It can be difficult to figure out how much calories you should eat in order to lose weight. You want to lose weight fast, but you don’t want to do anything that’s dangerous. The only way to find what works for you is by experimenting.
How Many Calories Do I Need To Eat In A Day To Lose Weight?
You’re probably familiar with how calorie counting works for weight loss and gain. If you take in more calories than you expend, you’ll see the number on the scale tick up. On the flip side, consuming fewer calories than you use on a daily basis (a.k.a. creating a calorie deficit) will cause you to drop pounds. Sounds simple enough, but you may be wondering, How many calories should I eat to lose weight? The answer is a little bit more complicated than you think.
The number of calories you need depends on your activity level, body size, hormones, sleep, and more, says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. If you want to get into the specifics, here’s a rule of thumb: A pound of weight equals about 3,500 calories, according to Philadelphia-based nutritionist Rebecca Boova, RD, LDN. “If you want to lose a pound a week, a deficit of 500 calories a day would get you that 3,500 calories,” she says.
Lower is not always better when cutting calories to lose weight. Your total should never dip below 1,200, per the American College of Sports Medicine. The good news is most women will burn more calories than that doing literally nothing, says Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDN, the owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Consuming less than 1,200 calories could shock your body into starvation mode, which will slow your metabolism, decrease your muscle mass, and likely keep you from getting the nutrients you need to sustain your daily activities, explains Delbridge.
Personal body size matters too. “You might want to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean your body wants you to lose weight,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, of Samantha Cassetty Nutrition & Wellness. “There are people who live in larger bodies and that’s where their body wants to be. So it would be really hard and restrictive to reduce calories further than where they’re comfortably at.”
And if you find yourself obsessing over your calorie count all the time, and it starts to interfere with your life and enjoyment of food, it might be worth stepping away and trying a different approach. The bottom line is you want to make sure you’re fueling your body healthily and getting the proper nutrients, so you can live your best life.
Read on for helpful info from experts on how many calories you need a day—and the easiest ways to calculate and monitor your daily intake.
Wait, what even are calories?
“All food gets broken down into energy—and that measurement of energy is calories,” says Cassetty. So calories are simply a unit of energy. And every body, depending on age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity, needs a different amount of calories, per the Department of Health.
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When it comes to weight loss and calories, the quality of the calories you’re consuming can also have a major impact on your weight loss goals. A 2019 study published in Cell Metabolism put 20 people on an unprocessed food diet and an ultra-processed diet for two weeks each. And the results showed that while on the processed food diet, participants gained two pounds and lost nearly two pounds with the unprocessed food diet. So be mindful of the types of calories you’re putting into your body, not just how many.
Got it. So how do I calculate my calorie needs for weight loss?
To lose roughly one pound of fat per week (which is considered a healthy goal), you need a 500-calorie-per-day deficit, Valdez explains. But this can be a bit excessive for some people. Cassetty recommends shooting for a 200- to 300-calorie deficit (via diet), and then stepping up your exercise routine.
But be careful not to cut too many calories—anything beyond an 1,000-calorie deficit is getting into a little bit of the danger zone. “It is possible to eat too few calories. It’s a very fine line and everybody’s a little bit different, but don’t go below 1,000 calorie deficit a day,” says Boova.
If you are game for taking your workouts to the next level, Valdez recommends decreasing your calories from food by 250 per day, and increasing the intensity or duration of your training so that you are burning an extra 250 calories two to three times a week through exercise. But that’s going to further increase your calorie deficit for the day, and you need to adjust the amount of food you eat to support your workouts, metabolism, and recovery between your sweat sessions, notes Boova.
She recommends two rest days minimum per week because your body needs a chance to recover so your muscles can regrow and rebuild afterward. Just like when you don’t eat enough, exercising more can slow down your metabolism, which is going to further increase your calorie deficit for the day. It’s possible for overexercising to backfire and hurt your metabolism in the process.
Are there any online calorie calculators to make this a little easier?
Luckily, yes! There are plenty of easy-to-use, expert-recommended calorie calculators that will help you stay on track. Cassetty recommends these three.
- MyFitness Pal
- Lose It
- NIH Body Weight Planner
Reminder: Calorie calculators are meant to give you general guidelines. If you want a more precise daily calorie intake estimate or a specific weight loss plan, talk to your MD.
Maintenance Calorie Calculator
Most of the calorie calculators you come across online are based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation. This considers the individual’s gender, age, height, weight, activity level to make a precise and more accurate estimation of the daily calorie requirement for their body.
Some of these calculators also take genetics, medications, and underlying chronic illnesses into consideration to give a healthy estimation of an individual’s calorie needs.
However, if you are one of those wondering how to calculate calorie intake manually, we have a step-by-step guide for that as well. Here’s what you need to do:
Step 1 – Step on a weighing machine to find and calculate your body weight (in kilograms).
Step 2 – For men, multiply the weight by 1.0. For women, multiply the weight by 0.9.
Step 3 – Multiply the result from Step-2 by 24.
Step 4 – Find your lean factor depending on your body fat percentage, as shown in the image below and multiply it as well. This will give you the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
Step 5 – Once you get the BMR, multiply it by the Activity Modifier. An activity modifier is a table that correlates to the daily activities one indulges in every day. Here’s a quick breakdown of the same. You can find more in the image below:
Step 6 – That’s all. Once you multiple the activity modifier with the BMR, your daily calorie needs to prioritize all the essential factors.
Calculating the daily calorie requirement should estimate how much food you need to consume if you are on a weight loss journey. Ideally, we’d recommend that you pair dietary restrictions with optimal physical activity for the best results.
How many calories should you eat to lose weight?
If you are trying to lose weight, I recommend eating around 400-500 calories less than you burn daily. That calorie deficit should lead to a weight loss of about 1 pound per week, which is a very healthy and sustainable weight loss.
I know it can be tempting to lower your daily calorie intake more if you are trying to lose weight, but it’s not a good idea. When you lose weight quickly by restricting your calories, you also lose muscle mass, and the weight you lose is much more likely to come right back (as fat) as soon as you stop dieting.
Instead, add more physical activity to your daily routine. Even just 15-30 minutes of light to moderate exercise such as walking can burn calories, increase your metabolism, and help you reach your goal weight.
How Much to Reduce Calories for Weight Loss?
Weight loss is about consuming fewer calories than you burn for energy, so cutting your calorie intake can cause weight loss.
As we get our calories from the food that we eat, it makes sense to reduce our food intake to lose weight but exercise can also help as it burns off some of the calories you’ve eaten.
A general rule of thumb for reducing calories for weight loss is to reduce your calorie intake to 500 fewer than the amount you burn every day.
For example, if your body burns 2000 calories a day, reducing your intake to 1500 calories a day should result in a loss of around 1lb a week.
This might seem like a slow weight loss, but it’s actually what’s recommended by the NHS, as losing 1-2lbs a week is healthy and sustainable in the long term.
Diet culture can often make it seem like we’re expected to lose large amounts of weight in a fairly short time but this isn’t just unrealistic, it can be dangerous too.
Our specialists recommend a slow and steady weight loss, which you can achieve by reducing your calories by 500 a day.
This may seem like a lot, but it isn’t considered a drastic change and you should still have more than enough calories for a healthy, balanced diet with a couple of treats along the way.
How many calories do I need?
The NHS state that men need around 2,500kcal daily and women need around 2,000kcal a day.
These guidelines indicate the number of calories needed to maintain a healthy body and BMI.
Eating more calories than this over a prolonged amount of time could cause weight gain, but eating less than this amount over a few weeks or months could cause weight loss.
Does exercise affect my calorie intake?
The amount of exercise that you do can also affect your calorie allowance or how much you should reduce by.
For example, if you’re fairly physically active, you won’t need to reduce your calories as much as someone with a sedentary lifestyle.
This is because you will also be burning calories for energy whilst you’re active — if you burn 200 calories exercising then you may only need to reduce your food intake by 300 instead of the full 500.
Will cutting calories slow down my metabolism?
Cutting your calorie intake by a sensible amount shouldn’t slow down your metabolism, but if you drastically cut calories you could be in for a surprise.
If you consistently eat much less than your body needs, your metabolism can slow down which can stall weight loss.
It’s important to make sure you’re eating enough food to nourish your body.
Ideally, you’ll need to eat anywhere between 1,500-2,000kcal daily to lose weight and should not let your intake dip below 1200 calories a day often.