There’s no getting around it if you want to watch your diet: calories. Sooner or later they appear in every diet, with strict regulations or the reassurance that you can forget them. It’s no wonder they get so much attention! The number of calories you consume per day is the key to your weight. Yet many people still don’t know exactly what to do with it. “How many calories per day do I need?” is a frequently asked question in our inbox. We tell you all about it in this blog!
What are calories?
Before we calculate how many calories per day you need, it is useful to know what calories are exactly. A calorie is a unit of energy. It indicates how much energy something costs or produces. When we say that a food contains a certain amount of calories, it means that the product provides that amount of energy to your body. On the other hand, by exercising you will increase the number of calories you consume per day.
The nutrients that contain calories and thus provide you with energy are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. However, these macronutrients provide a different amount of kcal per gram. (You can read why we now suddenly use kcal.)
- 1 g of protein provides 4 kcal
- 1 g of carbohydrates also provides 4 kcal (that applies to all sugars)
- 1 g of fat provides 9 kcal!
Fat provides the most calories. Many people see this as something bad. But in nature, this means that fat is a very good and efficient energy supplier.
Alcohol is a special type of sugar that provides 7 kcal per gram. But this is obviously not the energy you are looking for.
Vitamins and minerals are also important nutrients, but they contain no energy. They do help in all kinds of bodily processes to make the energy from your food available.
Calories or kilocalories?
There is sometimes confusion about the use of a calorie versus a kilocalorie (kcal).
1 kilocalorie equals 1000 calories. Now 1 calorie is very little energy, so in practice, the food industry usually talks about kilocalories. Unfortunately, the kilocalorie has become so strongly the ‘basic unit’ that people now often also use the term calorie for it.
Although that is sloppy and inconvenient, in practice you can usually assume that kilocalories are meant. The “1200 calories a day diet”, just to name one example, actually prescribes 1200 calories a day. 1200 calories are extremely little: about a quarter gram of sugar.
The term calorie can also be used as an abstract unit! The question “How many calories do I need?” is therefore completely correct, even if the answer is formulated in kcal. You can compare this with other units: even if you have to cover several kilometers, it is best to ask how many meters you have to make.
How many calories per day do I need?
With that basic information in place, we can start looking at the question most people ask: How many calories per day do you need? The answer to that question depends on the amount of energy your body uses. After all, that determines how much fuel you should ingest through your food.
How many calories do you burn per day?
The total amount you burn per day depends on several factors:
- Your body mass. The heavier and taller you are, the harder your body has to work to keep things going. Heavier people, for example, need more force to move but also use more energy to regulate body temperature and similar tasks. Extra weight can of course consist of both muscle mass and fat mass. Muscle mass is the most active tissue and requires a lot of energy to maintain. But fat mass is certainly not passive as many people think. But the energy consumption of a fat cell is much less than that of a muscle cell.
- Your age. As your body ages, less is maintained and less to grow. The elderly also often have less muscle tissue, which means that their calorie consumption decreases sharply. The result is that, on average, you need fewer calories as you get older.
- Your gender. Men are on average taller and heavier than women, and also have more muscle tissue. A man should have an average of 15% fat, and a woman 25%. For that reason, on average, men need more calories per day than women: about 25% extra.
- Your lifestyle. Do you have an active lifestyle? Then it goes without saying that you burn more energy every day. On the other hand, if you sit at your desk all day, you need a lot less fuel. Movement and sport are therefore very important. But not always so decisive. Your basic consumption easily accounts for 70% of your total energy requirement. With exercise and sports, you can burn 30% extra calories per day. These percentages depend of course on how much you exercise.
- Environmental factors: On a cold winter day, your body will burn more calories to keep your body temperature stable. And also internal stress, infections, and illness will affect your consumption.
- Individual factors. After all, everybody is simply put together differently. Some people have a metabolism that works vigorously on its own, while for others things go a bit slower. This is often simply a matter of genes, so there is little you can do about it!
Calculating Calorie Intake
The answer to the question “How many calories per day do I need?” So it really varies from individual to individual. However, you can make a good estimate with the right calculation.
How many calories per day to lose weight?
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat slightly fewer calories than you consume on a daily basis. This way you force your body to burn fat to ‘fill in’ the deficit. However, it is also important that you do not eat too little! Then you get too few nutrients and you also run a high risk of a yo-yo effect.
So you get the best results with a small calorie deficit. You prevent hunger, cravings, lethargy, a slower metabolism, and especially muscle breakdown. If you continue to eat 80% of your normal needs in the most healthy way possible, you will feel fresh and energetic and lose weight too.
Do you think that sounds disappointingly slow? Are you secretly wondering if there aren’t smart ways to lose weight faster and whether such a crash diet really can do so much harm? Then think very seriously about the following question:
Do you want to be twenty kilos lighter in a year’s time, still be full of energy thanks to your healthy diet, and continue to enjoy food without worries thanks to the healthy habits you have developed in the meantime? Or do you want to be ten kilos lighter in a month, feel miserable due to hunger and a vitamin deficiency, and relapse into your old eating pattern – with which you will be at least as heavy in a year as you are now?
However, if you stick to your amounts strictly for 2 weeks, and you don’t get any results, you can reduce your amount of calories per day by an extra 100-200 kcal and test this again for 2 weeks. It is possible that your first estimate was just a little too high. And even if you do achieve results, you may reach a plateau after a while. Because you weigh less, you use less. Even then you can always optimize your intake step by step.
How many calories per day to maintain weight?
Are you completely satisfied with your current weight? Nice! To keep that stable, you need to eat about as much as you consume. This way you do not burn extra body fat, but you also do not store it. Your recommended daily calorie intake is therefore equal to the calorie consumption that you calculated above. It is important that you also take the right ratio of macronutrients and nutrients for optimal vitality.
What if I do arrive or lose weight?
If you eat exactly as many calories as you consume according to the above calculation, it can still happen that you gain or lose weight. That is a sign that your metabolism is working just a little slower or faster than average.
Keep in mind that your weight always fluctuates a bit. During the day, for example, it depends on whether you’ve just eaten or drank, whether you’ve been to the bathroom recently, and so on. It is therefore important that you always weigh at the same time, for example when you have just got up.
Your weight can also vary considerably over a few days. For example, because you once ate a larger meal, or because you drink more or less. A salty meal can ensure that you retain more fluid for days and are therefore heavier. And for women, the point in the menstrual cycle often makes a big difference.
So don’t look at every difference in the short term, but look at the trend that your weight shows over the longer term. For example, weigh yourself every week or so and see what happens for a month or two.
Does that trend show that you are gaining or losing weight? Then you will have to adjust the number of calories per day a bit. Start by eating 100-200 calories more or less and see what a difference that makes. That way you can always ‘fine-tune’ a bit!
How many calories per day to gain weight?
Whether you want to gain fat or muscle: to gain weight, you have to eat a little more than you consume. Your body can then use the excess calories to build muscle tissue, or (if you’re not doing strength training) to store fat.
Again, the difference with your energy consumption should not be too great. Then you store the surplus of energy as organ fat, and that is very unhealthy! It is best to eat 110% of your consumption. So if you consume 2500 kcal daily, you eat to gain 1.1 x 2500 = 2750 kcal.
So far it may sound very appealing. You can eat a lot to gain weight, and then those extra kilos will come naturally! After all, calories are calories, whether they come from a cheeseburger or a portion of brown rice.
However, a healthy lifestyle is not only about calories, but also about other nutrients that you get with a responsible diet. These are, for example, vitamins and minerals, proteins, healthy fats, slow carbohydrates, and so on. To reach your ideal weight you do need the right amount of calories, but to feel good mentally and physically, the right amount of all other nutrients is just as important.
The most important thing about a healthy diet is variety. So don’t eat the standard brown rice with chicken and broccoli every day, but get your calories every day from other sources. This way you also get the widest possible palette of nutrients.