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Categories: General Health

How Many Calories Should You Eat To Lose Weight?

By Marc Perry / December 6, 2017

The following article is a quick step-by-step guide to estimate how many calories you should eat to lose weight, which is a question I’m asked all the time. When someone says lose weight, I take it to mean “lose fat without losing muscle”, so the following takes that into account.

In my article How To Break A Weight Loss Plateau, I describe the #1 reason why people do not lose weight is because they are eating too many calories. In order to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than you burn. This is a scientific fact!

Eating fewer calories than you burn is easier said than done, which is why we’ve written so many articles on BuiltLean.com to make this process easier for you.

Here’s the basic equation to calculate how many calories you should eat to lose weight:

Calorie Burn – Calorie Deficit = Target Calorie Intake To Lose Weight

Seems simple enough, right? In order to solve this equation, we need to estimate your calorie burn and calorie deficit, which is Step 1 and Step 2.

Step 1: Calculate How Many Calories You Burn Per Day

While calculating your calorie burn can be tricky as I describe in detail in How to Calculate Your Calorie Burn, here’s a quick way to estimate your calorie burn:

Body Weight (pounds) x 14 = Total Daily Calorie Burn

Or in kilos:

Body Weight (kilos) x 31 = Total Daily Calorie Burn

The equations above assumes (1) you have a sedentary job, (2) you exercise moderately 3-5x per week and (3) your body fat is around 20%-25%. Don’t worry too much if you are not perfect with your estimate, just move to the next step.

Step 2: Determine Your Calorie Deficit Per Day

Many people will choose a random daily calorie deficit say 500, or 1000 calories, but I strongly recommend NOT doing this, because you can easily put yourself in starvation mode. Instead, choose a calorie deficit percentage range of 20%-35% fewer calories than your total calorie burn.

For example, take a guy who is 190 pounds and wants an aggressive calorie deficit to lose weight. He would take his total daily burn of 2,660 (190 pounds x 14) and apply a 30% calorie deficit, which would be 800 calories (30% x 2,660). His target calorie intake to lose weight is 1,860 calories per day (2,660 daily calorie burn – 800 calorie deficit).

Now if you multiply your daily calorie deficit by 7, you get your total weekly calorie deficit. Since 1 pound of fat has 3500 calories, you can estimate how many pounds of fat you can lose each week (usually 1-2 pounds) based on your weekly calorie deficit.

If these equations are starting to seem too complicated, a shorthand method to arrive at your target calorie intake to lose weight is multiply your bodyweight x 10 in pounds, or bodyweight x 22 in kilograms. You will arrive at a very similar number as going through these 3 steps. I think going through these steps, however, helps you understand the process of losing fat better.

Most health organizations recommend men don’t eat below 1,600 calories and women don’t eat below 1,200 calories, but keep in mind this is a law of averages approach. It really depends on how many calories you burn (see: How to Calculate Calorie Burn to estimate your BMR).

So how large of a deficit should you create? The leaner you are the lower your calorie deficit percentage should be (15-20%) whereas for people who have a lot of weight to lose, a 35% deficit could work well.

Step 3: Track Your Progress

In order to validate that you have estimated your calorie burn properly and are eating the right calorie level, we need a way to track your progress. I’m a big fan of tracking body weight with Monday Morning Weigh Ins for all guys and some women (depends on if you are comfortable). If you have any issues with weighing yourself, then monitor how your clothes are fitting, or use a body fat caliper to measure body fat changes over time.

Weighing yourself is a proxy for body fat loss. If you are eating ample protein, moderate carbs, and strength training, it is highly likely if the number on the scale creeps downward that you are losing only fat while keeping your valuable muscle. Measuring your body fat percentage too frequently, such as once per week makes it difficult to discern changes.

So have we found the holy grail of losing fat? Simply choose a target calorie intake and voila, you get a lean body?

Losing fat is more complex than simply “calories in and calories out” and establishing a target calorie intake. For optimal fat loss, you should also consider the quality of calories, timing of calories, and breakdown of calories (protein, carbs, and fat). Finally, positive hormonal and metabolic changes from exercise can accelerate losing fat and have a HUGE impact.

In my experience, understanding how many calories you should eat by establishing a target intake, even just as a rough guide is crucial to successfully losing fat and maintaining body composition, and is actually more important than quality, timing, and breakdown of calories (research confirms this as well).

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93 Comments

  • Katherine O. says:

    Hello,
    Back in 2010 I used to weight 206 lbs. I went on my own (working out and cutting carbs) and was able to get down to 119 lbs. I am a female, 5'3". My problem is that I was keeping my 119lb but all of the sudden I started to gain pounds (even by going to the gym and eating healthy), from 119 I went to 124, then gradually 130. Which I still don't get...same amount of exercise, same healthy diet but more pounds. I was just doing cardio (trademill and elliptical) for about 1h15m at least 4 times a week.
    A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I should do straight training to see if that would give me better results, long story short, I started a new routine, 40 minutes cardio and 50 straight training (I don't like free weight and love the machines), I have noticed that
    1. I get hungrier and can't stop eating, so I am eating bananas, red grapes, blueberries, a handful of peanuts and low sodium ham slices - will the fruits I am eating make me gain more pounds?
    2. I went now from 130 to 134; my legs look bigger but according to other people that is just muscle growing, is this normal? weight gain even while I am working out 4 times/week?
    I don't understand what am I doing wrong, and I hate to see the scale in the morning going up and up. Right now I went from size 5 to 7 after I started my strength training.
    I drink lots and lots of water everyday.

    Thank you for any advise!!!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Katherine O. - Sorry to see it doesn't look like the scale and your measurements are going in the right direction. That is bizarre you suddenly started to gain weight despite eating a healthy diet with the same exercise. I would reconsider if you started eating any different foods from when you started gaining the weight. For example, a few tablespoons of peanut butter and a banana above and beyond what you normally eat could be enough to make a difference.

      With regards to strength training, I think it's great you are doing it. Absolutely essential. I am not a fan of cardio only programs for a ton of reasons. With that said, it sounds to me like you need to take a closer look at your eating habits. I would track your calories for a few days, or preferably 1-week and see what's going on. Roughly how many calories are you eating? Are there times when you start binge eating? I also think you should try to focus on whole, unprocessed foods with an emphasis on protein, which creates a greater feeling of satiey/fullness. Fruits can be fine in moderation, with an emphasis on berries. Just like any food, too much of anything is not a good thing (the only exception might be fibrous carbs like broccoli, spinach, kale etc.).

  • donna says:

    hi marc
    im also confused by online calorie intakes im 179lbs 5"5 i exercise 4 times a week for 30 mins doing tony hortons 10 minute trainer.i gained 1 stone in 5 weeks over christmas and i would like to lose that weight in in same time i put it on and abit more over time.iv been told to eat 1300-1900 calories a day by different sites.iv considered eating 800 caloires a day to speed up the weight loss i put on but dont no if that will work or should i eat 1200.im soooo confused please help.

    Donna

  • Rose says:

    Hi Marc

    I would like to say a huge thank you to you for all your help, I have used your different links and calculated my BMR and now I realise what all this is actually about Phew never really thought I was going to get it all sorted and being a virgo its very important for my pace of mind to have control lol!!!!!!

    I now realise by my BMR that I am burning more than I eat, that I should be losing approx 2.5 pds per week without exercise, therefore I can now not feel as guilty at not doing what I thought was expected of me. So thanks to you I have now worked out what my BMR is for each pound Lost from now which means again I can be more organised. As I'm sure you can tell I believe organisation is the key! I now have an as accurate plan of the amount of calories I burn a day doing my sedentary job, using other calculators I can, as I do more exercise I know how much more I need to undertake and how to modify my calories and I have to say it's all thanks to you taking the time to speak with us.

    so from one extremely overweight person who's about to have peace of mind and a healthier life i thank you and hope to keep you posted on my progression on this link so you can see the success your comments can achieve.

    Thank you again
    Rose x

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Rose - Very happy to hear the article was helpful!

  • Bill says:

    Hi Marc,
    I just came across your site a few days ago and I'm finding it to be very informative and helpful. Thank you for all you do to help each of us obtain and maintain a healthy lifestyle. I have a question concerning daily calorie deficit calculations, "How frequently should one recalculate their daily calorie deficit numbers as they lose weight (fat) and become more lean during their progress towards their goal weight?" I am currently recalculating mine each week after doing my weekly weigh-in. Does it need to be that frequent or should I be doing on monthly basis or only after losing a determined amount of weight or should it be recalculated after losing a percentage of their original body weight? thank you for any insight you provide concerning this question.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Great question, Bill. I've head a number of clients experience success on just one calorie intake - let's say 1800 calories for a guy - with no adjustments as they lose weight. If you wanted to get more specific, you could recalculate it every month. So if you are 190 pounds and drop to 180 pounds in a month (which would be a lot), you can drop 100 calories off your calorie intake.

  • Bill says:

    Thank you Marc for such a quick response. Just for clarification, when you say, "...you can drop 100 calories off your calorie intake", does that mean one could increase their calorie intake by 100 calories? So, if their calorie intake was at 1800 as by the example in your answer and that individual dropped 10 lbs in weight from 190 to 180 their newly adjusted calorie intake would be 1900. Is that correct? It may be just me but in the answer it sounds like one would subtract (drop) the 100 calories from the initial 1800 for a difference of 1700. Thank you for your help, I just want to ensure I understand this correctly.

    Keep up the awesome work you are doing with this site, it is really informative and helpful. I'm finding it to be an invaluable resource!

    Bill

  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    Hi Bill, sorry for not being clearer, when I said "drop off", I meant subtract. So 190 pounds to 180 would be 1900 calories to 1800 calorie intake. Calorie intake goes down as you lose weight. Hope that clears everything up!

  • Dani says:

    Hi Marc. Thanks for the artical. I have one question. Is this true that you need one day every week to eat more so this can help to reset your burning rate. I have heard this but not sure if it is correct.

    • Kristin says:

      That's a great question, Dani. Eating more calories once per week to reset your metabolism is an advanced nutrition strategy that may, or may not, make sense for you.

      First and foremost, we recommend establishing a solid nutritional foundation where you're eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods about 80% (or more) of the time. Whole foods are more nutrient-dense, satiating, and tend to be lower in calories than processed and packaged foods. Fill your meals with vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthy fats & carbs to make sure you're getting the carbs, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients that your body needs.

      Once you're consistently eating a primarily whole foods diet and exercising regularly, you can use strategies like calorie-loading once per week to reset leptin and ghrelin, and increase your metabolic rate. But this honestly might not be necessary for you. It all depends on how your body responds to your training and eating plan. You might be able to achieve your goals simply by eating and exercising right.

      Does that make sense? There are so many ways to complicate nutrition. We like to keep things simple until more advanced strategies become necessary for you to achieve your goals.

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      • Dani says:

        Thanks a lot Kristin. Actually, i have managed to reduce my fat from 13KG to 1.5KG (to be single digit BF%). I facing difficulties to remove the last 1.5KG. My i am working out 3-4 days a week. Basically, in my workout, i am doing jogging for 5 mins and then weight lefting for 40 mins following a focused program, then 20 mins sprinnting with HR between 145-160 and then swim for 30 mins free style (1500 M). My eating is normal, i mean eating less than burning. I am 39, 180cm and 76KG.
        so is it normal to struggle in the last 1-2 KG fat to become single digit BF?

  • Abigail Yardley says:

    Hi Marc,
    Thank you for the article, it's been really interesting reading.
    I am a keen marathon runner but have had a few months sedentary after discovering I was severely anaemic. My iron and haemaglobin levels are now back to normal so I'm back in training, but I'm not losing any of the weight I have put on whilst I have been unwell. If I am exercising fairly heavily (5 workouts per week with two rest days doing yoga) does the same calculation apply or should I be eating more to allow for my training? Perhaps I'm not eating enough? (I've just read your other article on Starvation Mode) I've never had this problem before, usually I eat when hungry with a bit extra on days where I'm intensively working out or doing a long training run and my weight is usually fairly static...
    Thank you Abi

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Abigail, in an ideal world, you would eat a certain calorie level - let's say 1400 calories (I don't know how much you weigh, I'm just giving you an example) - and stick with it to see if you lose fat. If not, then adjust accordingly. I prefer keeping things really simple by limiting variety to make eating fewer calories easier. Most of the time, eating fewer calories helps reduce body fat assuming you have normal hormone levels / metabolism (See: Weight Loss Plateau. For a more in depth read and calculation, you can check out How to Calculate Your Calorie Burn. I use the Katch & McArdle method. If you need more help, consider consulting with a nutritionist

  • Mandy says:

    Hi Marc, great article.

    Please can you shed some light for me as I have been trying to wrap calories around my head the past few days..

    My BMR is 1395 kcal
    My "maintain weight" is 1918 kcal

    Now how do I adjust and work everything out? (Im getting mixed responses from different websites)

    Do I take the calories I have eaten, minus the calories I have burnt for that day (I have a smart watch) or do I take calories eaten, minus "maintain weight" calories and come to my calorie deficit?

    Im trying to make a spreadsheet, but not sure which route to take as both "formulas" end up with different calorie deficits.

    If it helps at all:
    Im 34, female
    167cm height
    63kgs
    Light Activity

    Thank you and looking forward to your reply.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Mandy, this can be confusing. Let me explain how this works - consider the total number of calories you burn per day - say 1900 calories - then create a deficit like 30%. So if you burn 1900 calories, your deficit will be 570 calories (30% x 1900 calories). Now you subtract the deficit from the total calorie burn to arrive at your target calorie intake, which 1330. Calorie burn - Calorie Deficit = Calorie Intake. Your maintenance calories are usually the same as your calorie burn. I hope this clears things up!

  • Jill says:

    Hi Marc,
    2 years ago I decided I had enough of being overweight, stress and lack of expertise, poor diet were the main culprits. I hired a personal trainer for 6 sessions. I wanted a a fitness routine specific to my needs in order to loose weight and tone my body. My goal was to loose 40lbs ( yes I know a little unrealistic, that was also the opinion of my coach).

    Anyway, I took 3 sessions to learn to use the weight machines and set out my excercice program... 6 weeks later I met with the coach again and took the 3 remaining sessions to ensure I was on the right track and that my routine was accurate... I had made progress and the weight was coming off slowly but consistently.

    8 months later I was very proud of my accomplishments. I had a new look and a new wardrobe... set up another 6 sessions with the same coach. He was actually pleasantly surprised of the result. This time I wanted a different type of routine to tone my "back side".

    While I had every intentions of following up on that goal a ski accident derailed everything. Both my arms were out of order for a year due to shoulders injuries.

    I am sad to say that I have gained back 20lbs due to a major set back. However I have to say that while my shoulders are still not completely recovered, reading the acticles above is motivation enough to return to the gym and give it another go. I still need to strengthen my shoulders but believe that by doing lower body strength training at the same time I should be able to get back to my pre-injury weight and shape.

    Thanks for your support.
    J.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Sorry to hear about the issues you've experienced, Jill. It sounds like now you are ready to improve your health and lose the excess weight!

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