How Many Calories Should I Eat in a Day?

Eating a certain number of calories per day can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Research further indicates that, when following a balanced diet, consuming the best number of calories for you can also help improve your health and boost longevity.

When determining how many calories you should eat per day, it helps to first understand the established recommended calorie intakes. From there, you can consider other factors to find the calorie intake that is right for you given your body and health-related goals.

Recommended Calorie Intakes

Knowing the recommended calorie intake guidelines can provide a better idea of what your calorie range will be. These vary based on whether you are an adult, a teen, or a child.

Adults

The recommended calorie intake for adult women ranges from 1,600 calories per day to 2,400 calories per day, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For men, the amount is slightly higher, ranging from 2,200 to 3,200 calories per day.

If you are somewhat sedentary or older, your calorie needs are likely toward the bottom of the range. If you are fairly physically active, pregnant, or breastfeeding, you may be closer to the top.

Teens

Calorie intake recommendations for teens vary based on age, sex, and activity level. A 13-year-old girl's recommended intake ranges from 1,600 to 2,200 calories daily with a 2,000 to 2,600 recommended intake for a 13-year-old boy.

These amounts increase slightly in the later teen years. For girls aged 14 to 18, the range is 1,800 calories per day to 2,400. For boys in this same age range, the recommended calorie intake is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,200 calories.

Children

Children between the ages of 2 and 3 years old need between 1,000 and 1,400 calories per day. Where they fall in this range depends on how active they are.

At 4 to 8 years of age, the range starts at 1,200 calories daily and increases to 1,800 calories for girls and 2,000 calories for boys. At 9 to 13 years, the calorie range is 1,400 to 2,200 calories per day for girls and 1,600 to 2,600 calories daily for boys.

Infants and young children are generally good at self-regulating their calorie intake, so it may more helpful to ensure they have a balanced diet versus watching how many calories they consume.

Factors That Affect Your Target Calorie Intake

As the recommended calorie intake guidelines suggest, the number of calories you need per day can vary based on a variety of factors. Among them are:

  • Sex
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Age
  • Activity level

Additional factors that can affect how many calories your body uses for energy, thus also impacting how many you should consume, include your hormones, some medications (such as steroids and some diabetes medicines), and your overall health.

The Nutrition Facts label on foods provides information based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. But people can have different calorie needs. Determining your individual needs can help you maintain a healthy weight.

Using Weight Loss Calculators

Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight, a weight loss calculator can help. The calculator uses your sex, weight, height, and age to determine the number of calories you need to fuel your body for daily activity.

Then it adds the calories needed to gain weight or subtracts the calories needed to help you lose weight. It can figure out how many calories you should eat to maintain weight as well.

Inputting accurate information can help determine your daily caloric needs. If you're not sure how active you are during the day, keep an activity journal for a week or look at data from your fitness tracker to get a quick estimate.

Next, you'll be asked about your goals. It's important to be realistic during this step. Your goal weight may be different than an ideal or "perfect" weight. Try to set goals that you believe are attainable. Once you reach your goal, you can always set a new one.

If you are trying to lose weight, a healthy rate of weight loss is 0.5 to 2 pounds per week. If you are trying to gain weight, adding 1 to 2 pounds per week is a healthy goal.

Reaching Your Goal Weight

After entering your information into the calorie calculator, you'll receive a daily calorie goal. This is the number of calories you should eat each day to reach your desired weight in the time frame that you set.

To Lose Weight

If weight loss is your goal, a calorie deficit is factored into your recommended daily caloric intake. A calorie deficit is simply an energy shortfall—consuming fewer calories than you use—so your body burns stored fat (excess weight) for fuel.

You can create a calorie deficit by eating less than your body needs. You can also burn extra calories by increasing your physical activity. Combining the two (a balanced diet and exercise) is a healthy strategy for losing weight.

While it may be tempting to dramatically restrict your calorie intake, a very low-calorie diet (fewer than 800 to 1000 calories per day) can backfire and should only be followed with a doctor's supervision to ensure that it meets your nutritional needs.

Other dietary strategies that can assist with weight loss include:

To Gain Weight

If you are trying to gain weight, your daily calorie goal will include a calorie surplus. The key to making this gain healthy involves following a few simple guidelines:

  • Eat high-quality high-calorie foods, such as high-protein meats, healthy fats, and whole grains.
  • Eat more often (this helps if you get full quickly).
  • Add extra calories to your meals, such as by putting nuts on your morning oatmeal.
  • Drink nutrient-rich shakes.
  • Incorporate strength training into your exercise routine.

To Maintain Weight

Several pieces of research have sought to find the best ways to maintain one's current weight, especially after successful weight loss. An analysis of many of these studies reports that results are mixed as to what strategies may work best.

However, many of these studies did find that following a higher-protein diet might help with weight maintenance. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols was also suggested as an effective approach to sustaining a healthy weight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I eat whatever I want and still lose weight?

You can eat whatever you want and lose weight as long as you stay in your calorie range. That said, it might be hard to stay in this range if you don't eat nutritious foods.

Plus, empty-calorie foods don't provide your body with the nutrients you need to live an active, well life. And when you eat junk food, you're likely to get hungry more often and overeat as a result. Conversely, healthy foods help you to feel strong, energized, and satiated.

Can I eat more if I exercise every day?

If you factored exercise into the equation when using the online calculator, you should not eat more if you exercise. Your daily calorie goal (the calculator result) has already accounted for the additional physical activity.

If you didn't factor in exercise when using the calculator and you added a workout session to your day, the calories burned during exercise will increase your calorie deficit. If you don't eat back your exercise calories, the increased deficit can result in weight loss (or greater weight loss).

Be careful, though, because it is very easy to eat more calories than you burn after exercise. This can lead to weight gain versus weight loss or maintenance.

How should I count my daily calories?

There are different ways that you can keep track of your daily calorie intake. You can use a smartphone app or websites like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt. These services allow you to input the food you've eaten along with your portion size and automatically calculate your daily calorie intake.

There are also activity trackers, like Fitbit, which help you count daily food calories and daily exercise calories. If you're not a fan of tech gadgets, use a weight loss journal or write your calories in a notebook to keep track of your daily numbers.

What diet is best if I want to lose weight? 

There is no "best" diet because we are all so different, with different lifestyles and different needs. The diet that will work best for you is the one you can stick to.

For some people, a do-it-yourself program is best. Others benefit from the structured approach of a commercial weight loss program.

To determine which is best for you, ask yourself key questions about your lifestyle. Do you cook? How much time do you have to shop for healthy food? What is your budget? Use your responses to choose a diet that best fits your needs. 

Are all calories the same?

Even though your total calorie intake matters, all calories are not created equal. Calories from nutritious food sources will help you to feel full longer, provide fuel for your daily activity, and improve your well-being.

So what are nutritious foods? Health experts recommend that you fill your plate with:

Empty calories can leave you feeling hungry, increase your food cravings, and even increase fatigue. You'll find them in processed foods that contain added sugars, trans fat, excess fat, and calories. They may provide energy but not the fiber, vitamins, and minerals you need.

What if I try to lose weight but can't?

There are many factors that contribute to weight loss success. If you don't lose weight right away, it doesn't mean that you have failed or done something wrong. It might simply mean that you need to stick to your program longer for weight loss to happen. 

Evaluate your eating and exercise habits to see if there are adjustments you can make to reach your goal. There may also be medical reasons that you can't lose weight. So talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Your doctor may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian for personalized nutrition advice. If you have a higher amount of weight to lose, they might also talk to you about weight loss medications or weight-loss surgeries to help you lose weight.

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