I dunno. How many do you wanna eat?
OK, so that was a joke, but eventually, it’ll be the right answer. When all your hormones fire correctly 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 36 percent of us are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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 different 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.)
What Is a Calorie?
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 of your daily functions, including breathing, talking, digesting, walking, heartbeating, 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 into your fat stores, your body might start breaking down lean body mass (muscle) for fuel. Or your hormones might simply slow down your metabolism so that you burn fewer calories in general, much like when you might dim the lights in your home to conserve energy.
How to Figure Out How Many Calories to Eat
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.
If you want to maintain your weight, and you have a:
- 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 Country Heat or PiYo): 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
If you want to lose weight:
- Subtract 500 calories from your maintenance caloric needs (equation above), and that’s probably a good deficit for weight loss. But make sure that number stays at 1,200 or above. Anything lower can be dangerous in the long term.
If you want to gain muscle mass:
- Add 300 calories or so to your maintenance caloric needs (equation above) — but make sure you’re also doing a solid weightlifting program like Body Beast so those calories have a place to go.
Sometimes, people micromanage these numbers by increasing or decreasing their daily calorie intake based on the activities for the day. Don’t do this. Unless you’re hooked up to millions of dollars 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.
Calories Count, but Food Quality Matters Too
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 hormones, particularly 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 — you might be badly miscalculating, which (say it with me) can also hinder results.
An important key to weight management is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Beachbody programs generally settle in at around 40 percent of calories from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fat. Of course, these numbers should shift depending on your lifestyle and goals. An endurance athlete in training, for example, would probably want to increase their carb intake substantially, given their constant need for glycogen replenishment.
Delving deeper, you should pick mostly whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Eat fiber-filled whole grains as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Lean toward healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. (Think raw nuts and seeds, avocados, and fatty fish like salmon.) As for protein, keep it clean. Poultry, fish, eggs, lean cuts of beef. And remember that many veggies, grains, and legumes (beans) contain protein, so it’s not so important to focus on animal products as it is to focus on variety.
Think About the Calories You Drink
When you’re trying to get lean, cleaning up your diet also means watching what you drink. Juicing, if done right, can be a healthy weight-loss tool to enhance your nutrition plan, and Shakeology is a good way to ensure you’re getting plenty of nutrients when eating at a deficit (or anytime!).
But beyond that, you’re generally better off getting your calories mostly from food. Think of it this way: An apple is about 95 calories. It takes about 5–10 minutes to eat and is loaded with fiber. One cup of apple juice is about 113 calories, takes about 5–10 seconds to drink, and contains no fiber — so all that sugar is blasting right into your bloodstream. Which option seems healthier?
Of course, water doesn’t suffer from this problem in that it’s calorie-free and ridiculously good for you. So, how much of that stuff should you drink? Although you take in some water from foods, it’s usually better to err on the side of “plenty.” Beachbody recommends you drink your body weight, divided by two, in ounces. So if you weigh 150 pounds, that would be 150 divided by 2, which equals 75. That’s 75 ounces of water you should be drinking every day.
If you’re water-averse or not accustomed to drinking that much H2O in a day, and you’re used to getting your fluids from other sources, work on gradually replacing non-water fluids with water. You can still drink coffee and tea (aim to drink them plain or with a splash of milk or nondairy milk), but the point here is to train yourself to opt for water mostly.
Definitely cut back on sodas (even diet ones), syrup-filled coffee and tea drinks, and other beverages that contain a high amount of sugar and little to no nutritional value. Drink alcohol sparingly. If you’re having a hard time going cold turkey and drinking only water, try to:
- Wean yourself off juice by diluting your juice with water (¾ juice and ¼ water, then ½ juice and ½ water, then ¾ water and ¼ juice, and so on) until your beverage has only a splash of juice in it.
- Flavor water with squeezes of fresh lemon, orange, lime, or grapefruit slices. Sliced strawberries, cucumbers, and mint leaves also work.
- Switch things up by drinking some carbonated water when you’re bored of the still stuff.
Keep in mind that the goal here is to cut back on the calories you take in from beverages in a way that works longer term for you.
The 10-Second Takeaway
You need to eat calories because you need energy not only to survive but also to thrive. The key to successful weight loss and maintenance is to understand just how much energy (calories) is appropriate for your activity level. Once you hone in on a range that can help you meet your goals, consult a Beachbody nutrition guide for more guidance on how to make the most of your daily calories. Our Portion Fix containers can acquaint you with ideal portion sizes, and help you stick to your daily calorie goals without the need to track calories or do a lot of math. Remember, calories matter but quality nutrition matters more.