For a baseline guide to the number of calories you need to eat each day, it may help to begin with a better understanding of your basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories your body burns to perform its ongoing essential functions.
“Basal metabolic rate represents the number of calories needed to fuel your body to breathe, circulate blood and control body temperature. It does not include the calories needed for movement or digesting food,” said Caitlin Bus, a licensed and registered dietitian, as well as a certified diabetes educator, who works at Renown Health. “In other words, it is an estimate of how many calories you would burn in a day if you did nothing but lay still all day.”
Given the fact most folks do more than that, it makes sense we need to consume enough calories to meet and exceed our basal metabolic rate — and never dip below it. After all, the calories that make up this rate provide fuel for crucial functions.
“Although reducing your calorie consumption and increasing your energy expenditure should promote weight loss, it is important not to reduce calorie intake below your basal metabolic rate,” Bus said. “Over-restricting calories can lead to a plateau in weight loss, as your body feels like it is being starved and reserves its current energy stores until food is ample again.”
However, you can use your basal metabolic rate as a tool to guide you on the path toward healthy weight loss. To begin, you need to know how many calories your body needs simply to survive — a number that can vary greatly from person to person and also over time.
“Many factors influence a person’s basal metabolic rate. They include age, body composition, gender and genetics. Growing children and young people burn more calories per pound of body weight because they are making bones, and increasing muscle mass and other cells,” said Keiko Case, a licensed and registered dietitian with Northern Nevada Medical Center. “As you get older, the metabolic rate decreases by two percent every decade, which is one of the contributing factors for middle-age weight gain.”
Besides age, another factor that impacts basal metabolic rate is the amount of lean muscle mass you have — more muscle mass requires more calories for basic maintenance, which is why men tend to have higher metabolic rates than women. To help combat the gradual decrease in basal metabolic rate that comes with age, it can help to engage in regular strength training to build and keep lean muscle mass.
“Metabolic rate also increases as weight, height and surface area increase,” Bus said. “This means heavier people have a higher metabolic rate, as it takes more calories for daily functions such as breathing and controlling body temperature.”
For a quick and easy estimate of your own essential caloric needs, find an online calculator for basal metabolic rate, where you will be asked to input your height, weight, age and gender. For a more accurate reading, seek out local fitness centers and medical clinics that offer assessments of basal or resting metabolic rate.
Once you have a better grip on how much fuel your body needs simply to survive, you can begin to tally the total number of calories you need for overall daily activities and to reach any weight-related goals.
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To guide weight loss, get to know your basal metabolic rate