It's the million-dollar question, really. And everyone's answer will be different. Mostly because everyone's needs are different. At least that's my opinion, my not-a-dietician-or-nutritionist opinion. But there are ways to get a good guesstimate if you're the type of person that needs a hardcore number to focus on. Me, I'm not. I'm just curious, and so it goes that living my dietary life according to a number just stresses me out and makes me eat more. Simply because I can't go over a certain number. It's like I automatically want to. So I don't record every last calorie. Maybe I should. But I don't. I rely more on how I feel and how my clothes fit. And my performance at the gym.
These things are all-telling, and this has worked fairly well for me so far.
But I suppose we should talk about that magic number. Just in case you're the type of person—it's perfectly OK to be that type of person, btw. A few things to consider:
1) You need a certain number of calories to simply just exist. Without those calories, your body freaks out. It can't do what it needs to, like make you breathe and keep you awake. This concept is otherwise known as your resting energy expenditure (REE).
2) If you are exercising, or if you are breastfeeding (me), you'll need to add a certain number of calories to your diet in order to accommodate these activities. Because, and I'm sure you know this, these activities burn calories that eventually need to be replaced. This, of course, is how you'd maintain your existing weight. Translation: activity energy expenditure (AEE).
3) Here's where it gets tricky. If you are trying to lose weight, you'll need to make sure that calories-in aren't greater than calories-out at the end of the day. But, let it be known, you'll still need to take in more than that basic just-to-exist amount.
I know, it's confusing. Let's break it down with some help from a handout (courtesy of DSWFitness).
Step #1: Determine your resting energy expenditure using one of the following formulas.
Talk to a dietician/nutritionist if you have some serious weight loss goals. Only they can help you determine a safe and effective weight loss plan.
Remember, the easiest way to lose weight is to be honest with yourself about your diet and the amount of exercise you're getting. The two go hand-in-hand, and you absolutely cannot expect to see results if you eat crap daily but still hit the gym (or vice versa).
Question: Do you count calories? Why or why not?