Stop us if you’re familiar with this scenario: You’ve tried dieting, but somehow ended up gaining weight instead. You’ve counted calories, but you don’t know how many calories a day you should be eating. So, how many calories do you really need to lose weight? That depends on several things, says Briana Rodriquez, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig. Calorie intake for weight loss has many variables.
The good news is, there are some guidelines you can follow. Read on to discover how many calories you should be eating a day for weight loss and why you don’t necessarily need to count calories to meet your goals.
The truth about calories and your calorie intake
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When you think about food, it’s easy to label the calories they contain as being “good” or “bad” based on what you’re eating. But calories aren’t the most important element of weight loss. Taking the nutrition of your food into consideration, rather than solely focusing on the calories, will help you build a foundation for healthy weight loss.
A calorie is a measurement of energy for foods and beverages. The total number of calories you’ll find at the top of a nutrition label is actually measured in kilocalories (1 kilocalorie = 1,000 calories). On their own, calories are so small, they would make measurements difficult. That 354-(kilo)calorie double hamburger would clock in at 354,000 calories if not for this handy conversion.
The total number of kilocalories something contains is calculated by adding its energy-rich macronutrients together, which include carbohydrates, fats and proteins.1 A food’s micronutrients are its vitamins and minerals, which don’t factor into caloric amounts.
“Think about your body like a car — if macronutrients are the gasoline that powers your body, then wiper fluid, oil and brake fluid are the micronutrients that keep everything running smoothly,” says Rodriquez.
The energy that calories provide helps to fuel everything from sleeping at night to digesting a meal.
How many calories should I eat in a day to lose weight?
You may have heard the phrase “calories in, calories out” before — here’s why your calorie intake matters when it comes to weight loss.
When you eat more than your body needs (calories in), it may cause you to gain weight. But if your body uses more calories than you eat (calories out), you may lose weight.
Rodriquez suggests following the 80/20 rule: You’ll aim to reduce 80% of your calories by eating a healthy diet and burn 20% of your calories with exercise. In doing so, you’ll create a calorie deficit, where you’ll burn more calories than you eat.
Harvard Health offers a simple way to estimate the number of calories you need to consume each day to lose weight:2
- Multiply your current weight by 15. This result represents about how many calories per pound of body weight you’ll need to maintain your weight if you’re moderately active.
- Subtract 500-1,000 calories from this number. This will give you the approximate number of calories you need to eat each day to gradually lose 1-2 pounds per week.
While it’s possible to roughly estimate your calorie intake for weight loss, your doctor, a dietitian or weight loss coach can provide a more accurate range. They’ll consider several points, including your weight, age, sex, height and activity level.
“Keep in mind that weight loss is different for everyone,” says Rodriquez. “What works for one person may not work for you. That’s why it’s so important to focus on eating nutritious foods and exercise regularly.”
The number of calories you need may not stay the same. As your weight changes, so will your body’s needs: The number of calories you consume at the beginning of your weight loss journey may need to be adjusted as you lose weight, she explains.
The lowest a person's calorie intake should drop to lose weight in a healthy manner and continue to function properly is 1200 calories, Rodriquez says. Eating any less may put your health at risk and leave you feeling lethargic, anxious and extremely hungry.3
When you choose to consume your calories matters, too. With intermittent fasting, the primary focus is to eat your calories for the day within a 12-hour window, typically aligned with daylight hours. Then, you refrain from food and caloric beverages for the remaining 12 hours of the day (this is also when you sleep!). By eating during the day when your body is most active, you’ll be supporting your metabolism naturally.
Focus on food quality
To feel your best, Rodriquez recommends eating a variety of fresh (or frozen!), nutritious foods, including:
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Lean proteins
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats
To lose weight, she stresses the importance of food quality — not just the number of calories that they contain.
“Make sure to eat a variety of high-quality foods to give your body the nutrients, like the vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive,” she says.
All calories aren’t the same
Proteins, carbohydrates and fats all contain a specific number of calories per gram:4
- Proteins: 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
With that in mind, reaching for foods that have healthy sources of fat, protein and carbs will help you stick to a balanced diet.
The foods you choose make a difference
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Lean proteins like chicken, turkey and fish contain less saturated fat than beef or pork. Saturated fat can increase your “bad” cholesterol levels, also known as LDL cholesterol, which may lead to an increased risk for a stroke or heart attack.
Carbohydrates, on the other hand, can be one of three types: starchy, sugary or fibrous.5 Opt for fiber-rich carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, instead of sugary carbs (cane sugar, molasses) and starchy carbs (white rice, white bread).
When choosing healthy fats, here’s a helpful rule of thumb: many healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado oil, will be liquid at room temperature.6 Enjoy smaller amounts of these fats to keep your meals balanced. Avocados, nuts and seeds are all great sources of healthy fats.
While you enjoy a delicious, balanced diet, be sure to pay attention to portion sizes and take part in physical activity to support your weight loss.
Making healthy weight loss choices
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When you’re trying to lose weight, your calorie intake shouldn’t be your only focus. Many other factors can affect weight loss, including the amount of sleep you’re getting and how much stress you’re experiencing.
Counting calories can be a tedious exercise to do day in, day out. Instead, consider meeting with a healthcare professional to formulate a plan, or joining a weight loss program to get the information and support you’ll need on your journey.
“Don’t miss out on enjoying your meals because you’re concerned about the calorie count,” says Rodriquez. “The foods you eat help to nourish your body. By making healthy choices, you can feel good — not guilty — about what you’re eating.”
Jenny Craig combines delicious, chef-crafted entrées with easy-to-follow menus designed by a knowledgeable nutrition team. Menus range from 1200 to 2300 calories a day to provide a basis for your weight loss and flexibility to fit your specific needs — you'll never have to worry about how many calories you need a day to lose weight. Once you’ve joined the program, the menus you’ll follow can be adjusted by your weight loss consultant as you get closer to your goal. Plus, portion sizing is already done for you, so there’s no calorie counting needed! Instead, you can focus on what’s most important: learning healthy strategies and getting the nutrition you need.
So stop worrying about your calorie intake for weight loss. Remove the guesswork and get started with Jenny Craig today.
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig and has written for the health and wellness, tech, and environmental industries. Stephanie graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies. They employ an “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoy the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find them photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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