This Is How Many Calories You Need To Eat To Lose Weight, According To RDs – Women's Health

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You’re probably familiar with how calorie counting works for weight loss and gain. If you take in more calories than you expend, you’ll see the number on the scale tick up. On the flip side, consuming fewer calories than you use on a daily basis (a.k.a. creating a calorie deficit) will cause you to drop pounds. Sounds simple enough, but you may be wondering, How many calories should I eat to lose weight? The answer is a little bit more complicated than you think.
The number of calories you need depends on your activity level, body size, hormones, sleep, and more, says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. If you want to get into the specifics, here’s a rule of thumb: A pound of weight equals about 3,500 calories, according to Philadelphia-based nutritionist Rebecca Boova, RD, LDN. “If you want to lose a pound a week, a deficit of 500 calories a day would get you that 3,500 calories,” she says.
Lower is not always better when cutting calories to lose weight. Your total should never dip below 1,200, per the American College of Sports Medicine. The good news is most women will burn more calories than that doing literally nothing, says Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDN, the owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Consuming less than 1,200 calories could shock your body into starvation mode, which will slow your metabolism, decrease your muscle mass, and likely keep you from getting the nutrients you need to sustain your daily activities, explains Delbridge.
Personal body size matters too. “You might want to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean your body wants you to lose weight,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, of Samantha Cassetty Nutrition & Wellness. “There are people who live in larger bodies and that’s where their body wants to be. So it would be really hard and restrictive to reduce calories further than where they’re comfortably at.”
And if you find yourself obsessing over your calorie count all the time, and it starts to interfere with your life and enjoyment of food, it might be worth stepping away and trying a different approach. The bottom line is you want to make sure you’re fueling your body healthily and getting the proper nutrients, so you can live your best life.
Read on for helpful info from experts on how many calories you need a day—and the easiest ways to calculate and monitor your daily intake.
“All food gets broken down into energy—and that measurement of energy is calories,” says Cassetty. So calories are simply a unit of energy. And every body, depending on age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity, needs a different amount of calories, per the Department of Health.
When it comes to weight loss and calories, the quality of the calories you’re consuming can also have a major impact on your weight loss goals. A 2019 study published in Cell Metabolism put 20 people on an unprocessed food diet and an ultra-processed diet for two weeks each. And the results showed that while on the processed food diet, participants gained two pounds and lost nearly two pounds with the unprocessed food diet. So be mindful of the types of calories you’re putting into your body, not just how many.
To lose roughly one pound of fat per week (which is considered a healthy goal), you need a 500-calorie-per-day deficit, Valdez explains. But this can be a bit excessive for some people. Cassetty recommends shooting for a 200- to 300-calorie deficit (via diet), and then stepping up your exercise routine.
But be careful not to cut too many calories—anything beyond an 1,000-calorie deficit is getting into a little bit of the danger zone. “It is possible to eat too few calories. It’s a very fine line and everybody’s a little bit different, but don’t go below 1,000 calorie deficit a day,” says Boova.
If you are game for taking your workouts to the next level, Valdez recommends decreasing your calories from food by 250 per day, and increasing the intensity or duration of your training so that you are burning an extra 250 calories two to three times a week through exercise. But that’s going to further increase your calorie deficit for the day, and you need to adjust the amount of food you eat to support your workouts, metabolism, and recovery between your sweat sessions, notes Boova.
She recommends two rest days minimum per week because your body needs a chance to recover so your muscles can regrow and rebuild afterward. Just like when you don’t eat enough, exercising more can slow down your metabolism, which is going to further increase your calorie deficit for the day. It’s possible for overexercising to backfire and hurt your metabolism in the process.
Luckily, yes! There are plenty of easy-to-use, expert-recommended calorie calculators that will help you stay on track. Cassetty recommends these three.
Reminder: Calorie calculators are meant to give you general guidelines. If you want a more precise daily calorie intake estimate or a specific weight loss plan, talk to your MD.
Not everyone who counts calories wants to lose weight. Some want to gain it from lean, powerful muscle. Gaining weight from muscle is a great way to improve your health and even decrease your body-fat percentage. Bonus: Since muscle is metabolically active, it can also help you shed fat without cutting calories, says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, the founder of Movement Vault.
“If you want to gain weight, the simple trick is to tack on 250 to 500 extra calories in healthy, whole foods per day. Every one to two weeks, you’ll have added a pound safely,” says New York City-based nutritionist Brittany Kohn, RD.
To gain muscle without also gaining fat, you need to increase your protein to 1.8 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight every day, so the majority of these additional calories should come from protein, says Valdez. And the rest should come from carbs like whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables, which will help power your workouts.

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