At the end of the day, figuring out how many calories you need to eat to lose weight is simple math – you need to burn more than you consume.
Here’s how it works in practice:
You determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and then you apply that rate to the Harris Benedict Formula, which takes into account your daily activity levels (calorie expenditure) and spews out a rough estimate of what your daily caloric intake should be if you want to lose weight.
What’s The Right Amount Of Calories?
There are a ton of resources – weight-loss calculators – out there to help you estimate the amount of calories YOU personally should be eating depending on your weight-loss goals. I’ll explain exactly how to both understand and use those resources and also shed some light on what you really need to do to achieve your body goals.
Step One: What Are My Goals?
Do I want to look fit or get skinny? Do I want to build muscle? How quickly do I want to lose the weight?
You should have a pre-determined time frame in which you want to see progress.
Figuring out what you need to be eating and how much you should be eating should be based on specific goals you want to achieve. So first and foremost, define your goals.
That being said, regardless of what your goals are, you need to understand that accomplishing your objectives in a timely fashion isn’t just about how many calories you eat on a daily basis.
It’s about a combination of the following:
- What you eat
- How much you eat
- Whether/how you exercise
What I’m Eating And How Much
I don’t care if you’re eating 400 calories a day – if you want to lose weight and keep it off, it’s way more important to eat healthy foods and stay away from garbage than to have a low-caloric intake.
You can probably lose 120 pounds in a year by eating 500 calories a day (if you’re really overweight) and exercising moderately, but the second you start to eat like a human being again (and I mean simply a normal diet), the weight will come crashing back into your life like 10-ton truck. You don’t want to kill your metabolism by not eating enough.
The thing most of us don’t realize is that by changing our diet rather than consciously counting calories, we start eating less.
Stay wary of this and try to organize the calories you consume around this concept. Yes, to lose weight, you need to consume less than you “normally eat.” But avoiding junk food and drinks with tons of sugar and carbs rather than merely counting calories is the name of the game if you want to maintain any of the weight loss you achieve.
A study at the University of Washington asked women who were overweight to increase their protein intake to 30% of their total calories. The results were incredible! On average, these women started consuming 441 fewer calories per day without even thinking about it.
Good Calories Vs. Bad Calories
Have you ever heard the phrase “a calorie is a calorie”? If you haven’t, good. If you have, completely eliminate it from your mind because it is absolute bullshit.
A Calorie Is NOT A Calorie!
You can cut your calorie count by what you need to lose weight and not only fail in losing weight but even continue to gain weight.
How Is This Possible?
You can do this by messing up the hormones that control weight gain, fat metabolism, mood, and hunger. If a majority of your calorie intake comes from processed, refined, and high-sugar foods, chances are that you’re going to have a lot of trouble losing weight – even if your overall caloric intake is cut.
Some of the most weight-loss-friendly foods are very high in calories.
Foods that are high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats help push toward weight-loss goals because they make us feel full for longer periods of time, regardless of the calorie count.
To effectively lose weight, you need to get the most out of what you eat by consuming nutrient-dense foods that your body will appreciate and use effectively. Some of the foods highly correlated with weight loss are given here:
- Salmon (and other fish)
- Leafy greens
- Lean beef
- Greek yogurt
- Broth-based soups
- Chia seeds
Step Two: What’s My BMR?
Getting to the right number of calories starts with determining your BMR. All of us have our own BMR, i.e., a certain number of calories we’d each burn naturally on a daily basis, even if we were to lay in bed all day long.
This is because our bodies expend a certain amount of energy by simply being alive and undergoing the physiological processes that need to occur for us to remain alive and function properly, like respiration and digestion.
To achieve weight loss and prevent weight gain, the higher your BMR, the better.
The more calories your body naturally burns on its own without physical stimulation, the easier it will be for you to lose weight from a caloric standpoint.
As we grow older, our BMR starts to slow down (like every other bodily processes). But we can maintain and even speed our BMR up by regularly engaging in cardiovascular exercises. Jogging, running, biking – any exercise that gets your heart rate up will increase the speed at which your body naturally burns calories, provided you do the activity regularly.
Get an estimate of your BMR with a BMR calculator – a simple google search does the job. Here’s one for your convenience.
Step Three: Apply The “Harris Benedict” Formula
To get to the actual number of calories you should be eating daily, you multiply your BMR with the appropriate factor to get your overall energy expenditure in kilocalories a day. This is the break-up explaining which factor would apply to your case.
1. Sedentary Level
This would be where your daily schedule includes little to no exercise.
Daily calories needed = BMR x 1.2
2. Mild Activity Level
This involves intensive exercise for at least 20 minutes, 1 to 3 times per week. This may include activities such as bicycling, jogging, basketball, swimming, skating, etc. If you do not exercise regularly but maintain a busy lifestyle that requires you to walk frequently for long periods, you may meet the requirements for this level.
Daily calories needed = BMR x 1.3 – 1.375
3. Moderate Activity Level
This involves intensive exercise for at least 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week. Any of the activities listed above will qualify.
Daily calories needed = BMR x 1.5 – 1.55
4. Heavy Or Labor-Intensive Activity Level
This involves intensive exercise for 60 minutes or longer, 5 to 7 days per week. Labor-intensive occupations also qualify for this activity level, including construction work, farming, landscape work, and similar occupations.
Daily calories needed = BMR x 1.7
5. Extreme Level
This involves exceedingly active and/or very demanding activities. Examples include athletes with almost continuous rigorous training schedules or extremely demanding jobs such as shoveling coal for long hours. It is extremely difficult to achieve this level of activity.
Daily calories needed = BMR x 1.9
The number that you get after applying the formula is the total number of calories you could eat a day to maintain your current weight, assuming that you consistently maintained your current physical activity level.
Step Four: How Fast Do I Want To Lose It?
Depending on how quickly you want to drop the weight, you need to be eating more or less calories.
The Old Rule Of Thumb
According to this, to lose 1 pound of fat, you needed to burn 3,500 calories. Essentially, if you ate 500 less calories a day more than what you would need to maintain your current weight, you’d be losing 1 pound of fat per week.
This view is now being contradicted by subsequent research done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The New Rule Of Thumb
The new rule is that the number of calories equating to a pound of fat (for the purposes of loss) is said to range somewhere in between the 3,500 mark (still wisely used today) and 7,000 calories for weight loss over 12-month periods.
Amby Barfoot explained about this new research and the resources that have come of it:
“The body weight planner (BWP) allows you to pick your current weight, a target weight, and your time frame for losing weight. It then calculates the changes you will need to make – lower calorie intake and increased physical activity – to reach your target. The free BWP connects to the NIH’s free ‘Supertracker,’ which provides access to a food database, an exercise log, and other health tools.”
You can use the new BWP to help you create a time frame in which you believe you can achieve your weight-loss goals and create a caloric intake plan that accommodates the time frame.
Finding A Balance
Again, I can’t repeat enough how dependent your diet should be on the specific goals you have for your body. A huge part of getting the body you want is finding the right balance between exercise and diet.
Although maintaining a healthy diet will help you lose weight (more or less quickly depending on how serious you are), regular exercise brings a whole new dimension to the weight-loss game.
You’re obviously increasing the amount of calories you burn daily and over time (by increasing your BMR), but the true benefit is that good habits tend to build upon each other. People who exercise regularly don’t really feel the need to indulge in extremely unhealthy foods all the time. The reason is simple: Hard work makes you want to see progress.
By being the type of person who puts hard work into either the diet or exercise, you inevitably grow the motivation to let the desire to look good and be healthy pour into other parts of your life.
“You can’t make yourself feel positive, but you can choose how to act, and if you choose right, it builds your confidence.” – Julien Smith
When you start to make healthy decisions in one aspect of your life, you are guaranteed to start making other healthy decisions. Over time, these healthy decisions turn into lifestyle habits.
Once you have healthy habits in place, it’s only a matter of time until you have the body you want. Having a healthy balance between regular exercise and the foods you eat provides you with the added benefit of not feeling so bad when you do decide to indulge.
Leading a healthy lifestyle with a proper diet isn’t about depriving yourself – it’s about making better decisions on a daily basis about the type of fuel you feed your body. That being said, when you’re regularly burning calories by exercising, you have the right to reward yourself every so often!
Hacks For Sticking To A Healthy Diet
1. Keep It Simple
When it comes to healthy eating, the number one rule to follow is don’t make too many rules. You have a general idea of what is healthy and what isn’t.
Make a few decisions about the changes you want to make. But I guarantee that if you overdo it, you will end up not following through. Maintain a variety of foods you enjoy that are high in fiber, protein, fats, and healthy carbs.
2. Keep A Junk-Free Home
When you have a lot of food in the house, it’s just too tempting. Don’t even give yourself the option. You’ll soon find a way to deal with the momentary cravings for junk.
3. Carry Water Wherever You Go
Staying hydrated is an essential part of staying healthy; it helps keep you satisfied, and it’s easier to say no to sugary drinks when you already have a drink with you!
4. Plan Ahead
If you have the discipline to plan (and maybe even pack) your meals ahead of time, do it. Similar to how carrying water around makes it easier to stay healthy, when you’ve already planned your meals, the concreteness of it in your mind allows you to avoid temptation.
The best time to get organized about your meals is in the morning when there is little-to-no distraction and you can think clearly and logically about what your food intake is going to look like for the day.
The easiest way to make sure you get all the nutrients you need is by blending or juicing fruits and vegetables. It makes your life easy because you can drink it all at once, and they’re really satisfying and yummy.
In essence, the answer to the magical question of how many calories to eat to lose weight is both easy and not so easy to answer. You can get a good estimate of a raw number using your basal metabolic rate and applying the Harris Benedict Formula, accounting for your general activity levels.
On the other hand, there is no set formula for weight loss.
- Each of our bodies is different.
- Each of our physical needs are different.
- Some of us need to work way harder to lose weight than others.
- A diet that works for one person will not necessarily work for others.
The key to weight loss is getting organized about your goals, formulating a plan to achieve those goals, and tweaking the plan based on the results.
What You Should Do After Reading This Article
- Write down the goals you have for your body and by when you’d like to accomplish those goals.
- Find out your BMR number.
- Apply the Harris Benedict formula to get an estimate of the number of calories you would need to eat daily to maintain your current weight.
- Based on the time frame in which you want to lose weight, find the number of calories you need to cut on a daily basis to get there.