What Is the Daily Calorie Intake for Your Life Stage?

What Is the Daily Calorie Intake for Your Life Stage?

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Your calorie needs are constantly changing, even when you're an adult. Learn whether you're eating too many, too few or just enough.

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A mother and her adult daughter cook in the kitchen.

SEPT. 30, 2022   4 MIN. READ

Calories sometimes get a bad rap. But should they? People are often told that a high-calorie eating approach can lead to weight gain. But too few calories can be equally problematic, robbing the body of the fuel and vital nutrients it needs to perform at its best.

The trick to optimal nutrition isn't avoiding calories. It's about balancing the energy and nutrients you take in with the amount you expend. So, what is the daily calorie intake that's right for you? This guide can help.

What Are Calories?

Though they may seem complicated, calories are simply units of energy in the food we eat. Our bodies use calories to fuel everything we do. Of course, that includes strenuous activities such as carrying heavy things, playing soccer or going for a hike. But we also need calories to breathe, sleep and even think. We want to make sure that the calories we consume reflect our wellness goals.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

Calorie requirements vary considerably from person to person. Your activity level, amount of muscle mass, height, sex, weight, age and stage of life all shape your unique needs. For instance, a person who spends the day moving around on their feet, such as a physical education teacher, likely burns more energy than someone with a desk job. And since bigger bodies require more energy to function, they will use more calories than a smaller one.

It can also be helpful to know that calorie requirements can change substantially throughout life, even when you're fully grown. For example, when you reach your senior years (around age 60), your body won't use as much energy, yet your nutrient needs may stay the same or even grow. Conversely, there may be times when calorie requirements temporarily increase, such as during pregnancy or lactation. Stresses on the body such as illness, injury or surgery also call for more energy.

How to Determine Your Calorie Needs

Depending on age and activity level, men require anywhere from 2,000 to 3,200 calories a day while women need 1,600 to 2,400 calories. What is the daily calorie intake that's best for you? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest using your body weight as a factor. If you have a healthy weight (BMI 18.5-24.9 kg/m2), your daily calorie consumption is probably right on target. Generally, if you need to gain or lose weight, eating more or less — balanced with your physical activity — can help you achieve the proper energy intake for your body without having to count calories.

While proper calorie intake is key to health, getting the right amount of calories doesn't necessarily mean you're consuming the adequate nutrients that your body needs for your life stage.

Getting the Most From the Calories You Eat

If you've ever heard the term "empty calories," you know that the foods and beverages you choose to consume can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your healthy eating approach. Ideally, 85% of our calories should come from nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein (e.g., beans, lean meat, poultry and fish). At the appropriate calorie level, this wholesome foundation can provide many of the essential vitamins and minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fat you need for optimal health regardless of your age or stage of life.

Some nutrients supply more calories than others. Certain nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and water are completely calorie-free. Protein and carbohydrates fall somewhere in the middle, each providing about 4 calories per gram, whereas fats deliver 9 calories per gram. That may sound like a lot, but fat has an important job. Fat helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as certain antioxidants such as lutein and lycopene from the foods we eat. So, there's no need to avoid it. Instead, choose unsaturated fats from fish, avocados, olive oil and nuts most often to support your health, and choose saturated fats such as butter, meat and coconut oil less often.

When it comes to calories, you might be surprised to learn that what's old is new again. According to the International Food Information Council's 2022 Food and Health Survey, calorie counting is one of the top three dietary patterns of the past year. But there's no need to start crunching numbers. Nutritious foods in mindful portions, such as those outlined in the USDA's MyPlate or Canada's Food Guide, can give your body the ideal number of high-quality calories it needs, no math required.

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