How Many Calories Should You Eat?   

How Many Calories Should You Eat?

How Many Calories Should You Eat?
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Marina Rabkin, RDN, CDCES

When was the last time that you thought about how many calories were in your burger, chicken stir-fry dish or French toast platter?

If you’ve ordered food from a chain restaurant recently, you’ve probably seen calorie information listed for each dish on the menu; since 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required that restaurants with 20 or more locations include these details. But unless you know how many calories you should eat per day, learning how many calories are in your chosen meal may not be very helpful.

Considerations for calorie intake

There’s no -one-size-fits all answer to the number of calories that a person should consume each day. There are many variables to consider, including someone’s age, gender and activity level.

“Calorie-consumption recommendations for men are generally higher than for women,” says registered dietician nutritionist, Marina Rabkin. “That’s because men tend to burn calories more quickly than women do. Men tend to have more muscle than women do, which is key for burning calories. But an elite female athlete might have greater calorie needs than a sedentary man.”

“Remember, in order to lose one pound of fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories, that is why fat loss takes time and that's the kind of weight loss you want to achieve,” adds Marina.

Changes in calorie intake as you age

Your calorie needs change over the course of your lifetime. For example: 

  • You need the fewest calories when you’re a young child. 
  • As you grow, you need increasingly more calories throughout childhood. Teens and young adults need to consume the most calories, especially if you’re very physically active. 
  • After age 30, your calorie needs begin to drop slightly, and after age 50 or 60, they may drop again. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need more calories than other women their age.

How many calories are right for you?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, adults should consume calories in these ranges:

Men who are sedentary (who don’t do any extra physical activity) should consume:

  • 2,400 calories at age 18
  • 2,600 calories at ages 19-20
  • 2,400 calories at ages 21-40
  • 2,200 calories at ages 41-60
  • 2,000 calories at ages 61 and older

Men who are moderately physically active (who do exercise daily that’s equivalent to walking 1.5 to 3 miles at a moderate pace) should consume:

  • 2,800 calories at age 18-25
  • 2,600 calories at ages 26-45
  • 2,400 calories at ages 46-65
  • 2,200 calories at ages 66 and older

Men who are physically active (who do more exercise daily than moderately active people do) should consume:

  • 3,200 calories at age 18
  • 3,000 calories at ages 19-35
  • 2,800 calories at ages 36-55
  • 2,600 calories at ages 56-75
  • 2,400 calories at ages 76 and older

Women who are sedentary should consume:

  • 1,800 calories at age 18
  • 2,000 calories at ages 19-25
  • 1,800 calories at ages 26-50
  • 1,600 calories at ages 51 and older

Women who are moderately physically active should consume:

  • 2,000 calories at age 18
  • 2,200 calories at ages 19-25
  • 2,000 calories at ages 26-50
  • 1,800 calories at ages 51 and older

Women who are physically active should consume:

  • 2,400 calories at age 18-30
  • 2,200 calories at ages 31-60
  • 2,000 calories at ages 61 and older

Do you need to count calories?

Some people start tracking their calorie intake when they’re trying to lose weight. Consuming fewer calories can be effective, but so can increasing your physical activity level. Women should never consume fewer than 1,200 calories per day and men should never consume fewer than 1,500 calories per day without specific, personalized guidance from a doctor or registered dietitian.

“When you are looking at the menu and the meal of your choice contains more than 800 calories, and that's not including an appetizer, your drink, possibly an alcoholic beverage and maybe a dessert, you might want to reconsider,” adds Marina. 

“Eating too few calories makes it difficult for someone to get enough nutrients, which isn’t a healthy approach,” says Marina. “Another drawback to eating too few calories is that your metabolism slows down because your body realizes that it isn’t getting enough fuel. You won’t burn calories at the expected rate, making weight loss more challenging.”

For advice about ways to track your calorie intake healthily to lose weight, meet with your primary-care physician or a registered dietitian.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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