Calories — specifically daily calorie intake — are always a hot topic, but do you really understand what calories are and how many calories you should consume each day? Calories are units of energy, and while the definition of a calorie varies, this article is specific to what is typically referred to as the large calorie, the food calorie or the kilogram calorie.
Stemming from the Latin word calor, meaning heat, the calorie was first defined by French physicist and chemist Nicolas Clément in 1824 as a unit of heat energy and actually made its way into the French and English dictionaries between 1841 and 1867. (1)
From a nutritional standpoint, the kilojoule is the international unit of food energy. The kilocalorie is the most commonly used term in the United States, and the word calorie is often used to distinguish the number of kilocalories of nutritional energy measured. Labels often note them as calories per serving or kilocalories per 100 grams.
Now that you have some understanding of the language, let’s gain knowledge of just how many calories per day your body needs. So, one gram of fat found in food contains nine kilocalories. One gram of carbohydrate or a protein contains about four kilocalories, and alcohol found in a food contains seven kilocalories per gram. (2)
The Calorie Control Council shares a calorie calculator that can act as a guideline for daily calorie intake, but please keep in mind that it is different for everyone and best to consult a physician in regard to how many calories you should take in per day. (3)
So how many calories should you eat per day? It’s a tricky question to answer, seeing as daily calorie intake depends on a number of factors, including height, weight, activity level, gender, age, diet and so much more. It also depends on your goals. For instance, if you’re looking to lose weight or extend life, studies indicate cutting calories — and consuming the right types of calories — may help you achieve those goals. (4) Conversely, if you’re underweight and looking to put on some pounds, you’ll naturally want to increase your daily calorie intake.
There’s a lot to take in, so let’s examine more about daily calorie intake needs.
How to Calculate Daily Calorie Intake
Of course, calculating your daily calorie intake depends on many factors, such as gender, height, activity level and age — among other things, such as health issues. How do you know what is right for you? To determine how many calories you need, you need to consider how much energy is being used. Also, it varies based on whether you want to lose weight, gain weight or maintain your weight. You can also check out a body mass index (BMI) chart to obtain more information, though it can be misleading as not everyone’s body composition matches the weight on the chart.
For the basics, you want to know what your resting energy is. Resting energy is the amount of energy needed to live and breathe. It’s what keeps the body and its organs working properly and is responsible for about 60 percent to 75 percent of your caloric expenditure. Digesting food takes about 10 percent, and physical activity accounts for about 25 percent. (5)
The Harris-Benedict equation is a popular tool used by many nutrition and health professionals to calculate the caloric requirements of individuals based on sex, age, height, weight and level of physical activity. Here are the equations by gender: (6)
- Male: 66.5 + 13.8 x (Weight in kg) + 5 x (Height in cm); 6.8 x age
- Female: 655.1 + 9.6 x (Weight in kg) + 1.9 x (Height in cm); 4.7 x age
Then, based on expended energy (physical activity/lifestyle), multiply the equations by 1.2 for sedentary people, 1.3 for moderately active people and 1.4 for active people.
Keep in mind that this is an estimate. It can be different for each person based on other factors, such as any health conditions a person may be enduring. A doctor who specializes in nutrition can better help you understand what is best for you.
Daily Calorie Intake: How Many Calories Should You Burn in a Day?
While some suggest that counting calories is crazy, if you are trying to figure out how many calories you should consume in a day, you need to consider numerous factors. Your physical fitness is a big part of it, as well as your height and gender. Additionally, are you trying to lose weight, gain weight or maintain?
Let’s get into the nitty gritty. One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. If we base it on this number, you need to burn off 500 to 1,000 calories more per day to lose one to two pounds per week. A doctor or an online calculator can help you determine your daily caloric needs, but again, it is going to vary based on each individual. You need to give consideration to the factors regarding your particular lifestyle. If you eat 2,000 calories per day but add one hour of exercise per day that burns about 500 calories, you may lose one pound a week. (7)
How Do I Calculate Calories in Food? Best Calorie Calculators
Evidence shows that tracking your food can be an amazing tool to help manage your goals. It works by bringing awareness to your eating routine. My wife, Chelsea, and I have used food journals and often coach others to do so. What’s great is that over time, you can learn about your food to the point where you may not have to journal. A recent study showed that women who tracked their food intake, practiced self-monitoring, cooked home-prepared meals and consumed meals at regular time frames had improved weight loss goals over a 12-month period among postmenopausal women. (8)
Understanding the number of calories in food is important to understanding just how much you are consuming. It varies with all foods so using a food tracker is a great way to learn. Over time, you may not need the food tracker. Of course, reading labels is key, and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables makes a big difference versus processed foods. However, tracking is like keeping a food diary and can greatly benefit anyone who is seeking a wellness lifestyle, whether for personal reasons or health reasons.
Here are a few calculators and apps that you can try:
- MyFitnessPal: This one is probably the most popular. It has the ability to track your weight and make a recommended daily calorie intake based on the data you input about yourself. It also contains a well-designed food diary and an exercise log. It has the largest database available in a diet tracker, including many restaurant foods. It allows you to download recipes from the internet, then calculate the calorie content of each serving. Another advantage is the quick add feature so you can easily input the calories when you are in a hurry. Keep in mind that it is a good idea to double-check the information since most of the data is uploaded by other users. However, it has a bar code scanner, which makes it fast and easy!
- Lose It!: This food app also has a food database with information about popular restaurants, grocery stores and brand name foods, but what’s great is that the data is verified by a team of in-house experts. You can create reminders to log your food intake. It is a bit more difficult to determine the data for home-cooked meals, and it doesn’t track micronutrients.
- Cronometer: This tool, which can be used online or you can purchase the app, is great for tracking both exercises and food consumption. It even includes a profile option for pregnant and lactating women. It allows for specificity of diets, such as Paleo, which will help identify macronutrients for you. It also tracks micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. You can sync data from various health devices.
- SuperTracker: This tool is provided by the USDA government website. You can look up nutrition info for over 8,000 foods and compare many foods side by side. You can also track the foods you eat and compare them to your nutrition goals. It offers other features such a group program, ability to track fitness, etc. It includes the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award feature so you can view your progress based on program goals.
Good Calories vs. Empty Calories
As I noted earlier, one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. Though some studies indicate that reducing calories will only help weight stay off for a short period of time, calories do matter. (9)
What may be a better choice is to understand not only how many calories you are putting in your body, but the nutritional density of those calories. It all works hand in hand, whether it is for healthy weight or just for better health in general.
An example of high-calorie choices that do not foster good health and may simply add on weight are beverages. According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, packaged beverages represent 32 percent to 48 percent of daily calorie intake for most Americans thanks to their sugar content. An important note: While so many beverages are labeled as low-calorie, the sugar content has not changed in most. (10)
What are good calories versus empty calories? Well, I made note of how beverages are one of the highest consumed sugar-filled options on the market. This is a perfect example of empty calories, but what are empty calories? Empty calories applies to food that provides energy but contains little to no nutrition. According to the USDA and Harvard Health, most people eat way too many empty calories, and this can add to poor health and weight gain. (11)
Research was conducted in a population of 17,444 children and adults by the 2009–2012 National Health and Examination Survey. The study replaced the usual American snacks with a tree nut mix. The results indicate that by replacing between-meal snacks with healthier choices, such as tree nuts or almonds, diets were more nutrient-dense and therefore provided a healthier diet overall. (12)
Daily Calorie Intake: How to Consume the Proper Amount of Calories
There are so many ways to be a mindful eater. With practice, this can be easy and actually be a part of your daily wellness routine. The Calories Control Council shares a few ways to help control the amount of calories you eat and practice mindful eating, and by making this a part of your daily routine, you can really make a difference in your health and weight. (13)
Keep portions in mind. Portion out your food in advance, and don’t go back for seconds! Learn portions. Go through the exercise of weighing and measuring everything you eat and drink for a week. Fill your bowls, cups and glasses with water, then pour the water into measuring cups. This will help you understand just how much your containers hold. You will need to read labels to understand what a serving is, and keep in mind that sometime half a serving is plenty, especially if pairing it with a few other foods.
Always use a dish to eat versus grazing. For example, going to a party and grazing all night long can result in the consumption of way too many carbs because you have no idea how much you are eating. That nibbling can add up. Plus, dipping into bags of empty-calorie chips will lead to an empty bag and frustration. Portion it out on a small plate, or skip the chips altogether.
Choose nutrient-dense foods, such as steamed broccoli, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Nutrient-dense foods fill you up far better than a bag of potato chips while giving you a ton of nutritional benefits. Consider a salad before the main meal, but watch the dressing. Keep it simple and opt for small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, try lemon juice and black pepper, or even opt for salsa as a dressing. Think nutrition — for everything you consider eating, take a moment to evaluate whether it is a good choice or not. In most cases, it is pretty straightforward.
Eat slowly. We have long been told that it takes a little time — maybe about 20 minutes — for the brain to get the signal that you are full. If you eat your entire meal or snack in five minutes, of course you will be left feeling hungry. A study out of the Netherlands used a fork that vibrated when eating too fast (i.e., more than one bite per 10 seconds). While further evaluation is needed since the study was unable to clearly indicate its ability to provided satiation by eating more slowly, the fork may be a tool to help reduce eating rate. Overall, eating more slowly is a useful practice in mindful eating. It allows you to enjoy your food far more while getting you to a place of feeling full. (14)
When it is time to stop eating — stop eating. You have already made the decision to eat a certain amount of certain foods. This is a simple trick and can be used at every meal. Kitchen is closed.
Daily Calorie Intake: Best and Worst Times to Consume Calories
When is the best time to eat, and when is the best time to avoid eating? One great rule of thumb is to eat only when you are hungry. Allowing your food to digest from the previous meal before consuming more food provides an opportunity for the body to properly digest your food and use it for nutritional needs before throwing it back into a digestive process. Also, it allows for time for the body to burn fat for fuel, which some ketogenic diets promote, currently a popular trend in wellness.
Research shares that as obesity and metabolic diseases are on the rise, we need to better understand the relationship between circadian rhythms and their influence on metabolic processes. This is the time the body optimizes energy use and storage. According to studies, food intake should be synchronized with the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The suprachiasmatic nucleus or nuclei (SCN) is a very small region of the brain in the hypothalamus and is responsible for controlling circadian rhythms. A loss of synchronization between mealtime and the SCN may promote obesity due to metabolic disturbances. (15)
Many suggest that calories in/calories out matters, and this is partly true. Eating late at night may or may not cause problems for you, but it is common to overdo it with empty calories, such as cookies and other sweets that contain a ton of sugar and calories. (16, 17, 18)
In terms of the types of calories, you want to consider what you are eating in addition to when you are eating. Some research indicates that fasting and fat burning play critical roles in weight loss. Though it is different for everyone and discussing options with your doctor is important, consuming calories within these methods could be a way to keep your health in check. Fasting allows the body to burn fat for fuel as does ketosis. With fasting, your body runs out of carbs and will use available fat. With ketosis, you essentially eat very few carbs and focus more on consuming healthy fats and some protein. This shifts the body into what is known as ketosis. Studies have indicated that ketosis may extend the physical and mental performance if done correctly and carefully monitored. (19)
Restricting calories should be done with caution, especially if you have any health issues, such as diabetes, or are highly active. Make sure you have full awareness of your plan with the assistance of a doctor or health professional, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Final Thoughts on Daily Calorie Intake
- Daily calorie intake depends on a number of factors, including height, weight, activity level, gender, age, diet and so much more. It also depends on your goals.
- If you’re looking to lose weight or extend life, studies indicate cutting calories — and consuming the right types of calories — may help you achieve those goals.
- If you’re underweight and looking to put on some pounds, you’ll naturally want to increase your daily calorie intake.
- To determine how many calories you need, you need to consider how much energy is being used.
- Resting energy is the amount of energy needed to live and breathe. It’s what keeps the body and its organs working properly and is responsible for about 60 percent to 75 percent of your caloric expenditure. Digesting food takes about 10 percent, and physical activity accounts for about 25 percent.
- So here’s the deal. Eat mindfully. Know what you are putting in your body and what its purpose is.
- If you want to lose weight, you will need to consider the amount of calories you are putting in your body as well as the type of calories based on your weight and level of fitness. A serving of broccoli is going to take you further than a serving of French fries. Additionally, you may have to consider the time of day should you choose a fasting approach.