How to pick your daily calorie target


myfitnesspal (Photo credit: jiten.a)

I’m in the process of losing 50 pounds. I’ve lost around 30 so far. I’ve been counting calories since June 2012, and it has made it really easy to lose weight (well, that and the support of some amazing friends!).

The calorie counting is super simple using MyFitnessPal (MFP), though there are a bunch of similar sites out there. The idea is that you figure out how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your current weight, and then you eat around 500-700 calories less than that each day (this will theoretically give you a 1-2 pound loss per week, which is safe and sustainable).

The figuring of the caloric intake often confuses people, and if you use the recommendation from MFP, you could be eating as little as 1,200 calories a day. For most people, that’s too few. I used MFP’s suggestions until they dropped me to around 1,400, and then I started feeling hungry all the time, losing my hair, and generally feeling run down. I listened to what my body was telling me, and I looked into different methods of determining daily caloric needs.

The most popular alternative on MFP (alternative to MFP’s own method, that is), is to determine your TDEE and BMR, and eat approximately 20% below your TDEE, so long as it’s not below your BMR.

Now that we’ve got that settled, good luck with your weight loss!

Just kidding! I’ll actually explain those acronyms… TDEE is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, and BMR is your Basal Metabolic Rate.

Your BMR is how many calories you would burn daily if you were basically in a coma. It’s how many calories you burn in a day without moving. Your body needs at least this amount of calories each day, or you risk damaging your vital organs. My BMR is 1,371.

Your TDEE takes into account your average daily activity level (if you sit at a desk all day, and don’t get any other exercise, you’re sedentary; if you sit at a desk all day, but run 3-5 miles several times a week, then you’re moderately active, and there are a few other levels you could fall into, as well). This number is how many calories you burn in an average day, taking into account both how you spend your day (work/school/home), as well as your typical exercise exertion. I work a desk job and either run 2-3 times per week (lightly active with a TDEE of 1,882), or don’t run at all (sedentary with a TDEE of 1,643).

In order to figure out your TDEE and BMR, you’ll need to know your body fat percentage. To figure this out, my MFP friend Dan suggests that you grab a measuring tape, and visit Use the military body fat percentage calculator. Then, use the site’s BMR calculator, and make note of the Katch-McArdle BMR figure. After you’ve noted that, scroll down and find your level of activity, and note the figure next to that. That number is your TDEE.

Now that you have your TDEE, take 20% off it. As long as it’s higher than your BMR, you can use that as your new calorie goal for losing between 1-2 pounds a week. If 20% lower than your TDEE is lower than your BMR, try 10% instead.

Once you have this figure, you can start logging everything you put in your mouth, and try not to eat more than your goal calories. If you do eat more than your goal calories, exercise so that you burn enough calories to bring you back to within goal.

It’s that simple. Truly. Nothing could be easier. And yet, it’s so hard to stay the course, because it takes time. Weeks and weeks and months and months, depending upon how much you have to lose.

How much do you want to lose? How much have you lost already?

6 thoughts on “How to pick your daily calorie target

  1. You almost got it right. While your explanation about using your TDEE and subtracting 20% is one way to get in a calorie deficit, our calculator works a little bit differently. The calculator uses your goal weight to recommend a calorie level that will put you in a calorie deficit. If you put your current weight in both the current and goal weight on the calculator then your method will work fine. Good luck!

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