How many calories should I eat to lose fat?
I heard I’m supposed to eat 5,000 calories to build muscle?
As a personal trainer and online fitness coach, I get tons and tons of questions about everything fitness-related on a daily basis. The ones that I get asked about the most though are: 1) how many calories someone should eat for fat loss or 2) how many calories someone should eat to bulk up.
Before I get to that, I want to make one thing clear first because I think it’s important for you to know this as a prerequisite. So when you take a look at nutrition labels, ever notice how there’s always a percent daily value column?
Ignore that. That doesn’t mean anything to you. These numbers are based on the government’s recommended daily intake on a 2,000 calorie diet. Two things to note with this:
The 2,000 calorie diet doesn’t apply to everyone. Every individual will have different targets based on things like their height, weight, age, body fat percentage, and current activity level.
The nutrient recommendations are not in line with your fitness goals. They’re basically just cookie-cutter figures that the government things everyone should follow, whether you’re a professional athlete with a very high activity level, or an Average Joe working a desk job.
Ignore the percent daily value at all cost.
First Step: Calculate Your Maintenance Calories
Ok so here comes the good stuff.
The first thing you need to do is to figure out your maintenance calories. This is the amount of calories you need to eat in order to maintain your current weight.
A quick and easy way to figure this out is by multiplying your weight by a certain number depending on your current lifestyle:
- Sedentary — Your weight x 12
- Moderately active (you work out 3-4 times/week) — Your weight x 14
- Very active (you work out 5-7 times/week) — Your weight x 16
So here’s a quick example. For a 200 lb Average Joe who goes to the gym 3 times a week, his maintenance would be around 2800.
Of course, there are few other factors that will determine your maintenance calories so the most accurate way is to actually use a calorie calculator like this one. Just input in your age, gender, weight, height, and exercise level to figure out your maintenance. Keep in mind though that even if tools like this calculates your maintenance calories, it still isn’t perfect.
How Many Calories Should I Eat For Fat Loss?
Now that you know your maintenance calories, it’s time to figure out how many calories you need to consume in order to lose body fat.
The only way to lose fat is to be in a calorie deficit, meaning that you’re expending more calories than you consume.
It’s pretty easy to figure this out. A good starting point would be to subtract 500 calories from your maintenance. This is the maximum amount of calories you should consume in order for you to lose fat.
So if your maintenance was 2000 calories, for example, you’d need to eat about 1,500 calories in order to lose fat.
Now there is one exception to this guideline — if you are “underweight” and have a caloric maintenance of 1,500 or less, you will instead subtract 20% of that number to get your calorie deficit. This means that if your maintenance is at 1,500, you’ll subtract 300 calories from that, leaving you with 1,200.
Why 20% instead of just subtracting 500? To put it simply, a 500 calorie drop for underweight individuals can actually be detrimental and have negative side effects such as:
- Decrease in hormone levels
- Decrease in energy levels
- Decrease in metabolism
- Increase in likelihood of bingeing
Subtracting 500 calories for those who already have a low caloric maintenance isn’t the best approach to take, so the “20% rule” is a good guideline to follow for certain individuals.
Lastly, the rate of fat loss on a weekly basis will depend on your starting weight and bodyfat percentage. If you have a lot of fat to lose, for example, expect to drop about 1 pound of fat every week when on a calorie deficit.
What About Muscle Gain?
Eating for muscle gain would be the exact opposite of eating for fat loss.
When trying to build muscle, you want to be in a calorie surplus instead of a calorie deficit.
In order to “bulk up”, you have to ADD 500 calories to your maintenance. If you’re a hardgainer who can barely put on any weight, you might need to consume more than 500 calories. Some self-experimentation might be necessary since everyone has very different starting points.
The one thing to remember though is to not go overboard with the calorie surplus. A lot of people think that eating more than 500 calories of your maintenance will speed up results. Well, the only thing that’s actually going to do is speed up fat gain on top of building muscle. Unless you want to put on some unnecessary fat, eating more calories than your body needs doesn’t mean that you’ll put on more muscle.
Next Step: Calculate Your Macronutrient Requirements
When it comes to counting calories for your fitness goals, it’s also important that you are consuming the right amounts of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) for optimal results.
Calories are important, but macros are crucial.
You see, there’s difference between eating 2,000 calories worth of Twinkies and 2,000 calories of whole foods and Twinkies. Both will help you to lose weight if your maintenance is 2,500 calories, but only the latter might help you to 1) preserve muscle mass and 2) keep your hormones, brain function, and immunity in check.
Anyway, here are the main things you need to know with each macronutrient.
This is what helps to build muscle and/or prevents muscle loss when going on a calorie deficit. A common misconception is that only people looking to build muscle should bother to eat an adequate amount of protein per day. Wrong. When trying to shed fat, eating an adequate amount of protein is very crucial for appetite control. Protein also helps to boost metabolism because it requires more energy than the other macros to digest.
How much to eat:
- 0.8-1.5g per pound of lean body mass (your total weight minus body fat)
- If you have a lot of fat to lose, go with the low end of the requirement (0.8g/lb of LBM)
- If you’re already very lean, you’ll want to go on the higher end (1-1.5g/lb of LBM)
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories, so to figure out how much of your calorie intake is coming from protein, you would multiply your intake in grams by four. This equation will make much more sense when you get to the Summary section below.
To put it simply, the consumption of fats help to regulate our bodies’ hormones and brain function. It’s an essential part of our diet that should not be skipped out on. Just like protein, you want to eat a minimum amount on a daily basis for optimal performance.
How much to eat:
- About 0.4-0.6g per pound of LBM
- Depends mainly on personal preference — if you’re a carb lover, eat less fat. If you’re NOT a carb lover, eat more fat
Each gram of fat contains 9 calories, so to figure out how much of your calorie intake is coming from fats, you would multiply your intake in grams by nine. Again, this number will be used in an example later in the Summary section below. Don’t worry about it for now.
Lastly but certainly not least, carbs are what our bodies’ use for fuel. Stored as glycogen in the liver, muscles, and blood, carbs are basically what helps to keep us moving.
How much to eat:
- Remaining number of calories after protein and fat have been added
- Will vary depending on factors such as activity level and personal preference
- The more active you are, the more carbs you’ll consume
- If you’re a carb lover, eat less fat. Not a carb lover? Then keep your fat intake on the high end
Just like protein, each gram of carbs contains 4 calories. To figure out how much of your calorie intake is coming from carbs, you would simply eat your remaining number of calories after protein and fat have been added together.
Summary (and An Example)
Step 1: Figure out your maintenance calories
Step 2: Set a calorie target based on your goal (add or subtract calories to your maintenance)
Step 3: Figure out your protein and fat requirements
Step 4: Eat your remaining number of calories in carbs
So here’s an example with our imaginary friend named Rocky who weighs 210lbs, has 20% body fat, and is trying to shed some fat.
- Maintenance calories = 2,400 calories
- Calories he needs to consume to lose fat = 2,400-500 = 1,900 calories
- First step is to figure out his LBM –> 210lbs – (210lbs*.20) = 168lbs LBM
- He has quite a few pounds of fat to lose so we’ll start him out with 0.8g of protein per pound of LBM
- Therefore his protein target = 168 LBM*0.8 = ~134g protein
- Rocky is a carb lover so we’ll stick with the low end of his fat requirement at 0.4g per pound of LBM
- Therefore his fat target = 168 LBM*0.4 = ~67g fat
- Carb Intake = Total Calories – Protein Calories – Fat Calories
- Protein Calories = 134g*4 = 536 calories
- Fat Calories = 67g*9 = 603 calories
- Therefore –> 1,900 total calories – 536 protein calories – 603 fat calories = 761 carb calories
- 761 carb calories/4 = ~190g carbs
Final Numbers: In order to lose fat, Rocky should be consuming about 1,900 calories while eating his macro requirements of 135g of protein, 67g of fat, and 190g of carbs.
The key thing to remember when it comes to your diet is to figure out your maintenance calories first. Once you figure that out, you will then adjust your daily calorie intake depending on your goal — eat less calories for fat loss, or eat more to bulk up.
From there, you will then figure out your protein requirement that you will try to eat every single day. The amount of fats and carbs that you eat will mainly depend on your personal preference. So if you like carbs, eat more of that and less fat. If you don’t like eating a lot of carbs, then just eat more fat.