For many people, knowing how many calories you need per day can give you a broad idea of whether your diet fits your goals. For both weight loss and gain, we know it’s all about calories in versus calories out. So whether you’re trying to maintain weight, lose weight, or gain muscle, knowing how many calories you should eat can help keep you on track. But it’s not so black and white. While there are some good reasons to know how many calories you burn and need, there are a lot of reasons why it’s not necessary. Read on to learn exactly how many calories you burn with a BMR calculator and for some insight into why calorie counting actually isn’t everything.
How do I calculate my daily calorie needs?
According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, your estimated caloric intake per day depends on your gender, weight, and activity level. According to the study’s estimates, women ages 26 to 30 need about 1,800 calories if sedentary, 2,000 calories if moderately active, and 2,400 calories if active. Men in the same age range need about 2,400 calories if sedentary, 2,600 calories if moderately active, and 3,000 calories if active.
Obviously, there are many more factors in your calorie burn than that. In fact, to get a truly accurate calculation of the number of calories your body typically burns, you’d have to do lab testing, something most people don’t have the time or desire to do.
You can get a closer estimate by using a mathematical equation that incorporates your height and weight, such as the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation (considered to be the most accurate) to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This the number of calories your body burns in a day if at complete rest.
The idea behind BMR is that when you’re more active, you’ll burn more calories. So, you can adjust your calorie intake based on your activity level and whether you’re working to maintain your weight or change it.
Use the below equations as an at-home BMR calculator for women and men:
10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161.
10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Plug in your weight, height, and age in years to the BMR calculator. This will help you figure out your standard caloric expenditure.
Should I count calories?
The short answer is no. Once you calculate how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, what do you do with that information? Well, nutritionists say, not much.
“I personally don’t use calorie calculators or recommend them,” says Ariane Hundt, a clinical nutrition coach and fitness expert in New York City. “The reason is that they tell you how many calories you burn at rest. But this is an artificial number because there are so many variables that affect it—activity level, health status, stress levels, hormone changes, and more. Even if you knew that number, it wouldn’t translate well into reality because we don’t live in a bubble or lab environment. Our metabolism isn’t a constant but affected by many things daily, especially for women whose hormonal changes affect one’s nutrition and exercise needs.”
The number really only gives you a broad picture of whether your usual calorie intake jibes with the estimate.
“Calorie counting can be beneficial for people who are trying to understand how much food they’re actually eating, portion sizes, and reconnecting with their hunger cues,” says Alicia Gould, MS, RD, CDN. “On the other hand, counting calories can become problematic. It can lead to an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with food.”
But what about weight loss?
The standard school of thought suggests that to lose weight, a person needs to eat fewer calories than they burn. But it doesn’t always work that way. Calorie counting can be tedious and stressful, and researchers are finding that it’s not usually worth it.
In a large clinical trial published in JAMA, dieters were able to lose large amounts of weight by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other hunger-satisfying whole foods. They also ate less sugar and refined grains. They weren’t required to cut or even count calories. And they were able to eat as much as they wanted to avoid feeling hungry.
“Calories aren’t nearly as important as where they come from,” Hundt explains. “For example, if you needed 1,500 calories a day to lose weight, and you spend them on cakes and cookies, you will still get fat because of the fat storage effect sugar has. If you spent them on protein and veggies, you’d lose weight because of the blood-sugar-balancing, fat-burning effect, and appetite satiation this combo has.”
Truthfully, cutting too many calories can wreak havoc on your body. “Eating too little will backfire,” Hundt says. “It can slow down the thyroid function in a matter of days, make someone extra-hungry, create cravings and willpower issues hard to battle, and can slow the metabolism so much over time that a ‘yo-yo’ effect is inevitable. Also, muscle loss is a risk of a low-calorie diet, along with hormonal imbalances that are hard to resolve when … practiced for a long time.”
What should I do instead?
There isn’t one eating plan for weight loss that works for everyone. Don’t worry so much about how many calories a BMR calculator tells you to cut. Instead, consider some other courses of action to improve your diet, including:
Stick to whole foods as much as possible.
Processed foods have added sugar and empty calories that can easily get in the way of nutrition goals. Stick to lean protein, fruits, veggies, and complex carbohydrates as much as possible.
Keep a food diary.
“It helps you understand your hunger cues, which is especially helpful if you find yourself grazing the kitchen or the office pantry during the day,” Gould says. “It also helps you recognize whether you’re actually hungry or just bored, which can help identify and address issues of emotional eating. If you start noticing a pattern, you can then seek an alternative to manage this behavior.”
Balance your meals.
“Remember that there are certain foods that keep you fuller and satisfied longer; this will inherently eliminate the mindless eating we’ve all been so accustomed to,” Gould says. “Protein, whole grains, fiber, and fat together is the ultimate combination of balanced nutrition.”
Counting macronutrients allows you to adjust your diet to the proper proportions that will help you achieve your desired results.
Adjust your diet.
On days you work out, you’re going to be hungrier because of all the calories burned. Eat extra veggies and protein to keep your metabolism going. On rest days, consider eating fewer carbs.
“Mindful eating and the benefits of whole foods are definitely hot topics in the field of nutrition and ones that I fully support,” Gould says. “This approach to eating and thinking is more of a lifestyle rather than a rigid diet and allows for more food freedom instead of terming foods ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Maintaining a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and occasionally some chocolate (We’re human, right?) is way more beneficial than counting calories.”