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Home / Weight Loss / How many calories & what should I eat to lose weight?

How many calories & what should I eat to lose weight?

When we think about losing weight, the first thing that comes to mind is eating less. While it sounds simple enough, what does eating less actually mean?

Different foods labelled with their calorie content next to a notebook and measuring tape.

Calorie counting is an integral part of the journey. It is a fundamental part of a weight-loss diet. This article will look into calorie counting, what foods to include or eat in moderation, and other factors to consider in your weight loss journey.

What are calories?

Calories are used to measure the energy content in food. It is measured in kilocalories (kcal). When you look at food packaging, the number of calories will be listed as well as all the other nutritional information.

Your body needs a certain amount of energy to work properly and is essential for your muscles and organs. On average, men need around 2,500 kcal a day, whilst women may need around 2,000 kcal. However, the number of calories each person needs depends on age, sex, weight, height, and physical activity level. For instance, if you do more physical activity, you will need more calories.

However, if you eat more calories than you need, your body has more energy than it needs. Instead, calories will be stored as body fat, which is the primary cause of weight gain.

How many calories should I eat to lose weight?

Your daily recommended calorie intake will depend on several factors. This includess your age, height, weight, and activity levels. While this may seem like a lot of information to consider, it's pretty simple: the more active you are, the more you should eat — and vice versa.

Women’s feet stepping on scale with measuring tape.

To lose weight, it's important to be in what’s called a calorie deficit, which means you need to burn more calories than you consume. To determine how many calories you should eat to lose weight, you should find out how many calories;

  1. your body needs to function at rest (Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR))
  2. your body needs to maintain your current weight (Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE))
  3. you should eat to lose weight (through a calorie deficit)

You can calculate these using different formulae.

BMR formula

This formula gives you the number of calories your body needs to function. Your calorie intake should not be lower than this number.

For men: BMR = 65 + (6.2 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)

For women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)

TDEE formula

Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. You will first need to know your BMR (see above) and then you can calculate it using the following formula:

TDEE = BMR x activity factor

Activity factor just means how much exercise you do. Use the following guide based on your current activity levels to calculate your TDEE.

Activity levels Formula
Sedentary (little or no exercise) BMR x 1.2
A little active (little exercise 1-3 days a week) BMR x 1.375
Moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days a week) BMR x 1.55
Very active (hard exercise 6-7 days a week) BMR x 1.725
Extra active (very hard exercise 6-7 days a week and a physical job) BMR x 1.9

For example, let's say you are a 35-year-old woman who weighs 150 pounds, is 5'5" tall, and has a sedentary job. Your BMR would be 655 + (4.35 x 150) + (4.7 x 65) - (4.7 x 35) = 1,409 calories.

To determine your TDEE, you multiply your BMR by your activity factor. In this case, it would be 1,409 x 1.2 = 1,690 calories.

Having a fitness tracker on your smartwatch or phone is a good way of getting a more accurate idea of how many calories you burn.

Calorie deficit

To lose weight, you will need to create a calorie deficit that is less than your TDEE. How much of a deficit you should be in depends on how much you would like to lose and over how long. A sustainable weight loss through a calorie deficit should typically not be more than 1kg per week.

To lose 0.5kg, you’ll need to be in a deficit of 3500 calories. To lose 1kg, your deficit should be approximately 7000 calories. Over a week, you would need to reduce your daily calories by 500-1000 kcal. Remember that everyone's calorie needs are different, so it's best to consult a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to determine the right calorie intake for you.

It's also worth mentioning that exercise can play a role. Increasing physical activity levels can help you burn additional calories and boost your weight loss efforts.

How many calories should I eat to gain weight?

If you’re looking to gain weight, your calorie intake will depend on your health goals. If you are eating to gain weight after an eating disorder like anorexia, follow the advice of your diet professionals and doctors.

If you’re looking to eat more to gain muscle mass, then you will need to be in a calorie surplus. You need to eat more calories than you burn (your TDEE). It takes around 7000kcal to gain 1kg in body weight. That means you need to eat around 500-1000 kcal more than your current intake per day to gain weight.

How do I reduce my calorie intake?

Now you know how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, you have to watch what you eat. The best way to reduce the number of calories you eat is to count your calories. This may involve weighing your food and planning your meals to help keep tabs on what you eat. You may also benefit from using smaller plates to make your meals look bigger than they are.

What are the best foods for weight loss?

A healthy diet is the cornerstone of weight loss and maintenance, but it's often hard to know what to eat. You have to eat a balanced diet, focusing on foods that are more nutrient dense. Healthier foods are also lower in calories, which helps get you closer to your goals.

Young man confused looking in the fridge.

There is no one "best" food for weight loss. However, incorporating healthier foods into your diet can help you achieve your weight loss goals.

Fruit & Vegetables

These are low in calories, high in fibre, and typically low in fat. Legumes, such as beans and lentils, also fit into this category. Studies have found that people who eat more vegetables lose more weight than those who don't.

Fruit and vegetables contain carbohydrates, an important source of energy. So to help you lose weight, you could reduce your portions of other sources of carbohydrates (e.g. sugary foods) to reduce your calories, but get more of the nutrients you need.

Whole grains

These include whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal. Whole grains contain essential vitamins and minerals. They are also important for long-lasting energy because they digest more slowly; they help you feel fuller longer, so you're less likely to overeat at meals. Choose whole-grain options whenever possible — they're better for your heart too!

Low-fat dairy products

Opting for low-fat dairy products, such as fat-free or low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, and cottage cheese, can give you better weight loss results compared to consuming full-fat alternatives. This is due to them having fewer calories.

Fat contains 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories per gram — that's why it's important to choose low-fat varieties of these foods when possible. Research has shown that consuming dairy products can help promote weight loss because they make you feel fuller for longer.

High-protein foods

Protein is an essential nutrient for maintaining health and building muscle mass. It's also a critical component for weight loss since it makes you feel full and helps control blood sugar levels by slowing down carbohydrate absorption in the gut. High-protein foods include meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, tofu, and other soy products.

Healthy food swaps

You may be surprised to learn that a lot of your favourite foods have more calories than you think. The way you cook your food can also add hidden calories.

To help, here are some common favourites and their healthier alternatives.

Common favourite Calories per serving Healthy alternative Calories per serving
Cheddar cheese One serving (30g) = 125kcal Low-fat cheddar cheese One serving (30g) = 74kcal
8oz Rump steak 399kcal Chicken breast One cooked chicken breast = 86kcal
Regular coke One can (150ml) = 63kcal Diet coke One can (150ml) = 1kcal
Oven chips One serving (115g) = 187kcal Baked potato One small potato (138g) = 129kcal
Beer 1 pint = 208kcal Gin Single measure of gin (25ml) = 52kcal
Pasta 170g of cooked pasta = 300kcal Courgetti (spiralised courgette) 170g of courgetti =27kcal

What happens if I eat too few calories?

Eating fewer calories than your body needs will start to burn away your muscle mass. This is a very slow process and can take several months. You will feel tired and weak, which can cause problems with everyday tasks such as walking or lifting something heavy. If you continue eating this way over a long period, eventually, your body's metabolism slows down so much that even if you manage to get some extra food in, your body won't be able to use it properly.

This will essentially be harmful to your weight loss journey. Undereating will not help you reach your weight loss goals more quickly. It can do some serious damage to your health.

How long does it take to lose weight?

The time it takes to lose weight depends on various factors, including your starting weight, diet and exercise habits, and genetics. In general, it is recommended to aim for a slow and steady weight loss of about 1 to 2 pounds per week. This rate of weight loss is considered safe and sustainable, allowing you to make lifestyle changes that you can maintain long-term.

Alarm clock next to a plate of salad.

For example, if you want to lose 20 lbs (9kg), it would take about 10 to 20 weeks (2 to 4 months) to reach your goal at a rate of 1 to 2 lbs (0.5-1kg) per week. However, remember that everyone loses weight differently.

In addition, set realistic goals based on what is healthy and sustainable for your body type. Crash diets that promise to be “quick fixes” and deliver fast results are not sustainable in the long term.

Instead, focus on making small changes gradually. This could involve adding an extra serving of fruit /vegetables every day or taking a 15-minute brisk walk around your neighbourhood. These types of habits can help keep food cravings at bay while also helping improve overall health!

Can I lose weight without doing exercise?

While you don’t need to exercise to lose weight, it can speed up your journey. Exercise helps you burn more calories, which can help you lose weight if you eat healthy foods too. It can also improve your health overall.

 Sports equipment on blue background.

Generally, the NHS recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. This can include brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, or playing sports.

What can I do if dieting or exercising hasn't helped?

If you have been eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly but aren't seeing any results, it may be time to consider alternative methods. Unfortunately, not all people can lose weight on their own.

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