In order to lose weight, your body needs to be operating at a calorie deficit. This means that there's no specific minimum amount of net calories to lose weight. Everyone needs a different amount based on caloric intake and how much energy they've been expending.
Caloric Needs and Weight Loss
The concept of a set minimum amount of net calories to lose weight is a myth. Some people might lose weight while following a 2,500-calorie diet. Other people might need to follow a low-calorie diet of 1,200 calories in order to lose weight.
Most people consume a 2,000-calorie diet. However, this is just the average — everyone's caloric needs are different. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that your specific caloric needs are defined by three factors: your sex, age and activity levels.
Most adults need anything from 1,600 to 3,000 calories per day. However, certain people — like Olympians, marathon runners and other competitive athletes — need more calories than average.
Equally, it's possible to survive on far fewer calories. However, Harvard Health Publishing recommends that women consume a minimum amount of 1,200 calories per day. Men should consume at least 1,500 calories per day. Consuming fewer calories could prevent you from getting the essential nutrients you need to stay healthy.
Caloric Needs vs. Activity Levels
In order to figure out your specific net calories to lose weight, you need to determine your calorie needs. You already know your sex and age — the biggest variable that can affect weight loss is how much you exercise.
If you're uncertain about your activity levels, you can use the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to determine your caloric needs. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists three categories: sedentary, moderately active and active.
A sedentary lifestyle is one where you just go about your daily activities. A moderately active lifestyle means that you walk for about 1.5 to 3 miles per day in addition to your daily routine (the equivalent of about 25 to 50 minutes of moderate exercise). An active lifestyle means that you're walking for more than 3 miles per day — or essentially performing an hour or more of moderate exercise per day.
Caloric needs for sedentary and active people differ substantially. In general, sedentary women need 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day, with women between the ages of 19 and 25 needing the most calories. Sedentary men need between 2,000 and 2,600 calories per day, with men between the ages of 19 and 20 needing the most calories.
In contrast, active women need between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day. Active women between the ages of 18 and 30 all need the maximum recommended amount of calories (2,400 per day). Active men need between 2,400 and 3,200 calories per day, with men 35 and under requiring the most calories. Active 18-year-old men need 3,200 calories per day, while men ages 19 to 35 all need 3,000 calories.
Consuming more calories than you need based on your activity level will cause you to gain weight. In contrast, operating at a calorie deficit — essentially consuming less than the calories required — will help you lose weight.
If you choose to lose weight through calorie reduction, make sure that you're consuming a healthy diet. A diet made up of unhealthy junk foods and fast foods can lead to malnutrition and may even impede you from achieving your weight loss goals. According to a January 2016 study in the Health Promotion Perspectives Journal, an unhealthy diet can even increase your risk of certain diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.
Net Calories to Lose Weight
According to Harvard Health Publishing, reducing your daily calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories can help you lose between 1 and 2 pounds per week. This amount of calorie reduction is considered to be a way to safely lose weight.
You might recall that there's still a minimum amount of calories that you need to consume to stay healthy. An active, 18-year-old male can reduce his calorie intake from 3,200 to 2,200 calories per day without issue. This is well within Harvard Health Publishing's recommendations, which means that this man could lose 2 pounds per week as long as he maintains this calorie deficit and level of activity.
However, it wouldn't be advisable for an active 60-year-old woman (who should consume 2,000 calories per day) to try the same strategy. Reducing 1,000 calories from that diet would mean this person would go from consuming 2,000 calories to a total daily intake of 1,000 calories. This is below the recommended amount and would be considered unhealthy.
As you can see, there's no set minimum amount of net calories to lose weight. That being said, as long as you're at least moderately active, you should be able to remove about 500 calories from your daily diet.
You may want to talk to a nutritionist or dietitian to determine the best way to balance your caloric needs and activity levels. Alternatively, you may try using LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate or the American Council on Exercise Daily Caloric Needs Calculator.
Increasing Your Activity Levels
If you've only just started exercising to lose weight, you'll need to make sure you're doing enough exercise to meet your weight-loss goals. If you're already moderately active, you may want to try incorporating more vigorous activities into your daily routine.
Read more: Easy Ways to Burn 100 Calories
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate physical activities include stretching, walking (at a pace of 3.5 miles per hour), hiking and bicycling (at 10 miles per hour or less). Vigorous activities fast-paced walking or cycling (4.5 miles per hour and over 10 miles per hour, respectively) swimming, basketball, jogging and running.
If you're walking or biking to work, you may struggle to determine whether you're performing moderate or vigorous physical activity. The CDC recommends using the talk test to measure the intensity of your workout.
If you're walking or biking and can't talk without running out of breath soon after, you're likely doing vigorous physical activity. However, if you're able to do these activities and can talk but not sing, you're doing moderate physical activity.
Vigorous workouts can be much more efficient for people who are trying to lose weight. You'll burn more calories in less time when exercising vigorously.
Vigorous workouts can also have health benefits. For instance, an August 2018 study in Experimental Gerontology and a September 2019 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can improve blood pressure, blood sugar regulation and cardiorespiratory fitness.
Even on your busiest days, factors beyond your daily workout can help support your weight-loss goals. For example, many everyday activities can help you become more active. According to Harvard Health Publishing, even household chores like gardening, home repair work, raking or mowing the lawn can help you burn calories.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Experimental Gerontology: "High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Improves Resting Blood Pressure, Metabolic (MET) Capacity and Heart Rate Reserve Without Compromising Cardiac Function in Sedentary Aging Men"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Short and Sporadic Bouts in the 2018 US Physical Activity Guidelines: Is High-Intensity Incidental Physical Activity the New HIIT?
- CDC: "Measuring Physical Activity Intensity"
- CDC: "Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight"
- American Council on Exercise: "Daily Caloric Needs Estimate Calculator"
- Health Promotion Perspectives: "Fast Food Pattern and Cardiometabolic Disorders: A Review of Current Studies"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"