Calories: How Many Should YOU Be Eating?

The information in this article has been researched and inspired by medical researcher and all-round wellness expert, Emma-Leigh. I’m grateful for her permission to publish this incredibly helpful resource!

How many calories should I be eating? How much protein, how much fat, how many carbs? What amount to gain muscle? How much to lose fat?

These are incredibly common questions, but rarely can we find a good answer to them. And unfortunately, this is why so many of us stall in our progress. Inadvertently overeating, or undereating, is a widespread dietary dilemma, and one that could so easily be avoided, with the right information.

Here you will find a user-friendly guide to calculating your nutritional needs, and designing your diet.

Before we get started, here’s a glossary of terms that you’ll need to familiarise yourself with:

BMR (Basal metabolic rate)

This is the amount of calories that you’d need to consume to maintain your body if you were completely inactive (i.e. comatose, or bed-ridden). Many dieters confuse their BMR with their TEE (which we’ll get round too)- a misunderstanding that leads to eating far fewer calories than the body actually requires. This is an all-too-common cause of diet failure, so knowing your dieting lingo is very important!

EAT (Exercise Associated Thermogenesis)

EAT is the calorie requirements associated with planned exercise (i.e. your workout routine). This is something that many people grossly overestimate. Unless someone is doing a monumental amount of exercise each day (e.g. an endurance athlete), EAT won’t add a tremendous number of calories to your requirements.

NEAT (Non-Exercise Associated Thermogenesis)

NEAT is the calorie requirements associated with incidental exercise (e.g. housework, shopping, general moving around). This tends to represent the largest variable in someone’s daily calorie requirements, as it’s affected by the nature of their job, their home life, their social life etc. It is, however, something that can easily be increased, in order to burn more calories.

TEF (Thermogenic Effect of Feeding)

TEF is the calorie expenditure associated with eating. It varies according to macronutrient and fibre content (and NOT according to meal frequency, as many would have us believe). For an average, balanced diet, TEF is around 15%. Protein is the most thermogenic macronutrient (with TEF up to 25%), carbs are variable (between 5-25%), and fats are the least thermogenic (usually less than 5%). More protein + more carbs + more fiber = higher TEF. More FAT = lower TEF. But let me press home that this does NOT mean a low fat diet is better!

TEE (Total Energy Expenditure)

TEE is the total calories your body requires (so that’s BMR + NEAT + EAT + TEF). This is more commonly referred to as ‘Maintenance Calories’, i.e. the number of calories required to maintain your body, based on your current lifestyle.

So here are all the factors and variables that determine your TEE:

  • Age (metabolism generally decreases as we get older)
  • Gender (males generally need more than calories than females)
  • Total weight and lean mass (more lean mass means a higher TEE)
  • Daily Activity Level (a higher activity level means a higher TEE)
  • Exercise (more exercise means a higher TEE)
  • Diet (what it’s comprised of)
  • Physiological Status (e.g. sick, pregnant, growing)
  • Hormone Levels (e.g. thyroid hormone levels, growth hormone levels)

Estimating TEE

Unless you’re able to snag yourself a TEE assessment via Calorimetry (a process in which a calorimeter is used to measure chemical reactions in your body and the heat produced by these reactions) then you’ll have to opt for the less accurate, but rather more convenient methods of TEE calculation.

There are a number of ways in which estimate TEE- some better than others- all of which we will run through now.

The simplest (and thus, often least accurate) method is to estimate TEE using a standard ‘calories per unit of weight’. These standard figures are as follows:

For sedentary individuals partaking in little exercise:

  • 25-30 calories/kg/day (11.5-13.5 calories/lb)

For moderately active individuals partaking in light-moderate exercise:

  • 30-35 calories/kg/day (13.5-16 calories/lb)

For highly active individuals partaking in vigorous exercise:

  • 35-40 calories/kg/day (16-18 calories/lb)

There are also several more complex formulae, which calculate BMR based on variables including sex, height, weight, age, and lean mass. This BMR is then multiplied by an ‘activity factor’ to give TEE.

These formulae vary greatly in terms of accuracy, due to the circumstances in which they were tested. Here are two of the more accurate BMR calculations:

The Mifflin-St Jeor Formula

  • For Women: BMR = [9.99 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [4.92 x age (years)] -161
  • For Men: BMR = [9.99 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [4.92 x age (years)] + 5

This is a reasonable formula for the average individual, as it was devised in a way that makes it realistic in today’s environment. However, it does not factor in the difference in metabolic rate as a consequence of BF% levels. This means that it overestimates needs in highly obese individuals, and can underestimate requirements for very lean individuals. So be warned!

The Katch-McArdle Formula:

Note: LBM stands for ‘Lean Body Mass’ (i.e. everything in your body that isn’t fat- muscle, bone, water etc).

BMR = 370 + (21.6 x LBM)

Where LBM = [total weight (kg) x (100 – bodyfat %)]/100

This is the most accurate formula for relatively lean individuals who have a good understanding of their bodyfat %.

Now, if you’ve used one of these two formulae, don’t forget that all you have at the moment is your BMR! It’s now necessary to multiply that number by an ‘activity factor’ to convert it to an estimation of your TEE.

The activity factors are as follows:

  • 1.2 = Sedentary (little or no exercise and desk job)
  • 1.3-1.4 = Lightly Active (light exercise or sports 1-3 days a week)
  • 1.5-1.6 = Moderately Active (moderate exercise or sports 3-5 days a week)
  • 1.7-1.8 = Very Active (hard exercise or sports 6-7 days a week)
  • 1.9-2.0 = Extremely Active (hard daily exercise or sports and physical job)

Note: These activity factors already include a TEF of around 15% (an average mixed diet).

CAUTION: DO NOT RELY ON THESE CALCULATIONS! They give a rough ball-park figure to use as a starting point, but they are rarely accurate. Most people overestimate their activity factor, and underestimate their bodyfat, which means that they OVERESTIMATE their calorie requirements. So start with these rough figures, and then monitor your body measurements for 3-4 weeks (it’s important you allow sufficient time to get an accurate idea of what’s going on). You can monitor your weight as well, but due the vast number of variables responsible for weight fluctuation, measurements are far more accurate gauge. If your measurements remain stable, then you have likely found your maintenance calorie requirements (your TEE). Otherwise, adjust your intake accordingly and repeat the process.

It can sometimes take a little while to discover the right maintenance intake, and bear in mind, TEE will vary as your body and activity levels change. However, it’s essential to take the time you need to find the right number for you, because it’s going to make setting up a diet for your ultimate body goal so much easier!

Once you’ve deduced your TEE, you will then need to increase or decrease intake, based on your goals of increasing lean mass or decreasing bodyfat. Base this calorie increase or reduction on a percentage of your TEE, rather than on a generic number (the suggestion of ‘+/- 500 calories’ gets thrown around a lot). There is no one-size-fits-all surplus or deficit, due to the huge variations in each individual’s calorie requirements.

Some good, guideline percentages are as follows:

  • To gain weight: Add 10-20% calories to your maintenance requirements (TEE x 1.1-1.2)
  • To lose weight:  Subtract 10-20% calories from your maintenance requirements (TEE x 0.8-0.9)

Then monitor your results and adjust as required.

For those looking to gain muscle, a 10-20% surplus will generally minimise fat gain, and for those looking to lose fat, a 10-20% deficit will generally minimise muscle loss and energy/performance issues. This, of course, needs to be in combination with a good macronutrient breakdown and an appropriate training programme.

Macronutrient Needs

Now we’ve got the calorie equations out of the way, it’s time to look at how we should be making up those calories, i.e. the minimum requirements for each macronutrient.

This should be based on your bodyweight and lean mass, NOT on a percentage of your calorie intake.

Despite what some may have you believe, there aren’t any one-size-fits all, magic ratios.

1. Protein

When I talk about minimum protein requirements, I’m referring to the minimum that is optimal for muscle gain, or muscle preservation. This applies to anyone with goals of improving body composition, who is training with that goal in mind. It is NOT the minimum in terms of essential requirements.

But if you don’t want an average body, you don’t want an average diet.

I would recommend a minimum intake of 1-1.5g/lb lean mass. If you don’t know your lean mass, calculate a ballpark figure of 1-1.5g/lb total bodyweight. If you use the latter calculation, bear in mind that lean individuals need to aim closer to 1.5g/lb, whereas those with a higher bodyfat % needn’t be looking at more than 1g/lb.

2. Fat

When talking about fat intake, I am referring to total fat. This should include essential fats (from poly- and monounsaturated fat sources), but is not limited to them.

For optimal health, hormone function and overall results, those following a moderate diet should be consuming at least between 0.35-0.5g/lb lean mass. Again, if you’re unsure of your lean mass, use your total bodyweight, with lean individuals using the higher number, and those with a higher bodyfat % working with the lower number.

Generally, a higher fat intake is required by those on low-carb diets, with up to 1g/lb lean mass being common with ketogenic type diets.

3. Carbs

There are no specific requirements for carbs. If you’re highly active, involved in endurance sports, or trying to gain mass, then a higher carb intake will be optimal, to fuel your workouts and your body. If your activity level is lower, or if you’re dieting, carbs will be lower. At this point, it’s a case of finding the balance that works best for you, in terms of energy and satiety. Once you’ve met the protein and fat minimums, you can simply fill the remainder of your calories with carbs. Alternatively, you may want to try a combination of carbs + more of the other macronutrients (in this instance, protein would usually stay the same, and fat would be increased).

Protein and carbs both contain 4 kcal/g, and fat contains 9 kcal/g, so to work out how many grams of carbs you require, you’ll need to do the following equation:

Total calories – ([protein grams x 4] + [fat grams as x 9])

4

You will likely benefit from using a calorie tracking website, or calorie tracking software. This will save lots of time and confusion, especially in the initial stages of designing your diet. Some free tracking websites I would particularly recommend are NutritionData, Sparkpeople, DailyBurn and Nutridiary. Each provides a large database of both generic and brand name foods, with the additional option of creating your own custom foods and meals. Calorieking is another good site- it doesn’t provide a free tracking facility, but it offers an incredibly extensive nutrition database.

Don’t feel that you have to track every day– it simply needs to be often enough so as to have a good awareness of your dietary intake, and so as to familiarise yourself with nutritional content and serving sizes of various foods. Of course, you may prefer to track daily, and if that’s the case, by all means, go for it! Again, it’s all a case of tailoring everything to your own needs.

So there you have it- all the information you require to get crunching those numbers and applying them to your diet! Once you’ve established the basis of your requirements, it’s simply a case of tweaking the diet as necessary, to make it as effective for you as possible.

Best of luck, and happy eating!

31 replies on “Calories: How Many Should YOU Be Eating?

  • Carly

    Hi,

    I was just wondering how accurate a decent heart rate monitor is in calculating the amount of calories you burn in a day? It takes into account, age, weight, gender etc.

    Thanks,
    Carly

  • Charli

    Hi Carly! A heart rate monitor is pretty accurate in counting calories burned in a workout, but not quite so effective if you want to find out the number of calories burned over an entire day. For that, you’d need something like a BodyBugg.

  • Clint @ Crude Fitness

    Nice detailed post.
    I think for most people starting out, they fall into the trap of counting calories to the nth degree.
    It becomes too difficult to maintain, and many fail in their progress to obtain a better physique.

    I’d suggest learning about it (as per this article), but then use your own judgement.

    It’s all about calories consumed vs calories expended.
    You don’t need to worry about macro-nutrient breakdowns so much at a beginner level.

  • Charli

    Thanks Clint! I agree, beginners don’t need to worryso much about macros, as there are other steps to take first, and doing everything at once can be overwhelming.

    However, not eating enough protein or fat, or not knowing how many calories are in the things they’re eating- which is very common- can also result in diet failure, so it’s really a case of finding that balance between ‘knowledgable’ and ‘obsessive’.

  • Jill

    I have been counting calories for a few years, I stick with 1800 if I work out and 1500 if I dont. I am a runner, and this has worked for me. Knowing more about food is key, like you said. After losing weight and not wanting to go through the process again, sticking with what works for me is what really matters.

  • Charli

    It’s great you’ve found what does the trick for you- it can be a frustrating trial and error process sometimes! And the fact you’ve been able to maintain those changes is excellent. Knowledge is definitely power.

  • Liam

    What a great post! So good to have all the formulas in one place too. Katch-McArdle is the one I use most, but at the end of the day your bodyweight will tell you what is going on. Tracking your calorie intake and charting your weight is a simple way to work out how many calories you need to lose, maintain or gain weight. The body doesn’t lie!

  • shelly

    aloha
    great article……so many people have no idea what they are looking for in a food plan or lifestyle change
    thank you so much
    stay strong !!
    aloha
    shelly

  • Keri

    Thanks for this post.. I feel stupid for asking but I am at confused if I am eating to little or to much. I went and had my BMR professionally tested and it came back at 1272. I have been eating a clean diet (think Tosca Reno) of 1300-1500 a day depending on my workout. It is a low carb (carbs are consumed per and post workout) I am currently on a 4 day split routine with 30 min moderate cardio and once a week 60 min interval training. My hrm says I burn 400-700 cal (depends on the routine). I bounce between 129-132 and 24-25% bf depending on the time of month or time of day I measure. I am a stay at home Mom of young boys, so I am pretty much on my feet all day. I do carry my weight above my hips (think the girls weigh at least 6lbs 😉 ).
    Any advise you might have would be welcome. I am frustrated at this standstill, and my trainer is equally frustrated

  • Charli

    Taking your activity level into account, I’d say that yes, those calories are looking a little low. Also, when you’re already at a reasonably low weight and body fat, losing that last bit of fat becomes more tricky, and a slower process.

    I’d try eating a solid 1600 calories for the next few weeks and see how you find it. If you’re enjoying the food on your current diet, I don’t see a need to change it- just eat more of everything.

    That said, how long have you been dieting for? If it’s been a long time, you may need to have a 10-14 day break, eating your maintenance calories, just to get your metabolism back on track before lowering cals again.

    Hope that helps!

  • Keri

    I have been eating that many calories for years and always figured I just needed to go lower than 1200 but was really hard to workout like I do and eat that little. I will try increasing my calories. Thanks for the suggestion, I will let you know if I see any change!

    Keri

  • Charli

    I see no issue with carbs, unless someone has actually been diagnosed as insulin resistance, in which case, lower carbs will be more beneficial. Carbs may need to be low to moderate on a diet, depending on how many calories you need to be intaking for your goals. If meeting protein and fat requirements takes up most of your calorie allowance, then carbs will be lower by default.

  • Kelli

    Hi Charli,
    Great article but I think i’m confused. My aim is to lose some more body fat and build muscle as I want to compete in a bikini/figure comp next year. At 166cm and 55kg I’ve done the calcs but I think I may have the carbs wrong as they seem a bit high! I workout 4-5 times a week. I calculated 1800 cals to lose weight (BMR 1248, TEE 1998). PROTEIN 121.25g/FAT 48.5g/CARBS 437.45. Have I done this wrong? Seems like alot of fat and carbs????

    This stuff frustrates me but I’m very thankful for your article!

    Kelli x

  • Charli

    Hey Kelli,

    If you want to have a competition-ready physique, I’d strongly suggest you put the emphasis on muscle gain and not bodyfat reduction. It’s almost impossible to do both effectively at once, especially if you’ve been training for a while.

    To gain muscle (and minimise fat gain), I’d suggest aiming for:
    2100-2200 cals, 130-150g protein, 60-70g fat, 180-220g carbs

    To lose fat (and preserve muscle), I shoot for:
    1600 cals, 130-150g protein, 60-70g fat, 80-100g carbs

    Hope that helps! x

  • Jenn

    Thanks for the article – I think it helps. So I have basically been eating 1300-1500 calories for at least a year, and I have always just focused on balancing a carb and protein since I used to follow Body For Life. I have not been able to drop a pound, though. Is food my problem? I eat about the same thing every day, except dinner is different or I might have a different fruit and dinner is whatever I eat with my husband, Saturdays I eat a little different, but still healthy, and Sundays are kind of a free day. I have been doing Jillian Michaels workout videos for at least 4 months, and I see a lot of toning (starting to get great obliques), but nothing changing on the scale (which I don’t weigh myself regularly – the first time in at least a month was this week, but still the same as before). I want to get rid of the pooch and saddlebags and just slim and tone my body. I had a physical and everything is perfect – even my waste to hip ratio – except my weight. I am 63.5 kg and 157.4 cm. I really want to get to 54.5 kg. Any help would be greatly appreciated!!
    Thanks for posting this to twitter too! I am cjbuggy2001. 🙂

  • [email protected] belly fat blog

    This is one of the most comprehensive write-ups on the subject of calorie counting. The only challenge, at least from what I have seen is that a very few people can sustain any form of calorie counting. They can start but not keep it going. I guess the secret is to do it for a little while until it gets ingrained into the subconscious. From then on it should be effortless. What do you think?

  • Charli

    For the average dieter, once they’re familiar with portion sizes and the calorie/macro content of foods, counting and tracking isn’t necessary- eating can be more intuitive. That said, the nutrition content of any new foods should be looked up, and tracking ones daily intake once or twice a month can be helpful for staying on track.

  • Lauren

    Hi Charli-
    Can you explain a little bit on why it’s difficult to both build muscle and reduce body fat simultaneously? this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for the past couple months and I’m getting a little frustrated!
    Thanks!!

  • Charli

    Hi Lauren,

    To put it simply, to lose fat, you need to take in fewer calories than your burning, so that your body is forced to use fat for fuel. However, to build muscle, your body needs more calories than you’re burning, because you can’t create something out of nothing. That said, for those who are completely new to weights training, it is more possible to gain muscle in a calorie deficit – a phenomenon better known as ‘newbie gains’. This is because your body is working hard to adapt quickly to your new training regime. This effect will generally subside after a few months.

    You can lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously (this is known as ‘body recomposition’), but it’s a very slow process, involving eating at roughly your maintenance calories (ideally as per this article) and doing heavy weights training. Some find that carb cycling is also an effective way to get results, though it’s a fairly full-time job trying to stick to that sort of diet!

    I hope this clarifies things for you but don’t hesitate to get in touch with further questions 🙂

  • Kate Kunkel

    Counting calories is such a touchy subject! Some people swear by it to lose weight, while others think it’s rather ineffective in the long run.

    Personally, I think it is important for people to know about how much they SHOULD be eating on a daily basis. Too many times, I’ve heard of girls saying they feel like pigs after eating tiny meals (like a cup of soup and a granola bar).

    On the other hand, counting calories can become an obsession. No dieter should be so worried about consuming too many calories that he or she constantly feels guilty about going over the “daily limit.” Everyone deserves a treat every once and a while.

    This post has some great research! Thanks for sharing the information!

  • Rosanna Stevens

    Hi Charli! I have done some number crunching and my fat ‘quota’ is coming out pretty low. I have been eating alot more healthy fats recently (avocado, salmon, nuts every day) but have also noticed my body has stopped changing as noticeably as it was. Should I cut these down even though everyone seems to say they’re good for fat loss?

  • TrainWithCharli

    Hey lovely. Whilst it’s important to get your healthy fats in and you’re choosing great sources, it’s important to be aware of how the calories add up. It’s possible that if you’ve increased fats without decreasing carbs to compensate, you’re no longer in a deficit. It’s worth taking one day to measure and weigh everything, then plug it all into a calorie count site (sparkpeople.com is my favourite) and see exactly what you’re taking in. If you like, email over the details to [email protected] and I’ll happily take a look x

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