How Many Calories Should I Eat If I Want to Lose Weight? 10 Steps to Help You Reach Your Weight-Loss Goal
The amount of calories you should eat in a day if you want to lose weight depends upon your size, age, and activity level, but losing weight requires more than just cutting calories—you need to choose nutritious foods that satiate your hunger and keep track of your calories and eating habits.
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Determine your BMR and activity level
We know that burning more calories than you consume is part of the formula for weight loss, but determining the answer to “How many calories should I eat?” requires some math. The first part of the equation is to determine your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is an approximation of how many calories you would burn if you did nothing but rest for 24 hours. Once you have this number, you can factor in your activity level by using the Harris-Benedict Equation to determine how many calories you should eat daily. Other equations that can help you plan include the Total Bodyweight Planner, developed by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Here’s how you can burn calories without breaking a sweat.
Set your daily calorie limit
Once you have your BMR and the number of calories you burn for your activity level, you can tackle your weight-loss efforts by reducing your caloric intake and increasing your activity level. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates that women require between 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day and men require between 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day to maintain their weight. “When trying to lose weight, women should not eat less than 1,200 calories and men should not eat less than 1,500 calories a day without medical supervision, and your calorie deficit should not drop below 500,” says Melissa Majumdar, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A lot of people don’t think they are going too low, but they actually are,” adds Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, author of Body Kindness. “If you cut too many calories, the body goes into starvation mode and that makes food cravings more intense and forms anxiety about overeating.” Just be sure to avoid the 20 foods that aren’t worth the calories.
Keep track of what you eat
In the beginning, it is important to keep some type of food journal, says Grace Derocha, RD and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “But you have to be honest and measure food portions to get a realistic picture of how much you are consuming.” A food diary can help reveal eating patterns, such as timing, the kinds of foods being consumed, and hunger triggers. “For example, someone who snacks every day around 3 p.m. might discover they are only eating out of habit or boredom,” says Derocha. “Food diaries can also uncover unhealthy eating habits like the consumption of too many calories at particular meal times.” Mobile apps such as LoseIt and MyFitnessPal can help keep tabs on how much you consume because they track calories for a variety of foods (even restaurant meals), let you scan barcodes from packages, allow you to add your own recipes, and even sync with fitness trackers, but their use can become cumbersome. “Put a time limit on your calorie tracking—about three days—and look for a pattern,” says Scritchfield. “If you see that you are under-eating early in the day, try to eat more for breakfast, which will help eliminate overeating at dinner. And always ask yourself: ‘Is this activity helping me?’ If calorie counting is stressing you out, it is not helping.” Here’s how you can put a stop to those late-night munch fests.
Assess your activity level
While it’s crucial to keep track of calories if you want to lose weight, knowing your daily activity level can also be eye-opening, says Derocha. “Most Americans sit about nine hours per day, which is even more than we sleep.” Fitness trackers and simple pedometers can help assess the number of steps you take as well as monitor your heart rate. Adding cardiovascular exercise and weight training is important because it burns calories and increases your metabolic rate, which helps with weight loss, says Angel Planells, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Yet, increasing your activity does not necessarily mean you have to hit the gym. “Some people see exercise as a chore,” says Planells. “If that’s the case, find an activity that is fun—go for a hike with the family or go for a walk in the park.” Learn the exact number of calories in a pound.
Set a realistic weight loss goal
Forget about your dream weight, says Planells, it is better to set smaller, realistic goals. “The best and most sensible goal for weight loss is 10 percent of your body weight—if you weigh 200 pounds, you have 20 pounds to lose.” When we go for the dream weight, such as trying to get back to what you weighed in college, we set ourselves up for failure, he explains. “Weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint if we want to be in it for the long term—it might take three months to a year to lose that 10 percent.” After you lose the weight, you can reassess, decide if you feel up for losing more, and then set a new goal. “Just be sure to set goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable/adjustable, realistic, and trackable/timely),” says Derocha. It’s important to reassess and adjust goals throughout the process to allow for setbacks. Results take time and are dependent on your starting weight and muscle mass, so while some people can see results within one week, others may not see results for a couple of months, she explains. “Stick to a healthy diet, continue with regular physical activity, and be patient!” (Psst…If you want to stay looking and feeling young, avoid these foods that age you.)
Work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist
While some people are capable of losing weight alone, others need more support, says Derocha. “A dietitian can help determine the amount of calories you need to reach your weight-loss goal and educate you about food groups and macronutrients. “Those with chronic conditions and varying health goals, would benefit from the aid, education, and insight that a dietitian can offer regarding how the biology, pathophysiology, and chemistry of the body works,” says Derocha. A dietitian can look at you holistically and move you in the direction to long-term health and wellness, says Planells. If you have a history of weight fluctuation, which a study published in the journal Circulation has been linked to heart disease, a dietitian can set you on the right track and then follow up and make changes if needed. Try these 10 non-diet foods to help you lose weight.
Eat a healthy breakfast
Aim to eat between 300 to 500 calories each morning, says Derocha, including a mix of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and heart-healthy fats. “This helps rev up metabolism while keeping you focused and satisfied throughout the morning.” While coffee and a pastry is easy, your body needs protein and fiber for breakfast such as eggs with veggies or half a bagel with almond butter, explains Planells. For those who prefer a more savory breakfast, Scritchfield suggests stuffing half an avocado with tuna fish packed in olive oil. “It’s simple, quick, and yummy, and you are getting something that is more satiating than just your latte.”
Energize at lunch
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“If you are getting tired after lunch, you may not have eaten enough leading up to lunch or there is a missing component,” says Majumdar. “Maybe breakfast wasn’t enough or lunch was not balanced—too many carbs or not enough carbs. We forget that calories are actually a measure of energy.” Just like breakfast, lunchtime meals should be between 300 to 600 calories, says Derocha. Some of the best foods to eat for lunch to stay energized include salads with spinach, kale, quinoa, chickpeas, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, and a serving of grilled salmon or chicken. For weight loss, it’s best to bring your own lunch, says Planells. “Keep the portion small yet satisfying—overeating will make you feel tired and then you will crash and the vending machine will call your name.” Find out the subtle signs that you’re eating too many carbs.
Choose snacks that satisfy
Snacks are an important part of our daily caloric intake and can help prevent overeating, says Derocha, “But be careful—healthy snacks should be no more than 200 calories.” Avoid the sugary, carb-laden foods and vending machine staples and opt instead for nuts, fruit, or protein. “Some of my favorite snacks are roasted chickpeas, a hard-boiled egg, a piece of cheese with apple slices or a home-made energy bite.
Keep dinner lean and green
Dinner can be the trickiest meal of all to stay on track with calorie counts, especially if you are eating out. Aim to eat no more than 300 to 600 calories at dinner to help boost metabolism, says Derocha. “Although it’s not easy to stick to this regimen every day, cooking at home, meal prepping, and even batch cooking can help you stay on track.” Dinner should be balanced, a mix of lean cuts of meat, chicken, or fish, a serving of vegetables, and a serving of whole grains. “Eat the vegetables and protein first and eat the carbs at the end of the meal—you’ll eat less,” says Majumdar. (If you are dining out, cut the portion into two or three servings.) There’s little question that drinking wine or alcoholic beverages can hinder weight loss, according to research published in Current Obesity Reports; booze adds hundreds of calories to your diet and prevents the body from burning calories. If you like wine or beer with your meal, limit yourself to a glass or two, says Derocha. For dessert, she says: “Try dessert recipes such as avocado chocolate mousse, a quinoa fruit salad or yogurt bark.” Here’s how to prep and make healthy at-home meals.
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
- Melissa Majumdar, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, author of Body Kindness
- Grace Derocha, RD and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
- Angel Planells, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Circulation: “Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death and Coronary Heart Disease Mortality in Postmenopausal Women With History of Weight Cycling”
- Current Obesity Reports: “Alcohol Consumption and Obesity: An Update”