One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: “how many calories should I be eating?” It is always the tough questions that have no clear-cut answer that I’m asked so often!
I typically recommend using a calorie expenditure calculator to identify the baseline level of calories you should be aiming for. I have been using this one for years to determine the basal metabolic rates of my clients.
While your BMR will be determined by a wide variety of genetic and environmental factors, this provides a good estimation. This is the amount that you will burn just by being alive, and you should never drop below this figure. The projected amount does not take into account any exercise or incidental activity you perform throughout the day. If someone is living a reasonably active lifestyle and training regularly, their total calorie expenditure will likely be around 1000 calories higher than the BMR provided.
There are a few calculators out there which will tell you how many calories per day you should be eating. The problem is that these calculators are not very accurate, especially for females. They fail to take into account your muscle mass and the types of workouts you’re doing meaning that, for someone like me who has a higher than average amount of muscle for a woman and enjoys lifting heavy objects on the reg, the calculator will often provide too low of an estimation.
The best and most realistic online calorie calculator I’ve found is here. It not only tells you your estimated BMR, but also exactly how many calories to eat in order to gain, maintain or lose weight based on your activity level. The estimations are much higher than what you would expect to find in a typical fitness magazine, which makes me happy.
To use myself as an example, the first BMR calculator estimated my BMR to be 1576 calories. The second calculator was not far off with 1549 calories. I would consider myself somewhere between moderately active and very active (I do some form of exercise almost every day, but it’s not always what I would consider strenuous). According to the second, more in-depth calculator, I need to consume somewhere between 2400 and 2670 calories to maintain my weight, or 1900 to 2170 calories to lose 0.5kg a week (which is a healthy and sustainable rate of fat loss).
The above will tell you approximately how many calories you should be eating per day, but it doesn’t take into account any calorie/carb cycling you may wish to do. If you have any kind of strength or performance goals in mind, it is much more beneficial to cycle your calories – meaning that you will eat more on training days around your workouts, when your body needs the extra energy, and less on rest days.
Using the figures above in a hypothetic fat loss scenario, I may apply a more aggressive calorie reduction on rest days (e.g. 1800) in order to allow myself a little more fuel on training days (e.g. 2200). This is assuming that I need to eat 2000 calories on a daily basis to lose weight, subtracting 10 per cent for rest days and adding 10 per cent for training days. This should be enough to allow weight loss without negatively affecting my workouts.
One final point to note is that these calculators are based on someone with perfect metabolic health. If you have a history of restricted eating and haven’t eaten more than 1200 calories a day for years, you can’t expect to apply these recommendations overnight (which would likely mean a significant increase in your daily intake) and immediately lose weight. You will have to restore your metabolism first. If I am working with someone who has metabolic damage, I will typically have them consume the same number of calories on a training day as a rest day (but with a slightly different balance of macros), as the emphasis at this point should be on increasing their caloric intake on all days of the week.
Try not to get too caught up in numbers and calculators. Your ideal intake will largely depend on personal experimentation, and not what an internet calculator tells you to do. Try counting calories for a couple of weeks and see how your body responds, decreasing or increasing your intake as necessary. Once you have found a level that works for you, try not to count calories at all – for the sake of your sanity!
Do you count calories? How do you determine how many calories to eat?