Calories may seem like both a friend and a foe at times. You need to consume them to survive, of course, but all of the math surrounding ideal calorie intake may seem daunting to some. So what's the best way to break down caloric consumption? Is it ever OK to consume 4,000 calories a day?
Lifestyle and Calorie Intake
Perhaps it's best to start with a simple reminder about what calories are in the first place. A calorie is a unit used to measure the amount of energy food provides when eaten and digested. In other words, calories give you the energy you need to power you through your day, which is why the more active you are in your day, the more energy (aka calories) you require.
Over a century ago, before there were cars, people had much more active lifestyles than they do today. They walked a lot, rode horses and completed all sorts of manual labor jobs. This lifestyle of constant activity allowed them to burn more calories throughout the day. In fact, the average person burned 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day, which contributed to a much lower obesity rate back then.
Today, with all of the advanced technology that's present, many of these manual tasks no longer exist. People spend large chunks of time sitting instead, which results in far fewer calories burned in a day. This is problematic, not just because of inactivity, but because many people are consuming far more calories than their bodies require.
Inactive Lifestyle Risks
When you hear the words "inactive lifestyle," you may automatically envision a couch potato sitting around eating popcorn and watching TV. Yes, couch surfing is definitely a form of inactivity, but so is driving your car for an extended period of time and sitting at your computer all day.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are many health risks associated with an inactive lifestyle. For starters, you burn fewer calories, which makes you more likely to gain weight. You may also lose muscle strength and endurance, experience a slower metabolism, have poorer blood circulation, develop a hormonal imbalance or contend with more inflammation in your body.
A sedentary lifestyle may also increase your chances of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and some kinds of cancer. As these health issues stack up, they may also lead to an earlier death. The good news is that an inactive lifestyle doesn't have to be your destiny.
Read more: Side Effects of Switching to a Healthy Diet
Calculate Your Target Calorie Intake
Generally speaking, unless you are a professional athlete or have another special health consideration, it's easy to identify how many calories you need per day. This can be done by using the estimated energy requirements equation, which factors in your age, sex, height, weight and physical activity level.
For example, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates a range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day needed for a 5-foot-4-inch adult woman weighing 126 pounds and a range of 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for a 5-foot-10-inch adult man weighing 154 pounds. The lower end of each range is for a more sedentary lifestyle, while the higher end is for people who lead an active lifestyle.
People come in all different shapes and sizes, however. To more accurately determine your personal target caloric intake per day, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Body Weight Planner and plug in your weight, sex, age, height and physical activity level.
If you notice you're eating well beyond your target caloric intake, you can incorporate more exercise into your weekly routine or eat less. In fact, a September 2015 study in the Journals of Gerontology showed caloric restriction is linked to factors that lead to a longer life span.
Read more: Calorie Restriction Diet Meal Plans
When to Eat Additional Calories
While the majority of people do not require a 4,000-calorie diet, there are some special circumstances that may require a higher caloric intake per day. Athletes for instance, may require between 500 to 1,000 more calories per day in order to sustain their weight and activity levels.
Active and growing kids also need to consume more calories to use as fuel. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, active teenage boys need up to 4,000 calories a day, while active teenage girls need up to 3,000 calories a day.
There are many health conditions, as well, that may result in unexplained or "crazy" weight loss. According to the Office on Women's Health, these health conditions include — but are not limited to — thyroid disease, diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn's disease, viral hepatitis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Parkinson's disease. Certain medications can also cause weight loss, which is why it's important to keep your doctor informed of any significant weight changes.
Pregnant women have special considerations when it comes to calorie intake, too — after all, they are "eating for two." Don't go overboard, though. The American Pregnancy Association points out that women of a healthy weight prior to pregnancy only require 300 extra calories per day while pregnant.
Furthermore, a September 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that overweight or obese women can actually safely cut calories during pregnancy in order to restrict weight gain. Always talk to your doctor first.
4,000 Calories a Day
If your diet requires 4,000 calories a day, it's important to add those calories in a way that doesn't seem overwhelming or daunting. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation offers some helpful tips including using a slow cooker to create multiple meals each time, stocking up on food containers to make grab and go options easier, and buying healthy snacks in bulk to store at home.
Read more: The 4-Week Meal-Prep Challenge
The Mayo Clinic also recommends eating five or six mini meals per day rather than two or three large meals. And not just any foods to make up your meal — opt for nutrient-rich foods as part of an overall healthy diet. Choose whole-grain breads, pastas and cereals, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, lean protein sources, nuts and seeds.
UCSF Health suggests a number of ways to increase calories. You can add extra olive or canola oil when cooking stir-fry meats and vegetables or have an extra 1/4 to 1/2 cup of nuts daily by adding them to your salads, muffins or oatmeal.
- National Cancer Institute: "NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms"
- Winchester Hospital: “A History of American Eating Habits”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Health Risks of an Inactive Lifestyle”
- University of Rochester Medical Center: “Health Risks of Not Being Physically Active”
- Metropolitan Community College: “Calculating BMI and Estimated Energy Requirements (EER)”
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Body Weight Planner”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Nutrition for Athletes”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Teen Nutrition for Fall Sports”
- Office on Women’s Health: “Underweight”
- American Pregnancy Association: “Pregnancy Nutrition”
- American Journal of Preventive Medicine: “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Diet and Activity to Limit Gestational Weight: Maternal Offspring Metabolics Family Intervention Trial, a Technology Enhanced Randomized Trial”
- Journals of Gerontology: “A 2-Year Randomized Controlled Trial of Human Caloric Restriction: Feasibility and Effects on Predictors of Health Span and Longevity”
- Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: “Healthy High-Calorie Eating”
- Mayo Clinic: “What's a Good Way to Gain Weight If You're Underweight?”
- UCSF Health: “Healthy Ways to Increase Calories and Protein”