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Are you eating too much or too little? How to calculate your caloric needs to lose weight

Do you know how many calories you should consume to lose weight? Most people believe there’s a magic number. I often hear women say that they only eat 1,200 calories a day because they read it’s the magic number. Let me tell you first hand, 1,200 calories is low and is probably not healthy for you. There is no “one size fits all” and if you have a trainer that gives you that low number without any reason, run! Every BODY is different and should be treated differently.

In order to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit (burn more calories than consumed). A calorie deficit forces the body to use non-food sources of energy (typically body fat – the body can also burn muscle tissue for energy) to make up for the shortfall causing weight loss. Yet, before you can begin calculating a calorie deficit, you’ll need to understand how many calories you’re currently consuming on a daily basis.

When I meet with clients, I always ask what their daily meals looks like. I ask them how many times they eat in a day, why they eat, what types of food they are eating and their vices. I ask these questions to get them thinking about their eating patterns and the type of foods they consume. Most of the time, my clients’ eating habits are dependent upon time or what is available at the moment. There are unaware that they may be over/under eating. If you don’t know how many calories you eat per day, don’t worry, there are apps that can help calculate calories for you. Below are a few apps that I highly recommend downloading today.

  • My Fitness Pal – Free to use
  • Nutritionist – A small fee but worth the investment due to the amount of data provided
  • MyPlate – Free

Before we continue, download one of the apps above and enter ALL of the food/drinks/snacks you consumed within the last three days. Do not cheat yourself. Be 100% honest. This is only going to help you! Save your number down as you will use it later to figure out if you have been over/under eating.

Now that you know how many calories you eat on a daily basis, let’s figure out how many calories you should be consuming. A lot of factors come in to play in such as:

  • What’s your daily allowance (BMR)?
  • What’s your age, gender, weight and height?
  • What does your activity level look like?

Now let’s break it down!!!

I use the Harris-Benedict formula to calculate my basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you need to eat. This formula also applies an activity factor to help determine your total daily energy expenditure (calories). The only factor omitted by the Harris Benedict Equation is lean body mass. I wanted to keep this simple for the everyday person. So we won’t go into lean mass for now. If you’re interested please reach out to me.

  • Formula for Women: 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
  • Formula for Men: BMR = 66 + ( 6.23 x weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 x height in inches ) – ( 6.8 x age in years )

Next, take that number and multiply it by the number that corresponds to your daily activity level

  • Sedentary (little or no exercise) –  1.2
  • Lightly active (light exercise/work 1-3 days per week) – 1.375
  • Moderately active (moderate exercise/work 3-5 days per week) – 1.55
  • Very active (hard exercise/work 6-7 days a week) – 1.725
  • Extra active (very hard exercise/work 6-7 days a week) – 1.9

As an example, I will plug in my own numbers

655+ 482.85+291-141 = 1,287 calories (daily allowance allowed)

  • 1287 x 1.55 (Moderately Active)1,994 calories per day

Now that I know how many calories I should consume based on my physical activity. I can now figure out how many calories I need to cut in order to lose weight. Note 3,500 calories equal a pound. So if I want to lose a pound a week (slow and steady), I need to cut 500 calories from my caloric intake (500 x 7 days =3,500). My new caloric intake will be 1,494. I usually do not go lower than this and eat a little more if I feel hungry.

How much should you cut? Below are percentages you can decrease by in order to help you decide what your pace should be. I would start off with a 15% or 20% decrease because we want to practice healthy habits, and learn how to have a healthy relationship with food. I would not go below 20%. Losing more than 2 pounds a week is unhealthy and you’re more likely to lose muscle more than anything. Take it week by week and only adjust based on your energy levels, and how your body looks and feels.

  •  15% or less (slow and steady – most likely to maintain)
  • 20% less (average loss – attainable)
  • 25% (moderate loss – gets a little tough to keep with)
  • 30% (aggressive loss – more likely to create an unhealthy relationship with food and gain the weight back)

Now use the calculation above and enter your own numbers. What is your daily allowance? Were you over or under eating?? Please note, if you were over or under your BMR, I would work at slowly decreasing/increasing your calories so you body doesn’t freak out. Now that you know how many calories you should be eating, and how you will decrease by. You can start today and focus on hitting your caloric number or coming close to it.

Please use your number as an example of how much you should be consuming. Do not copy your neighbor if you see they have lower calories than you. Maybe they are shorter (like me), or not as active etc. You should learn to eat for your goals, based on your lifestyle only. One of the most important lessons is to focus on comparing yourself to you and you only during this process.  Go at your own pace!

Also, do not be a slave to your app, you only need the app to help you understand how many calories you are consuming. I will teach you how to calculate calories based on macros in the next article. If the app makes you feel accountable, then please continue with it until you get the hang of it. In time, you will learn how many calories are on your plate without needing an app. That is the goal J

If you over eat against your calories, please do not make up for it by starving yourself the rest of the day or cutting back the next day. We are practicing healthy habits and following that pattern will only make you back pedal. Don’t beat yourself up over it… just get back to it and eventually you will get it! This is something you will have to work on. Trust me, I know how hard it is to break old habits but you will get there!! Be consistent, and never give up!

Next week we will break down calories a little further.  I will help you understand macronutrients/micronutrients. Most people don’t know how much protein, carbs, fats etc. they should be eating based on their goals. I will also provide you tools to help you understand your macro split while providing you with foods for each macro. This will help you create your own meal plans or allow you to eat a little more freely based on your macros.

Next Up: Understanding Macro splits – How much proteins, fats and carbs should you be eating?

Toni Haaker

NESTA Certified Personal Trainer/ISSA Certified Nutritionist
Founder of Fitbody4me (Personal Training + Nutrition Programs)
Triathlete, Adventure Junkie, National Bikini Competitor


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