How Many Calories Should You Be Eating?

Are you starting a new training program and wondering, “How many calories should I be eating if I want to (fill in the blank)?” Your goal could be to gain weight/ muscle, lose weight/ fat, or simultaneously attempt both muscle gain with fat loss.


If you haven’t questioned this, maybe you should. This, along with the training program itself, will play a key role in your progression and whether you succeed or not. In fact, lack of knowledge and guidance in a nutrition plan is the reason most people fail their attempts at gaining muscle or losing weight.


Creating the right nutrition program all starts with finding your maintenance calories.

Maintenance calories are the total amount of calories (energy) your body utilizes in a day. Everything you do takes energy and burns calories: showering in the morning, putting on your shoes, and walking to your car. Did you know that eating calories also burns calories due to the digestion requirements? On top of this, you have an additional spike in calorie burn when you exercise (cardio and resistance training) and don’t forget that just being alive burns calories too.


Think of maintenance calories as your base level calories for everything you do in a day. Before you begin questioning how many calories you should be eating, you need to be questioning what your maintenance calories are. Why? If you don’t know how many calories your body requires now, how are you supposed to know how many calories to add for muscle gain or take away for fat loss? You wouldn’t; you’d be shooting for a random number that someone on the internet suggested to you because that’s what their coach suggested to them once.


When it comes to maintenance calories, your weight, age, gender, height, body fat percentage, genetics, and overall current health status will determine how much energy you need to burn in a day. A client of mine who is 5’1 and 130 pounds is going to require much less than a client who is 5’9 and 165 pounds. Even if I had two clients side by side who are both 5’1 and 130 pounds, one may have been training consistently for 3 years before wanting to take training to a new level while another has a higher body fat percentage and more fat to lose. We’ll even take it a step further to say we could have two clients that are identical in height, weight, age, health, etc and even then, their maintenance calories will vary slightly due to genetics.


This is why you don’t just guess what you should be eating based on what someone else is doing. Instead, you’re going to follow the equation below.


Maintenance calories – X amount of calories = weight loss (muscle and/or fat)

Maintenance calories + X amount of calories = weight gain (muscle and/or fat)

As you can see, knowing your maintenance calories is key to your success with your meal plans and macros. If you’ve been tracking calories for a consistent amount of time and your weight hasn’t changed, this is called maintenance (also a plateau when you unwillingly get stuck at that weight; as you lose weight your maintenance calories lower as well).

How to Continue Making Progress if You're Stuck in a Plateau


If this is you, then all you need to do is take the number of calories you’re currently eating and add or subtract roughly 50-200 calories (based on your goal). The amount to add depends on the person and how sensitive their body is to changes. Some people require larger jumps while others can take smaller jumps and see the changes. If you’re new to dieting, typically starting with around +/- 150 to 200 calories works well and you can adjust from there. Be sure to monitor how your body adjusts to this by doing weigh-ins.


If you see sudden changes within a couple of days, you may need to bring that number closer to your maintenance calories. If you see minor (this is relative to your starting weight) changes within a week, then you’re probably on the right track.

Now, if you have never tracked calories in your life and you want to figure out how many calories you should be eating, then the rest of this article is for you.

Finding Your Maintenance Calories


There are many calorie and macro calculators on the internet which will estimate these numbers for you. These can give you a ballpark range of the proper amount of calories, but rarely will give you a spot on number, which you may have found if you’ve tried them in the past.


Luckily for you, there’s a way to find the exact number of calories you should be eating without making a rough estimate based off of these calculators.


Step 1. For three days, track everything you eat and drink. I use MyFitnessPal. Feel free to add me by my username: LexesO. Just ask and I will give you a free nutrition consultation after you follow these steps. In addition, you want to weigh yourself each morning before eating or drinking anything. Eat as you normally would; don’t make any changes to your diet yet.


Step 2. Find the average of your calories and your weight.


For example, let’s say that your MyFitnessPal shows you this for the days you tracked:


Day 1: 1,671 calories and weighed in at 131.0

Day 2: 1,735 calories and weighed in at 131.4

Day 3: 1,603 calories and weighed in at 130.9

Your average calories would be 1,669 calories and your average weight would be 131.1. What this means is that if you continue to eat 1,669 calories you would maintain 131.1 pounds if your daily activities stayed the same.

How Many Calories Should I be Eating for my Goals?

Take your maintenance calories we just got from tracking those three days and fill it into the equation from above: start by adding or subtracting around 150-200 calories from this number, depending on whether you want to lose or gain weight. If your goal is to maintain weight, but continue losing fat and building some muscle, you can continue eating at your maintenance calories.

Pairing Nutrition with Training

Remember that nutrition plays a big role in your progress, but you want to be sure that you’re on a training program that enhances and works with your goals as well. If your goal is simply to lose fat for health and you don’t necessarily care about how you look, then training isn’t a requirement, although its suggested to maintain lean body mass.


If your goal is also to look good, feel confident, or gain muscle, then including training in your program is a necessity. If you’re only eating higher in calories without the training program, you will be gaining fat rather than muscle. If you lose weight, but you’re not following a training program, you will also be burning lean body mass and muscle- taking away your ability of achieving that “toned” look.


Once you’ve figured out a plan for both, you will be on the right track with your goals. Don’t forget to take progress pictures and share them with me on Instagram! I can’t wait to see your results!

If you’re struggling and/or want additional guidance, you can apply for one-on-one coaching (includes both training and nutrition), start nutrition coaching, or start a training program.



Lexes O'Hara

Lexes O'Hara is a personal trainer and nutrition coach. Her work philosophy is to teach her clients to, "train, eat, and live like a bad ass." Certifications include NASM CPT and FNS.