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How Many Calories Should I Eat In A Day for Weight Loss?

May 14 2021
4 min read
woman chopping vegetables

Q: I’m trying to drop a few pounds. How do I figure out how many calories I should eat in a day?

A: A basic principle of weight loss is taking in fewer calories than you use, so it’s a good idea to take a close look at this. Although it may seem like the smartest way to slim down is to eat as little as possible and burn as many calories as you can, this type of drastic difference between “calories in” and “calories out” can actually have a negative effect on your metabolism and make it more difficult to maintain any weight loss you achieve.

The sweet spot for weight loss is between your resting metabolic rate, or RMR, and your total energy expenditure or TEE. Your RMR is the number of calories your body burns in 24 hours at complete rest — meaning no activity whatsoever — just by keeping your brain working, all your other organs functioning and supporting your muscles. Your TEE goes one step further. It accounts for all the calories you burn in a day, including during your daily activity and exercise.

To get a general estimate of RMR, most of us can multiply our current weight by 10. (Though there are more accurate equations, such as the Mifflin-St. Jeor, this is the simplest.) Your RMR is dependent on the absolute amount of muscle you have, so use a factor of 12 if you are very fit or a factor of 8 if you have more than 50 pounds to lose or are a woman past menopause. (After menopause, women tend to experience a poorly understood dip in RMR that isn’t explained by muscle loss.)

To estimate your TEE, multiply your RMR by 1.3 if your lifestyle is mostly sedentary or by 1.5 if you’re quite active, meaning you have a job that requires you to move a lot, or you engage in active daily tasks, like yard work. (To maintain your weight, your calorie intake should match your TEE.)

The calorie range between your RMR and your TEE is a guidepost for healthy and sustainable weight loss. Going lower than your RMR for an extended period of time raises the risk that you will begin losing muscle mass, which can dramatically lower the number of calories you burn in a day. If you go above your TEE, the excess energy you take in will be stored as fat, and you will gain weight.

As for exactly where in the range you should aim, we suggest you don’t worry about that. There’s no way to accurately predict how a certain amount of calorie cutting will affect your weight, because your metabolism is unique. And although we recommend keeping a food diary to create more awareness of what you’re eating, it’s hard to use it and other methods, such as apps, to count calories with 100-percent accuracy.

Lasting weight loss depends on making permanent changes in your way of eating. Rather than relying solely on the numbers, take a look at your existing pattern and ask yourself what calorie-laden, low-nutrient foods you eat regularly that you can do without. Then work to create a new pattern of eating you can stick with. Try incorporating more vegetables, which can be your best friend during dieting. Vegetables have a lot of nutrients with fewer calories. Remember: Your healthy weight is the weight your body balances at when you are eating as well as you can reasonably eat and exercising as much as you can reasonably exercise.

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