You probably know that there aren’t any quick fixes or magic bullets for fat loss or muscle gain.

That is, you know that you need to control your calorie intake if you want to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain your weight. 

But how many calories should you eat? 

You’ve probably heard that men should eat 2,500 calories per day to maintain their weight and women should eat 2,000 calories per day. 

The truth, though, is that these numbers only work for some people, some of the time. 

Research shows that instead of sticking to these (mostly arbitrary) calorie targets, you should optimize your calorie intake for your body, lifestyle, and goals. 

And that’s what you’re going to learn how to do in this article.

By the end of it, you’re not only going to know how many calories you should eat every day, but also:

  • How to set up your “macros” to optimize fat loss and muscle gain
  • How to lose, gain, or maintain your weight eating foods you actually like
  • How different food choices affect your ability to lose weight
  • And more!

Let’s get started!

What Is a Calorie? 

How many calories should I eat to lose weight calculator

 

A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy.

One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (also called a kilocalorie or Calorie with a capital “C”).

We can measure the amount of energy contained in food and the amount of energy our bodies burn, in calories.

How Many Calories Should You Eat to Maintain Your Weight?

How many calories you should eat per day to maintain your weight depends on a variety of factors, including your: 

  • Body weight
  • Body fat percentage
  • Activity levels
  • Age
  • Diet
  • And a few other variables

Thus, the number of calories you need to maintain your weight is very individual, and also changes over time. That said, you can usually arrive at a decent estimate of your current calorie needs using just your body weight and activity levels. 

Women

Most women between the ages of 20 and 50 who are physically active (but not following a workout routine) and at a healthy body weight need to eat around 1,700 calories per day to maintain their weight. 

Women who are older than 50 sometimes need to eat less than this, mostly because they have less muscle mass and are less active. Although your metabolism does decline slightly with age, most of the decrease is due to exercising less and losing muscle mass—not an innate drop in your metabolism.

The good news is you can counteract many of the hormonal hindrances associated with menopause that make maintaining your weight more difficult by eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise.

Women who are younger than 20 sometimes need to eat more than this, although their calorie needs vary greatly depending on how active they are. That is, active young women need to eat a lot more than sedentary ones. Or in other words, being young doesn’t necessarily mean you should eat more than older folks—it depends on your activity levels.

Ironically, overweight women (a body mass index of greater than 25) generally need to eat more to maintain their weight than normal weight women. This is because your body burns a fair number of calories maintaining and moving your excess body weight—sometimes over a thousand calories per day.

Men

Most men between the ages of 20 and 50 who are physically active (but not following a workout routine) and at a healthy body weight need to eat around 2,200 calories per day to maintain their weight. 

Men who are older than 50 often need to eat slightly less than this, as they generally have less muscle mass and are less active. Although your metabolism does decline slightly with age, most of the decrease is due to exercising less and losing muscle mass—not an innate drop in your metabolism.

Men who are younger than 20 sometimes need to eat more than this, although their calorie needs vary greatly depending on their activity levels. Simply put, active young men need to eat a lot more than sedentary ones. Or in other words, being young doesn’t necessarily mean you should eat more than older folks—it depends on your activity levels.

Ironically, overweight men (a body mass index of greater than 25) generally need to eat more to maintain their weight than normal weight men. This is because your body burns a fair number of calories maintaining and moving your excess body weight—sometimes over a thousand calories per day. 

Children

Many people think that kids can eat as much as they want without worrying about weight gain, but the staggering rise in childhood obesity puts lie to this notion. 

In fact, children generally need to eat far less than adults for one simple reason: they’re smaller. 

Even if a child is very active, they’re still moving around a very small amount of weight, so they simply don’t burn that many calories. 

For example, babies only need to eat around 80 to 120 calories per kilogram of body weight per day to support healthy development. (For instance, a 4-month old, 18-pound/8-kilogram baby would need to eat about 700 calories per day). 

The average toddler (1-to-3 year old) only needs to eat about 1,000 calories per day. 

And the average “tween” (~4 to 10 years old) only needs to eat around 1,200 to 2,000 calories per day depending on their age, body weight, and activity level. 

Here’s a helpful chart for estimating how many calories your child should eat based on their age, gender, and activity level:

Calories-to-maintain-weight-Children (1)

Remember, though, that these numbers are just estimates—not exact prescriptions. In fact, counting calories is generally unnecessary (and even counterproductive) for children. 

Instead, the best way to make sure they eat enough to support healthy growth and development is to provide plenty of healthy food options throughout the day, and let them eat when hungry and stop eating when they’re full, and make sure they stay active.

How Many Calories You Should Eat

There are three ways I recommend to calculate how many calories you should eat per day:

  1. Enter your gender, weight, height, and age in the Legion Calorie Calculator. This is the most accurate method.
  2. Multiply your weight in pounds by 14 to 16, with women and less active people using the lower end of this range, and men and more active people using the upper end of this range. This method is slightly less accurate, but more convenient than the first option.
  3. Use the charts below to estimate how many calories you should eat based on your gender, age, and activity level. This method is the least accurate, but also very simple and fast.

Calories-to-maintain-weight-Female

Calories-to-maintain-weight-Male

How Many Calories Should You Eat to Lose Weight? 

Losing weight effectively requires you to walk a tightrope. 

You want to cut your calories enough so that you experience consistent, encouraging weight loss, but not so much that you start experiencing lethargy, cravings, and muscle loss.

So, what’s this magic number? 

Well, we can thank researchers at the University of Jyväskylä for an answer!

In a study they conducted, the researchers had 15 male national and international level track and field jumpers and sprinters maintain a daily calorie deficit of 300 calories (~10% deficit) or 750 calories (~24% deficit). Both groups continued with their normal training plan and ate a high-protein diet.

After four weeks, the first group lost very little fat and muscle, and the second group lost, on average, about four pounds of fat and very little muscle. And neither group experienced any negative side effects to speak of.

These findings completely jive with my experience both with my body and the thousands of people I’ve worked with: a calorie deficit of around 20 to 25% seems to be the sweet spot for losing fat quickly without losing muscle, spoiling your mood, or disrupting your performance in the gym.

This works out to a weekly rate of weight loss of about 1 to 2 pounds for most people.

How to Turn Your Calorie Target into Macronutrient Targets

 

After estimating how many calories you need to maintain your weight, the next step is to turn your calorie target into macronutrient targets. 

A macronutrient is a nutrient your body needs in relatively large amounts to survive, with the main ones being protein, carbohydrate, and fat. In the fitness space, they’re generally referred to as “macros.”

The reason you want to turn your calorie target into macronutrient targets, is that your macronutrient intake has a significant impact on your body composition. In other words, while calories alone dictate how much weight you lose or gain, your macronutrient intake largely dictates whether you lose or gain fat or muscle. 

By eating the right amount of protein, carbs, and fat, you can ensure that most of the weight you lose while “cutting” is from fat—not muscle. And as a corollary, you can also ensure that most of the weight you gain while lean bulking is from muscle, not fat. 

The exact number of calories you get from protein, carbs, and fat depends on your preferences and goals, but here’s what I typically recommend. 

When you want to lose weight, get . . . 

  • 40% of your calories from protein
  • 30% of your calories from carbs
  • 30% of your calories from fat

These guidelines change slightly if you’re already lean and looking to get leaner, in which case it’s generally best to get 1 to 1.2 grams protein per pound of body weight, 20% of your calories from fat, and the rest from carbs.

When you want to maintain your weight or gain muscle, get . . . 

  • 30% of your calories from protein
  • 30 to 40% of your calories from carbs
  • 20 to 30% of your calories from fat

Typically, this works out to around 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein, 0.75 to 1.25 grams of carbs, and 0.2 to 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day for most people. 

Once you know what percentage of your calories you want to come from protein, carbs, and fat, open the Legion Macronutrient Calculator to convert these percentages into grams. 

Or, you can do the math yourself using the following formulas: 

Grams of Protein Per Day = (Total Calories x Percentage of Calories from Protein) / 4

Grams of Carbs Per Day = (Total Calories x Percentage of Calories from Carbs) / 4

Grams of Fat Per Day = (Total Calories x Percentage of Calories from Fat) / 4

For example, if you want to eat 2,000 calories per day while losing weight, the formulas would look like this: 

Grams of Protein Per Day = (2,000 x 40%) / 4

Grams of Carbs Per Day = (2,000 x 30%) / 4

Grams of Fat Per Day = (2,000 x 30%) / 9

Then, the results would look like this: 

  • 200 grams of protein per day 
  • 150 grams of carbs per day
  • ~65 grams of fat per day

For a total of 2,000 calories per day.

The Best Way to Count Calories to Lose Weight

How many calories should I eat to lose 5 pounds in a week

First things first—do you even need to count calories to lose weight?  

Not necessarily, but you do need to maintain a calorie deficit to lose weight, and counting calories is an effective way to do this.

That said, most people find that counting calories on the fly (usually by entering the foods they eat throughout the day into a calorie tracking app) becomes a burden. You inevitably waste time debating over what to eat and working out how much you can eat and you increase the likelihood of mistakes, like forgetting to log every calorie or mistakenly logging more or less than you actually ate.

Two alternative methods for controlling calories are intuitive eating and meal planning.

Intuitive eating can work well for maintaining your body composition if you’re already following a fairly healthy diet, but it doesn’t work as well for losing weight or establishing healthy eating habits.

Meal planning tends to be the best approach, as it’s just as effective for controlling your calorie intake as calorie counting (and more effective than intuitive eating), but requires less time, energy, and attention and thus tends to be more enjoyable and sustainable.

The first thing you’ll need to create an effective meal plan is a food scale so you can weigh the foods you eat.

While eyeballing portions is better than nothing, it’s too easy to mess up, and especially when you’re aiming for a moderate, relatively small calorie deficit.

From there, you can use a food database like SELF Nutrition DATA, the USDA Food Composition Database, CalorieKing, or an app like MyFitnessPal, MyMacros+, or Cronometer to plan and keep track of everything you eat throughout the day.

Then, you can use this data to create a meal plan that ensures you can hit your calorie and macro targets eating the foods you like every single day.

FAQ #1: How can I eat less without feeling hungry? 

The easiest way to curb hunger when cutting is to make some simple changes to your diet.

Assuming you’re eating plenty of protein, the following tips can help you control your appetite:

Recommended Reading: 8 Ways to Improve Hunger Control and Weight Loss

FAQ #2: Should I eat less or exercise more to lose weight?

Both!

Research shows that the most efficient way to lose fat and maintain (or gain) muscle is through a combination of calorie restriction and exercise. Specifically, strength training is the most beneficial kind of exercise for weight loss, but it’s also helpful to do a moderate amount of “cardio” (endurance training) as well. 

Recommended Reading: The Best Way to Lose Weight Fast with Exercise

FAQ #3: How many calories should I eat to gain muscle? 

If you’re new to lifting weights (you’ve been following a proper strength training and diet plan for two years or less) you should eat enough calories to gain about 1 to 2% of your body weight per month or 0.25 to 0.5% per week.

The reason it’s best to set weight-gain targets in terms of months instead of weeks, is that the actual amount of weight you should be gaining tends to be fairly small. For example, if you’re a 160-pound man, 0.25 to 0.5% of body weight per week would be around 0.4 to 0.8 pounds per week. That’s hard to track on a weekly basis, which is why monthly benchmarks are the way to go (in this case, 1.6 to 3.2 pounds per month). 

If you’re an intermediate or advanced weightlifter (you’ve been following a proper strength training and diet plan for more than 2 years), you should eat enough calories to gain 0.5 to 1% of your body weight per month.

Recommended Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Bulking Up (Without Just Getting Fat)

FAQ #4: Can I eat more if I exercise more? 

This depends on whether your goal is to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight. 

If your goal is to lose weight, you shouldn’t “eat back” the calories you burn working out. The calories you burn from exercise are already taken into account when you estimate your calorie needs using the methods explained in this article. Thus, if you eat more to compensate for the calories burned during exercise, you’re just reducing the size of your calorie deficit and slowing down your weight loss (or halting it altogether).

If your goal is to gain weight, you should estimate how many calories you need to gain weight based on your current exercise program, and then adjust as needed. That is, if you aren’t gaining weight, gradually increase your calorie intake until you are. 

If your goal is to maintain your weight, you should only increase your calorie intake if you start losing weight or significantly increase how much you’re exercising per week (which will cause you to lose weight if you don’t eat more). 

Recommended Reading: Good Question: Should You Eat Back the Calories You Burn from Exercise?

+ Scientific References

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