How do I calculate my calorie needs? A Q&A with a dietitian

Notebook with heading that says "My Diet"

You've heard it before: To lose weight, you simply need to eat less and exercise more. In theory, that makes sense. Understanding how many calories you should consume each day – and how your body uses those calories – can be a great place to start. But calorie counting isn't for everyone, and there are several other factors to consider, such as your age, gender and activity level.

We asked registered dietitian, Kara Kassom, MS, RD, LMNT, to address some of the frequently asked questions about calorie counting and the best strategies for losing or maintaining weight.

What are calories?

Calories are the measurement of energy in your food. Your body needs calories to fuel your body and perform daily functions, like walking and running.

Is there a difference between good and bad calories? 

I wouldn't categorize calories as good or bad. Calories come from carbohydrates, protein and fat, and you need the right balance of all these macronutrients to achieve optimal health. 

How many calories should I consume each day?

The average adult needs approximately 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight. Yet, individual calorie recommendations depend on many factors, including age, height, gender, exercise level, weight goals and overall health. 

The average person needs about 300 to 500 fewer calories per day to lose weight. Still, it's important to avoid an extreme calorie deficit. Extreme restriction can often make it more difficult to maintain weight loss and ensure you get all the nutrients you need. 

How many calories do I need if I'm pregnant?

The number of calories you need when pregnant varies by trimester. For most healthy-weight pregnant women, your calories generally need to increase by about 200 to 500 per day. It's important to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to determine what's right for you.

How many calories do I need if I'm breastfeeding?

Postpartum nutrition needs vary greatly. A healthy postpartum diet should include lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, and lots of fruits, veggies and water. Breastfeeding moms need more calories to meet their nutritional needs. If you want to lose weight while nursing, it's a good idea to work with a registered dietitian to ensure you're getting enough calories to maintain your milk supply. 

What are the advantages of calorie counting?

Calorie counting can be a great way to understand the caloric content of different foods compared to your dietary needs. It can also help guide your overall food decisions and ensure you get enough calories each day.

What are the disadvantages of calorie counting?

Sometimes, calorie counting can cause people to feel more guilt, stress or shame around eating. It can also be time-consuming to log calories, so it may not be ideal for those with busy lives.

What is the best way to track calories?

Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not be ideal for the next. Some people like the convenience of calorie-counting apps like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal, while others prefer to write down what they eat each day. Either option is fine. It's more important to find a method that works for you and your lifestyle. 

The best nutrition plan is something you can maintain. If calorie counting isn't for you, that's OK – other strategies may be more helpful. Working with a registered dietitian can help you identify a plan that's right for you and your health goals.

Looking for help on your weight-loss journey?
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