Calories are a measure of energy, and most people need about 2,000 of them each day. Excessive consumption of calories is linked to weight gain and obesity, while reducing calorie intake can help people lose weight and maintain weight loss.
The recommended calorie intake for weight loss can vary substantially based on many factors, including your age, sex and the quality of your diet.
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Calorie Intake in Standard Diets
The Food and Drug Administration usually lists 2,000 calories as the appropriate amount people should consume on a daily basis. Nutrition facts labels typically use this amount as the basis for the percentage of nutritional values they list.
However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that the exact amount of calories people should consume is based on various factors — particularly age, sex and amount of physical activity.
If you're trying to find out your recommended calorie intake for weight loss, you first need to determine the appropriate amount of calories you should be consuming per day. The first step is to identify your lifestyle, keeping in mind that most people's lifestyles can be classified as either sedentary, moderately active or active.
Calorie Intake for Sedentary Adults
Sedentary adult males need between 2,400 and 2,600 calories a day between the ages of 18 and 40, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As they get older, they require less calories. Between ages 41 and 60, they require around 2,200 calories per day and just 2,000 calories per day from age 61 onward.
Sedentary adult women require less than their male counterparts. They typically need 1,800 calories per day, but between the ages of 19 and 25 should consume 2,000 calories per day. Like men, they need fewer calories as they get older — a total of 1,600 calories per day after age 51.
Calorie Intake Based on Activity
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people who are physically active consume more calories than those who are sedentary. For both moderately active adult females and males, this means an additional 200 to 400 calories per day. For active adult females and males, this means an additional 400 to 800 calories per day.
The number of additional calories you should consume is based on your level of activity. Olympians have been known to consume as much as 8,000 to 12,000 calories per day when training, which is far more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends. However, unless your job requires rigorous physical activity each day, chances are your lifestyle is moderately active or active.
Moderate vs. More Rigorous Activity
Moderately active adult females all require an extra 200 calories per day, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This means that moderately active females may consume as much as 2,200 calories per day. More active females may consume an additional 400 to 600 calories per day depending on age, to a maximum of 2,400 calories.
Moderately active adult males should consume between 200 and 400 extra calories per day, up to a daily total of 2,800 calories.
Active adult males consume an additional 400 and 800 extra calories per day, up to a daily total of 3,200 calories. Only 18-year-old adults require an extra 800 calories; the remainder require either 400 or 600 additional calories a day.
Calculating Calories per Day
Most people can use the Dietary Guidelines for Americans charts to find out the number of calories best suited to their dietary needs and lifestyle. However, if you're still uncertain about how many calories you should eat per day, there are various calorie calculator apps you can download or find online to help you out.
The majority of calorie calculators for weight loss recommend finding out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, then reducing that amount by around 500 calories. You may even be able to safely reduce your calorie intake by as much as 1,000 calories per day, depending on your current intake, per Harvard Health Publishing.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, low-calorie diets can result in rapid weight loss. However, the exact number of calories you want to reduce depends on several factors, such as your age, sex, current weight, current calorie intake and level of physical activity. You should consult your doctor or a dietitian, who can help you make a healthy weight loss plan according to your needs.
The Risks of Consuming Too Few Calories
Calorie restriction can be good for your health. According to a January 2014 study in the Ageing Research Reviews Journal, moderate calorie restriction is associated with increases in lifespans. However, decreasing calorie consumption too much can result in health problems and an increase in the likelihood of death.
Eating too few calories can be detrimental to your health, as this may deprive you of essential nutrients. Low-calorie diets may also slow your metabolism and increase your risk of health problems, like gallstones, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, women should not consume less than 1,200 calories per day, and men should not eat less than 1,500 calories per day unless they've been advised to do so by a health professional.
Calories in Food Products
Calorie calculator apps may also help you assess how many calories are in many commonly consumed food products. Some of them work with the USDA National Nutrient Database and can help you find out the calories and macronutrients in specific, branded products.
It's not all just about counting calories, though. The quality of your diet plays a major role in weight loss. For instance, unless you're on a high-fat, low-carb diet, consuming increased amounts of fat will usually make you gain weight, according to a 10-year observational study in the January 2014 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. You should always try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, regardless of how many calories you're choosing to consume.
- American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Weight-Loss Maintenance for 10 Years in the National Weight Control Registry"
- Ageing Research Reviews: "What Are the Roles of Calorie Restriction and Diet Quality in Promoting Healthy Longevity?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Healthbeat: Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- BBC: How Many Calories Do I Need?
- Calorie Control Council: Healthy Weight Calculator
- NPR: How Many Calories Do Olympic Athletes Need?
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
- Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: Weight Loss Maintenance: A Review on Dietary Related Strategies
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials