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Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/4/2007 1:51:21 PM ET 2007-09-04T17:51:21

Many of today’s nutrition recommendations are based on calorie needs, whether for weight control or for foods that fit in a healthy diet.

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Unfortunately, most of us apparently can't identify our calorie needs. In a 2006 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, 88 percent of respondents could not accurately estimate how many calories they should eat every day.

Calorie needs depend on weight, age, gender and activity level, as well as individual metabolic rate. The figures from the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion provide a rough estimate. Women ages 31 to 50 who exercise less than 30 minutes a day need about 1,800 calories daily, while men need about 2,200. Those under 30 can add 200 to that figure; those over 50, subtract 200.

Women ages 31 to 50 who exercise 30 minutes a day can eat about 2,000 calories daily, while men can eat about 2,400. Men under 30 can add 200 (sorry, women, no change); everybody over 50, subtract 200.

Finally, women ages 31 to 50 who are very active — 60 minutes or more daily exercise — need about 2,200 calories a day, while men need about 3,000. Women under 30 can add 200 (men, sorry, no change for you); men over 50, subtract 200.

For a more accurate estimate of recommended calories that reflects your height and weight, go to www.mypyramid.gov and click on MyPyramid Plan. Recalculate your needs with every five to 10 pound change, since calorie needs change with weight.

Strategies for a balanced diet
Recommended limits of fat consumption are based on calorie needs. If you multiply estimated calorie needs by 0.011, you will see your recommended maximum grams of saturated fat daily. (For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day, that equates to a maximum of 22 grams of saturated fat a day.) Those with high cholesterol may need to reduce saturated fat below this figure. A registered dietitian can help.

How much junk food is reasonable in a healthy diet? The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans include a “discretionary calories allowance.” Discretionary calories represent the extra foods and drinks that supply calories without much nutritional value. The allowance is 132 discretionary calories a day for someone maintaining weight and eating about 1,600 calories a day, and 290 discretionary calories daily for someone who needs 2,200 calories a day.

Strategies for a balanced diet change with calorie level, too. On about 1,600 calories a day, five servings of grains (equal to five slices of bread) is enough, whereas someone needing 2,200 calories a day should eat seven servings daily. Someone who needs only 1,600 calories a day can meet fruit and vegetable recommendations with seven servings daily, but someone who needs 2,200 calories or more should aim for at least 10 per day.

Goals for losing weight
Of course, you don’t need to know your exact calorie needs to control your weight. If losing weight is your goal, you can shift the balance between the amount of calories you eat and the amount you burn through activity.

If you drop about 500 calories a day, you will lose about one pound a week. You can cut 500 calories a day from what you currently eat and drink, or cut 300 calories a day and burn an additional 200 in activity.

If you’ve been substantially overeating, you might even be able to create a 1,000-calorie total shift, which would lead you to lose two pounds a week.

It’s easy to drop 100 calories per meal with simple changes, such as eating smaller portions, replacing chips or a doughnut with fruit, choosing reduced-fat products or dropping sugar-sweetened drinks.

The same principle applies to those who want to gain weight healthfully. You don’t need to stuff yourself or eat unhealthy foods. Simply add 100 calories to each of three meals and two snacks daily by choosing slightly larger portions, using a little more olive oil in a stir-fry or salad, or adding one glass of juice or a handful of nuts.

But whether you are working to lose or gain weight, or are happy with your current weight, getting at least a rough idea of your recommended calorie needs can help you interpret food labels to make better choices for a healthful diet.

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