Information from the International Food and Information Center Food Health Survey in 2011 revealed that only 9 percent of Americans could correctly estimate the number of calories they need in a day. The remainder estimated incorrectly or were unwilling to even venture a guess as to their caloric needs. Furthermore, less than 50 percent of Americans believe that consuming more calories than burned (the concept of more in versus out) leads to weight gain; an additional 25 percent were unsure of the relationship.

The Dietary Guidelines Alliance research provides insight into this calorie confusion. The research revealed that many people believe that what you eat is more important than the number of calories consumed. Most people expressed frustration with having to count calories, saying it is too time consuming and complicated, especially when cooking from scratch. More surprising, some consumers saw calorie consciousness as just the latest in a long series of diet fads and were wary about jumping onboard.

A key recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reinforces the importance of balancing calories in our diet with physical activity to manage weight. The alliance found the following were well understood by people when asked what would motivate them to pay attention to the calories they consume, achieve calorie balance, be more physically active with their family, serve smaller portions and serve lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods more often:

• Know your number. Learning how many calories you should consume in a day is a critical first step in managing your weight.

• Calories count. Calories are like a budget — you can only eat so many in a day. Spend wisely by choosing lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods most of the time to help manage your weight.

• Take charge of your weight. Balancing the calories you eat and drink with the calories you burn through physical activity puts you in control.

• Fun stuff counts as exercise. Get active with the family, whether it’s soccer in the backyard, dancing to music or taking a walk in your neighborhood.

• Small steps make big changes. Serve smaller portions to help curb calories and keep your weight on the right track.

• Base your plate on nutrient-rich foods. Choose foods that offer beneficial nutrients and fewer calories, such as fruits and vegetables, whole and enriched grains, lean meats, beans and nuts and low-fat and fat-free dairy products.

• You are an important role model for your children. Show your family how to savor their favorite higher-calorie foods and beverages by enjoying smaller portions together.

To get a true measure of your daily caloric expenditure you would need to measure your gas exchange or participate in hydrostatic weighing. These methods aren’t always readily available and can be expensive. The next best thing is to estimate your calorie needs.

Estimations can be obtained by using one of various formulas. One reliable formula is the Mifflin-St Jeor equation which calculates your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR.

BMR (male) = 10 x weight(kg) + 6.25 x height(cm) – 5 x age(years) + 5

BMR (female) = 10 x weight(kg) + 6.25 x height(cm) -5 x age(years) – 161

Now you need to calculate your active metabolic rate, or AMR, which is based on your estimation of your daily physical activity. Calculate your AMR by using your BMR and estimating your current level of activity.

If you are:

Sedentary (little or no exercise): AMR = BMR x 1.2

Lightly active (light exercise-work 1-3 days per week): AMR = BMR x 1.375

Moderately active (moderate exercise-work 3-5 days per week): AMR = BMR x 1.55

Very active (hard exercise-work 6-7 days a week): AMR = BMR x 1.725

Extra active (very hard exercise-work 6-7 days a week): AMR = BMR x 1.9

Your AMR represents the number of calories you need to stay at your current weight. If you want to lose weight, you need to increase your level of physical activity level or decrease your caloric intake by eating less. If you want to gain weight then you need to increase your caloric or decrease your physical activity level.

If you reduce your current caloric intake by 500 calories every day, you will lose about one pound each week. If you need to gain weight then increasing your daily caloric intake by 500 calories will add a pound in a week. For weight loss, don’t go below 1,200 calories each day and don’t waste your time on crash diets.

If these calculations are more than you want to bother with, try a website such as or and they’ll do the calculations for you.

Knowing your daily caloric needs is an important piece of information to be aware of in helping to maintain a healthful weight.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at