How Many Calories Should You Eat in a Day?

Work the numbers to hit your goals
calories, calorie counting, middle age and diet, diet, exercise, heart health

Exactly how many calories should you be eating every day? Tragically, the right answer isn’t, “As many as you want!”

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But figuring out your ideal calorie count can be almost as hard as turning down a (500-calorie) slice of chocolate cake.

There are many factors that go into determining your calorie needs. Your age, weight, height and activity level all play a role. According to dietary guidelines in the United States, adults 21 years old and older should consume anywhere between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day.

So, what do you need to know to strike a healthy balance? Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano RD, LD, helps us do the math.

Estimated calorie requirements by age

Whether you want to gain weight, lose it or find the perfect Goldilocks balance to stay exactly where you are, calories matter. And if you’re a person who likes to track and measure things, you could benefit from determining exactly how many calories you need.

Digital apps and online calorie calculators can help, Zumpano says. But because it can be complicated (are you really active, pretty active or just kind of active?), Zumpano recommends seeing a dietitian to get an expert’s take.

Others may not need to crunch the numbers to meet their calorie targets. Simply knowing your recommended calorie ranges can help you hit your goals.

Calorie Needs for Women

AgeCalories (Sedentary)Calories (Moderately Active)Calories (Active)
21-252,0002,2002,400
26-301,8002,0002,400
31-501,8002,0002,200
51-601,6001,8002,200
61 & up1,6001,8002,000
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).

Calorie Needs for Men

AgeCalories (Sedentary)Calories (Moderately Active)Calories (Active)
21-252,4002,8003,000
26-352,4002,6003,000
36-402,4002,6002,800
41-452,2002,6002,800
46-552,2002,4002,800
56-602,2002,4002,600
61-652,0002,4002,600
66-752,0002,2002,600
76 & up2,0002,2002,400
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).


“Keep in mind, these calorie recommendations are for people who are at a normal weight,” notes Zumpano. “If your weight is above the normal range for your height and your goal is weight loss, you need to consume less. A deficit of 500 calories can provide a weight loss of 1 pound per week.”

Factors that impact your caloric intake

A calorie is a measure of the energy in food.

To maintain your weight, energy in must equal energy out (calories consumed vs. calories burned).

Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.

But if you consume more calories than you need, your body stores that energy for later (in the form of extra padding on your hips and around your middle).

Everybody’s daily calorie needs are different, which can make it hard to figure out the magic number. In general, men need more calories than women. Active people need more than those who have desk jobs. And younger people need more than older people, whose metabolisms slow down as they age.

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These factors can impact your caloric intake:

  • Sex.
  • Height.
  • Weight.
  • Age.
  • Activity level.
  • Hormones.
  • Medications.

How to adjust your daily calories

Depending on what your goals are, here are some healthy ways you can add or lose weight.

To gain weight

If your goal is to gain weight, don’t just focus on eating more. You want to make sure you add weight in a healthy way.

Opt for high-calorie foods like high-protein meats, whole grains and healthy fats.

You should also consider eating more often and looking for ways to add extra calories to each meal. For example, adding nuts or seeds to your yogurt, oatmeal or cereal.

“Don’t forget to include more liquid calories that won’t leave you feeling too full by the next meal,” advises Zumpano. “Opt for high-calorie beverages like whole milk, cream, 100% fruit juice, smoothies and high-calorie nutrition shakes.”

To lose weight

If you’re trying to lose weight, you might be tempted to radically slash your calorie count to reach your goals.

But proceed with caution, Zumpano says. If you eat fewer than 1,200 calories a day, it’s tough to get all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy.

What’s more, is that extreme calorie restriction might backfire.

“If you’re on a very low-calorie diet, it can affect your metabolism,” warns Zumpano. “Your body can go into conservation mode, which can slow down the calories you burn, making it harder to lose weight.”

A better bet? Add some extra exercise to burn more calories.

“Then you don’t have to cut back as much, so you can have a more balanced diet and get all the nutrients you need,” explains Zumpano.

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Should you count calories?

It’s good to have a sense of your daily calorie needs and to be aware of how the calories in your favorite foods add up. Those numbers can help guide your decisions about what to eat and what to save for another day.

But if numbers aren’t your thing, never fear. You don’t have to obsess over calories to stay healthy.

“Plenty of people lose weight not by counting calories, but by focusing on the quality of the food and on portion control,” says Zumpano.

Are all calories created equally?

You may have heard of “empty calories.” These can be found in processed foods — items that typically contain added sugar, trans fat and an unnecessary amount of fat and calories.

While you might get a boost of energy from consuming those foods, processed foods don’t tend to have a good amount of fiber, minerals and vitamins. Those empty calories won’t satisfy you, leading to food cravings. You may even feel tired or fatigued.

Instead, make sure you focus on eating a well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

“Empty calorie foods commonly are designed for you to crave and consume those foods often and in large quantities which further leads to consuming excess calories and poor nutritional intake,” explains Zumpano.

Whether you’re trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight, figuring out how many calories will help you achieve your goal is key.

If you’re unsure how many calories you need to eat each day, don’t hesitate to reach out to a registered dietitian. They can take factors like your age, sex, medications, lifestyle, weight history, family history and activity level into account and provide you with information on how to tailor your meals and exercise.

It’s important to understand how many calories you’re consuming compared to how many calories your body needs. Although the source of where those calories are coming from is important, too.

“For example, consuming 200 calories from 16 ounces of soda is metabolized differently than 200 calories from 1 ounce of nuts,” says Zumpano. “You’re gaining vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats from the nuts and no nutritional benefits from the soda.”

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