A Beginners Guide to Caloric Intake (find out how many calories you need)

If you haven’t already, I suggest you start with A Beginners Guide to Nutrition before diving into this post.  I go into detail on what calories and macronutrients are, and what the purpose of tracking them is.

I don’t think there’s a need to waste anytime at this point.  I’ve already dove into my beginning struggles when I first began down my path.  Maybe some of you have dealt with the same issues.  What I am about to teach you today was the best knowledge I learned to help squash my poor eating habits and help me regain a balanced relationship with food.  With this simple tool, you will always be in charge of your body composition.  Whether you are trying to gain, maintain, or lose weight, by knowing these simple formulas you will have the knowledge needed to get your body to where you want it to be.  Of course, it will still take patience, consistency, and hard work, but the guessing game of “hoping” you’re making progress will be diminished.

Caloric Maintenance 

Your maintenance level of calories is the amount of calories you can eat every single day without losing or gaining weight.  Once we have this figured out it becomes easy to set up your calorie intake for whatever your goal may be.  If you want to gain weight, we’ll add calories from here.  If you want to lose weight, we’ll subtract calories from here.  It isn’t difficult to find this number, but does take a little bit of time, 1-2 weeks.  You see, I can’t just come up with an equation and let you leave confidently thinking we have figured everything out for you through this one post.  It’s going to take actually DOING it to see how close the calculation was.  Figuring out your calorie requirements is always an educated guess from the beginning.  Once you start actually tracking, we can then judge your progress and make adjustments from there.

Ok here’s how to figure out your maintenance level:

body weight x 14-18 (depending on activity levels) = estimated maintenance level of calories

If you are extremely active, as in work a hard labor job + exercise most days of the week, multiply closer to 17 or 18.  If you are very sedentary as in work a desk job with little to no activity through the week, multiply closer to 14 or 15.

For me, my day job is spent at a desk for the majority of the day and I workout 4-6 times per week with a cardio session or two mixed in.  In my opinion, that is somewhere in the middle of the activity range, so I would multiply my bodyweight by 16.

175 pounds x 16 = 2800 calories

Pretty simple right?

Well, here’s where the actual “doing” comes in.

So from here,  I would eat at 2800 calories for a couple weeks while weighing myself each day to see what was happening.   If my weight stayed +/- .5 pounds of when I started, I’d know I’m somewhere very close to my maintenance level.  If my weight went up more than that, I’d know I’m slightly above my maintenance.  If the opposite occurs, and my weight dropped a little, I’d know I’m slightly below my maintenance.

One thing to keep in mind, the human body can fluctuate in weight dependent on MANY factors: digestion, water retention, meal timing, etc.  I’ve had clients whose weight will fluctuate +/- 4 to 6 pounds in a given day.   A good rule of thumb is to weigh yourself FIRST thing in the morning, after you’ve used the restroom, and before you’ve eaten or   drank anything.   At the end of the week, take the average of all  7 days and that will be a good estimate of where your weight really is.

Caloric Deficit

In order to lose weight, your body MUST be in a caloric deficit.  It doesn’t matter which foods you are or aren’t eating, without a caloric deficit, you aren’t going to lose weight.  To lose 1 pound of weight, the body needs to be in a deficit of 3500 calories per week.

Well, we’ve figured out your maintenance level above.  So if we take away 500 calories from your maintenance level over a period of 7 days, we have reached that 3500 calorie deficit marker.

In theory, you could take your daily deficit to greater lengths and lose more weight quicker than 1 pound per week, but in my experience this is a slippery slope.  Overtime your body adjusts to what it is receiving and will deny you weight loss even if you are hitting your correct deficit each week.  At this point you will have to lower your calories, and keep going until this occurs again. If you start to low, you won’t have anywhere to drop your calories to when this occurs.

A slow and steady pace of 1-2 pounds of weight loss each week will lead to your very best progress.  Slow and steady wins the race. Always.

If this were me, we figured my maintenance is somewhere some where close to 2800 calories.  From here, I would subtract 500 daily calories from my maintenance.

2800 – 500 = 2300 daily calories 

At this point I would begin tracking my calorie intake each day and weighing myself.  If my average weight at the end of the week was down 1 to 2 pounds, great! I’d keep going.  If it was less than 1 pound, I would know my calorie intake was still a bit high and drop them down by roughly 100 calories and keep going while continuing to track my weight closely.

Caloric Surplus

In order to gain weight, and put on muscle, your body MUST be in a calorie surplus.  Like a calorie deficit, regardless of the foods you are eating, there is no way for the human body to gain weight if it isn’t receiving a consistent surplus.

Remember it takes -3500 calories to lose 1 pound?  Well, it takes +3500 calories to gain 1 pound as well.  Something to keep in mind though, it may not be the wisest thing to do to try and gain 1 pound per week.  Building muscle on the human body is a slow process.  If you put yourself into a 3500 caloric surplus each week, chances are you’ll be putting on a good amount of fat as well.

My suggestion would be to put yourself into a 150-200 calorie surplus to start, and aim for 1 to 2 pounds of weight gain per month,  roughly .5 pound per week.   Just like with a deficit, keep track of your weight gain and make adjustments according to how your body is responding.  If you are gaining at the recommended amount, great, keep going! If you aren’t gaining any weight, up your calories by roughly 100 calories per day and keep tracking.  If you are gaining more than the recommended amount, drop your calories by 100 and keep tracking.

Again, if this were me, we know my maintenance is at 2800 calories.  I would add 200 calories to my maintenance.

2800 + 200 = 3000 daily calories

From here I would keep track of my weight gain and make adjustments as necessary.


Something I’ll touch on quickly is protein intake.  I plan on making my next post on macronutrient intake and how to find the correct macronutrients for you, but if you end here and don’t go any further into my articles, I want you to have a general guideline on protein.

The body needs roughly .75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.  Protein helps to preserve lean body mass while in a caloric deficit, and helps to produce lean body mass while in a caloric surplus.

My suggestion for the amount of protein you need depends upon your current body composition.

If you’re body is higher in body fat percentage (+20% males & +30% females)  chances are you will need a lower amount of protein to support lean body mass.  Aim for .75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

175 pounds x .75 = 131 grams of protein

If you’re body is lower in body fat percentage (-20% males & -30% females) chances are you will need a higher amount of protein to support lean body mass.  Aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

175 pounds x 1 = 175 grams of protein

If you have never tracked calories before, start here.  Don’t worry about the other macronutrients yet.  Start tracking your calories everyday and trying to get in the recommended amount of protein I suggested.   Just doing these things alone will get you amazing results.

In fact, most of my clients who are beginners only track calories and protein intake and end up to their goals without ever worrying about their carb and fat intake.   Even for myself, I put my main focus into my total calories and protein while allowing my carbs and fats to fall where they may.

As always, if you have questions or would like assistance on setting up your calories, shoot me an email: [email protected]

Happy Lifting!

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About chaz

Chaz is the co-founder/owner and head coach at Lost & Lifting. He also owns his own gym – Fit Factory, located in Preston, Idaho (his hometown). Chaz works with clients all over the country to take control of their body composition through evidence based and sustainable strategies. His passion has turned from building his own body to educating and helping others do the same through his online coaching platform.

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L&L Talk (hosted by Chaz), is the Lost & Lifting podcast where we dive deep into nutriton, training, and lifestyle to help you become more educated inside your journey to produce the result you want faster, and in a more sustainable manner