Calories are simply a tool of measurement. Like a cup or an inch or the number of miles in your daily commute, calories measure the energy a food or beverage provides from the carbs, fat, protein, and alcohol it contains. Calories provide us with fuel to work and think and play–even to rest and sleep. Unfortunately, they can also give us love handles and muffin tops.
Though that standard “2,000 calorie diet” is well known, the number of daily calories our bodies require depends on a variety of factors, including genetics, gender, age, weight, body composition, and activity level. As unfair was it may seem, women may need to push away from the table before men. The USDA provides a list of recommended daily calories for men, women, and children of all ages and activity levels.
- Women, 19–51 years old: 1,800–2,400
- Men, 19–51 years old: 2,200–3,000
- Children and adolescents, 2–18 years old: 1,000–3,200
People who lead more active lifestyles or those who want to gain weight will need to consume a bit more. The National Institute of Health (NHLBI.NIH.gov/health) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA.gov) both offer more precise guidelines further broken down into age groups and activity levels.
But it’s also important to get the right mix of calories. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NationalAcademies.org) recommends that, for adults, 45 to 65 percent of our calories should come from carbohydrates, 20 to 25 percent from fat, and 10 to 35 percent from protein. And less than 25 percent of our total calories should come from added sugars.
A free, government-funded tool at ChooseMyPlate.gov can help you calculate the number and quality of calories you’re taking in and recommends simple changes to improve your diet and lifestyle.
Beware of ‘healthy’ foods with hidden calories.
Commercial chains often add syrups or refined sugars to natural sugars, include full-fat yogurt, even chocolates, resulting in 1,000-calorie smoothies (more than a fast-food burger).
Store-bought versions often contain sugar-coated pieces, yogurt-covered raisins, and deep-fried banana chips crammed with trans-fats and refined carbs.
Processed with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, and saturated fats, they can contain 350 calories or more (as many as a regular candy bar).
Many commercially-sold bran muffins include about 800 calories in sugars, fats, butter, and dried fruits (more than a cake doughnut).
It may have less saturated fat than an ice cream but be packed with added sugars and high-fructose corn syrup.
A bowl of store-bought granola with milk could easily hit 600 calories.
Creamy dressings, meats, and croutons can pile on the trans-fats and sugars.
The average food label bases the percentages of daily requirements on a 2,000-calorie adult diet.
New FDA guidelines prompted by the American Healthcare Act (ACA) require fast food chains, vending machine companies, and other restaurants with more than 20 locations to list the number of calories in each of their menu items.
By Mimi Greenwood Knight