How Many Calories Do You Really Need?

How Many Calories Do You Really Need?

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In a dream world, wine wouldn’t have calories, chocolate would count as a vegetable, and you could eat what you want, while maintaining a healthy weight. Unfortunately, the reality is that calories add up quickly—sometimes in a single takeout meal. And when you’re constantly bombarded with cues to eat, from tempting TV ads to unlimited office treats, it can seem like the world is sabotaging your efforts. But understanding how many calories you really need, and learning to spot where they’re coming from, is the first step toward achieving a healthy weight.

Is “2,000 Calories a Day” Right for You?

When the FDA updated the nutrition labels, they needed a nice round number to compare percent daily values to, so they chose 2,000 calories. It’s a rough average, approximately the amount a sedentary 160-pound man or moderately active 130-pound woman should eat. But 2,000 calories a day might not be the exact right recommendation for you.

Figuring Out Your Personal Needs

The number of calories you need depends on your weight, height, age, gender, and activity level. There are a few ways you can work it out. The most accurate (and expensive!) way is to get into an insulated chamber to measure how much heat your body is producing. A much simpler way is to put your personal data into an equation. (Make sure you don’t overestimate how active you are—a mistake many people make!) Personal needs differ massively: If you’re a 6-foot-tall male olympic swimmer, you might need an outrageous 10,000 calories a day, but if you’re a 50-year-old woman and working in an office, you might only need a modest 1,800 calories a day.

How to Cut Calories to Lose Weight

When it comes to weight loss, what you eat (“calories in”) is more important than how much you exercise (“calories out”). Tracking calories is still the best way to get to know your numbers. Of course, nobody enjoys the tedium of recording every sip and morsel! But you’ll identify patterns and habits that may be holding you back from your weight loss goals, quickly spotting those excess calories from, say, weekly happy hours, daily candy bars, and pre-dinner crackers and cheese.

Try the food logging feature in the Words of the Web app for at least three days (including one weekend day) to get a sense of how many calories you’re typically eating. Then come up with a new “calories in” goal to meet your weight goal. As a general guide, that should be 500 to 750 calories less than the average you logged for those first three days, but pick a reasonable number that you can stick to. Continue to log your food for a few weeks so you can track how closely you’re coming to your new calorie goal. When it comes to weight loss, consistently eating roughly the same amount of calories is key.

How to Lose 1 Pound per Week

You might have heard of the 3,500-calorie principle—eat 3,500 calories less per week (or 500 calories less per day) to lose 1 pound. Unfortunately, it’s an oversimplification. Why? Because, again, everyone’s needs are different, and everybody’s metabolism responds to changes in their diet in a different way! However, if you cut 500 calories a day, you’ll almost certainly lose weight. It might not be exactly 1 pound each week, but the numbers on the scale will start going down. Then to keep dropping, you’ll need to continue to monitor your calories and weight, and make adjustments to what you’re eating as your weight and metabolism changes.

How to Lose Up to 2 Pounds per Week (Don’t Go Too Low!)

Want to lose more weight, fast? There are a lot of weight loss programs out there that claim you’ll drop a significant number of pounds in just one week. And many of them seem promising at first glance. But rest assured, if something seems too good to be true, it almost always is. Cutting calories too much won’t deliver lasting weight loss results.

The lowest I’ll let clients slash their calories is 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day for women, 1,500 to 1,800 calories for men. Dipping below 1,200 calories is not a good idea—not only is it extremely difficult to maintain, but your basic metabolic needs won’t be met, and all you’ll end up with is a slowed metabolism. Not to mention disappointment when you’re not able to continue to eat so little, and the weight creeps back on. Sure, you might lose weight quickly in the first few weeks on a starvation diet, but it’s mostly just water weight. Stick with a more realistic low-calorie goal, and after the initial drop, aim for a slow and steady pace of no more than 2 pounds per week. At this rate, you’ll be more likely to stick to your new eating habits, and keep the weight off for good.

Once you understand how many calories you really need, and compare it to how much you’ve actually been eating, you will be empowered with real numbers and can start making lasting changes. You don’t need to keep a food log forever! But doing the math might force you to be more mindful, considering everything you put in your mouth, and allow you to reconnect with when you naturally feel hungry and full. Also, remember that what you eat is as important as how much you eat. Choose foods that nourish your body because of the nutrients they contain, not the calories they don’t. And unless you’re a serious athlete, view any exercise you do as an added bonus, not an excuse to chow down on more calories. Anyone who’s started going to the gym in the hopes of losing weight, but failed to change their eating habits, can attest to that!


  1. Counting calories is addicting, unless your extrememly overweight, don’t start. Because once you stop, you feel out of control and get super nervous, it takes part of your freedom to just “eat”.

  2. We did this in high school health and it said I should eat 1100 calories a day. I tried it for ten days and I was miserable as hell. Hungry, intermittently lightheaded, distracted, etc. I gave up and resumed eating when I was hungry, until I wasn’t. (Processed foods in the family diet, genetic predisposition, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle made me consistently chubby with little weight gain once I’d finished puberty.)
    In college nutrition, in a much more in-depth analysis, my prof came over to help our group, looked me over, and said, “You look muscular, be sure to take that into account.”
    I blinked was all, “Me?” Because even though I’m freakishly strong, like my mom and her mom (and her mom), I’d never been athletic. If people in my life thought about a woman being naturally muscular, no one but this [excellent] professor had ever noticed it under the fat.
    Sure enough, that differnece put me right into the mid 1600s/day, which was absurdly close to what my three-week dietary analysis showed I’d been eating. The creeping weight gain of years we attributed to the processed foods and added sugars of my diet. I cut out most of both in 2015 just to be healthier, and lost about 20lbs without really trying.
    The moral of the story is that people, medicine, and nutritional science are all still develpoping, and my body is a wonderland. (So’s yours.)

  3. There is a quicker way to figure this out. Start with your base ie: GOAL weight x10.
    Take that number and add 100 for each increasing level of activity. Sedentary, Light Activity, Moderate Activity, Active, Very Active. This will give you enough calories to maintain (you may already be at your goal weight) or lose on, without going so low as to slow down your metabolism and/or lose muscle tissue.

    This is a general formula but can apply to anyone. The bigger you are the more calories you need EVEN IF you are trying to take weight off.

    Example – Woman with goal weight of 130 pounds, moderately active (that’s the 3rd level of activity so add 300 calores to the base of 1300) would eat 1600 calories a day.

    Man with a goal weight of 185 pounds, sedentary. (that’s the 1st level of activity so add 100 calories to the base of 1850) would eat 1950 calories a day.

    Obviously one can adjust it if you have a more or less active day or if one is not getting results, one can adjust downward 100 calories at at time. The interesting thing about calories and this system is the difference between losing, maintaining and gaining is usually only a couple of hundred calories. Little changes can add up to big results. GOOD LUCK!

    Yes, where the calories come from is important but that’s another subject…if you want to count calories this is a safe and effective way to do it.

  4. Can I point out that this calculator posts (Mild Thinness) instead of (Underweight BMI) and that is not only messed up it’s also just all kinds of incorrect?

  5. I lost 30 pounds in about 6 months, really leaned down. I didn’t count calories because man that’s depressing and it takes over your life! Instead, I strictly cut out all sat fats and processed sugars. So, no donuts and cakes, no full milks or cheeses, and limited my meat intake (I only ate white meats like chicken breast, fishes). I only ate what I “needed” to stave off hunger. But at the same time, I ate unlimited veggies and fruits no matter the calorie content of them. I ate fatty avacados. I cheated once in a while for people’s birthday. I worked out 3-4 times a week (1 hour on the treadmill of running/walking/hill work and a few sets of like bicep curls and other arm exercise with weights). So, it wasn’t very fancy set of workouts.

    Bottom line is, if you want to lose weight, lean down whatever, don’t count calories unless your will power is totally dead. Just eat “right,” (no more box food, no more high carb nutritionless junk), you feel like eating donuts just eat big bowl of sweet fruits instead. Work out regularly. Write down your stats (measure your inches and weight). You will see the results!

  6. “The number of calories anyone eats is a personal decision, and not at all a reflection of their intelligence or value as a human. You can and should do whatever you want with your body.”

    Sorry but those two sentences are TOTAL bs. That is a very dangerous thing to say and NO physician, dietician, or scientist agrees with you. In fact they wholly disagree with you, you should do what is healthy and it is actually very stupid to do otherwise. You’ll DEEPLY regret taking this attitude later in your life…which if you DO take that attitude, won’t be very long. You may think “oh be happy and do what you want” but you won’t be happy when you are suffering from the detriments of obesity and/or all that comes with being overweight. I cannot believe someone would say something like this and actually pass it off as legitimate advice! I’m not “fat shaming”; it’s an expression of reality, truth, and scientific fact. Being overweight and unhealthy leads to a PLETHORA of mental (psychological) detriments as well as to the rest of the body (physiological).

    The rest is good advice…just ignore those two asinine sentences.