One Size Doesn't Fit All When it Comes to Counting Calories

Written By: Care New England on March 17, 2019

Counting calories is a great strategy when trying to lose or maintain your weight, but the question is how high should you be counting?

How many calories should you eat?

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to determining your calorie needs. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you should consider many factors, such as:

  • Age: Calorie needs peak around age 25, and then decline by about two percent every 10 years or so. An aging body replaces muscle with fat, which burns fewer calories than muscle.
  • Gender: Generally, a man's calorie level is five to 10 percent higher than a woman's (except during pregnancy and breastfeeding) because they have less body fat and a higher percentage of muscle mass.
  • Metabolism: Everyone has a minimum number of calories needed to maintain vital functions. This is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Certain medical conditions, medications, and your gender can affect your BMR.
  • Genetic blueprint: If you have a metabolic disease (e.g., hypothyroidism), factor it in.
  • Body shape and shape you're in: These affect a number of calories you need. Do a body analysis to determine your body fat percentage.
  • Activity level: The type, length, and intensity of exercise all affect how many calories you'll burn.

Kathy Shilko, RD, LDN, CDOE, CDE, clinical nutrition counselor at the Care New England Wellness Center, says on average a female should eat between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day to maintain her current weight. A male should eat between 2,200 and 2,600 calories. These figures are based on men and women between the ages of 30 to 50 who have a BMI of 22 to 23 (a normal weight).

All calories aren't created equal

A calorie is defined as a unit of energy supplied by food. One calorie is one calorie regardless of its source (e.g., carbohydrate, fat, or protein). But how calories are digested, absorbed, stored, and burned differs.

"You need to be aware of what you're eating to make sure the calories are a good balance of all nutrients and not just one particular food group or source," Shilko says. For example, registered dietitians suggest eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins along with healthy fats to keep your weight in check and help you to stay healthy.

Losing or maintaining weight

If you're looking to lose weight or maintain your weight, Shilko suggests spreading calories throughout the day.

"I usually recommend three small meals and two to three snacks between meals to keep a balance in blood sugar level and to keep metabolism going," she says.

For example, if a woman is trying to lose weight and eats 1,500 calories per day, Shilko suggests she eat 300 calories at breakfast, 400 calories at lunch, 500 calories at dinner, and two snacks of 150 calories each.

"Avoid long spans between meals and don't skip meals," she says, adding that if the same woman skipped breakfast, ate two meals of 600 calories each and one snack of 300 calories, she would not burn calories as efficiently and weight loss would be hindered.

Counting calories

If you want to lose weight, Shilko advises counting calories when you begin a diet so you become familiar with your meal patterns and calorie composition.

"This will help you to identify good habits and those you should change," she says. "It is also a good way to track water intake and exercise."

The American Heart Association provides a food diary at Shilko also recommends the My Fitness Pal app, which provides information on fats, sodium, and carbohydrates.

When looking to lose weight, you need to have a 500-calorie deficit every day. To achieve this, Shilko advises eliminating 200 calories from your daily diet and increasing exercise so you burn 300 more calories a day. This should result in losing half a pound to one pound a week.

Be sure to eat enough calories when trying to lose weight. "Sometimes people restrict too much, which will slow metabolism, hinder weight loss, and actually make you gain weight," Shilko cautions.