Calories are the basis of any weight loss plans.
That’s something we all know. Managing calories is the most basic way to lose weight.
But the question is, how many calories do you have to cut, burn, and eat per day to see results?
Before getting into your ideal numbers, it's important to first understand what calories are and how they relate to your weight.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy used to measure the amount of energy stored in the foods and beverages you eat and drink (1).
Simply put, calorie is just another word for "energy."
Each time you eat and drink, you’re taking in calories. What your body uses is the energy or calories going "out".
Your body needs a certain number of calories to function on a daily basis just to keep you alive. You need calories even for things like breathing and digesting food. It's the minimum calories you need to fuel those basic functions.
You also burn calories through daily routines. Taking shower, going for a walk, and walking up the stairs are just few examples.
When you do any type of physical activities, you burn calories. And that's extra calories you get to burn off.
To see how those calories relate to your weight and body fat, here is a table of fat and calorie conversions.
Yes, bodyweight, body fat and calories are all related.
- 1 pound of fat = 3,500 calories
- 2 pounds of fat = 7,000 calories
- 5 pounds of fat = 17, 500 calories
Now that you understand how calories come in and out, let's take a look at how many calories you need to eat to influence your weight. Whether that is to lose, maintain or gain weight.
To begin, you need to know your "Basal Metabolic Rate" or BMR.
Basal Metabolic Rate
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the basic number of calories you need to function on a daily basis. This is the minimum your body needs. It's how much energy your body needs to sit around all day and do nothing (2).
And the BMR varies from person to person depending on a few factors:
- Weight & Height
- Physical Activity Level
Age: You hear often that as you age, your metabolism slows down. With it, your body burns fewer calories doing the same thing and same activities. This is largely because of muscle decline that tends to happen with aging. But you can certainly prevent this by "working out" (3).
Gender: Because men tend to have more lean muscle mass than women, BMR for women tends to be lower than men. Since muscle mass accounts for as much 20 to 25% of your metabolism, maintaining your lean muscle mass is the key to preventing your metabolism from slowing down (4).
Weight and height: The bigger or taller a person is, the more energy his/her body needs to sustain itself. Again the more "lean body mass" you have on your body, the higher your basal metabolic rate is going to be (5).
Studies have shown that one pound of muscle burns 6 calories a day at rest. And the same pound of fat only burns 2 calories a day. It's clear having lean muscles is like having a calorie burning furnace inside you. Especially when you compare that to having a lot of fat around (6).
In most situations, the BMR is estimated with equations summarized from statistical data below. The most commonly used one is the Mifflin - St Jeor equation (7):
- Men: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6,25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
- Women: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6,25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
But who wants to plug numbers? Not me!
There is a great selection of “Basal Metabolic Rate Calculators” online you can use for free.
Here is a couple of links:
Once you have your exact BMR, you know metabolically "how many calories you need to eat a day” to stay at the same weight. Again, this is if you were to sit around all day. But since I know you don’t, you need to also know your Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
Total Daily Energy Expenditure
We just covered that your BMR is the amount of energy you need to perform the basic functions like breathing, eating, and other bodily functions. It's the minimum you need.
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is how many extra calories you burn a day in addition to your BMR. This includes energy it takes to run, carry heavy items, and etc (8).
TDEE and BMR combined, you know how many calories you really need for your ideal weight.
To calculate TDEE, you multiply your Basal Metabolic Rate by an activity multiplier.
Since your BMR represents how many calories your body burns when at rest, it is necessary to adjust the numbers upwards to account for the calories you burn during the day. This is true even for those with a sedentary lifestyle.
As an example, my cousin Becky is 39 years old, 5 foot 5 inches, 130 pounds. She’s moderately active in the gym, but is usually seated while at work. According to the Global RPh Calculator above, her BMR would be about 1300 calories a day, but her TDEE would be about 2,000 calories a day.
Let’s put this into action and say that Becky wants to lose 5 pounds in a month.
How to Lose 5 Pounds
Since Becky is already a petite person. To lose 5 pounds, she would have to either increase her TDEE while maintaining her diet, or eat less calories than her TDEE.
The body is good at maintaining homeostasis, meaning balancing calories out with calories in. This means we have a natural tendency to eat more to compensate for the additional calories burned. This is especially true when we are not paying attention to what we are eating and just working out.
So to reach your weight loss goal, you need to make conscious effort to work out harder and eat fewer calories.
If Becky’s TDEE is 2,000 calories per day, we can safely assume that she is also eating about 2,000 calories per day.
Since 1 pound of fat is made up of 3,500 calories, for Becky to lose 5 pounds in a month, she needs to burn an additional 17,500 calories, or about 600 calories per day.
This can be done by just cutting down calories, but that's not always easy.
But what about cutting 300 calories from her diet and burning 300 more calories with exercise?
Her total calories expended would still be 600, and it's totally possible.
She can easily burn 300 calories a day with anyone of these activities below:
- Frisbee: 80 minutes
- Volleyball (non-competitive): 80 minutes
- Archery (non-hunting): 69 minutes
- Horseback riding: 60 minutes
- Walking (3.5 mph): 60 minutes
- Planting seedlings, shrubs: 60 minutes
- Planting trees: 54 minutes
- Badminton: 54 minutes
- Weeding: 52 minutes
- Hopscotch: 49 minutes
- Skateboarding: 48 minutes
- Playing with kids (vigorous): 48 minutes
- Golf (carrying clubs): 44 minutes
- Horse grooming: 40 minutes
- Cross-country hiking: 40 minutes
- Rollerblading: 35 minutes
- Tennis: 35 minutes
- Biking 12-14 mph: 30 minutes
- Running 10-minute mile: 24 minutes
- Jumping rope: 24 minutes
"Values were calculated using a list of calories burned in a 30-minute period published by Harvard Medical School. They are based on activity for a 155-pound person."
As for the diet, you can cut down 260 calories by skipping a morning bagel and replacing it with a cup of protein packed greek yogurt. Magically, within a month, you’ll lose that 5 pounds.
What’s important to note here is that your BMR and TDEE give you a baseline for your caloric need and the level of physical activity needed to lose weight and reach your weight loss goal.
Also, another take-away is simply cutting calories with diet alone is not a sustainable way to lose weight.
While it may certainly work for some, many end up hungry and eventually give up on their diet.
For this reason, it is highly important to make a few other permanent changes to help you maintain a calorie deficit in the long term, without feeling starved.
Here are 4 diet lifestyle changes proven by numerous studies to help people lose weight.
1. Add more protein to your diet
When it comes to losing weight, protein is one of the most important "macronutrients" that can help you burn extra calories.
Adding protein to your diet is the simplest, most effective way to lose weight with minimal effort.
Studies have shown that not only eating protein will increases your metabolic rate, but it will also curb your appetite (9).
That’s because protein requires more energy to digest. 20-30% of total calories eaten goes to digesting it. This is significant since carbohydrates take only 5-10%, and fat takes 0-3%, says Hellen Kollias Ph.D (10).
"This means if you eat 100 calories of protein, your body uses 20-30 of those to digest and absorb the protein. So you’d be left with a net of 70-80 calories. While pure carbohydrates would leave you with a net of 90-95 calories, and fat would give you a net of 97-100 calories, Hellen explains."
Research has shown that people on a high protein diet can increase their calories burned by up to 80 to 100 calories per day (11).
Protein is also the most filling macronutrients out of the three: fats, carbs, and protein. One study showed people who increased their protein from 15% to 30% saw a significant decrease in their total daily calorie intake. They ate 441 fewer calories per day (12).
Another study showed people who consumed 25% of their calories from protein reduced their food craving by 60 percent and cut their desire for late-night snaking by 50 percent (13).
So, how much protein should you eat?
10 to 30 percent of your daily calories intake should come from protein, and for weight loss, it should be close to the upper end.
Here you can learn more about protein intake.
Takeaway: Research shows adding more protein to your diet will not only help you lose weight, but fights cravings and reduces your appetite that prompts you to eat fewer calories. Which also leads to weight loss.
2. Drink plenty of water
One really simple trick to lose weight is to drink more water. Drinking water can increase the number of calories you burn throughout the day.
One study found that drinking just 500 ml or 17 oz of water can actually increase your metabolism by 30%. In the study, the increase happened within 10 minutes and reached the maximum after 30-40 minutes (15).
The trick is to drink water before every meal. One study found that drinking 17oz of water half an hour before a meal can help the participants lose 44% more weight over a 12-week period (16).
It appears that drinking water before meals reduces hunger and makes people automatically eat fewer calories (17).
Combined with a healthy weight loss meal plan, drinking more water throughout the day, especially before eating can help you lose weight naturally.
To add variety, you can also add a slice of lemon or lime to your glass of water to give it some flavor.
To add more benefits, lemon is also believed to increase your metabolism (18).
Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and green tea are also great for boosting your metabolism to burn extra calories and fat. Just don’t add any sugar in them (19).
Takeaway: Studies have shown that water can increase your metabolism after drinking. Drinking water 30 minutes before meals can suppress your appetite and help you eat fewer calories.
3. Limit refined carbohydrate intake
Cutting carbohydrates especially refined carbs has been shown to be very effective for weight loss (20).
Research shows when people do that, their appetite tends to go down and they eat fewer calories (21, 22).
Studies suggest that eating a low-carb diet until fullness can help you lose about 2 to 3 times more weight than a calorie restricted low-fat diet (23)
By low carb diets, we mean eating real foods and cutting out processed, refined carbohydrates foods. So if you’re eating a diet that is rich in quality carbs such as quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, and fresh vegetables and fruits like kale, broccoli, collard green, fresh berries, apples, bananas and avocado, then you’re on the right track.
When you commit to eating real wholesome foods, the exact composition of your diet becomes less important.
4. Do some exercise
When we eat fewer calories, our bodies will adjust themselves and burn less calories. This is called homeostasis.
It's the reason why long-term calorie restriction can negatively impact your metabolism and lead to loss of muscle mass.
Since muscles are metabolically active, this can reduce the number of calories you burn daily even further.
About 30 percent of the weight you lose comes from your muscles.
And the best way to prevent this from happening is to exert your muscles by doing strength training exercises. This includes bodyweight training and weight lifting.
And it doesn’t take much to get started.
You don’t even need a gym to start exercising. Spending as little as 7 minutes a day working out has been found to be effective in building a lean body and losing fat. Here are 12 body weight exercises you can do at home, right in your own living room.
And if you can exercise in the morning, it's even better. Working out first thing in the morning before breakfast has been shown to burn 20% more fat than other times.
Doing some cardio is also important too. Walking, jogging, swimming, biking and running are all great cardio exercises for weight loss and overall health.
Exercise not only helps with weight loss, but it also has tons of other health benefits including longer life and lower risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. It also increases your daily energy and improves your mood.