How Many Calories Do You Need to Lose Weight?

Posted On Apr 11, 2014 By Erin Kuh, MBA, RD

Calories intake for weight loss

Calories, shmalories. Do they really matter? Yes, absolutely. Even when your diet consists of brown rice, grilled chicken and veggies! Weight loss is all about calories in vs. calories out, but where do you begin with the calories-in part of the equation? The average adult needs 2,000 calories/day to maintain weight according to food packages and the USDA. Is that where you should start?

Or maybe as little as 1,000 with lots of exercise for weight loss? Perhaps 2,000 one day and 1,000 the next to keep your metabolism guessing? I'm kidding and poking fun at claims that varying your calories drastically from day to day helps keep your metabolism revved. Confused by the huge range of daily calorie recommendations?

This might be the most commonly asked question I get. And I understand the confusion. I work with people who are eating way too few calories, way too many calories based on calorie calculator tools, and others who eat 1,400 one day and less than 1,000 the next. All of them are stuck, not losing weight and frustrated. Sound familiar? Who knows how many calories you should be eating? Really, no one knows, including me.

There are fancy equations factoring in variables such as age, height, weight, activity level and gender, but these calculations are no more than ESTIMATIONS for daily calorie needs. Sorry to burst your bubble, but no equation can factor in genetics, possible hormonal issues affecting metabolism, how many calories you truly burn during exercise and your starting point.

When working with clients, I usually begin with their starting point (or how many calories they currently eat). This is by far the MOST IMPORTANT number. Taking this number, from logging food for at least 4-5 days, and comparing it against the estimated calorie needs from a lengthy equation provides a calorie range goal. For example, if you currently eat 2,000 calories per day but your calorie needs to lose weight are 1,400, start by eating around 1,700 calories per day. Don't cut back all the way to 1,400 at first, it's too much all at once. The next step is tracking progress toward your goal, whether it is losing weight, dropping body fat, gaining muscle or feeling more energized.

In general, I usually end up recommending 1,300-1,600 calories for females, and 1,600-1,900 calories for males for weight loss, BUT these are just general recommendations and a good starting point.

Here are the steps to get a more specific calorie goal:

  1. Log your food using or to get your starting point
  2. Calculate your calorie needs using one of the above websites
  3. Pay attention to the scale, your hunger levels and energy levels
  4. Adjust accordingly
  • If you're physically hungry or low on energy, add 100-200 calories per day for one week to see how you feel
  • Track your weight; if the pounds aren't dropping or you're not noticing a difference in your body composition, something needs to change – either you need more calories (yes, this is frequently the case when people try to restrict calories too much) or fewer calories

Bottom line: There's no black-and-white magic equation for your calorie needs, but using multiple tools and paying close attention to how you feel and what you put in your body will help you find your magic number.