If you’re asking yourself how many calories should you be eating daily to lose weight, you’re not alone. Most diet and wellness plans are based around a calories-in-calories-out model for good reason. The only way you’ll lose weight is to create a caloric deficit, which means you need to consume less calories than your body requires to maintain its current weight. That’s where things get a little tricky. If you don’t know the number of calories your body requires to maintain weight, how are you supposed to know how many calories to eat to lose weight?
This in-depth guide will help you understand everything you need to know about calories: what exactly are calories, how many calories should you eat on average, and how to reduce your calorie intake without starving yourself. We also talk about what calorie calculators are (and, how they work) along with how muscle matters when it comes to weight loss. Finally, we’ll end with some tips that will help you lower your calorie intake and lose weight.
What Exactly Are Calories?
Let’s begin at the beginning: we know that every food (and most drinks) contain calories, but what is a calorie and why do we count them? Although they’re most closely related to dieters, calories actually have nothing to do with dieting itself. A calorie is just a unit of energy that allows our bodies to function. As we consume food, our bodies store the calories and burn them as fuel when they’re needed.
Anyone following a weight-loss program may spend a lot of time focusing on calories, so it’s funny to realize that calories aren’t actually a thing at all: they’re a unit of measurement. Each gram of protein and carbohydrates contains 4 calories, and each gram of fat contains 9 calories. These assignments exist to measure the amount of energy that food and beverage item will provide for our body. We need this fuel to live and function, so everything we do relies on the consumption of calories. But, not all calories are created equally.
The reason we count calories is because it’s easy to consume too many of them. Many products (like soda or fat-filled snacks) contain so-called “empty calories.” These calories don’t have much nutritional value and provide your body with nothing more than fuel. Healthy foods, on the other hand, have calories for energy, but they also fuel your bones, muscles, and internal organs with nutrients (vitamins and minerals).
How Many Calories Should You Eat on Average?
Now that we know that calories are fuel for your body, we can start to understand how many calories should you be eating daily to lose weight. Most people are familiar with the 2,000 calorie diet, but that’s not a set-in-stone number for everyone. Nutritional labels use this number as an average of how many calories the “normal” person needs to maintain their weight.
For example, an extremely active person who works out often (or, has a highly physical job) needs more calories to fuel their active body. They may require 2,500 to 3,000 calories to keep their bodies going. On the other hand, a person with a sedentary lifestyle that walks less than 5,000 steps per day may only need 1,600 calories each day.
Understanding how many calories you should eat starts with understanding your activity level, which we define in our post on daily calorie intake. To make things easy to understand, we’ll use my activity level as an example. Since I work out 30 minutes to an hour each day, I require about 1,900 calories to maintain my current weight. To lose weight, I would need to create a caloric deficit and eat less than 1,900 calories. That would force my body to burn fat when it runs out of calories.
A pound of fat in your body contains about 3,500 calories. So, to lose one pound per week, I’ll need to reduce my caloric intake by 500 calories each day, making my daily goal 1,400 calories. If that seems too extreme, I can aim to lose 0.5 pounds per week and reduce my calories by 250 per day, or a daily goal of 1,650 calories.
We’ll go more in-depth about calorie calculators and how they work in a minute, but I want to take a second to talk about reducing your calorie intake without starving yourself. After all, food is more than just fuel: it should make you feel happy, too. Depriving yourself of fulfilling meals can certainly cause negative side effects, like lack of energy and depression.