“How many calories per day do I need?”

April 10, 2017

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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

I get this question or some variation of it all the time.  And it drives me NUTS because there are so many things underlying it that make me want to scream.  Let's break it down:

First of all, even if I were to guesstimate how many calories per day your body needs, it's still a guess.  Albeit, an educated guess, but still a guess.  

That guess may or may not be accurate, which brings me to my second point – your body doesn't burn the exact same number or calories each day.  There are a million things that impact your metabolic engine – things like genetics, sleep, sickness, hormones, aging, injury, your recent eating patterns, movement, and so much more.  It's impossible to say how many calories you need on a given day.  

Even if we could accurately determine how many calories you need, it would be nearly impossible for you to actually consume that many calories with any precision.  The FDA only mandates that the accuracy of the calories on food labels to be +/- 20%.  Now, hold on, I know what you're thinking, "I'll just eat a 20% less than the serving size just in case it has that extra 20% of calories.  See, I'm beating the system!"  Good grief.  Stop, just stop.  

Did I mention that studies have shown that the accuracy of the calories on food labels is questionable to begin with?  Even though the FDA has rules for the nutrition facts panel, there's actually very little oversight and testing done on the compliance with these rules.  Translation: what you read on the label may not be true.  And then there are foods that don't always have a label, like meat, produce, baked goods.  Of course there's going to be variability in the calorie content of those foods!  One apple isn't going to have the same calories as another apple.  And who knows how many calories your grandma's homemade bread has.  It's going to be different each time she makes it.  I've seen way too many people become so afraid of this uncertainty that they will only eat foods that have a calorie label, and it's super sad when they can't enjoy other foods anymore, like things that are home cooked or come from a bakery.

The thing that really gets me riled up about the original question of how many calories you need, is the fact that this question is usually veiling the REAL question, which is "How can I undercut my body's calorie needs to lose weight so that I can feel more in control and better about myself.  This will surely make me happier."  No it won't!!!  By phrasing it as how many calories do I need, it's implying that you actually want to feed yourself that much.  Most people are operating out of a fear-based place of wanting to make sure they're not eating "too much."  Because if you eat too much you get fat.  And being fat is, like, literally the worst thing that could ever happen to a person.  [sigh] Most people wouldn't admit it, but this is their underlying belief system.  


You could spend all day long doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out your calories needs and meticulously planning out your meals and snacks….or you could just let your body tell you how much food you need. (Notice I said "food" not "calories.")  

Your body does this via a very complex-yet-simple system – your APPETITE.  It has been there with you all along, even when you disregarded it, manipulated it, tried to shut it down.  The signals may have gotten out of whack, but they will come back.  All you have to do is feed yourself meals and snacks throughout the day and pay attention to what your body is telling you.  This takes practice, yes, but it is very doable.  And the cool thing during that process is that you are rebuilding TRUST with your body along the way.  You see, your body has been your friend all along.  Humans ate and survived for thousands of years before even knowing what a calorie was.  So, I encourage you to eat food when you are hungry – food, not calories – and trust that your body will tell you when it has had enough, and when it is hungry again.  



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