How Many Calories Should I Eat a Day?

Too many or too few calories can really affect your health and body weight. These nutrition experts break down the science to identify just how many calories you should eat depending on your activity level.

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Figuring out how many calories you should eat is one of life's greatest mysteries. Or so it seems.

Although calorie needs are unique and based on many factors, such as age, sex, and height, a general calorie range can be a good place to start if you're looking to maintain or lose body weight.

Let's break things down: The amount of calories your body requires each day is based on your basal metabolic rate, along with your level of physical activity. And what is basal metabolic rate, or resting metabolism? Essentially, it's the energy your body requires to perform all the activities vital for life, like respiration and digestion.

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This rate accounts for about 70 percent of your total calorie needs, so it's pretty important to make sure you're fueling your body properly. The younger and taller you are, the higher your basal metabolic rate. Men also tend to have a higher resting metabolism than women.

When it comes to the remaining 30 percent of your daily caloric expenditure, it's mostly made up of your level of physical activity, which can vary from day to day. Basically, the more active you are, the higher your energy needs.

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How Many Calories You Should Be Consuming

America's top nutrition experts weighed in to cut through the most common calorie misconceptions and help you identify what you really need each day.

"Many people think eating fewer calories is better when trying to lose weight," says Felicia Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM, author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes. "However, unless you're a woman under 5'3", I wouldn't recommend eating less than 1,600 calories per day."

As Stoler points out, consuming too few calories can lead to a deficiency of essential nutrients and may even suppress the immune system.

"Eating less than your body needs can slow metabolism as the body begins to break down muscle for fuel," says Keri Gans, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet. "Without adequate calories, you may experience low energy levels, excess hunger, or changes in mood," adds Lyssie Lakatos, RD, CDN, CFT, author of The Nutrition Twins' Veggie Cure.

On the other hand, too many calories aren't ideal, either. In addition to weight gain and an increase in fat storage, consuming more calories than your body needs can result in a variety of less-than-pleasant ailments.

"Eating too many calories, especially from fried or spicy foods, can lead to gastric reflux," says Gans. "Those excess calories can result in feeling lethargic, weighed down, and sluggish," adds Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, CDN, CFT.

Caloric Intake Based on Your Activity Level

The perfect balance of calories will complement both your metabolic rate as well as your physical activity level.

  • Very Active: For those who are very active, aka exercising vigorously for an hour or more per day, or who work in a highly physical job, the calorie needs for women range from 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day, whereas a very active man would need closer to 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day.
  • Moderately Active: For a moderately active individual who exercises for about 30 to 60 minutes a day, a woman, on average, would need 1,900 calories per day, while a male would require 2,500 calories.
  • Slightly Active: An individual who is slightly active, averaging between 5,000 to 8,000 steps per day, would require 1,800 calories for women and 2,200 calories for men.
  • Sedentary: For someone who is mostly sedentary, taking less than 5,000 steps per day, calorie needs fall as low as 1,600 for a woman and 1,800 for a man.

What to Eat to Reach Your Recommended Daily Calorie Count

What does a typical daily meal plan look like within these calorie ranges? Let's take a look.

2,500 Calories Per Day:

  • Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 2 slices of 100 percent whole grain toast, 2 Tbsp almond butter, 12 ounces of low-fat milk, 1 cup pineapple
  • Snack: 1 ounce of pistachios
  • Lunch: 2 slices of 100 percent whole grain toast, 3 ounces of turkey breast, 1 ounce cheddar cheese, 1 Tbsp mayonnaise, 2 cups tossed salad topped with 2 Tbsp chopped walnuts and 3 Tbsp vinaigrette dressing
  • Snack: 1 large apple
  • Dinner: 6 ounce salmon filet, 2 cups broccoli sautéed in one tablespoon oil, 1 cup brown rice, 4 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice

2,200 Calories Per Day:

  • Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 2 slices of 100 percent whole grain toast, 1 Tbsp almond butter, 12 ounces of low-fat milk, 1 cup pineapple
  • Snack: 1 ounce of pistachios
  • Lunch: 2 slices of 100 percent whole-grain toast, 3 ounces of turkey breast, 1 ounce cheddar cheese, 1 Tbsp mayonnaise, 2 cups tossed salad topped with 2 Tbsp chopped walnuts and 2 Tbsp vinaigrette dressing
  • Snack: 1 large apple
  • Dinner: 6 ounce salmon filet, 2 cups steamed broccoli, 1 cup brown rice

1,800 Calories Per Day:

  • Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 1 slice of 100 percent whole-grain toast, 1 Tbsp almond butter, 8 ounces of low-fat milk, 1/2 cup pineapple
  • Snack: 1 ounce of pistachios
  • Lunch: 2 slices of 100 percent whole-grain toast, 3 ounces of turkey breast, 1 Tbsp mayonnaise, 2 cups tossed salad topped with 1 Tbsp chopped walnuts and 2 Tbsp vinaigrette dressing
  • Snack: 1 medium apple
  • Dinner: 4 ounce salmon filet, 2 cups steamed broccoli, 1 cup brown rice

1,600 Calories Per Day:

  • Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 1 slice of 100 percent whole-grain toast, 1 Tbsp almond butter, 8 ounces of low-fat milk, 1/2 cup pineapple
  • Snack: 1 ounce of pistachios
  • Lunch: 2 slices of 100 percent whole-grain toast, 3 ounces of turkey breast, 1 Tsp mayonnaise, 2 cups tossed salad topped with 1 Tbsp vinaigrette dressing
  • Snack: 1 medium apple
  • Dinner: 4 ounce salmon filet, 2 cups steamed broccoli, 2/3 cup brown rice

Be Mindful, But Don't Start Counting Calories

Although watching your calorie intake is important if you're trying to maintain or lose body weight, it's not the only factor to focus on to ensure a healthy diet and lifestyle.

"Instead of counting calories, focus on eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and whole grains," Stoler says. "Filling half your plate with vegetables at meals can help improve portion control," points out Gans.

Fixating on calorie counts can lead to deprivation and overeating if you aren't careful. Instead, focus on what you can eat in abundance, such as whole fruits and vegetables, and the rest will fall into place.

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