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.
How to Reduce Your Calorie Intake Without Starving Yourself
There’s a reason that most nutritionists suggest losing one pound per week. Using the above example, my goal of losing one pound per week has me eating 1,400 calories per day. If I wanted to lose two pounds per week, my calorie goal would be 900 calories per day. At that rate, I would basically be starving myself. Chances are good that the weight would pack back on as soon as I stopped dieting!
The best way to safely reduce your calorie intake without starving yourself is to set reasonable goals. Calculate the number of pounds you want to lose as pounds per week. For example, if I weigh 160 pounds and I want to weigh 145 pounds, I need to lose 15-pounds. Losing that over a 15-week period (which is almost 4 months) is a reasonable goal. Losing 15-pounds in two weeks would not be reasonable.
Another important consideration when reducing calories is to consider the quality of the calories. We mentioned earlier that not all calories are created equally. You could easily spend almost half of your 1,400 calories on soda by drinking four cans a day. Or, you could choose nutrient-dense calories found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and lean meats.
The best way to reduce your calorie intake without starving yourself is to eat foods rich in fiber and to seek out lean or plant-based proteins. These foods give your body a ton of fuel and also work hard to keep you feeling full and satiated for hours. Healthy fats will also help you fill you up quickly, and complex carbohydrates will give you plenty of energy because they take a long time for your body to break down. Making these healthy food choices will help you lose the weight and feel great at the same time.
Calorie Calculators: What Are They and How They Work
There are many calorie calculators out there to help you understand how many calories should you be eating daily to lose weight. They start by calculating your base caloric requirement based on your age, weight, and activity level. Many calculators also use height to calculate your body mass index (BMI). Then, they report the number calories required to maintain your weight.
Sedentary (active only through regular daily-living activities)
- 19-30 years old: 1800-2000 daily calories
- 31-50 years old: 1800 daily calories
- 50-65 years old: 1600 daily calories
Moderately Active (activity equal to walking 1.5-3 miles per day at 3-4 miles per hour)
- 19-30 years old: 2000-2200 daily calories
- 31-50 years old: 2000 daily calories
- 50-65 years old: 1800 daily calories
Active (activity equal to walking more than 3 miles per day at 3-4 miles per hour)
- 19-30 years old: 2400 daily calories
- 31-50 years old: 2200 daily calories
- 50-65 years old: 2000 daily calories
Then, many calculators ask you to input your current weight and your goal weight. Some calculators will allow you to put in a goal date, while others make caloric suggestions based on losing 0.5 pounds per week, 1 pound per week, or more.
You can also calculate this information yourself by knowing that one pound is approximately 3,500 calories. To lose one pound per week, you would subtract 500 calories per day from your base caloric requirement. (NOTE: Women should not go below 1200 calories a day without medical supervision.)
How Muscle Matters When It Comes to Weight Loss
Many people become frustrated with weight loss progress when they don’t see the number on the scale plummet as rapidly as they hoped. There are two common reasons for this. The first reason is simple and straightforward: you might not be counting calories correctly. If you’re forgetting to add cooking oils, buttery toppings, or mayonnaise spreads to your daily meals, chances are good you’re eating more calories than you think.
The more common reason for weight-loss plateau is related to muscle mass. The scale doesn’t know that muscle weighs more than fat, so you might be burning off fat while gaining new muscles. This is very common if you’ve started a new workout program. You may notice changes in your body in the way that your clothes fit because you’re leaner: simply put, muscle takes up less space than fat. So, the scale might not have tipped too much but try not to let that discourage you. If you’re becoming thinner and fitter, then you’re well on your way to your goals!
Building muscle will actually help you lose weight, too. Adding muscle not only helps lower your overall fat percentage, but it also increases your metabolism. Each pound of muscle burns 50 calories per day. So, the more muscles you have the more calories you’ll burn as you sit around. That doesn’t mean you can turn into a couch potato, but all those muscles will help you become a calorie-burning machine!
Helpful Tips Lowering Calories to Lose Weight
We hope our in-depth guide has helped you understand how many calories should you be eating daily to lose weight. Before we leave you to your weight-loss program, we wanted to give you a few final tips for lowering calories to lose weight.
If you have any questions about what we went over in this guide, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us in the comments below! We love answering your questions, but we also just love hearing from you about what has worked (and, what hasn’t) on your personal weight-loss journey.
- Start a new workout plan. Working out will build muscle, burn fat, and give you tons of great energy. Start slow with a walk in the morning or after lunch to increase your daily steps to 10,000 each day. If you’re ready for a more structured plan to build muscle, check out our 6-week bodyweight workout plan.
- Eat foods high in protein and fiber. These foods will fill you up and keep you satiated for hours. They’re as far as it gets from empty calories, so try filling up on the good stuff!
- Consider switching to a plant-based diet. If you’re looking for an easy way to cut out excess calories, ditch the meat and switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. You don’t have to eat meat to get protein, either. There are tons of great sources of plant-based protein in this 7-day plant-based meal plan.
- Cut out soda and sugary drinks and drink more water. Drinking more water is a great way to stay hydrated, feel full, and lose weight. So ditch the sugary, calorie-filled drinks for some of these fruit-infused water recipes.
- Snack healthily. There’s nothing wrong with snacking if it fits into your daily calorie plan. But, you want to make sure you’re not filling your body with empty calories. These are the 31 best snacks for weight loss.
- Seek out nutrient-dense foods. There are certain foods that will help you lose your muffin top by providing your body with focused nutrition. Try to incorporate as many as you can!
- Join a weight-loss program. If you need help managing your calorie intake, look to a weight-loss program like Keto, Weight Watchers, or Whole30. Many people find a structured approach helpful to keeping up with their daily calorie goals.
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