How Many Calories Should I Have if I'm Trying to Lose Weight?

Your daily caloric intake dictates many different things regarding your health, including how much you weigh. If you're trying to reduce weight, you'll need to take in fewer calories than you burn.

Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, determines the number of calories you’ll need for weight loss. Credit: VeselovaElena/iStock/GettyImages

The exact number of calories depends on your current weight and how much you want to lose. You can find out that number by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Tips

Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, determines the number of calories you’ll need for weight loss. Calculate that number manually or with a food calorie calculator, and then you can create a strategy to reduce weight.

Calculate BMR to Reduce Weight

Your BMR is the number of calories you need just to exist. Use the Harris-Benedict formula to calculate your BMR:

  • For men: 66 + (13.7 x weight in kilograms) + (5 x height in centimeters) - (6.8 x age)
  • For women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kilograms) + (1.7 x height in centimeters) - (4.7 x age)

Next, multiply that number by activity-factor points according to your activity level. The points range from one point for sedentary people to two for highly active people. That number is your total calories burned on an average day.

For an even quicker calculation, try an online calories per day calculator that includes an estimation of your BMR. Mayo Clinic's food calorie calculator asks for your age, height, weight and gender, then asks you to choose your current activity level — from inactive to very active. The final calculation tells you your estimated daily calorie needs just for maintenance.

Choose a Goal

Weight loss is an individual endeavor, and only you can decide your own personal goals and how quickly you want to meet them. If you have an idea of how many pounds you want to lose, that will help you decide how many calories to consume every day.

To lose 1 pound of body fat, you'll need to burn about 3,500 calories. You can accomplish this caloric deficit by burning more calories than your BMR average, taking in fewer calories or combining a lower-calorie diet and exercise. For most people, a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week is a safe and realistic target, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

This rate of weight loss will allow you to develop the lifestyle changes to maintain your results — and the associated health benefits — over the long term. When you reduce weight to a healthy, sustainable level, your body will thank you with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, stable blood sugar levels, a stronger heart, reduced risk of diseases and chronic conditions, and less stress on your joints and bones.

Avoid Major Calorie Restriction

If you drastically drop your caloric intake, you might lose a significant amount of weight quickly. However, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that most people who lose large amounts of weight rapidly end up regaining it after two or three years.

The reason for the weight regain may be that a massive decrease in calories can cause a drop in BMR — that is, the rate at which the body burns calories. This drop in BMR can make it more likely that lost weight comes back once you begin eating a normal diet again.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that severely limiting calories may cause your body to think you're starving — and therefore it might cling to fat to survive. As your body adapts to a restricted caloric intake, it will use fewer calories to perform tasks in an effort to conserve energy. Then, when you start adding calories back into your diet, your slower BMR won't burn the added calories despite your best efforts.

Read more: How Many Calories a Day Is Considered Starving?

Focus on Healthy Foods

Instead of "dieting" where you cut calories to an extreme, focus on implementing a healthy diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, recommends a healthy eating pattern that includes a variety of food groups and stays within your daily calorie needs.

As with steady, sustainable weight loss, a healthy eating pattern allows you to make healthy choices without feeling restricted from eating the foods you enjoy. If you tell yourself you will never have ice cream again, that is perhaps not a realistic goal. Instead, choose a mostly healthy diet with room for small indulgences from time to time — with no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugars and saturated fats.

The rest of your calories should come from whole grains, lean proteins, colorful fruits and vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat dairy. Eat a small amount of healthy fats from plant-based sources, and avoid saturated and trans fats.

Together, the foods you consume create your personal macronutrient profile, which includes carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Work with your doctor, a personal trainer or a nutritionist to determine the proper ratio of macronutrients for you. You can also experiment with varying your daily calorie intake and macronutrients to keep your metabolism working optimally and to prevent the dreaded "starvation mode" mentioned above.

Read more: Simple Ways to Master Your Macronutrients

Create an Exercise Routine

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans calls for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity. You can amplify your weight-loss results even more by increasing the intensity and duration of your workouts. You can also combine moderate and vigorous activity throughout the week.

Examples of moderate-intensity activities include:

  • Brisk walking at 2.5 miles per hour or faster
  • Cycling at up to 10 miles per hour
  • Water aerobics
  • Ballroom or social dancing
  • Doubles tennis
  • Gardening

More vigorous activities include:

  • Running
  • Swimming laps
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Singles tennis
  • Cycling faster than 10 miles per hour
  • Jumping rope
  • High-intensity interval training

With more vigorous workouts, you may experience the afterburn effect, whereby your body continues to burn calories long after your workout. Known as post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), this physiological phenomenon occurs as your body attempts to restore itself to its resting metabolic rate, or homeostasis.

According to the American Council on Exercise, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) most effectively stimulates the EPOC effect. HIIT training involves short bursts of intense effort followed by brief active-recovery periods. Heavy weight training that includes recovery periods between sets is another effective way to achieve EPOC. For the greatest benefits from strength workouts, aim to strength-train all major muscle groups at least two days per week.

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