Calories are a measure of energy, and calorie needs vary depending on your age, sex, height, weight, body composition and activity level. People who are taller, more active and have more muscle will need more calories than smaller people who are more sedentary. Men typically require more calories than women, as they have more muscle mass. Before you can figure out how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, it’s important to know how many calories you need just to maintain your current weight. There are many different online calculators that you can use to get a daily calorie estimate (try here or here).
In order to lose weight, you need to be in negative energy balance, meaning more calories need to leave your body (via exercise or calorie cutting) than enter it. A good jumping off point is to take your baseline daily calorie needs (using the calculators above) and subtract 500 calories per day. So if your baseline needs are 2050 calories, for weight loss you would aim for 1550 calories per day.
That being said, just cutting calories without regard to the foods you eat is not a sustainable way to lose weight. It may work in the short term, but long term you will likely get hungry and feel deprived, and eventually go back to your old way of eating. While it is important to have a general idea of the number of calories you are eating each day (you can use tools like My Fitness Pal, Lose It or Cronometer to track this), for longer term weight loss you must change your lifestyle. Here are my top four habits that will set you up to lose weight both in the short term, as well as long term.
Limit Your Intake Of Added Sugar
This includes liquid sources of sugar like soda, fruit juice, energy drinks, as well as the added sugar found in highly processed foods such as granola bars, cookies, crackers, and yogurt. When you eat sugar, you are getting no nutrients – no protein, no vitamins or minerals, no healthy fat – just pure calories. Plus, high amounts of added sugar stimulates the release of a large amount of insulin, a storage hormone. Insulin can cause sugar to be easily stored as fat in our bodies. Natural sugar such as that found in fruit and milk is ok, but watch out for added sugar by reading food labels and ingredient lists. Your best bet is to stick to whole, real foods as often as possible and avoid highly processed packaged foods.
Eat More Protein
When it comes to losing weight, protein is essential. Protein has been shown to cause slight increases in your metabolism, plus it can help increase satiety and reduce your appetite. Protein can also help decrease food cravings. Make sure you are getting at least 15-20 grams of protein at every meal and snack. Good sources include beans, lentils, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts and seeds, eggs, fish, poultry and meat.
Make Half Your Plate Vegetables
Trying to lose weight? Load up your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Vegetables provide a lot of fiber, vitamins and minerals for very little calories. That fiber fills you up faster, which means you can eat smaller portions of higher calorie foods at meals. Fill up half your plate with vegetables, and try to eat at least a few bites at the beginning of your meal to fill up early.
Drink Enough Water
This one is huge! Our bodies are anywhere from 60-75% water, and even a little bit of dehydration can make you feel hungry – when really all you need is water. Drinking enough water also helps to keep your metabolism high; if you are dehydrated your body doesn’t burn calories as efficiently. Most people need at least 1.5-2 liters of water per day.
Focus on consuming mostly real, whole foods. Include more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts/seeds and lean protein while cutting down on highly processed foods and added sugar. This will naturally cause you to eat fewer calories, and along with regular physical exercise, lead to weight loss over time.