Counting Calories: How Many Calories Should You Be Eating?

Counting Calories: whether you’re cutting them, counting them, or simply pretending they don’t exist, calories are an integral part of life. But calories are not just part of our lives: our lives depend on calories. We need calories to run, jump, breath, think and essentially, do anything. When we consume more calories than we need, though, those calories get stored as fat. Our calorie intake directly correlates to our body weight, making it important to monitor the amount of calories we consume.

Everyone has been told that calorie-counting is the most effective way of lowering the scale and cutting the pounds. An average woman is said to require about 2000 calories per day to maintain a certain weight, and 1500 calories to lose one pound of weight per week. The average male is similar, but slightly raised: he needs 2500 calories to maintain, and 2000 to lose one pound of weight per week. The general rule of thumb deemed by society is to exercise more and eat less.
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Calculating the number of calories you need to lose weight is a relatively simple process. The Harris-Benedict equation is the most widely used method of calculating your calorie needs (and thus how many calories you need for weight loss).  And fortunately, calorie counting doesn’t have to be a total guessing game.  Use these simple steps to determine how many calories are right for you.


Begin by getting an idea of your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your body must breathe, blink, grow cells, and keep your heart beating on a daily basis and you need calories to perform these basic functions. This number reflects an estimate of how many calories you would burn if you were to be hypothetically resting in a sedentary state for 24 hours. In other words, it represents the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your body functioning.

Why BMR Matters

When you are trying to exercise and eat right to lose weight, netting at least your BMR is non-negotiable because your body eventually will think you are starving if caloric intake isn’t meeting energy requirements. As the body tries to figure out how to deal with the perceived starvation, it can use stored carbohydrates, fat or protein for energy sources. Protein is what makes up lean muscle mass. Normally the body uses metabolizes muscle as a last resort, but lean muscle tissue requires more calories than other tissue. The body will metabolize muscle as a way of reducing the number of calories you need per day.  As your metabolism slows and you lose lean muscle, it becomes harder and harder to eat “normal” amounts of calories without gaining weight, simply because you’ve trained your body to make do with less and to hang on to anything “extra.”

This is how to determine your BMR:

BMR calculation for men (metric) BMR = 66.5 + ( 13.75 × weight in kg ) + ( 5.003 × height in cm ) – ( 6.755 × age in years )
BMR calculation for men (imperial) BMR = 66 + ( 6.2 × weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 × height in inches ) – ( 6.76 × age in years )
BMR calculation for women (metric) BMR = 655.1 + ( 9.563 × weight in kg ) + ( 1.850 × height in cm ) – ( 4.676 × age in years )
BMR calculation for women (imperial) BMR = 655.1 + ( 4.35 × weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 × height in inches ) – ( 4.7 × age in years )

You just need to plug in your age, height, and weight. The number you get is the total number of calories you need each day to exist (also known as your basal metabolic rate, BMR). For example, a 50-year-old-woman who is 5′ 7″ and weighs 160 lbs has a basal metabolic rate of 1441 calories.


Since most of us do not lie in bed all day, it is crucial to eat according to our activity level. To estimate how many calories you burn during your daily activities, use the activity factors listed below.

  • Sedentary:(Minimal or no exercise) Minimal movement, lots of TV watching, reading, etc. Activity factor = 1.4
  • Light activity:(Light exercise 1 to 3 days a week) Office work, ~1 hour of moderate exercise/activity during the day. Activity factor = 1.5
  • Moderate activity: (Moderate Exercise 3 to 5 days a week) Light physical/manual labor during the day, plus more active lifestyle. Activity factor = 1.6
  • Very Active:(Strenuous exercise 6 to 7 days a week) Active military, full time athlete, hard physical/manual labor job. Activity factor = 1.9


Next, multiply your activity factor by your BMR. To find how many calories you should consume, given your level of daily activity, calculate:

Your BMR x Activity Level Number = Calorie Intake

For the example we’re using, we’ll choose an activity factor of 1.5 (common for most people) and multiply that by 1441 calories, giving us 2161 calories. This number is your total caloric needs, or roughly the amount of calories that you need to eat each day to maintain your weight.

This number indicates approximately how many calories your body burns when physical activity is taken into account, and if you eat this many calories daily, you will likely maintain your current weight.

What’s Next With My Numbers In Hand

Use this BMR number as the foundational reference point for safe weight loss. If you are looking to gain or lose weight, you should increase (for weight gain) or decrease (for weight loss) your calorie intake by 20 to 40 percent, depending on your goals. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, your calories should never dip below 1,200. Doing so could mean your muscle mass starts decreasing, which means you won’t have enough energy to fuel daily activities.

Monitoring caloric intake is one of the best methods to effectively manage weight. It’s also crucial to eat a diet rich in micro and macronutrient to ensure your metabolism is supported and the body has the essential nutrients needed to look good and feel great.

How to Cut Calories for Weight Loss

Determining how many calories to cut for weight loss becomes more of an art than a science. Traditionally, recommendations are made for individuals to subtract 500-1000 calories from their total calorie needs in order to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. This is because a 500-calorie daily deficit yields a 3500-calorie weekly deficit—which is the number of calories you need to burn to lose one pound of fat. Cutting too many calories too soon sets you up for long-term weight-loss failure.

There are many variables that can impact the calories in/calories out equation, including:

  1. The type of exercise you are doing. Resistance and interval training will burn more calories after you stop exercising compared to traditional aerobic training.
  2. The type of diet you are eating. High-protein diets burn more calories, as protein takes more effort for your body to digest and metabolize.
  3. How much weight you have to lose. For simplicity’s sake, we used total body weight instead of your lean body mass (which is your total body weight minus your body fat). Because of this assumption, if you need to lose 25 pounds or more to reach your goal weight, then your total caloric needs is probably too high. This is because we treated the calorie needs of body fat the same as lean tissue (muscles, bones, and organs),.
  4. Your individual metabolism. The Harris-Benedict equation or any equation that estimates your calorie needs is just that, an estimate. These equations are based on averages, and you are probably not average. Don’t take the numbers you generate as gospel, but use them as a starting point, put them to the test, and adjust from there.

The Final Step:

Put it to the test! At the end of two weeks, see how much weight you have lost. If you aren’t losing at a rate that makes you happy, opt to do more activity before you cut out more calories. If you need to cut out more calories, remove another 250 and put that new calorie level to the test for two weeks.

After all that, it’s important to note that this number isn’t necessarily something you should streamline your collective focus into. Although this does stand as the ideal formula to use as a guideline, weight loss boils down to more than just a number.

Living your healthiest life doesn’t equate to shedding pounds, and obsessively counting calories can spiral one into an overly compulsive diet with dangerous downfalls. The induced stress can actually raise your cortisol levels, making it even harder for you to lose weight.


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Author: Jim Wheat

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