The winter months are drawing to a close, and many people are realizing that shivering isn’t enough exercise to stave off winter weight gain.

If too many Christmas cookies caused the weight gain, it stands to reason that cutting back on caloric intake is a good way to lose weight. Hence the primary question behind this article.

However, the exact number of daily calories ought to be determined by more than just a single factor (the desire to lose weight). There are three major considerations when selecting the exact caloric requirements for you.

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Who are you?  Who, who?  Who, who?

While I doubt Peter Townshend had body composition in mind when he composed the classic track for The Who, the question remains relevant.  Who are you?

Everybody is sized differently, so subsequent caloric needs are going to be different for each person. Moreover, basal metabolism, or BMR (the minimum calories needed to keep you alive) is different between genders, so men and women’s daily caloric needs are generally different.

On your mark, get set, go!

Another key factor contributing to daily caloric needs, is level of activity. If you are going to be doing a lot of rigorous activity, you don’t want to have severe daily caloric deficits, even with goals to lose weight.

Substantial exercise, paired with substantial caloric deficits will put you into an energy deficit, where the anabolic (building up) needs of the body are not supported by the calories you consume.

You really want to avoid this type of energy drain because it will leave you with diminished performance; plus you’ll feel sluggish and lethargic.

Furthermore, intense aerobic conditioning for about 45 minutes, burns calories during exercise, as well as up to 14 hours after the exercise session is completed! This so-called excess post exercise oxygen consumption can potentially underestimate the anabolic needs of the body.

Similarly, high intensity interval training (HIIT), can increase metabolism (calorie burn) significantly compared to moderate, continuous exercise. The amount and type of exercise you participate in should help determine your daily calories to help you lose weight.

How much?

The third major question to ask in order to determine the exact number of calories per day, is how much weight do you want to lose? If you are only looking to knock off a pound or two for aesthetic purposes, you don’t need much of a deficit.

However, you may want to be more aggressive in your calorie cuts if your goal is the treatment, or prevention of diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.

The total amount of desired weight loss should play in to your daily calorie count, but keep in mind that starvation diets with severe caloric restriction will have more consequences than just weight loss; hormones can be influenced and adjusted, wreaking metabolic havoc on your endocrine system.

Tying it all together

So what EXACTLY should be your daily calories to lose weight?

First, we need to estimate your individual basal metabolic rate (based on the above factors). Second, we need to determine how many calories to cut in order to meet weekly weight loss goals.

Basal metabolism is commonly calculated using the following table for rough estimates. The numbers in the body of the table represent the daily caloric requirements for each pound, or kilogram of body weight a person has.

MALE FEMALE
Activity Level Kcal/pound Kcal/kg Kcal/pound Kcal/kg
Light 17 38 16 35
Moderate 19 41 17 37
Heavy 23 50 20 44

Adapted from Baechle, T.R., & Earle, R.W. (Eds.). (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. (3rd ed.). Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics.

If you walk along flat ground, or do low intensity household, or vocational tasks, you are categorized as light, in terms of activity.  Moderate activities may include vigorous walking, high-intensity chores, or recreational activities like cycling.

Heavy exercise is rigorous training like running, heavy manual labor, or most sports, including soccer.

Give it a shot!

So figure out your needs!  First determine your gender, then figure out your body weight in either pounds or kilograms.  Next, select your activity level.  Then find the intersection of your calories column with your activity row, and multiply the number in that cell by your body weight.

So for example, a 150 lb. (68.2 kg.) male, who is moderately active would multiply his weight by either 19 or 41:

150 lbs. x 19 kcal/lb. = 2850* kcal/day

68.2 kg. x 41 kcal/kg. = 2796.2* kcal/day

*results are not exactly the same due to rounding errors during unit conversion

An alternative method to calculate basal metabolic rate (BMR), is the frequently cited Mifllin-St. Jeor equations, used for less athletic populations.

Men: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 5
Women: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 161
The difficulty with this method, is BMR only accounts for about 60-70% of daily caloric expenditure.  About 10% of energy goes to the digestion process, with another 20-30% expended during physical activity

What to keep, what to cut

daily calories to lose weight2

As mentioned earlier, starvation diets are generally ill advised for long-term maintenance. More conservative, sustainable recommendations include a target weight loss of about 1-2 pounds a week.

A pound of fat averages about 3,500 calories, so to lose a pound in a week would require a 500 kcal deficit per day (7 days x 500 kcal/day=3,500 kcal restriction each week).

For the 150 lb male from the earlier example, a 1 lb/week weight loss goal could be achieved through a daily calorie intake of 2350, reduced from 2850 kcal/day.

If two pounds per week is the desired rate of weight loss, this man could either reduce the daily caloric intake by another 500 kcal/day, or he could add 500 kcal of exercise (approximately the equivalent of a 5 mile run).

Calorie tracking is a great way to make sure you don’t go over your allotted calories for any given day. Another good rule is to select foods that are nutrient dense, rather than calorically dense.

That way, your essential nutrients add up faster than your calories.

Be a loser!

The exact calorie intake for every person will differ based on physical characteristics, exercise habits and weight loss goals. However, there are many recommendations to get you started.

The best advice I can give you for weight loss is to find a combination of exercise and calorie restriction that you can sustain over time. 

Most people are good at losing weight, but keeping it off is another story. Meet your goals to lose weight, then maintain your goals over time so you can feel good while being happier and healthier!

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