The “right” calorie intake for you is influenced by a lot of different things: your goals, your activity levels, your current weight and body fat and how fast (or how slow) you’re looking to go to reach your goals.
First, a caveat.
(Because someone is going to say it.)
No, it’s not as simple as calories in versus calories out. There are more things at play and a lot of variables to consider.
And, no, not all foods are considered truly equal, even if their calorie content seems equal. Quality of food matters. Fruits and vegetables matter. Protein matters. Wholesome, minimally processed, chock full of fiber and micronutrients foods matter. Staying hydrated matters.
Calories aren’t ALL that matters.
And, counting and tracking calories, while “easy” in theory, is difficult in the sense that your body is not a simple math equation.
When it comes to influencing your weight (that is why you asked the question, right?) paying attention and controlling your caloric intake is the first place to start.
Consuming more calories = weight gain
Consuming less calories = weight loss
What influences how many calories you’ll burn and/or need?
Aka: what influences your metabolism?
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
This is the number of calories your body burns while at rest just…existing. Breathing. Circulating blood. Controlling your body temperature. The heavier you are, the more calories you’ll burn at rest. It can be responsible for anywhere between 40-75% of your total energy expenditure but that amount is largely dependent on your organs. Aside from gaining muscle there’s not much you can do to change your unique BMR.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
This is the amount of energy your body expends digesting, absorbing and processing food. It accounts for about 5-10% of your total energy burn.
Playing soccer. Going to spin class. Lifting weights. Running. Whatever.
You’ll burn calories and contribute to your metabolic rate…. Just not a BIG contribution. It’s tough to put a number on this as it can vary A LOT and from person to person. Calories burned will also depend on the type of exercise being done.
Non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
This is all the movement you do that isn’t dedicated exercise. Walking the dog. Standing more than sitting. Taking the stairs. Fidgeting. Doing errands. Shopping. Cleaning your house. It accounts for roughly 30% of your total energy burn - making it a huge factor in determining caloric balance.
Okay, okay, just tell me how many calories to eat already
Multiply your current bodyweight in pounds by
16-18 To gain weight/muscle mass (caloric surplus)
14-16 To maintain your current weight
12-14 For fat loss (caloric deficit)
10-12 For aggressive fat loss
Some do's and don'ts
...think about your potential periods of counting calories strategically. Are you in a "season" to be able to focus on fat loss or muscle gain or whatever your intended goals might be? Are you in a season to be focused on calorie counting at all? Is your lifestyle set up to handle it right now?
Changing careers, moving, changes in your family structure or dynamic, illnesses, starting a new job or school, beginning (or ending) a relationship... all of these things can be the cause of additional stress and wear and tear. Both mentally, physically and energetically.
Is calorie counting something you should be adding on top of your stress?
For some, keeping track of calories might help to relieve some stress around what to eat as it's a process you have some (limited, but some) control over.
For others, keeping track of calories during busy times might only exacerbate your stress and anxiety.
You may not always be in the "season" for counting calories.
...base your calories needs off of your cardio equipment monitor or fitness tracker display.
For example: you hop on the stationary bike for a spin while watching the latest Game of Thrones episode. At the end of the hour, the bike’s screen tells you you’ve burned 247 calories.
Perfect! You think. Now I can hit up the vending machine later on at work for that pack of peanut m&m’s I’ve been eyeing but wasn’t planning on eating.
One pack is 250 calories, but all of that biking cancels out 247 of it. A 3 calorie difference is nothing...
Don't fall for this presumably easy swap. Cardio equipment counters aren't accurate - they're rough estimates at best. All of those metabolism influences that you skimmed over above? The treadmill doesn't account for those. It also (usually) doesn't account things like your height, your weight, your body fat percentage and your level of fitness. Also, each piece of equipment is calibrated differently (and may not be up to date on servicing or general maintenance) so one stair stepper might read drastically different than another.
...think you need to be 100% perfect, all of the time.
First off: holy exhaustion, burnout and anxiety.
Second: Unless you are in the nitty-gritty stages of bodybuilding, figure or bikini competition prep, or you’re an athlete needing to fit within certain weight class guidelines - where the smallest changes and minute detail actually can make or break results and progress - being a bit “off” with your calories really doesn’t matter. Being 20-200 calories off here and there, looking at the big picture, isn’t a huge deal.
Don’t try to hit your calorie allotment perfectly down to the exact gram, because it’s almost impossible to do anyway. You’d be fighting a losing battle.
Because food labels aren’t always accurate. There are a bunch of legal loopholes that doesn’t require food product labels to be 100% true. Same goes for those calorie amounts on restaurant menus. It’s silly to assume your meal is going to be made the exact same way, with the exact same carefully measured ingredients every single time.
Having some wiggle room in your calorie counting can actually keep you more consistent in the long run. Perfection isn't the goal.
...assume you need to eat the same amount of calories every day, every week
One of the most freeing things is realizing that the “best” way to eat is what’s best for YOU. And that there are many options and ways to go about figuring out what’s best for you.
In terms of calorie cycling (determining how many calories you’ll eat on some days in comparison to others) you could…
- Eat the same amount of calories every day
- Eat higher calories some days and lower calories on others. Many times people will chose to eat higher calories on days when they workout or strength train and lower calories on their off or rest days.
- Eat comparably low(er) calories Monday through Friday and high(er) calories on the weekends.
All three of these options are strategic ways to structure your calorie intake throughout your week based upon your lifestyle, schedule and personal preference. You could also change up whichever option you choose from week to week. For the most part, neither is better or more optimal than the other. It’s what works for YOU.
Remember, all of these numbers are used as general starting points. MOST people will need to adjust them a bit however. Our bodies are unpredictable and won’t always respond to calculations the way we hope they will. Calorie counting when done appropriately and consistently for YOU, while still a guessing game, is good enough to get the job done.
If you've been frustrated by your lack of progress but haven't given tracking calories (even if only for a short time) a go - what have you got to lose?