Ask the Expert: How Many Calories Should I Be Eating?

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I dunno. How many do you wanna eat?

Okay, so that was a joke, but eventually, it’ll be the right answer. When all your hormones fire right and you’re filling yourself with healthy, whole foods, your body will tell you the right amount to eat. Unfortunately, our culture has become particularly skilled at overriding our natural indicators, which is why 30% of us are obese. So, on your road back to your ideal weight, you’ll probably want to apply a little math in the form of counting calories. (I’ve divided this answer into two parts. If you want to geek out about calories, read the whole thing. If you don’t care what a calorie is and just want to know how many to consume, skip down to the second part.)

The part where I tell you what a calorie is and how it applies to you.

A calorie (or kilocalorie, as it’s officially called) is a unit of measurement given to the amount of energy your body generates from the food you eat. Think of it in terms of kilowatts or horsepower. When you put an 80-calorie apple under a microscope, you won’t see a bunch of little calories floating around in there. However, if you put your apple in a fancy piece of lab equipment called a bomb calorimeter, you could burn it up and the calorimeter would tell you how much energy was discharged—in the form of calories.

Nerdy aside: Calories can also be used to measure other expenditures of energy, including explosions. A modern nuclear bomb releases 1,000,000,000,000 calories—only slightly more than your average meal at Olive Garden.

In the human body, this energy is used for all your daily functions, including breathing, talking, digesting, walking, heart-beating and, of course, working out. However, we’re an efficient race (at least, on the inside), so if you consume more calories than you burn, it doesn’t shoot out of your ears as steam or anything like that. Instead, the body turns it into adipose tissues (body fat) to be converted to energy at some future date. In other words, when you eat more calories than you burn, you put on fat. This is the case whether you’re eating carbs, fat, or protein.

Conversely, when you eat fewer calories than you expend, your body taps into those reserves and you burn fat, most of the time. This is called having a calorie deficit. However, you don’t want that calorie deficit to be too large, or a number of undesirable things might happen. In addition to tapping your fat stores, your body might start breaking down lean body mass (muscle) for fuel. Or your body might simply slow down your metabolism so that you burn fewer calories in general, much like you might dim lights in your home to conserve energy. So, with the exception of short-term practices, like jump-start diets, fasts, or cleanses, it’s generally a good idea not to let your calorie deficit drop below 500 calories a day.

The part where I (finally) tell you how many calories are right for you.

Most Beachbody programs come with a calculator that you can use to figure out how many calories you should be eating. We also offer this handy online calculator. But for you instant gratification types, here’s a super basic calculator to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight.

Sedentary lifestyle (desk job): Current weight in pounds x 12 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.
Moderately active lifestyle (server in a restaurant and/or doing one of our entry level programs, like Power 90 or Hip Hop Abs: Current weight in pounds x 13 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.
Highly active lifestyle (construction worker and/or doing one of our elite programs, like P90X or INSANITY): Current weight in pounds x 14 = Maintenance Caloric Needs.

From there, subtract 500 calories and that’s probably a good deficit for weight loss. (But make sure that number stays about 1,200. Anything lower can be dangerous in the long term.) Conversely, if you’re trying to gain muscle mass, add 300 calories or so—but make sure you’re also doing a solid weight lifting program like Body Beast so those calories have a place to go.

Sometimes, people micromanage these numbers by increasing or decreasing daily calorie intake based on the activities for the day. Don’t do this. Unless you’re hooked up to millions of dollars worth of monitoring equipment, you’ll probably get those numbers wrong anyway. Your best bet is to account for exercise in broad strokes, like the calculations above.

With that in mind, whichever calculation you follow, don’t get married to the numbers. I know it feels official, with all those digits and equations and such, but even the most complex calorie equation will miss countless factors. Ethnicity. Air temperature. Illness. How hard you exercise that day. Stress. Unexplained shifts in your metabolism. Hormone imbalances, etc.

So use that number, which will probably fall somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 calories, as a starting point. If it works, swell. Hold steady until it stops working. If it doesn’t work, don’t panic; you just need to experiment a little to find your sweet spot. Try dropping another 300 calories for 7 to 10 days. If that doesn’t work, increase your calories (beyond your original number) by 300 for 7 to 10 days. If you’re still not getting any love, come on over to the Team Beachbody Message Boards, where our friendly advice staff and coaching community will be able to throw your diet up on the racks to find the issue.

On a final note, keep in mind that not all calories are created equal. You generally need to do a little more than just hit your calorie deficit to lose weight in a healthy fashion. If your low-calorie diet is packed with refined sugars and flours, it might be wreaking havoc on your insulin, which can inhibit results. If you’re lowballing protein, you might not be giving your body the amino acids it needs to repair muscle. Again, results will be hindered. If you’re eating a really fatty diet, fat is more caloric by volume than protein and carbs, so you might be badly miscalculating, which (say it with me) can also hinder results. So an important key to weight management is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. More on that in the next issue.

Have a question you want the Experts to answer on the blog? Email us at mailbag@beachbody.com!

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11 Comments

  1. Doug Enas said:

    What if you are doing a P90X3 or T25 workout AND have a desk job. It kinda falls between the sedentary and active lifestyle? How many calories should you be consuming?

    • Rebecca Swanner said:

      Sorry for the very late answer, but just saw this. The trick is to NOT count your workout when determining your overall activity level.

  2. Kerri said:

    Hi, I worked out my daily calorie needs, and I weigh 98 pounds, so if I times that by 14, I get 1372 calories….is that really enough calories to consume when doing a programme like Insanity or Insanity the Asylum? It kinda seems a bit low to me…

    • alikappes said:

      I agree, I did the equation and found that I only need around 1400 calories to maintain weight… this seems too low. I am shooting for around 1800 with moderate exercise and this seems to work for me 🙂

    • Zach DePriest said:

      There’s a “fix burn” of 400 calories applied to the math you do when you’re figuring out your plan. But of course that’s just an estimate based on averages and what not. In all seriousness, it’s close to impossible to know how many calories you’ll burn every workout or in general. It’s all about listening to your body at that point. Push yourself when they tell you to push and on the cardio days you shouldn’t be afraid to get sweaty and a little winded; it shouldn’t feel completely draining, but it should feel like you did a solid workout. Same thing for the weight lifting workouts, your muscles should feel tight and somewhat stressed, but don’t push them beyond their limits to keep up with the others. It’s all about listening to your body, but always pushing yourself a little more each time. With these in mind you should reach around that 400 each time with the way the program is designed. Trust the program and listen to their cues. Hope that helps :).

  3. Melissa Cribbie said:

    I need some guidance. I am currently doing the 21 DFX, and plan to do Hammer & Chisel in February. I am looking to gain muscle, and lose ‘fat/fluff, not necessarily weight. I am 5’7″ and weigh 137lbs. I’m not sure which eating plan to follow to achieve these results. I have a tendency to go low on the calorie scale, but know that is the right way to go always. Can anyone help me?

    • Lisa Casady Sears said:

      I would suggest doing either the maintain or build muscle scale. I’m 3 weeks into Hammer & Chisel right now and if you keep your nutrition in check, you’ll see a difference in muscle! 😉

    • Sierra Whitlock said:

      Are you currently speaking to a beachbody coach? They would be the ones to help you! I’m a beachbody coach and have helped numerous people with losing fluff and gaining muscle.

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