Only 12% Of Americans Know How Many Calories They Should Eat Each Day

While calorie information is available for most of the food we eat, that data doesn’t really do the eater any good if you don’t know how many calories you should be consuming each day. Unfortunately, a new survey shows that an overwhelming number of Americans are either mistaken or clueless when it comes to that information.

According to the survey funded by the International Food Information Council Foundation, 63% of those surveyed couldn’t accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume, 25% couldn’t even venture a guess, leaving a slim 12% who were properly informed. 58% of respondents say they don’t try to balance the calories they consume with those they burn.

A good deal of the problem comes from the fact that there are so many factors — age, height, gender, activity level — contributing to one’s ideal caloric intake.

Says a dietician from the Foundation, “Adult calorie requirements can range from 1,400 to 1,600 a day for a small sedentary woman to 4,000 or more calories a day for a highly trained endurance athlete.”

Another dietician wasn’t surprised by the survey’s results:

Nobody knows how many calories they should be eating, nobody knows how many they are eating, and nobody knows how many calories are in foods… I would say it’s beyond calorie-confused. It’s calorie-oblivious.

Many Americans clueless of how many calories they do or should eat [USA Today]


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  1. Daverson says:

    It’s like, 25,000, right?

  2. kricka says:

    Calories shmalories, cut your carbs and up your fat and you will never have to worry about calories again. Free yourself!!!

    • qwickone says:

      But you can start worrying about heart disease!

      • kricka says:

        Fat does not = heart disease, as much as the lipophobes and the pharmaceutical companies would like you to believe that. A little research on the interwebs will uncover the facts.

        • qwickone says:

          Of course not, but a high fat diet (since you didn’t specify a certain type of fat) is strongly correlated with heart disease. And since we’re going with generalities, “up[ing] your fat” will generally lead to heart disease.

          • bennilynn says:

            Actually, there’s some question about that in current research. It seems that certain kinds of sugar may have more of an impact on heart disease than animal fat. In fact, it even depends on the animals you’re eating (free-range grass fed beef is higher in the good fats and lower in the bad fats than factory-farmed grain-fed beef, for example).

            Everything in moderation and buy the best real food you can afford. That seems to be the trick, near as I can tell.

        • dragonfire81 says:

          Wait, you mean is some of what’s on the internet is TRUE?!!

          Oh my…

      • Kishi says:

        Oh, but you won’t have to worry for long.

    • Anonymously says:

      Calories are not to be dismissed, unless the laws of thermodynamics no longer apply. Food contains energy and your body uses it. That energy is measured in calories.

      • baquwards says:

        AMEN. I am so tired of hearing people say to “cut Carbs”!

        Balance people BALANCE. Wanna know what all of the trendy diet plans all have in common? CALORIES, atkins, weight watchers, south beach, nutri system, all have around the same number of calories, they just get those calories in you differently.

        So the idea that you can eat all the protein that you want without gaining weight is wrong. Since protein is less calorie dense than carbs, you can eat more of it, but not an unlimited amount.

    • duncanblackthorne says:

      Bullshit. Your attitude is one of the reasons why we’re a country of fatasses.

  3. Nytmare says:

    Is it even possible to calculate how many calories are in every single food you eat as well as the portion size? Because I don’t see the point in knowing how many you SHOULD be eating when knowing how many you ARE eating is prohibitively complex.

    • Alter_ego says:

      I’m trying to lose weight, and the easiest way for me to do that is by counting. I have a program on my phone with hundreds of name brands, as well as the values of all sorts of fresh foods in different preparations and amounts nit also gives you a ton of different exercises and activities as negative caloric values. Obviously there’s some margin of error, but you can get pretty close

      • Propaniac says:

        It can be helpful whether or not you’re actually tracking every single calorie. If I know I ate about 500 calories for breakfast, I might choose a lighter lunch than if I’d only eaten about 300 calories for breakfast.

      • James T. Savidge says:

        On my iPod Touch I use an app called Tap&Track. It has lots of preconfigured food items and a list of quite a few of the menu items from North American chain restaurants. It also has a way to track your exercise and has the calorie burn rates for quite a few exercises.

        You put in a goal weight, how much you want to lose each week, (1/2 pound up to 2 pounds,) and it tells you what your goal caloric total is for each day. When you record your weight changes it recalculates your calorie goal.

        After eating each meal you pick the food item form a list, pick the amount, and it updates a display to tell you how close you have gotten to your goal for that day. After exercising, you pick the exercise from a list, the intensity of the exercise, and how long you did it. The program will then adjust the caloric goal for that day to help you still hit your weight loss goal for the week.

        I have lost weight, and it has helped me to learn how many calories are in what I’ve been eating, and helped me to better gauge what are good portion sizes for my body.

        The program can also be set to help you gain weight if that is something you need to do.

    • satoru says:

      I lost about 25lbs last year over 6 months. I kind of went through a few phases of counting calories

      1) I researched the calories of restaurants I frequented and determined the calorie counts of those items I ordered frequently. If they were a lot, I would try to find other lower calorie items to choose instead
      2) After awhile I kind of got a good ‘feel’ for how many calories were in a typical meal. Obviously you can be off, but at least having a good ballpark figure was important
      3) I went from counting calories to counting portions instead. I’d try to strive for more vegetables and less meat if possible.

      It’s a slow process. I eventually got used to just eating less in general so even counting calories wasn’t necessary since I wasn’t even hungry. I already knew I was eating healthy and just eyeballed portions accordingly.

      • WeirdJedi says:

        I think I would lose weight if I would buy my own food items and eat them the way I want to. Right now my mother buys whatever I would like – candy, oreos, chocolate, ice cream, french fries, etc. – and also wants me to eat it before it goes to waste. She also engraved the “eat what is on your plate” mentality. I have asked her to stop but whenever she even sees me open the fridge without taking anything out, she believes I am starving.

        It is true. I don’t know how many calories I need. The problem is that society, or even down to the household, can make things a lot more complicated.

    • Das G says:

      It’s not that complex. Livestrong makes it very easy to track.

      • Elginista says:

        Love Livestrong! Combining that with a small digital food scale has helped me drop 30 lbs in the past year. I eat mostly fresh, unprocessed foods, so it takes a bit of math, but Livestrong makes that easy. If I know that a 3 oz serving of steak has 174 calories (for example), and I weigh mine out to 4.1 oz, I just do the math. It’s great especially for calorie-dense foods like nuts or avocado – much easier to determine when I’m staying where I should.

    • blueduckconsumerist says:

      Just ask an anorexic / bulemic.

    • sweaterhogans says:

      I think the only easy way to count calories is to eat premade food. How am I going to calculate food that I’m cooking with all the different ingredients, especially when nothing is measured. I guess the overall strategy should be eat less and if it tastes good it probably has too many calories.

    • duncanblackthorne says:

      It isn’t “prohibitively complex”, it just takes effort — something most people can’t be bothered about.

  4. DWMILLER says:

    The whole calorie guide on a box/carton of food was put into law so the congress critters can say they did something.

  5. aloria says:

    I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. If my clothes start to get too tight or too loose, I adjust my intake accordingly. Perhaps I’m just lucky, but this has always worked for me. I’m about 19% body fat last time I checked.

  6. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    And what percentage know but don’t care anyway? Because, I’d like to give that guy a fat man high five.

  7. satoru says:

    Not to be picky, but I would say USA Today readers specifically wouldn’t know much of anything in general :P

    • craptastico says:

      personally i’ve found the USA Today to be the least biased newspaper in circulation. they’re the only one that doesn’t push their own agenda. you probably don’t like them because they don’t push the agenda you want.

    • bhr says:

      USA Today is the favorite newspaper of midmarket hotels

  8. Dunkelzahn says:

    My problem is not that I don’t know how many calories I am supposed to consume in a single day (my health-nut fiancee certainly lets me know), it’s that I eat the amount of calories I need in a day in one meal. I tend to only eat once a day and hopefully nibble on something over the course of the day.

    • duncanblackthorne says:

      If you’re not losing excess weight it’s BECAUSE you eat like that! You need to split up your calories over 5 or 6 smaller meals and snacks per day. With the constant and regular intake, your body is fooled into believing it’s getting more calories than it really is, and it allows your metabolism to go up. The way you’re eating now is probably making you tired all the time and GAINING weight!

  9. B* says:

    I know to maintain my weight I need about 1400 a day, about 1200 a day to lose a pound a week. Why don’t these dietitians who are so worried about it spend more time inventing food in a pill? I’d even eat soylent green for every meal if it meant I could lose this baby weight without starving myself. It’s 2010 people, surely we can surpass Willy Wonka in the food pill (or gum) research field.

    • kricka says:

      Go Primal. Your life will be much richer and YUMMY.

    • satoru says:

      Food in a pill won’t really work. You’d have to adjust the physical and mental triggers in digestion to not only give you the appropriate 500-700 calories per pill, but also make it so that you actually felt full from doing so. There’s not much point in creating a 500calorie pill of food if you have to pop 10 of them at a time to feel full. I guess if you made it a suppository… .ughh…

      There are also strong genetic factors to overcome. Our bodies store fat for a reason. It’s because only 100 years ago, famine and starvation were pretty common even in developed countries. It’s really only in ‘recent’ history that even the poor, in developed nations, basically have very easy access to food. In the early 1900’s being fat was good, because it meant you were healthy and thus it was a desirable trait. Snake oil salesmen were selling potions to make you fat in those days. The irony

      • B* says:

        Ideally it would be a flavored powder, and you could sprinkle it on something else. Oatmeal would be perfect, because you could get the bulk and fiber there.

    • baquwards says:

      are you not active? I would say that 1400 calories to maintain is very little.

      As a man I can eat 1500 calories a day and lose weight quite fast. To maintain, I can eat 2500 calories a day, and I don’t work out, if I did, it would be around 3000 calories a day.

      • Alter_ego says:

        I’m 5 feet tall. To maintain, I can only eat just less than 1200. I’m hungry a lot.

      • Conformist138 says:

        I’m a 5’2″, 25yo female. I walk a minimum of 1 mile most days (at least 4 days a week, usually 5). In addition, I do a patrol of the building I work in that has me climbing a total of 12 flights of stairs each night. After all that, I gain weight if I consume more than about 1,200 cal/day, if I look at a slice of bread, or if the fat content in my diet rises much above 20%. I’ve gone from 260 to 165 in the last year and I love to eat, so I’m aware of just how many calories I can take in.

        I think the reason people get fat is they don’t consider testing themselves to get a personal result. They just listen to stats and say “I must be just like Mr. Average because I decided I am.” I struggled forever because of the averages and because people treated me like I had an eating disorder whenever I made an effort to slim down. I finally had to say enough is enough and just live the best I can, for me. If that means I eat less than nosy busybodies say I should, so be it. At least I won’t be fat anymore, which gained me a whole other chorus of voices judging my health from a distance.

      • B* says:

        I’m a woman, I’m 5’2″, see other replies. My activity over the years has been high and low, and either way I never noticed a difference. It would only be 300 calories or so anyway. Not that it’s a bad idea, but exercise is only a minor portion of the calculation really.

  10. m1k3g says:

    I know what my BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is, and I’ve tried tracking everything I eat each day for periods of time, but it’s too much of a pain in the *** to keep up for long. Ever try to figure out the approximate number of calories in a bowl of oatmeal with mixed berries, nuts, yogurt, etc? It’s impossible and it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. These days I just try to stay close to what I know keeps me going without my pants getting too tight..

  11. outshined says:

    Calorie reduction + exercise = weight loss. May I have a book contract now, please?

  12. kc2idf says:

    You can compute your metabolism by tracking your calorie intake and net weight change over a period of a month to a few months. At the end of the month, you add up all of the calories you ate. If your weight changed, you adjust this number accordingly.

    The formula for any weight change is: multiply the weight change by 3500 calories per pound, 7700 calories per kilogram or 49000 calories per stone. If you lost weight, add this to your total; if you gained weight, subtract it.

    Once you’ve got this adjusted total, divide it by the number of days you were doing this for. The number you get will tell you how many calories you burn in a day on average. This number will be unique to you; in my case, it is 2395.

    Eat less than that to lose weight; eat more to gain. It’s that simple.

    • Coelacanth says:

      The odds of somebody accurately computing their caloric intake over a period of *months* is pretty slim, except for the most anal-retentive among us.

  13. GearheadGeek says:

    These are the same Americans who don’t know from whom the US declared independence.

    That they don’t know how many calories they should eat isn’t all that surprising.

  14. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    How many calories should I eat in a day? All of them.

  15. MustWarnOthers says:

    Getting into absolute specifics is a total waste of time.

    As long as you can ballpark it within a few hundred calories, the actual number is not THAT important.

    What’s important is getting regular exercise, and making sure those calories aren’t from foods with low nutritional value.

    Eat healthy, smaller meals more often. Don’t use “Hunger” to tell you when to start and stop eating.

    Keep your metabolism moving, and definitely do not starve yourself.

    Eat a good breakfast with healthy fats, carbs and a good amount of protein and you’ll have good energy through the morning. Don’t skip breakfast.

    Stop drinking soda daily. Bring a refillable container with you and drink lots of water.

    Pre-package your meals if you can (throw 2 or 3 meals in ziploc containers).

    None of this is complicated.

  16. XTREME TOW says:

    In WWII, the average adult male male, physicaly fit, and weighing between 160~180 lbs. would need 2,000 calories a day when sitting around SEDENTARY on a troop transport ship, to maintain health and muscle mass. If your going to send someone off to die for his country, you don’t want them malnourished or overweight. That’s where the “Based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet” comment on food packages comes from.
    Any questions?

  17. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    63% of those surveyed couldn’t accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume

    Five bucks says that most people said 2,000 because that’s what’s on all of the nutrition labels even though that’s off for most men who aren’t old and sedentary. (Something medical that’s biased towards women? That’s just crazy!)

    Anyway, how many people actually have this conversation with their doctors? Even if they’re being told to lose weight I doubt most of them are actually telling them how many calories they should shoot for.

  18. Blious says:

    Whether they know it or not is irrelevant, imo, as MOST (not all) would still eat what they eat b/c they are hungry or they want to eat.

    Getting people motivated to eat less still needs to be addressed by each individual if they want to lose weight

  19. Big Mama Pain says:

    But what about all the calories I consume in booze? Those are free, right?

    • Alter_ego says:

      My mom claims food that someone else orders at a restaurant has no calories, which is why she never orders fries or desert, and just eats mine

      • SenorBob says:

        And we all know that calories consumed on vacation don’t count!

        • WeirdJedi says:

          When I was little, Mom would always get me a happy meal and she would eat some of my french fries. One day I felt bad when she got me an order of fries and none for herself. I asked her, “Why don’t you get some yourself?” She responded, “I only eat your little ones. There are less calories in them.” Right after she said that, I started breaking all the fries in half. Lesson learned.

  20. tofupuppy says:

    I just started counting calories last week when I realized that my weight was getting out of control. I was eating close to 3000/day! I’ve cut down to about 1100/day in the past week and have already started losing. Yay!

    • Dallas_shopper says:

      3,000 to 1,100 is an extreme reduction. When you plateau you will have nowhere to go, i.e. you won’t really be able to safely further reduce your caloric intake. You probably need to consume more than 1,100 calories/day at your present weight.

      • tofupuppy says:

        I’m going extreme for the first two weeks to kickstart the weight loss, followed by a more flexible intake for the next 2-3 weeks (international vacation), after which I will be adding strength training to my routine. All of which should help avoid the plateau.

        • grucifer says:

          Yikes, talk about unhealthy. When starting to change your diet a drop of 200-300 calories a day will see you losing a healthy amount of weight per week. 1100 calories is way low for almost anyone.

        • Dallas_shopper says:

          Yeah, don’t listen to me at all; I only lost 120 lbs without surgery. I have no idea what I’m talking about.

  21. two_handed_economist says:

    Even worse, 0% of animals know how many calories they should eat each day.

    • wkm001 says:

      Chances are, if your dog is overweight so are you. But I get what you are saying. You never see an overweight wild animal.

  22. Merricat says:

    Forget “how many calories” and realize like everything else in life that pertains to our bodies, everyone is different. Instead of trying to hit random and arbitrary numbers, read the Hacker’s Diet and consider implementing some of the tools they suggest into your life.

  23. lain1k says:

    It’s difficult even when you are trying. I have tried different calculators and different equations. I’m somewhere between 2600-3200 a day (6’1″ 220lb Male). The definition of an activity level for a lot of calculations is vague. I have an office job but I walk on my lunches sometimes and I work out at least 3x a week. Sometimes I do more strenuous stuff at work. Am I moderate active level or light? Its all overly confusing. Right now I’m eating 2300, hopefully that will help me lose weight :(

    • lain1k says:

      BTW I don’t have the luxury of eating when I feel hungry. I take medication that pretty much makes me hungry all the time. So I count calories.

  24. LMacConn says:

    Wow, and here I’ve been surviving on an unknown number of calories per day based around my fluctuations between being hungry and full.

  25. Dallas_shopper says:

    I know exactly how many I need. 5’6″, female, 35, moderately active (work out every day), looking to maintain a weight between 120 and 122 lbs: about 1950 per day.

    I can’t believe everyone DOESN’T know this.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      I can’t believe that you can’t believe that.

      • Dallas_shopper says:

        Maybe I give people too much credit. I am consistently stunned by how stupid some people are. I have a coworker who makes $75,000 a year who can’t tell you what 10% of 100 is. And yes, her job involves math.

        Draw circle, bang head here.

    • Merricat says:

      You know “exactly” how many? It’s “about… calories”?

    • misslisa says:

      I’m with you sister. In college we had a required health class freshman year; one of our assignments was to calculate the calories we needed to take in daily to either maintain our weight or achieve our ideal weight. We also had to track our daily calories for 1 week & compare it to the goal amount of calories. This was in 1982, and the lesson has stuck with me ever since.

    • harrier666 says:

      Same height, same age, and I eat 1500/day and weight damn 135 and can’t lose it!!! Grrrr (with exercising). So, surely calories mean something but there has to be more at work. Granted, I was about your weight until I went off the pill and did IUD. Hormones? (I should say average 1500/day. I count relatively closely but as someone pointed out, figuring out the calories in a salad with sprinkled feta, cranberries, and walnuts (no dressing) is a bitch).

      • Dallas_shopper says:

        Get a digital food scale; it’ll change your life. You’ll be able to calculate the caloric content of crumbled feta and chopped walnuts with no problem. Mine does both imperial and metric, love it.

  26. wkm001 says:

    Here is a hint. If you are fat and you keep getting fatter, you eat too many calories a day.

  27. BradenR says:

    It’s not the lack of knowledge as to calories needed that causes the problem of obesity. Many people have a pretty good estimate. It’s the refusal to recognize what constitutes a portion and the calories in that portion. I’ve always thought that the overweight need a psychiatrist rather than a regular physician. Using food as an addiction is a sign of mental problems. OVerweight children though need to be put under some sort of child oversight program, perhaps requiring the parents to attend classes. Looks are of no consequence in overweight unless you plan to be a steward/stewardess, etc. Obesity is the on the fast track to destroy the USA with no funds for health care problems and resulting dementias.

  28. Capta76 says:

    I eat until I’m not hungry any longer and then stop.
    I rarely finish a restaurant meal, but usually take the remainder to go.
    And I eat whatever I’m hungry for… no holds barred

  29. Genuineduck says:

    I can’t tell you how many of my college and high school-aged friends gawk when I reveal a typical pack of ramen noodles has as much calories as a McDonalds double cheeseburger.

    People are woefully uninformed and THAT is why we are obese.

  30. Snaptastic says:

    I eat healthy, don’t drink soda, exercise and walk my dog daily–thus I do not pay attention to my caloric intake. Every now and then I get tired, weigh myself and find that my weight is below 125, so I actively eat more (particularly when I am not hungry) until my weight is back over 130.

    It disgusts some people I know, but most of those individuals struggle with their weight because they guzzle soda, eat fried foods for lunch and move the minimum required to get to/from work.

    …and not a one of them will follow my advice when I tell them to eat a vegetable, drop the soda, drink tea and walk around the building on their breaks. Maybe I should just write a book and illustrate it with pretty drawings.

  31. mcmunchkin says:

    I’d love to know how to find out. Doing a search for BMR and RMR testing in my metro area just gives me a bunch of junk results. I know what I need (ballpark) for just sitting around all day, but it’s been kind of tricky for me while training for endurance sports.

  32. JohnnyD says:

    Wow… how can you *not* know? Every ‘nutrition facts’ label says “based on a 2,000 calorie diet.” … I guess 88% of the population has better reading material at breakfast than I do. I’ve read so many cereal boxes.

  33. Levk says:

    eh, who cares, might as well die happy then die by being unhappy, so eat up and enjoy

  34. banmojo says:

    The average American adult should start consuming 300 kcal every 3 hours, all day long. 6 or 7 meals/day = 1800 to 2100 kcal/day. This will keep their metabolism revved up, and they will acquire their ideal weight and then stay there on this diet. This is the ideal diet, not just for diabetics, but for us all. Fatties all have eating disorders, period (I’m a fatty too so don’t be a hater). Can’t blame hormones, genetics, etc ‘cuz at end of day it’s simply calories out vs in.

  35. smo0 says:

    Isn’t this where that shirt “Eat Less” comes in handy?