What's a healthy calorie intake for a 20-year-old female? Typically between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day, but the exact number depends on many factors, from body composition to activity level and your goals: Are you trying to lose weight, maintain or build muscle?
Gauging Your Calorie Needs
There will, inevitably, be at least a little trial and error involved in figuring out how many calories you need a day. That target varies according to a number of factors including your age, gender, body composition and physical activity level. If you can't get advice from a registered dietitian, calorie estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a good place to start.
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According to the DHHS, a sedentary 20-year-old woman needs approximately 2,000 calories a day. If you're moderately active — which equates to the physical activity equivalent of walking 1.5 to 3 miles a day at a pace of three to four hours — you need about 2,200 calories per day. And if you're active, which the DHHS describes as the equivalent of walking more than 3 miles per day, you need 2,400 calories.
Your calorie needs may be different if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. If either is the case, talk to your doctor before undertaking any sort of diet or calorie-restriction program.
Setting a Calorie Goal
The estimates just given are to maintain your current weight; if you want to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you take in. Most health authorities, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), recommend limiting your weight loss goals to 1 to 2 pounds per week — which translates to a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories per day.
While losing the weight faster might be more attractive, truly deep calorie cuts aren't sustainable over the long term, and the pounds lost during a crash diet usually come back with a vengeance when you return to your original habits. The NHLBI notes that most women can safely lose weight on a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, but that number may be higher if you're very physically active.
If you're training specifically to build muscle, you may actually need slightly more calories and higher protein intake. You don't have to go overboard on the protein: As the International Society of Sports Nutrition explains in a June 2017 issue of its own journal, for most people a protein intake of 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight is adequate.
Exactly how many extra calories you might need for muscular hypertrophy isn't entirely clear. As noted in an analysis published in the August 2019 issue of Frontiers in Nutrition, expert recommendations on this matter span a broad range. But unless you're seriously into bodybuilding or high-performance sports, you don't need to pay a lot of attention to this.
Diets for 20-Year-Old Women
So, what kind of diet should you be eating? Again, it depends on your personal goals. But most fad diets are just that — passing fads — so instead of chasing those, keep a food (and drink) journal for a week then compare the results to your overall calorie goal and the DHHS's key elements of healthy eating patterns.
Core recommendations from the DHHS include:
- Eat a wide variety of colorful vegetables
- Eat more fruit, particularly whole fruit
- Choose whole grains over refined grains
- Opt for low-fat or reduced-fat dairy
- Eat high-quality proteins such as fish, lean meats and poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes
- Use healthy oils (they should be rich in unsaturated fat, not saturated fat)
They also recommend restricting any added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. Ditto for saturated fats. Your sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg per day, and if you drink alcohol (only after you turn 21, right?) do so in moderation.
If you want to use a "name brand" diet — usually named for a company, philosophy or person — some of them are pretty good. Some are awful. Before you tackle a popular diet, ask yourself whether the eating habits it teaches are really good for you.
Making It Work for You
Does introducing these principles mean you have to give up your favorite foods? Not necessarily, if you're open to exploring alternate versions of favorite dishes. A few examples from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include baking or grilling your foods instead of frying them, looking for variations with no sugar added, and committing to try a new vegetable each week — you might just like them!
The CDC also recommends substituting veggies for some of the meat or cheese in sandwiches, wraps and burritos. Other recommendations are sneaking extra vegetables into your morning omelettes, or reducing your serving of breakfast cereal to make room for more fruit. And when it comes to dinner, check your plate for balance: Vegetables, fruits and whole grains should take up most of the space.
Working with all that fresh produce might sound like a lot of work, but you can use canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to cut down on trips to the store; sometimes they're more cost-effective than fresh items, too.
And if you don't like chopping up veggies and doing other such prep work each day, gather everything together for a time-efficient weekly food-prep session. Prepping your food ahead of time also makes it easier to stick to the plan.
And finally, if you want the biggest benefit for your dietary sacrifice, avoid ultra-processed foods. These products constitute a shockingly high percentage of the packaged food supply, and tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients.
Read more: 10 of the Most Common Weight-Loss Mistakes
What About Exercise?
According to the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of people who manage to lose weight and keep it off do so through a combination of adjusting their diets and increasing their physical activity. So any physical activity you can add into your life, whether it be cardiovascular workouts or strength training, will help you meet any weight loss goals you might have.
If you're dieting in the other direction — to add muscle weight — then adding more strength-training to your routine will help you achieve your goals.
And ultimately, even if you're only looking to maintain the weight you're at, staying active is also one of the best ways to stay healthy and set yourself up for a long, independent life. That might not be the first thing on your mind at 20 years old, but it matters more with every passing year.
And as the Mayo Clinic explains, incorporating regular exercise into your life provides real and near-immediate benefits, from maintaining a healthy weight to bolstering your immune system, managing any chronic conditions you might have, boosting your mood and increasing your overall stamina.
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Key Recommendations"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How to Use Fruits and Vegetables to Help Manage Your Weight"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight"