How do I calculate my maintenance calories?

As you explore the world of calorie counting as part of your weight loss journey, you may come across a new term: maintenance calories. 

What are maintenance calories?

Simply put, maintenance calories are the number of calories your body needs to carry out everyday functions. These essentially include bodily functions, like digestion, plus activities you perform on a regular basis, which include everything from running to typing.

How do I calculate my maintenance calories?

To calculate your maintenance calories, you need to know how much energy your body burns daily. This measurement, known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (or TDEE), takes into account your body’s essential energy needs (your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR) and your typical activity level. 

These are the measurements you’ll need to have handy to calculate your TDEE:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • Body Fat Percentage
  • Physical Activity Multiplier

Basal Metabolic Rate

  • If you’re a woman, multiply your weight in pounds by 10 to determine your BMR. 
  • If you’re a man, multiply your weight in pounds by 11 to determine your BMR.

Body Fat Percentage

Before you can calculate your maintenance calories, you’ll need to figure out your body fat percentage. You can use an Internet-based calculator like this one.

Physical Activity Multiplier

To determine your physical activity multiplier, check out the chart below:

Level of activityWomenMen
Sedentary on an average day (e.g. desk work)1.31.3
Light activity on an average day (e.g. running errands, fast paced schedule)1.51.6
Moderate exercise most days of the week (e.g. fast paced schedule, intentional exercise routines)1.61.7
Active on an average day (e.g. intentional exercise routines and/or picking things up, errands, delivery etc)1.92.1
Very active throughout the day2.22.4

Total Daily Energy Expenditure 

Your TDEE is the same as your maintenance calories. Remember that this number is not constant. It will fluctuate depending on your lifestyle, diet, and activity level.

How do you calculate your TDEE? There’s a useful online TDEE calculator (for which you’ll need to know your body fat percentage). Alternatively, you can calculate your maintenance calories manually, using the following formula: BMR x physical activity multiplier = maintenance calories(TDEE)

Maintaining Your Ideal Body Weight by Counting Calories

If you’re entering the weight loss space, the topic of counting calories is bound to come up. Generally speaking, understanding your maintenance calories is useful; it establishes a baseline. 

One way to look at it is that if you don’t change anything else in your daily routine but consume more calories than this baseline, you’ll gain weight. Conversely, if you go below this baseline, you’ll lose weight. To maintain weight, you will want to eat a fairly consistent diet that meets your baseline; this is especially relevant if you’ve reached your ideal weight and would like to stay there. 

By slightly shifting your calorie intake, you can adjust your weight or focus on different goals, such as bulking up, improving endurance, or toning areas of your body. 

Calculate how many calories you should eat

Calorie needs are different for men and women. According to the US Department of Health, men generally need an average of 2000-3000 calories per day (BMI =22.5), and women typically require 1600-2400 calories (BMI= 21.5). 

You can use calorie calculators to estimate your daily caloric needs. Most weight loss apps have calorie counters/trackers as a standard feature However, since everyone’s body is different, you should keep in mind your particular needs. 

How many calories should I burn a day?

The number of calories you should burn a day depends almost entirely on your personal fitness goals–make sure you have already defined these. Perhaps your goal is to reach a target weight or reach a target body fat percentage? 

Generally speaking, the average adult body burns 2,000 – 2,500 kcal a day. How quickly your body turns food into energy, also known as your metabolism, will vary depending on gender, activity level, age, and any underlying health conditions (e.g., thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances). Also, the number of calories you burn will vary from day to day.

Just as there are applications to count calories, there are ways to track the calories you burn throughout the day in the activities you perform. Gadgets, like Fitbit, are a perfect example.

If you’re aiming to maintain your weight, make sure you’re following your maintenance calories and, if applicable, sticking to a consistent exercise routine.

If you’d like to lose 5 lbs, you’ll have to burn more calories through exercise or consume a lesser amount than your maintenance calories. If you do both of these actions, you’ll lose weight more quickly.

You’ll notice that significant weight loss does not occur overnight. That’s because much of our weight fluctuations relate to water retention and water weight. However, If you stick to a plan, you’ll start noticing gradual changes. Slow and steady wins the race!

Why count calories at all?

Whether calorie counting is an efficient approach to weight management is a controversial question. Many people find this approach restrictive. Even if this is the case, it can also be useful, especially when you first figure out the maintenance calories you need and begin building from there.

By counting your calories, you’re learning more about yourself than just your calorie intake. You’re learning about your eating choices, exercise habits, and the nutritional benefits of different types of food. You’ll be much better informed about your own body, its needs, and the costs and benefits of certain foods. 

For many people, tracking numbers is satisfying and motivating. After a couple of weeks of tracking calories, it will come more naturally, and you’ll start to observe an upward or downward trend.

Even if you decide not to stick to calorie counting in the long term, it’s a good thing to try at some point along your weight loss journey–you’ll surely learn more than you expect!

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