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by Women's Health Updated 10/2021

Do calories really count, and exactly how many are women supposed to consume each day?

Yes, calories do count. Calories are units of energy, which, along with our activity level, determine what we weigh. If you consume more calories than you need, you will gain weight or maintain a higher weight than you desire. If you consume fewer calories, you can lose weight and maintain a lower weight.

Sixty-seven percent of American women are now overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American woman is 5 feet 5 inches and weighs 166 pounds, while the ideal weight for a woman of that height is approximate­ly 120 to 130 pounds. The numbers don’t lie: it is clear that we are taking in too many calories for the amount of activity that we do, hence the unwanted pounds.

Ask most women over 40, and they will tell you that maintaining their weight is just plain harder than it was in their younger years; those extra pounds come on more easily and are harder to lose. After age 40 hormone changes, loss of muscle mass due to lack of strength training, and a sedentary lifestyle require a revision in intake and output to stay at a healthy weight.

If you are finding yourself at a higher weight than is healthy, or if you’re interested in maintaining your current, healthy weight, understanding the following three basic principles about calories and serving size can help you stay on track.

1.Know how many calories you need.

First, it’s helpful to know approximately how many calories you should consume each day, based on your height and activity level. To maintain your basal metabolic rate—an estimate of how many calories you would burn at rest during a 24-hour period—to maintain basic functions, including breathing and keeping your heart beat­ing, most American women require approximately 1,200 to 1,400 calories each day. To determine daily caloric needs based on activity level, calories burned through activity are added to the standard. One can estimate calorie needs (for a woman weighing approximately 125 pounds) by using the following formula.

Daily Caloric Needs Based On Activity Level ​

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​To understand how to use this information to plan a diet that will lead to weight loss, consider that a sedentary woman at age 45 who weighs 160 pounds, but should be 125 pounds, is consuming approximately 1,900 calories to maintain that weight—400 more calories per day than she needs. And while this may seem like a high number, keep in mind that it does not take bags of chips or boxes of cookies to consume an extra 400 calories per day; an extra ½ cup of rice and 4 more tablespoons of salad dressing does it. So, in theory, that woman would need to cut those 400 calories per day from her diet.

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2.Create a meal plan that reflects the right number of calories.

Below are guidelines to help you determine how much you should consume each day of each food group for 1,300 and 1,500 calories. For those who need to lose weight, determine your needs by going with the amount one level below. For instance, if you maintain your current weight on 1,600 calories per day, you will need to follow a 1,300-calorie food plan for weight loss. Expect weight loss to be slow but steady. It’s not about dieting but rather about correcting overeating.

Each food plan should be balanced with the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat needed for good health. It is important to consume the amounts provided for each food group to get all the nutrients that your body needs. If you are aiming to lose weight, keep extra calories from alcohol and sugar to no more than 500 per week.

Daily Portion and Serving Sizes

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Weekly Indulgences

No more than 500 calories per week for weight loss

No more than 700 calories per week for weight maintenance

3.Understand serving and portion sizes.

When you know how many calories you need and have a sense of what your goal is, be sure to keep an eye on portion sizes. And, be aware that a portion is not the same as a serving: According to the American Heart Association, a “portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time,” while a “serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts label,” an amount suggested by the man­ufacturer.1 Don’t assume that one package, even if it appears to be an individual portion, contains only one serving.

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Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village ( With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.