Last Updated: September 15, 2016
If you want to lose (or gain) weight and improve your body composition, then you need to know how many calories to eat. And this article will show you.
The fact that you clicked into this article tells me some important things about you.
It tells me that you’re looking for real information on dieting.
It tells me that you know, or at least suspect, that caloric intake matters, regardless of how “clean” your diet is.
I’d even wager that you know or have heard of the basic principles of energy balance and how it drives weight loss and weight gain.
You just need someone to connect all the dots for you.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do in this article.
By the end you’re going to know more than just how many calories to eat to lose or gain weight.
You’re going to know how to use those calories to do more than change the number on the scale–you’re going to learn how to optimize your body composition.
If that has you nodding your head, then keep reading.
A Simple and Accurate Calorie (and Macronutrient) Calculator
I’m going to start this article with the calculator in case you’re already familiar with the most important aspects of dieting (energy balance and macronutrient breakdown) and so you can get back to it easily and quickly in the future.
And if you need a bit of help understanding the calculator and how to use it to create meal plans that actually work, then keep reading!
Why You Need to Know How Many Calories to Eat
Imagine someone tells you that he wants to drive across the country without paying attention to his gas tank.
He plans on stopping for gas whenever he feels like stopping and pumping as much as he feels like pumping.
How would you respond?
I don’t know about you but I would probably laugh and ask how the hell he came up with such an inane idea.
Imagine you did the same and he snapped back with one of the following replies:
- “I hate feeling like a slave to the oppressive fuel meter. I should be able to drive as far as I want before refueling and pump as much as I want before driving again!”
- “I read this book that said you don’t have to watch your fuel if you use organic, gluten-free, low-carb, non-GMO, #blessed gasoline. It doesn’t clog your engine like other gasolines and burns more efficiently.”
Again, I don’t know about you, but this would be me:
And I would calmly gather up my toys and go play with someone else.
When someone says he wants to lose or gain weight without paying attention to his calories…or says that caloric intake and expenditure have nothing to do with it…he’s being just as stupid.
Is it possible to lose or gain weight without counting calories?
Is it likely to work well over the long term?
The bottom line is calorie planing and tracking is the most reliable and effective way to lose fat and build muscle.
And if that statement has specters of starvation dieting and food deprivation flashing before you…
I’m not talking about starving or depriving yourself.
I’m talking about freeing yourself.
I’m talking about getting the body you want eating foods you actually like.
I’m talking about guaranteed progress toward your goals each and every week.
No more hoping that you can make it happen. Knowing.
And yes, it all starts with calories.
Well, actually, with how the calories you eat relate to the calories you burn…otherwise known as energy balance.
Understanding Energy Balance
Energy balance refers to the relationship between the amount of energy you eat and the amount you burn.
Think of it like your body’s energy checking account.
- If you eat more energy than you burn, you’re in a positive energy balance.
- If you eat less than you burn, you’re in a negative energy balance.
This energy that you eat and burn is measured in calories.
And when we’re talking food and metabolism, a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.
Thus, foods with a lot of calories (fatty foods, for instance) contain a lot of potential energy and foods with a fewer calories (green beans) contain less.
Now, the unsexy truth that many people just don’t want to hear is this:
Meaningful weight loss requires eating less energy than you expend and meaningful weight gain requires eating more.
This isn’t an opinion. This is scientific fact.
This isn’t news, either. After a century of metabolic research and anecdotal evidence, there’s no room left for argument.
Thus, in this sense, a calorie is a calorie, and if you eat too much of the “cleanest” foods in the world, you’ll gain weight.
Maintain a calorie deficit while following a “gas station diet” of the most nutritionally bankrupt crap you can find, however, and you’ll lose weight.
This is why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks.
He simply ate fewer crappy calories than his body burned and, as the first law of thermodynamics dictates, this resulted in a reduction in total fat mass.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you should try to do the same thing.
When the goal is to lose fat and not muscle, you need to consider more than “calories in versus calories out.”
Beyond Calories In vs. Calories Out
When it comes to improving body composition, a calorie is not a calorie.
Eating like Professor Haub did in his experiment won’t cut it.
When you want to build muscle and lose fat (or minimize fat gain), your food choices matter.
Well, not the specific foods per se, but how they break down macronutritionally.
You see, people say they want to lose or gain “weight,” but that’s not what they mean. The goal is never to just lose or gain weight–it’s to lose fat and not muscle and gain muscle and not fat.
And when that’s the goal, some types of calories are now much more important than others.
For example, one gram of protein contains the about the same number of calories as one gram of carbohydrate (~4), but is far more important for building muscle and losing fat.
Now, what I’m getting at here is the “If It Fits Your Macros” style of dieting, which is built upon the idea that getting your “macros” right is just as important as getting your calories right.
A macronutrient is any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
(Most people think of “macros” as just protein, carbohydrate, and fat, but technically it includes the macrominerals as well.)
When it comes to diet and meal planning, the macronutrients you pay most attention to are protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Let’s take a quick look at each.
The Most Important Calories: Protein
The calories you get from protein are, in many ways, far more important for your body composition than those you get from carbohydrate and fat.
There are several reasons for this:
- A high-protein diet is better for building muscle.
- Protein helps preserve muscle while in a calorie deficit.
- A high-protein diet is better for losing fat, including abdominal fat in particular.
- Protein is very filling, which helps you better stick to your diet.
High-protein dieting is even more important for people that exercise regularly because their body needs more for recovery and repair.
I will give simple protein recommendations below but if you want to know more about how much protein you should eat and why, check out this article.
Carbs Are Your Friend, Not Enemy
If you don’t know whom to believe in the “carbohydrate wars,” I understand.
It’s easy to get lost in the crosscurrent of debate, namecalling, and general hysterics.
What it boils down to is this:
Many “experts” say that low-carb dieting is the only reliable way to get lean and muscular…and people like me say the opposite–that a higher-carb diet is probably going to suit your needs better.
In fact, here’s my position:
If you’re healthy and physically active, and especially if you lift weights regularly, you’re probably going to do best with more carbs, not less.
That advice applies to both building muscle and losing fat, as well. High-carb dieting offers many benefits for both.
Again, I’m going to provide simple recommendations for carbohydrate intake in this article but if you want to know more, check out this article.
High-Fat Dieting Is Overrated
One of the many ways to sell products and ideas is to be contrarian.
When everyone is leaning left, lean right and people will take notice.
Well, not so long ago, low-fat dieting was the undisputed champion of weight loss nutrition.
“Eat fat and get fat” was the mainstream mantra.
Well, with everyone leaning left, it was only time before smart marketers started leaning right.
And we now see the fruits of their labors: mainstream diet “gurus” praising dietary fat as “slimming” and vilifying carbs as “fattening”–the real culprit behind our ever-expanding waistlines.
Well, the truth is all forms of dietary extremism are inherently and inevitably flawed.
Black and white, binary thinking is easy on the ol’ grey matter but isn’t conducive to good decision making.
And especially when we’re talking diet.
You see, there is no “One True Diet” that is best for everyone under any and all circumstances.
There are non-negotiable fundamentals like energy balance that must be observed and there are flexible guidelines that can be molded to fit personal needs. And dietary fat intake is one of those malleable factors.
You see, there’s no denying that dietary fats play a vital role in the body.
They’re used in processes related to cell maintenance, hormone production, insulin sensitivity, and more.
This is why the Institute of Medicine recommends that dietary fat should comprise 20 to 35% of an adult’s daily calories.
That said, those percentages were worked out for the average sedentary person, who often eats quite a bit less than someone that exercises regularly (and especially if that person has a lot of muscle).
For example, a 190-pound sedentary male with a normal amount of lean mass would burn around 2,000 calories per day.
Based on that, the IoM’s research says he would need 45 to 80 grams of fat per day. That makes sense.
Now, I weigh about 190 pounds…but I also have a lot more muscle than the average person and I exercise about 6 hours per week.
Thus, my body burns about 3,000 calories per day and if I were to blindly apply the IoM’s research to that number, my recommended fat intake would skyrocket to 65 to 115 grams per day.
But does my body really need that much more dietary fat simply because I’m muscular and burn a lot of energy through regular exercise?
No, it doesn’t.
Based on the research I’ve seen, if dietary fat comprises 20 to 35% of your basal metabolic rate (around 0.3 grams per pound of fat-free mass), you’ll be fine.
How to Determine How Many Calories You Should Eat
Now that you understand the fundamentals of proper dieting (energy balance and macronutrient breakdown), let’s talk about how to determine how much you should be eating.
Well, it revolves around how much energy you’re burning every day, which is referred to as your “total daily energy expenditure,” or “TDEE.”
Once you have a good handle on your TDEE, you can adjust your caloric intake down or up to lose or gain weight respectively.
Your TDEE is comprised of your basal metabolic rate (BMR) plus additional energy burned through physical activity and the food you eat.
Let’s review each of these points separately.
1. Your basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body burns at rest.
It’s the minimum amount of energy it costs to stay alive.
2. When you move your body, it costs energy.
No matter how large or small or long or short an activity is, it burns energy.
3. When you eat food, it costs energy to digest and absorb.
This is known as the thermic effect of food, or TEF.
Research shows that TEF accounts for about 10% of total daily energy expenditure, with amounts varying based on the macronutrient composition of your diet.
So…when you sum the energy your body burns to stay alive (BMR) and the energy burned through physical activity and digesting and absorbing food…you arrive at your TDEE.
And if that sounds complicated, don’t worry. It’s not. You don’t have to dust off your college algebra or take an Excel tutorial.
Metabolic researchers have already done all the heavy lifting for us and boiled it down to simple arithmetic.
The first step in calculating your TDEE is calculating your BMR.
There are several equations for that but I recommend the Katch-McArdle variant, which looks like this:
(where LBM is the lean body mass in kg)
This matters because muscle is metabolically active whereas body fat isn’t.
That is, two people can weigh the same but if one has a lot more muscle, his basal metabolic rate will be quite different.
Once you have your BMR, you need to account for the additional energy expenditure as noted above.
Instead of tracking every step you take and noting readouts from cardio machines (they’re inaccurate anyway), the Katch-McArdle equation includes multipliers that you can apply to your BMR based on your general activity level.
This will give you a good starting point for determining how many calories you should eat, and then you can adjust based on how your body actually responds.
Now, here are the standard Katch-McArdle multipliers:
1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
1.55 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
1.9 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
There’s something you need to know about activity multipliers, though:
They will probably overestimate the actual amount of energy you’re burning.
I don’t have any research to directly back that statement up but I’ve worked with thousands of people and consistently found it to be the case. It’s also common knowledge among experienced bodybuilders.
Simply put, if you use the above multipliers, you’ll probably place yourself in too small of a calorie deficit when cutting (resulting in less-than-optimal fat loss) and too large of a surplus when bulking (resulting in more-than-optimal fat gain).
And that means generally diminished returns on your efforts over time.
This is why I recommend you just use lower activity multipliers when calculating your TDEE.
Here’s how I do it:
1.1 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
1.2 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
1.35 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
1.45 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
1.6 to 1.8 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
Those multipliers should give you a more accurate starting point, and they are what are built into the calculator below.
Then, as noted above, you adjust intake based on how your body actually responds.
How Many Calories You Should Eat to Lose Weight
We finally arrive at the most likely reason you’re reading this article:
You want to know how much you should eat to lose weight.
Well, you now know that you’re going to need to eat less energy than you burn, but how much less?
That is, how large of a calorie deficit should you use?
Well, different people would answer this differently.
Some fitness folk advocate a “slow cutting” approach where you use a mild calorie deficit (5 to 10%, generally) to whittle down fat stores over the course of months.
The common reasons for this approach are preventing muscle loss, being able to eat more food, and not having to do as much exercise.
Well, while I think a “slow cut” can make sense for some people, I don’t recommend it for most.
In fact, I think most people should do the opposite:
They should be aggressive in their fat loss and do everything they can to lose it as quickly as possible (without suffering or sacrificing muscle).
I explain a bit more about my rationale behind this approach here, but for the purpose of this article, let’s review the Cliff Notes.
Aggressive fat loss generally boils down to doing three things:
- Be aggressive (bot not reckless) with your calorie deficit.
- Be aggressive with your exercise routine.
- Use fat loss supplements that actually work.
An Aggressive (But Not Reckless) Calorie Deficit
If you eat too little, you’ll inevitably lose muscle and generally feel like shit.
This is one of the reasons why “crash dieting” is so unhealthy.
But how large of a deficit is too large?
And how do things change for athletic types following a high-protein diet, as opposed to untrained, obese individuals eating too little protein?
Well, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä provides valuable insights.
The study involved national- and international-level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or below 10%).
The researchers spit them into two dietary groups: a 300-calorie deficit (about 12% below their total daily energy expenditure) and 750-calorie deficit (about 25% below TDEE).
Both groups ate a high-protein diet.
And the results?
After 4 weeks, the athletes utilizing a 300-calorie deficit lost very little fat and muscle while the group utilizing a 750-calorie deficit lost, on average, about 4 pounds of fat and very little muscle.
These findings are also in line with what I’ve experienced working with thousands of people
When combined with a high-protein diet and reasonable workout schedule, a calorie deficit of 20 to 25% allows for rapid fat loss without any negative side effects.
An Aggressive Exercise Routine
Unfortunately, the bulk of mainstream weight loss advice is a one-way street to skinny fat.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
- Do excessive amounts of steady-state cardio.
- If you do any resistance training, make sure it’s high rep with light weights.
- Do long (2+ hour) workouts.
- Exercise 6 to 7 days per week at maximum intensity each day.
What do you get when you combine all this nonsense with very low-calorie dieting and food restrictions?
- You’re going to be tired.
- You’re going to be hungry.
- You’re going to dread your workouts.
- You’re going to have sensual daydreams about carbs.
Instead, you want to follow the strategy I outline in this article:
Do several hours of heavy resistance training and no more than 1.2 to 2 hours of HIIT cardio each week.
Fat Loss Supplements That Actually Work
“Fat burning pills” are one of the most controversial supplements on the market, and for good reason:
Most (but not all) are junk and some are downright dangerous.
You see, when it comes to pills and powders to help you lose weight, I have good and bad news for you.
Let’s start with the bad:
No amount of weight loss pills and powders are going to make you lean.
If you’re trying to lose fat, pill popping, even to excess, is not going to be enough.
There just aren’t any safe, natural “fat burning” compounds powerful enough to, all on their own, cause meaningful weight reduction.
Now the good news:
If you know how to drive fat loss with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process.
Based on my experience with my own body and having worked with thousands of people, I feel comfortable saying that a proper fat loss supplementation routine can increase fat loss by about 30 to 50% with little-to-no side effects.
That is, if you can lose 1 pound of fat per week through proper diet and exercise (and you can), you can lose 1.3 to 1.5 pounds of fat per week by adding the right supplements into the mix.
You can learn more about which fat loss supplements I recommend and why here.
Setting Up Your Macros for Fat Loss
If your goal is rapid fat loss, I have a few tips for you:
- Set your protein intake to 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight.
If you’re very overweight (a man with 25%+ body fat or a woman with 30%+), I recommend you set your protein intake at 40% of your total calories.
- If you exercise regularly and don’t have any medical conditions, set your fat intake to 0.2 to 0.25 grams per pound of body weight.
This gives your body what it needs for basic health purposes and leaves plenty of calories for carbs.
- Allot the rest of your calories to carbs.
Eating a lot of carbs does not make you fat (overeating does) nor does it hinder fat loss (overeating does).
Keeping your carb intake high is going to help you in many ways: better workouts, better meal plans, better mood and energy levels, and more.
Experience it for yourself and you’ll never look back.
- If you’re sedentary, though, or have a medical condition like diabetes, then you’ll probably do better with fewer carbs.
If you’re sedentary, about 25% of daily calories from carbohydrate should be plenty.
If you have a relevant medical condition, check with your doctor as to your “carbohydrate ceiling.”
I’ve seen a lot of variation here.
How Many Calories You Should Eat to Build Muscle
When you want to lose weight, you eat less energy than you burn.
And when you want to gain weight, you eat more.
*That’s why I recommend a *mild calorie surplus of about 10% for “bulking.”
That is, eat about 110% of your TDEE every day and you’ll be giving your body everything it needs to build muscle without piling on the fat.
Setting Up Your Macros for Muscle Building
If your goal is maximum muscle growth, then you’ll want to set your macros up a little differently.
Before we get to that, though, you should also know that you only want to “bulk” if your body fat percentage is in the right range.
For guys, this is about 10%. For girls, about 20%.
You can learn more about why here.
With that in place, here’s how I recommend you set up your bulking diet:
- Set your protein to 1 gram per pound of body weight.
- Set your fat to 0.3 to 0.4 grams per pound of body weight.
This leaves a large amount of calories for your carbs.
- Get the rest of your calories from carbs.
This high-carb approach is going to help you build muscle faster in several ways.
Putting It All Together
We’ve touched on quite a bit so before I move on to the macro calculator, I think a recap will help.
- The most important aspect of dieting is energy in versus energy out (energy balance).
An energy deficit results in weight loss and a surplus in weight gain.
- Next in importance is how those calories break down into protein, carbs, and fats.
You want to eat enough protein and tailor your carbohydrate and fat intake to your circumstances and goals.
- Last in importance is the actual foods providing the calories and macronutrients.
The reason to eat “clean” foods is not to help with weight loss or gain but to provide the body with vital micronutrients.
This supports and preserves health.
Thus, an overall strategy emerges:
Calculate your caloric intake, break it down into “macros,” and build a meal plan that provides the majority (80%+) of those calories and macros from nutritious foods.
This is the heart of “flexible dieting.” Do it and you can’t lose.
And you can get started right away with the calorie and macronutrient calculator at the top of this article.
The Bottom Line on How Many Calories You Should Eat
Many people find counting and tracking just calories burdensome enough.
The thought of keeping tabs on three different quantities sounds insufferable.
It’s really not, though. With a little “practice” it just becomes second nature.
And, more importantly, the payoff is huge:
- You get to eat foods you actually like.
- You improve body composition.
- You don’t have to battle with overwhelming hunger or cravings.
- You don’t have to cross your fingers and hope that it will work.
So, even if you’re still skeptical, give it a go. Follow the advice in this article and within a couple of weeks you’ll see real results in the mirror and on the scale.