How Many Calories a Day Should I Eat?

Work the numbers to hit your goals
Friends eating outside at a barbecue

Exactly how many calories should you be eating every day? Tragically, the right answer is not, “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.

“ So many factors go into determining your calorie needs ,” says registered dietitian Mira Ilic, MS, RDN, LD. What do you need to know to strike a healthy balance? Let’s do the math.

Calorie needs

A calorie is a measure of the energy in food. To maintain your weight, energy in must equal energy out.

Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight. But if you swallow 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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Cheat sheet: calorie charts

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, Ilic says. But because it can be complicated (are you really active, pretty active or just kind of active?), she 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 men and women
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (Eighth Edition), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).

Cutting calories for weight loss

If you’re trying to lose weight, you might be tempted to slash your calorie count to reach your goals. But proceed with caution, Ilic 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.

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

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,” she says.

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,” Ilic says.

Like it or not, calories matter. But they don’t have to rule your life.

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