Understanding Calories: What Are Calories How Many Of Them Do You Really Need?

Whether you are trying to gain weight, lose weight, or simply maintain it, it is important to have a basic understanding of what calories are and how they play a role in weight maintenance. The total number of calories you get through food every day chiefly determines your body weight. And once you have an idea of how much energy your body needs to keep functioning, you can adjust your caloric intake accordingly to achieve and maintain your desired body weight.

This article will help you understand the concept of calories, how many calories you need on a daily basis, and how you can adjust them to reach your desired weight. However, keep in mind that calories are only estimates and the process of counting them and using them to adjust your body weight will not always be perfect.

What Are Calories?

In the simplest terms, a calorie indicates a unit of energy. It can be generated from various energy sources such as gas and coal. From a nutritional point of view, calories come from the food you eat. No matter what you eat – fats, carbohydrates, sugar, or proteins- all these food items provide your body with calories. These calories are then utilized by the body to release energy which is, in turn, used for optimal functioning of all body systems.

Your muscles, your brain, even every single cell inside your body need the energy to keep functioning. So if you wish to nourish your body and keep your brain working to the best of its abilities, you need energy, and calories are the best source for this. If you don’t get the desired amount of calories that your body requires, negative consequences may follow. For example, you may start losing muscle mass, feel difficulty in concentrating on daily tasks, and experience burnout due to a lack of energy.

Are All Calories The Same?

Are all calories the same?

Yes, the amount of calories you consume matters, but so does the quality of these calories. Keep in mind that all calories are not the same and, depending on where you source them from, they can have varying effects on your general wellbeing.

To get the healthiest forms of calories, health experts recommend filling your plates with the following foods: (1)

  • Vegetables like bright peppers, radishes, carrots, and leafy greens.
  • Water instead of sweetened teas, energy drinks, and sodas.
  • Whole grains like spelt, oatmeal, and wholegrain bread to fill your body with fiber
  • Lean meats including fish and chicken. Keep the consumption of red meat in moderation.
  • Nuts and seeds as they are healthy fat sources.
  • Whole fruits instead of fruit juice.

Calories from unhealthy food sources, referred to as empty calories, provide no nutritional benefit to the body. They can, instead, make you feel hungrier and contribute to unhealthy food cravings. Such calories are abundantly found in processed foods with trans fat and added sugar. While these calories might be able to fulfill your energy requirements to a certain extent, they won’t provide other important nutrients and minerals to keep your body healthy.

Recommended Daily Calorie Intake

For maintaining an ideal state of health and suitable body weight, it is important to know how many calories you must consume every day. For this purpose, various health institutions across the world have released recommended calorie intake guidelines that vary depending on your age.


The recommended calorie intake for adults is further divided into two categories. Adult males must consume 2000 to 3000 calories per day to maintain their muscle mass. On the other hand, adult females need 1600 to 2200 calories per day to get the job done. (2)

If you are older or observe a sedentary lifestyle, keep your calorie needs towards the bottom of this suggested range. However, if you are active, pregnant or nursing, stay close to the upper limit.


The recommended calorie intake for teenagers varies depending on their sex, age, and activity level. For a 13-year-old teenage girl, the calorie intake may be 1600 to 2000 daily. On the other hand, a teenage boy of the same age requires 2000 to 2600 calories every day to nourish his body. (3)

This suggested calorie intake keeps increasing bit by bit every year. For example, for a 14-year-old girl, the recommended calorie intake is from 1800 to 2400 calories per day, whereas for a boy of the same age it goes up to 3200 calories daily.


Two- to three-year-old children require 1000 to 1400 calories per day to function properly. (4) This range may slightly vary depending on how active they are throughout the day.

For children between 4 to 8 years, the calorie intake begins at 1200 calories and goes up to 1800 and 2000 calories for girls and boys, respectively. Going further up the age ladder, between 9 to 13 years, the calorie intake increases up to 2200 and 2600 calories for girls and boys, respectively.

What Affects Your Target Calorie Intake?

According to health experts, your daily calorie intake depends on several factors. These factors include: (5)

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Activity level
  • Current bodyweight
  • Current height

Some other additional factors may play a role in determining the number of calories you need on a day-to-day basis. These include your hormones, the current medications you are using, and your overall status of health. (6)

Keeping a Daily Calorie Record

Wish to optimize your calorie intake? Recording how many calories you eat in a day is the best thing to do. For some people, a mobile application that keeps track of your daily calorie consumption works great. For others, a manual record is preferable.

A handwritten diary works perfectly for calorie tracking as long as you don’t skip it. Measuring everything you eat daily and keeping a record of how many calories it provides your body can give you accurate data that you can then use to optimize your body weight.

For getting accurate nutritional information on all foods and beverages you consume, consulting the USDA National Nutrient Database is a good option. (7) Furthermore, you can consider following the tips mentioned below to keep tracking your calories in the best possible way.

Practice honesty

Avoid overestimating or underestimating your calorie intake. There is no benefit in either of them. Be honest about what you are eating or drinking, and how many calories it is providing you, or you may face trouble calculating your energy balance for weight gain or weight loss. Believe it or not, many people underestimate their calorie intake leading to weight gain. If out to eat at a restaurant, breakdown each ingredient on the menu description and log it based upon how much you receive when it reaches your table. You might be amazed how quickly certain calories can add up.

Measure your portion sizes

Make sure you are not confusing portion sizes with serving sizes. Keep a digital food scale on hand to get accurate measurements of the portions you are consuming. The process may be difficult to perform at first but with time and practice, you will get better. Using measuring cups and spoons. With time, you’ll be able to better gauge how many calories you are consuming based upon the label information.

Don’t forget the details

While writing down your daily food intake, don’t forget to be thorough. Instead of simply noting down the calorie count, also mention your macronutrient breakdown. Notice how many fats, proteins, and carbohydrates you are consuming in each meal. This is important for identifying any dietary imbalances or gaps. Many apps make scanning bar codes and logging macronutrients easier. Don’t forget to measure how many tablespoons of dressing or sauces you may be using. Believe it or not, but something as simple as salad dressing or olive oil can contain large amounts of calories. So make sure you are measuring.

Don’t miss out on snacks and drinks

Anything you consume between meals must also go into your diary. Whether it is a can of soda or a bag of potato chips, it is providing you with some sort of calories. You must log it! Did you add cream or sugar to your coffee? Make sure to log it!

Reaching Your Target Weight With Calorie Counting

Reaching your calorie goal

Once you have found out how many calories you need to function daily, you can then work out a plan to optimize this daily calorie intake according to your desired body weight goal.

To lose weight 

If weight loss is your primary goal, what you need is a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit refers to a condition in which you consume fewer calories than what your body needs. As a result, it gets low on energy and is forced to burn stored fat to get over this energy crisis, leading to weight loss.

If you feel like you are unable to cut back on the number of calories you need, you can simply increase your physical activity. Or, consider combining both to achieve better, faster weight loss.

While it seems tempting to drastically cut back on your calorie consumption, going below 1000 calories per day may start affecting you negatively. So even if you do need to go that low, consider consulting a doctor first.

Following are some other strategies you can adopt to trigger weight loss:

  • Add more protein to your daily meals
  • Drink more water
  • Reduce your sugar intake
  • Cut back on the consumption of refined carbs
  • Eat healthy fats in moderation
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption

To Gain Weight

If you are trying to put on some weight, you need to consume more calories than your body really needs. The key is to make sure that the weight you gain is healthy and the calories come from good dietary sources. For this purpose, the following guidelines may help:

  • Eat more frequently
  • Consume high-quality caloric-rich foods like whole grains and healthy fats
  • Drink shakes rich in nutrients but low in artificial sweeteners
  • Increase the number of calories in your meals, for example by adding nuts or avocado to your morning meal
  • Consider performing strength training

To Maintain Weight

After a lot of research, health experts have finally concluded that the best way to maintain a healthy weight is by following a high-protein diet along with foods rich in polyphenols and omega-3s.

The Last Words 

Just like cars need gas to run and televisions need electricity to operate, your body also needs energy to function optimally. This energy mainly comes from food in the form of calories. Knowing how many calories you need daily to survive is not only important for optimal body functioning but may also help in reaching your desired body weight.

Whether you wish to lose weight, gain some, or simply maintain it, start by counting your calories today!

To Your Health and Happiness, Doctor Danielle

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