated Energy Requirement formula from the Dietary Reference Intakes as the default method.
MyNetDiary recognizes that our users may prefer alternate approaches to calorie estimation. To choose a different method, select “Weight & Calories” under “My Weight Plan” on the Me tab. Under “Planning Tools,” select “Weight Maintenance cals.” You can choose from the following maintenance energy methods when you tap “Selected Method”:
Estimated energy requirement (EER)
This is the default method, using the Dietary Reference Intakes formula. It takes into account your age, gender, height, current weight, and physical activity level.
Resting metabolic rate (RMR)
This value is for a resting metabolic rate measurement administered by a professional. This simple test measures oxygen consumption as you breathe in and out of a handheld device to determine your metabolic rate.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR), calculated from measured body fat %
This formula, known as Katch-McArdle, takes into account body composition. This calculation may be more accurate for individuals with increased muscle mass, resulting in a higher metabolic rate than estimated by other formulas.
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) calculated with Mifflin-St. Jeor formula
This widely-used formula uses your age, gender, height, and current weight to calculate RMR.
Custom weight maintenance calories
You may enter your own value for weight-maintenance calories. However, these calories will not automatically adjust based on your current body weight or changes in “Activity Level” setting.
Activity Level: an important factor in calorie planning
Your maintenance calorie needs are calculated based on your RMR/BMR and an “activity factor” that accounts for your usual level of activity.
If you choose to log exercise, set your Activity Level as “Sedentary” in “My Weight Plan” under Weight Maintenance cals to avoid double-counting exercise calories.
Note: Sedentary level accounts for basic activities of daily living, equivalent to walking about a mile (2.2 km) a day. Therefore, you would not need to log short activities as exercise, such as 15 minutes of shopping.
See descriptions of each Activity Level under “Me” tab in “Personal Info.” If you prefer not to log exercise or sync to a fitness device, choose the activity level that describes your average daily activity.
Daily Food Calorie Budget to meet your weight goals
This value is displayed on your Dashboard. This value is the daily calorie intake needed to reach your Target Weight by your Target Date, based on the information you entered in the “Plan” section.
A rule of thumb is that one pound (0.45 kg) of body weight is equivalent to 3500 calories. In terms of weight control, that means:
- To lose one pound, consume 3500 fewer calories than you burn.
- To gain one pound, consume 3500 more calories than you burn.
Using this calculation, MyNetDiary estimates the daily calorie deficit (for weight loss) or surplus (for weight gain) needed to achieve your goal, and applies that to your Weight Maintenance Calories to calculate your Daily Food Calorie Budget.
Daily Food Calorie Budget decreases when:
- Current Weight goes up or doesn’t go down as fast as planned, meaning more weight to lose by Target Date.
- You move Target Date closer, signifying less time to achieve Target Weight.
- You choose a higher Weekly Rate, e.g., lose two pounds instead of one pound per week.
- You choose a lower Activity Level, e.g., sedentary instead of light active.
Daily Food Calorie Budget increases when:
- Current Weight goes down faster than planned, denoting less weight to lose by Target Date.
- You move Target Date further away, indicating more time to achieve Target Weight.
- You choose a lower Weekly Rate – e.g., lose one pound instead of two pounds per week.
- You choose a higher Activity Level, e.g., light active instead of sedentary.
Calorie Budget appears on your Dashboard; it is specific to each day and may differ from your Daily Food Calorie Budget. Why? Calorie Budget includes calories burned from your logged exercise (unless you turn off “Add Exercise to Calorie Budget”).
How many calories should I eat per meal
Break down your daily calorie allowance across meals like this:
- Breakfast: 15% – 20%
- Lunch : 30% – 40%
- Dinner : 30% – 40%
- Snacks : 10% – 15%
Meal calories calculator
What you eat for breakfast is key to achieving you calorie goals during the rest of your day.
During the night, your body and blood sugar level have received a reset from not eating during the night. Breakfast gives you the opportunity to start the day the way you want to continue.
If you eat a breakfast high in sugar, your blood sugar level will spike. You will feel full and fresh with energy. Yet mid-morning these sugar levels will come crashing back down. It is this spike and following crash in blood-sugar level, that makes you ravenous mid to late morning.
So what should you eat for breakfast?
Avoid that bowel of high sugar processed cereal, or fruit high in sugar i.e. Most fruit apart from berries.
Choose a combination of foods to maximise your nutrient consumption.
Aim for foods:
- High in natural fats, such as yogurt, cheese, eggs or avocado
- High in natural slow releasing carbohydrates like whole meal bread
- Low in sugar like berries
Natural fats and slow releasing carbohydrates help keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Aim for your breakfast to use around 15% to 20% of your daily calorie allowance.
When choosing your lunch, ensure it’s about 25% protein.
Great healthy sources of protein include:
Go for another 25% made from complex slow energy releasing carbohydrates like:
- Brown rice
- Whole meal bread
- Sweet potatoes
Finish off the rest of your lunch plate with 50% vegetables.
Avoid high calorie toppings like croutons or bacon bits or going for the foot long sandwich.
Some ideas for a tasty low calorie lunch
- Grilled chicken salad with an oil-based dressing
- Mexican salad bowl with beans, salsa, corn and avocado
- Six-inch sandwich
Your lunch should account for around 30% – 40% of your daily calorie intake
With your dinner, as like your lunch, you should divide your plate:
- 50% vegetables
- 25% protein
- 25% starches
When choosing your starches, such as pasta, rice or potatoes, use this simple measure rule. Starch serving should be no larger than the size of your fist.
Your dinner should account for 30% to 40% of daily calorie intake.
Far to often people fail to lose or maintain weight, not because of the main meals, but as a result of snacks.
Even healthy snacks can exceed your calorie allowance.
Some ideal examples of snacks:
- Small handful of nuts or seeds
- Finger of cheese
- Piece of fruit
You snacks should account for 10% to 15% of your daily calorie intake.
Remember to include teas or coffees in your snack allowance if taken with milk, as a few of these can easily consume your allowance.
SHOULD I COUNT CALORIES?
There are plenty of people who can maintain a healthy body composition without ever counting calories, but for many others, it is incredibly valuable.
Advantages of calorie-focused nutrition:
- Allows you to compare different meals and foods
- Gives you an objective measurement of portions
- Help show how small indulgences—like a daily soda—can add up over time
Disadvantages of calorie-focused nutrition:
- Doesn’t take food quality into account
- It can be tempting to cut too many calories, too fast
- Food labels aren’t necessarily accurate
How Many Calories Are in a Pound?
Wondering how much you need to cut in order to lose one pound? Well, there are roughly 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so you would need to cut this amount from your diet through food or exercise to lose one pound.
This number will also give you a good gauge of how fast you are able to lose weight since there are only so many calories you can cut or burn each day. If you spread out 3,500 calories throughout the week – 500 calories a day – you can expect to lose about a pound per week. But again this depends on many individual factors and is not a perfect science.
How to Make Your Calories Count
Weight loss is a numbers game, but there are a few things you can try to make your journey more bearable and give you even better results by either focusing on portion sizes, the types of foods you are choosing, getting your mental health in check, and opting for the most efficient forms of exercise for weight loss.
Your body needs energy to live, but you also need good nutrition to live well, and longer. While the quantity of what you eat will determine overall weight loss, gain or maintenance, the quality of what you eat also plays an important role.
The overall balance and nutrition of your diet can affect the type of weight you lose, gain or maintain. If your macro balance is out of whack, you could be storing more fat or losing muscle mass, which can hinder your overall efforts.
In addition, eating more nutrient-dense foods may help you control hunger . When your body is not getting the nutrition you need or is deficient in key nutrients, it signals to your brain that you need to keep eating, regardless of how much you’ve eaten.