We've all heard that we should "eat less" and "move more" when trying to lose weight, but this advice is a little vague. Take eating less, for example: Exactly how many calories should you be aiming to cut each day to get the scale moving in the right direction?
To figure this out, your goal needs to be broken up into practical and digestible pieces. Sure, losing 5 pounds a week sounds great, but what it takes for most of us to do that is not enjoyable, sustainable or safe. Instead, set realistic and approachable daily and weekly goals that will help you get there. Here's how.
Determining the "Magic Range" of Calories to Cut
For those looking to lose weight, sources like the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend cutting 500 to 750 calories a day. How did they land on that "magic range?" Well, cutting this amount from your diet each day should equate to about a 1 to 1.5 pounds weight loss each week, which is considered safe and maintainable in the long run, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Here's the breakdown on how that works:
In September 1958, a doctor named Max Wishnofsky published a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluding that 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound of fat. Thus, it's estimated that you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound. Based on this, if you cut about 500 to 750 calories a day from your diet, you should create a weekly calorie deficit between 3,500 and 5,250, which means you'll lose about 1 to 1.5 pounds in that timeframe.
While that sounds pretty straightforward, it's actually a bit more complex, as explained in a June 2014 Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics article. That's because when we lose weight, we don't just shed fat — we lose a bit of water and muscle along with the fat. Additionally, as we lose weight, our metabolism typically slows for two reasons: There's less of us to feed and we're losing some muscle, which is metabolically active (aka helps us burn calories).
Take a Deeper Look
The takeaway? Cutting 500 to 750 calories a daily is still a safe and effective way to start your weight-loss journey. But as you begin to lose weight, you'll want to make adjustments to your calorie needs, especially if your weight loss plateaus. Additionally, incorporating resistance training as part of your exercise regimen will help you to maintain and build muscle, which boosts your metabolism.
Why More Isn’t Always Better
Cutting more calories to reach your goal faster isn't a great idea. As mentioned earlier, sure, losing 5 pounds a week sounds efficient, but the calorie deprivation and extensive exercise it would take for most of us to reach that goal is exhausting, difficult to maintain and, quite frankly, unhealthy.
One way the "more is better" approach is counterproductive is by slowing your metabolism. When you drastically cut your calories, your body slows down in an attempt to conserve energy ("starvation mode"); the opposite of what you're looking for when trying to lose weight.
An August 2016 study published in Obesity looked at the long-term outcomes of The Biggest Loser contestants, known for weight-loss success as a result of significant calorie restriction and excessive exercise regimens. The study found that, immediately following the competition, the contestants' weight loss was significant but they were naturally burning about 600 calories less than when they started. And six years after the competition, their metabolisms had slowed even further.
A slowed metabolism as a result of cutting too many calories too quickly can happen in the short-term, too. An older study, published March 2006 in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, restricted daily intake to 1,462 and 1,114 calories in two groups of people over four days. Both groups of people lost the same amount of weight, but the lower-calorie group had a greater reduction in their basal metabolic rate (13 percent) compared to the other group (6 percent reduction).
You also run the risk of nutritional deficiencies if you're not getting enough calories and ultimately eating enough food. According to Harvard Health Publishing, women shouldn't dip below 1,200 calories per day, and men shouldn't consume less than 1,500 calories per day unless you're working with a healthcare professional.
How to Determine Your Daily Calories for Weight Loss
The majority of people can use the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to determine how many calories they should be eating each day based on their sex, age and activity level. And if you're trying to lose weight initially, you can subtract 500 to 750 calories from that number to get you started, then adjust as needed as you go. But keep in mind that cutting that amount per day from your diet might not be appropriate for everyone, especially if it you puts you below the 1,200- or 1,500-calorie thresholds mentioned earlier for women and men, respectively.
To make it even easier on yourself, you can download the MyPlate tracker to determine your daily calorie needs to meet your specific goals. It also makes it easier to update your needs as your weight and exercise regimen change.
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:"Importance of Calorie Balance Within Healthy Eating Patterns"
- National Institutes of Health:"Aim for a Healthy Weight"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:"Caloric Equivalents of Gained or Lost Weight"
- Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:"Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss with Dieting"
- Obesity:"Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years After "The Biggest Loser" Competition."
- Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine:"Metabolic Response to Short-Term 4-day Energy Restriction in a Controlled Study."
- Harvard Health Publishing:"Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans:"Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"