When you’re trying to manage your weight, knowledge is power – especially about calories. Whether you want to lose weight, maintain your current weight or even gain a few kilos, knowing exactly how many calories you should consume each day is the key to success.
It’s also helpful to know how those calories should be spread over the course of the day. How many calories should you have at each meal – and what about snacks?
At first calorie counting can seem complicated and confusing, but it really isn’t once you understand how it works.
Says 12WBTer Sandra: “I studied advanced maths, but it’s taken me 40 years to understand calories in versus calories out – how to nourish my body rather than just eat.”
If you’re not confident to count calories on your own, consider joining a program like 12WBT where the meals are calorie-controlled and planned out for you.
It takes the guesswork out of calorie counting and will help you reach your goals.
The Correct Calories
A key element in reaching your goals is choosing healthy foods to make sure your daily calorie count goes a long way, leaving you feeling satisfied and energised rather than hungry and miserable.
Each meal should contain lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats and fruit or vegetables. These are all high in nutrients and will make you feel fuller for longer than all those empty calories you get from processed foods.
Fruit makes an excellent snack – one medium banana and a punnet of strawberries equals 150 calories.
Other healthy snack options include a slice of wholegrain bread with two teaspoons of peanut butter (135 calories), three dates (165 calories) and four wholegrain crackers with two slices of low-fat cheese (135 calories).
To find out the number of calories in different foods and drinks, use a calorie calculator.
Women’s Calorie Requirements
Keep in mind that women have different calorie requirements to men. Men tend to have more muscle and less fat on their bodies – they burn more calories throughout the day and so can eat more.
That means your partner or brother can generally take on several hundred calories more than you each day to achieve the same results.
Says 12WBTer Chelsea: “It might seem unfair, but it’s important to take these differing calorie requirements into account. I was a bit surprised by the portion sizes, but that’s what got me in trouble in the first place. I had what Michelle Bridges refers to as portion distortion!”
Time to get down to some calorie number crunching. Let’s take a look at three weight goals – loss, maintenance and gain – to find out how many calories and which foods you should be eating to get there.
Firstly, you’ll need to know what your goal weight is. To work that out, use this body mass index (BMI) calculator.
A healthy BMI should be within the range of 18.5 to 24.9. If yours is higher, you’ll need to lose weight, lower than that and you need to put on some weight, and if you’re in the middle, you’ll be looking to hold fast and maintain your weight.
When to Burn More Calories
If you combine calorie intake with four or five exercise sessions a week, then a 1200 calories-a-day eating plan will help you reach your weight-loss goals.
Aim to burn 400 to 800 calories each time (or 600 to 1000 if you weigh over 100kg), and add to that a mega-session on Saturdays that burns 1000 calories or more.
The important thing is – don’t expect results from your calorie counting overnight.
While the kilos should start dropping off fairly quickly, it’s a slow, steady process and you have to be patient.
If you weigh less than 100kg, you can expect to shed 0.5kg to 1.5kg a week. If you weigh 100kg to 130kg, you could lose 1.5kg to 3kg a week.
These are safer rates at which to lose weight than going on a very drastic diet that slashes your calorie intake to an unrealistic amount.
Says 12WBTer Bella: “I used to be a big fan of finding any crash diet that would promise to take weight off me really quickly. So I did a high-protein diet with moderate success for my wedding, and I had lost weight but it bounced right back on.”
The weight is more likely to stay off and it’s better for your health to shed kilos slowly while gaining as many nutrients as you can from your calories.
You might find you hit a weight-loss plateau, but don’t let that discourage you – it’s because the calories you’re burning through exercise now balance the calories you’re consuming. And we’re with you every step of the way!
In this case, mix up your exercise by increasing the intensity of your cardio or increasing the weights or number of reps in any strength training you’re doing.
You’ll find your calorie-burning goes up – and whatever you do, stick to your 1200 calories-a-day eating plan while you wait to start losing weight again.
For more on the best number of calories for weight loss, check out this article on how many calories you should eat to lose weight.
Calories for WEIGHT MAINTENANCE in Women
You’ve reached your goal weight – congratulations! Once you’ve maintained your target weight for two weeks, it’s time to make some changes to your calorie intake so you don’t keep shedding kilos.
That means you can increase the number of calories you consume each day.
While that will come as great news to some, others might be tempted to stay on the 1200 calories-a-day eating plan to lose even more weight.
Says 12WBTer Anja: “I loved that I didn’t have to think about it – everything was laid out for me. I didn’t have to think about what to make for dinner or how many crunches to do. I just printed off my workout schedule and did it.”
But don’t lose sight of the fact that you chose your goal weight for a reason – it’s your optimal healthy weight, and staying on your original calorie amount will mean you slip into an underweight range.
To maintain that perfect number, you now need to increase your food intake to 1500 calories a day. We’ll show you how – there’s a 12WBT program to suit you.
You should boost each of your meals to 400 calories and continue to snack on a total of 300 calories through the day.
When to Tweak Those Calories
But if you start to see the weight creeping back on, you may need to cut back on your calorie count slightly – everyone’s different, so you have to find the right amount of calories for you.
Try going down to 1400 calories to see if your weight stabilises, and if not, go down a bit more until the number on the scales stays steady.
On the other hand, you might find that you keep losing weight on a 1500 calories-a-day eating plan.
If so, add calories in small increments (50 calories to 100 calories a day) until your weight stays the same. It’s about finding the balance and a plan that works for you and your lifestyle.
Says 12WBTer Angela: “The only way to keep weight off and stay challenged is to harness a love for what you’re doing and make it part of your day rather than a chore. It’s not: ‘Oh, I have to go to the gym now.’ It’s more like: ‘Time for the gym. This is my time!'"
Just because you’re aiming to hold fast with your weight doesn’t mean you get to slack on exercise!
Keep aiming to burn 400 to 800 calories four or five times a week, plus 1000 calories during your Saturday workout.
If you need to play around with your calories to stabilise your weight, you should do it through your diet rather than by cutting back on exercise.
Calories for WEIGHT GAIN in Women
If you struggle to put on weight or have lost too much weight due to exercise, breastfeeding or illness, you’ll need to increase your daily calorie intake to add kilos to your frame and bring your BMI into the healthy range.
But make sure you get the green light from your doctor first, especially if you’re suffering or have suffered from an illness.
To gain weight, you should consume 1600 calories a day. Each one of your meals should be about 400 calories and you can snack on a total of 400 calories a day. If you prefer, have 430 to 435 calories for each meal and keep your snack total to 300 calories – whatever works best for you. We have different calorie plans for women, depending on your needs.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should aim for 1700 calories a day – 12WBT has a pregnancy plan just for you.
Make sure those extra calories come from healthy foods rather than processed junk food – a lot of underweight people make the mistake of eating whatever they want because they think any calorie is worth having.
But unhealthy food isn’t good for your body, no matter how little you weigh. Try to add calories in the form of healthy fats (such as avocado, olive oil and nuts) and wholegrain bread and cereals.
When to Adjust the Calories
Even when you’re trying to gain a few kilos, stick to a regular exercise program that includes burning 400 to 800 calories four or five times a week plus a more intense workout once a week. You can choose from 13 different 12WBT fitness programs.
If you keep losing too much weight, add more calories to your diet from healthy foods and consider cutting back on your cardio workouts slightly, focusing on strength training instead.
Just like someone who’s trying to lose weight, you'll need to keep a close eye on the scales to monitor your progress.