If youre monitoring your weight, youre probably interested to know how many calories you burn in a day.
It makes sense, considering that calorie counting is one of the most popular ways to lose or maintain weight, among many of the other diets that work. But, its important to note that the answer to this question will be different for everyone. How many calories you burn on any given day is all dependent on what you get up to.
So whether youre looking to know how many calories you burn in a day through particular exercises or just through eating, drinking and breathing, this is what the experts want you to know.
What is a calorie?
Calories are the unit of measurement for the amount of energy in food and drink.
Everyone needs to eat a certain amount of calories to keep functioning. According to the NHS, this is around 2500 calories a day for a man and 2000 a day for a woman. However, this number actually depends on a whole range of factors, including whether youre looking to gain pounds or wondering how to lose weight.
Dr Greg Potter, nutritionist and chief science officer at Resilient Nutrition, says that when it comes to weight loss, maintenance or gaining weight, what many people are really interested in is the energy balance over time. So, the difference between the calories they ingest and the calories they expend, he explains.
If someone wants to lose weight, they want the long-term trajectory to be such that they are expending more calories than they consume.
How many calories do I burn a day?
Most people will burn over 1800 calories every day, without doing any exercise at all.
As Dr Potter explains, this is because we burn most of our calories just through daily bodily functions. Our bodies have all sorts of different housekeeping functions they have to maintain even at rest. Your heart is always beating, your brain requires lots of energy. That resting energy expenditure actually makes up the majority of calories people burn each day, he says.
Naturally, if you do any exercise or have an active job then youre likely to burn more calories.
On average, someone with a job where they walk around for most of the day will do over 14,000 more steps than someone with a sedentary job.
This finding comes from a study by the American Council on Exercise and the Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. They looked at 10 different occupations and how many steps each person did every day. A mail carrier, for instance, does around 18, 904 steps per day according to the study. This works out to about 882 more calories burned per day than a secretary, who will supposedly burn 196 calories throughout the day.
However, its a little bit more complicated than this. How many calories youll burn per day, either just through your bodily functions or with the addition of exercise, also depends on three main factors according to the Mayo Clinic:
How many calories do I burn without exercise?
The average person burns around 1800 calories a day doing absolutely nothing. According to the Healthy Eating Guide, sitting burns an estimated 75 calories per hour.
A sedentary woman aged 19 to 30 burns 1,800 to 2,000 calories daily, while a sedentary woman aged 31 to 51 burns about 1,800 calories per day.
However, its not always as simple as that. Dr Potter explains, The number of calories you burn each day depends on your body composition first and foremost. What that means is, the more fat-free mass you have (the body weight you have thats not made up of fat, e.g. muscle) is the main determinant of how many calories youll burn.
As a study from the University of Cambridge shows, muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue as its metabolically more active. This means it works more to grow, produce energy and eliminate waste material. So the more muscle you have, the larger amount of energy your body uses up (even during rest), which means your body burns calories while effectively doing nothing.
While we all want to believe that you can lose weight without diet or exercise, this is largely untrue. So, when youre thinking about what exercise you may want to include in your regime, Dr Potter says that if you want to burn calories in the long-term then it helps to build muscle or at least hang onto the muscle you already have.
How many calories do I burn during exercise?
How many calories you burn during exercise depends on: weight/height, sex and age.
However, if youre looking to take up an exercise that burns the most calories per minute, there are some that are more intensive than others. This is how much a 68kg, 5ft 6 woman in her 30s may burn per minute when working at an average pace:
However, this may be more or less depending on how intense the workout is and the variety of factors listed above.
Naturally, the most successful exercise will be the one you enjoy most. While running tends to burn more calories than cycling, if the idea of going out for a run fills you with a deep dread, youre less likely to go.
Doing an exercise you like means youre more likely to stick to it, Credit: Getty.
However, if youre relatively new to exercise and still finding your groove in what you do and dont like, Dr Potter says theres one type of exercise thats perfect for those looking to lose weight.
He says, If I was going to pick one exercise for somebody whose goal is weight-loss, knowing that people are a bit crunched for time, I would definitely push them towards doing strength training.
Not only is strength training (otherwise known as resistance training) proven to burn more calories in the longer term, whether that be weightlifting or callisthenics, its also better for maintaining an all round body composition.
If those who are losing weight dont do resistance training, Dr Greg Potter says, Theyll end up losing a big proportion of their mass as fat mass but also a relatively substantial portion of their mass as fat-free mass. Theyll lose muscle mass and bone mass and so on as well.
A few years down the line, the depletion of muscle mass could lead to less mobility and greater weakness, meaning youre more prone to falling over and fractures. While the loss of bone mass can trigger conditions such as osteoporosis, otherwise known as weak bones. Its a disease that causes bones to become brittle and makes them more likely to fracture too.
However, if they do resistance training, theyll hold onto a lot more of their fat-free mass.
Resistance training is also a good exercise to go for, as you really never know how many calories youre actually burning through exercise even when you use a fitness tracker.
Whats important to recognise is that when somebody steps on a treadmill and they see some estimate of calories burnt while running, they often forget two things, Dr Potter tells GoodtoKnow.One, that it is just an estimate and its probably not particularly accurate. Its actually quite difficult to measure energy expenditure (i.e. calories burnt) in the real world.
And two, people often forget that they would have been burning calories at rest anyway during a bout of exercise. I think many people go wrong because theyll go to the gym, get on a treadmill and stay on it for an hour.
Itll say something like 500 calories burnt and theyll think, great, Ive just earned an additional 500 calories on top of what I would have burnt. But the reality is, they would have burnt some of those calories at rest anyway.
This is why its important to look at your diet first if youre looking to gain or lose weight.
How many calories should I eat to lose weight?
Typically, to lose weight you have to eat 500 calories fewer than your maintenance level.
If you have a calorie deficit of 500 per day, according to a leading study on the subject, youll lose one pound per week as 3,500 calories roughly works out to one pound of body fat. In a month, you may lose almost 2kg in weight.
Find out your maintenance level with a simple calorie calculator.
Calorie counting is one of the most popular ways to manage a diet without sticking to a specific one, like the Sirtfood Diet for example. It involves setting yourself a limit, depending on whether you want to lose, maintain or gain weight, and literally counting the number of calories you consume per day to ensure it meets this.
8 calorie counting weight loss tips
Needless to say, calorie counting is a tiring process that requires plenty of planning and oversight. But if you want to give it a go yourself, here are eight expert-recommended tips for calorie counting:
Weigh and measure all of your food and drink
Thats right. To even attempt calorie counting successfully, you have to measure and weigh out everything that you put into your body. So whether thats your morning coffee or the ketchup on your chips, it all needs to be recorded.
But there are apps that can help with this. These are some of the best ones:
While theres no guarantee that the nutritional information in the app will be entirely correct, unfortunately, you do have the option to scan labels and input the nutritional information yourself.
It may help to use an app when counting calories, Credit: Getty.
If you have a Fitbit, you can also record your calories within the Fitbit app. This will then weigh up the number of calories youve eaten throughout the day with the number youve burnt, whether through exercise or daily movement.
Limit calorie tracking to just a week or two
While those whose entire living is based on their weight may be able to make calorie counting sustainable, its not achievable for the everyday person. But calorie counting just for a week or two is a good way to discover whats actually in the food youre eating.
Some people, when theyre starting out, they really dont know whats in food. They dont really know what carbohydrates are. They dont know which foods are rich in protein, and so on. And so assuming somebody has a relatively healthy relationship with food, but they dont really know whats in food, I think calorie counting can be helpful. And I think the actual process of tracking [eating] behaviour is often helpful too, Dr Potter says.
Focus on the food youre eating not just the calories
When it comes to counting calories, its also important to look at the nutritional information of the food youre eating.
Ensure youre focusing on the nutrient density rather than solely the calories, Nutritionist Jenna Hope tells GoodtoKnow.
For example, oatcakes contain more calories than rice cakes but theyre also higher in fibre and B-vitamins. Fibre contributes to satiety and so theyll leave you feeling fuller for longer.
Having a source of complete protein is also important, Dr Potter says. A fist-sized source of complete protein at each meal is a pretty good place to start. These are basically all animal sources of protein and there are some plant ones too. Its important for fat-free mass but its also the most satiating of all the macronutrients. One gram of protein is more satisfying that one gram of carbohydrate or fat on average. And so, protein is very good at keeping hunger at bay relative to the other macronutrients.
He also adds, You burn more calories digesting protein than you do burning carbohydrates or fats on average.
Dont cut your calories too low
According to NHS guidance, if you need to lose weight you should aim for a loss of maximum 2 pounds per week until you reach a healthy weight for your height.
You should be able to lose this amount if you eat and drink about 500 to 600kcal fewer a day than you need, they say.
Cutting your calorie intake by more than this can have a serious impact on your health. Theyre not easy diets to follow through with and they can have dangerous side-effects.
Side effects of a low-calorie diet can include:
While very low calorie diets can lead to short term weight loss, it is likely that the weight will come back on after the diet ends, the guidance adds.
Low energy levels, linked to not eating enough, are famously a reason why many of us feel tired all the time. Our body needs calories to function day-to-day so when you limit these, youre likely to feel fatigued.
Focus on long-term lifestyle changes rather than a quick fix
Ultimately, calorie counting is not sustainable in the long-term and weight loss is affected by many other factors as well as what you put into your body.
Weight can also be heavily affected by sleep and stress too. Therefore, try to ensure youre getting ample sleep and that youre managing stress where possible too, Jenna says.
Try high-volume eating
The worst part of counting calories will be feeling hungry. This is almost inevitable if youre reducing the amount of food youd normally eat in a day.
High-volume eating can work to counteract this. Its a strategy of eating where you can consume a large amount of food while not exceeding your calorie goals as youre eating a lot of food thats low in density, i.e. low in calories.
Its based on the idea that a foods physical weight and the number of calories it has is not directly linked. For example, 160g of (cooked) red lentils works out to be about 154 calories. While 170g of (cooked) white pasta works out to be almost double this at 282 calories.
This is because white pasta is significantly richer in carbohydrates, which have a higher calorific value, than red lentils. So by eating for volume, you can eat more food while consuming less calories.
Make sensible food swaps
Swapping out calorie-dense foods for lighter ones means you have more calories to work with.
But this doesnt even need to be as extreme as swapping your favourite spaghetti bolognese for lentils. It can be something as simple as swapping from whole milk to sugar-free oat milk. The difference between the two may only be 20 calories per 100ml. But if you drink multiple cups of milky tea or coffee every day, it can really add up.
Try zig-zag calorie counting
Not only is eating exactly the same number of calories every day likely to get boring very quickly as youll undoubtedly find yourself sticking to similar foods, theres also evidence to suggest that it will stop working after a while.As one study from 2015 found, a three-week low calorie diet decreased participants metabolisms by more than 100 calories.
Zigzag calorie counting aims to combat this as you alternate the number of calories you eat on any given day. The same study found that when they switched participants onto a higher-calorie diet in the fourth week of the program, their metabolism increased to above the starting level.
For it to work, you should have a combination of high-calorie days and low-calorie days. All these add up to your weekly calorie target.
So for example, if your weekly calorie target is 14,000 calories per week (2,000 per day) then you may eat 2,300 calories for three days a week and 1,775 for the other four days of the week.
One way to beat a weight loss plateau is through zig-zag calorie counting, Credit: Canva.
This method of calorie counting prevents the body from adapting to the lower number of calories and putting you into a weight loss plateau, research shows. Aseven-week study of participants who had taken part in calorie-restricted diet found that a heavy carbohydrate refeed for two consecutive days was more effective at preventing the loss of fat-free mass than a continuous cycle of energy restriction. They also discovered that the participants resting metabolic rate was slightly better maintained.
And a second study from the Obesity Society also confirmed that intermittent low-calorie diets were more effective for weight loss than a continuous restriction.
Calorie counting: Is it for you?
Here are some other things to consider:
Its not the healthiest way to lose weight
Nutritionist Jenna says, Calorie counting is generally not the healthiest approach to losing weight. It oversimplifies nutrition and dietary choices. Making healthy decisions should be based on a wide range of factors including proteins, fibre and micronutrients.
The nutrition label on the back of food packets isnt always correct
Also if you do decide to calorie count, be aware that what you nutritional information wont always be true.
The calories listed on food labels are often inaccurate, Jenna says.
Or there wont be a nutrition label at all
So if the labels arent always correct (or they dont exist), youll have to make an educated guess. Youll have to base your plan around the nutritional values you do know if you know any of them.
Whether calorie counting will work for you also depends almost entirely on your lifestyle. If youre someone who enjoys going out to eat or drink, at a friends house or in a restaurant, youre naturally going to find it harder to count calories. You wont always know the calorific value of the food youre eating.
While the government did announce intentions to list the nutritional information some restaurant menus, this hasnt happened yet. The requirement to do so would also only apply to chains with more than 250 employees. This means ruling out any smaller or independent eateries.
You may experience a negative impact on your mental health
Naturally, a restrictive diet of this kind can have unwanted effects after you decide to stop.
Tracking calories can become all consuming and can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing, Jenna says.
And its particularly not recommended for those who have experienced disordered eating in the past. Time and time again, calorie counting has been associated with the development of an unhealthy relationship with food.
For example, one 2018 study found that out of 105 people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 75% said that they used an app to count their calories. While 73% reported that they felt using an app like this contributed to their eating disorder.
While another, also conducted in 2018 and published in the journal of Eating and Weight Disorders, found that frequent self-weighing and calorie counting were two factors directly linked to a higher severity of eating disorder.
The research concluded, instead, that intuitive eating (only eating when youre hungry) was better for healthier outcomes.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and can manifest in many ways. If you need help, eating disorder charity Beat has support available. Learn more via their website or contact them via their helplines.