Old school calorie-counting, it seems, is back in style.
For years diets like keto, Paleo, and “clean eating” reigned supreme, with a focus on limiting specific foods instead of overall food consumption. But according to the 2021 Food and Health Survey put out by the International Food Information Council, it seems that counting calories is once again the most popular way to diet.
Now, do men need to count every calorie in order to be healthy or achieve your fitness goals? Absolutely not.
But, is it helpful to have a basic understanding of how your body uses energy gained from food? You bet.
No doubt, you have some understanding of what a calorie is. After all, calorie counts are listed on packaged foods and on fast food menus, and it’s hard to have a conversation about nutrition or fitness without at least a few mentions of calories. Maybe you’ve even tried a popular calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal or Noom.
But do you really know what calories are, and why they’re so essential? And, do you have any idea how many calories you actually need in a day? (We mean the real number, not some general recommendation that a weight loss app might spit out.)
Here, we’ll go over the true definition of a calorie, as well as what factors influence your energy needs (aka, your metabolism) and how to estimate the number of calories that’s right for you.
What is a calorie?
Technically speaking, when we talk about calories, we’re actually talking about kilocalories. Per the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one kilocalorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by one degree celsius.
So, calories are a measure of energy. All three macronutrients contain a set number of calories per gram: 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein, and 9 calorie per gram for fat. (Alcohol, which isn’t a macronutrient and has no nutritional value, contains 7 calories per gram.)
In addition to the unique functions of each macronutrient, their calories provide energy that our bodies use to function. We need calories to move around, but also for all the basic body functions that happen when we’re at rest, from DNA synthesis to hormone production to sending chemical messengers throughout the body in order to keep things running smoothly.
How many calories do men need to eat?
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American man under 40 is 5 foot 9 and weighs 197 pounds. At a moderate activity level (moderate exercise 3 to 5 times per week), he would need about 2,822 calories per day to maintain his weight.
To lose weight
If weight loss is the goal, the USDA says that cutting your calorie intake by 500 to 1000 calories per day can lead to safe weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds of weight loss per week. For our average American guy, that’s between 1,822 and 2,322 calories per day. That said, cutting calories drastically can backfire, as you may end up getting so hungry that you overeat.
It’s also important to factor in exercise: If you’re burning 500 calories per day through physical activity, cutting 1000 calories would actually lead to a deficit of 1,500 calories, which is too much.
To gain weight
If you’re trying to gain weight, the Cleveland Clinic recommends increasing your calorie intake by 300 to 500 calories per day—3,122 to 3,322 calories per day for the average guy, assuming his activity level stays the same.
“The primary factors that determine how many calories someone needs include birth sex, age, genetics, body size, and daily activity level,” says Anya Rosen, M.S., R.D., a New York-based dietitian. “Other variables can play a significant role, such as body composition, dieting behaviors, injury, or illness.”
In general, men burn more calories than women because they’re typically larger overall. Men are also predisposed to having more muscle and less fat mass, which impacts calorie burn, explains Kyle Gonzalez, M.S., C.S.C.S., an exercise scientist and performance coach at Future.
Injury and illness can also temporarily increase the amount of calories you need. Healing from major burns or other large open wounds requires extra energy and protein. Cancer can drastically increase your calorie burn. If you have a fever, you need extra calories to make up for your higher body temperature. Even fighting off the common cold takes energy.
How to calculate your calorie needs
Although it’s possible to estimate how many calories you need in a day, there’s one huge caveat: “There are many different formulas available to determine calorie needs, but they all have large margins of error due to there being too many influential variables to control,” Rosen says.
Scientists use a method called indirect calorimetry to measure exactly how many calories a person burns in a day, but it’s expensive, time-consuming, and pretty inaccessible for most people.
If you’re curious about your exact calorie needs, here’s how to determine it for yourself.
Tracking your food intake
“I find that the best way for you to determine your calorie needs (assuming you are outside of a research setting) starts with ensuring that you are currently maintaining your weight,” Rosen says.
“Once weight is stable, track your food intake for 1 to 2 weeks without changing how you would normally eat. The average calories across that time frame is a good estimate for your maintenance caloric needs, and you can adjust from there according to your goals.”
In other words: If your weight isn’t changing, you’re eating the right number of calories.
A metabolism calculator
You can also try using a formula to estimate your calorie needs, which is easy to do with an online calorie calculator from a trusted source. This one, from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), takes into account your age, weight, gender, height, and activity level, from sedentary to very active to determine your calorie needs.
How does muscle mass affect calorie burn?
Muscle burns more calories by weight than body fat, although the difference isn’t as big as it’s sometimes made out to be. “The claim “muscle burns more calories than fat” is true, but misleading,” Rosen says.
The best estimate we have is that a pound of muscle burns six to seven calories a day. “That’s equivalent to about one slice of cucumber,” Rosen says. Fat, on the other hand, burns about two calories in the same time period. So, increasing muscle will increase the number of calories you burn — as will gaining fat, though to a lesser degree — but not drastically. An extra 10 pounds of muscle may only add 60 calories per day to your overall calorie expenditure.
In fact, the size of other body parts probably plays a more significant role in your daily calorie needs. One 2011 study found that more than 40 percent of differences in total calorie burn between people could be explained by the variations in the size of their internal organs.
How does exercise affect calorie burn?
Of course, your activity level plays a big role in your energy needs. It’s not just your workouts that burn calories, it’s also how much you move around at work and at home. A physically demanding job burns far more calories than one that has you sitting at a desk most of the day, and making your daily commute on bike or foot, instead of in a car, can make a big difference as well. When determining your physical activity level, it’s important to take all of this into account.
And yes, you’ll also need to consider your workouts. “With cardio training, you tend to not only burn calories quicker, but you also burn more total calories per session,” Gonzalez says. “Strength training, on the other hand, is usually anaerobic (without oxygen) in nature and helps you build muscle and boost your metabolism.” You’ll burn fewer calories per session, he explains, but your metabolic rate (the number of calories burned) will remain elevated for longer afterwards. Plus, you’ll build muscle mass, which slightly increases your calorie burn and can support better health overall.
“A healthy mixture of both strength and cardio training with varying intensity, frequency, duration, and type is always best when building out your exercise program,” Gonzalez says.
Do you need to count calories?
Ultimately, there’s no need to count calories in order to be healthy. If you feel good and have consistent energy levels throughout the day, you probably don’t need to worry about calculating your calorie needs, because chances are you’re hitting your target.
But if you’re worried that you’re eating too few or too many calories, understanding what contributes to calorie burn can help you understand your body’s needs.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io