How do you calculate discretionary calories?

What are discretionary calories?

Discretionary calories refer to the extra calories left over in your daily calorie budget after accounting for the calories you get from nutrient-dense foods. These are the “fun” calories that you can use on treats, alcohol, condiments, etc. Knowing how to calculate your discretionary calorie allowance can help you stay within your daily calorie goal while still enjoying some flexibility in your diet.

Why calculate discretionary calories?

There are a few key reasons to calculate your discretionary calorie allowance:

  • It helps you stay within your daily calorie goal. By budgeting discretionary calories, you know exactly how much room you have for extras each day.
  • It encourages you to get most calories from nutritious foods. Discretionary calories are meant to supplement your intake of foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, etc.
  • It allows for flexibility and sustainability. Rigid diets often backfire because they don’t account for real-life situations or cravings. Having some discretionary calories built into your plan prevents feeling deprived.
  • It facilitates weight loss if needed. When trying to lose weight, cutting out discretionary calories can help create the necessary calorie deficit.
  • It helps with weight maintenance. Carefully tracking discretionary calories can enable you to enjoy treats in moderation without gaining weight.

Knowing how many discretionary calories you can have takes the guesswork out of making room for treats and alcohol while still supporting your health and weight goals.

How to calculate discretionary calories

Figuring out your daily discretionary calorie allowance takes just a few simple steps:

  1. Determine your total daily calorie needs. This number will depend on factors like your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level. Online TDEE calculators can help determine a starting point.
  2. Decide what percentage of calories should come from nutrient-dense foods. As a general guideline, aim for at least 80-90% of calories to come from nutritious whole foods.
  3. Multiply your total daily calories by the percentage from nutrient-dense foods. For example, if you need 2,000 calories/day and want 85% to come from nutritious foods, do: 2,000 x 0.85 = 1,700 calories.
  4. Subtract the calories from nutrient-dense foods from your total daily needs. Continuing the example above, do: 2,000 – 1,700 = 300 calories.
  5. The remaining calories are your discretionary allowance. In this case, 300 calories per day can come from extras like dessert, wine, condiments, etc.

Let’s look at a detailed example:

Say your TDEE is calculated as 2,200 calories per day. You want 85% of your calories to come from nutritious foods like veggies, fruit, whole grains, lean protein, etc.

Total daily calories: 2,200
85% from nutritious foods: 2,200 x 0.85 = 1,870
Remaining for discretionary: 2,200 – 1,870 = 330

Therefore, your discretionary calorie allowance would be 330 calories per day.

Tips for calculating discretionary calories

Here are some tips to accurately calculate and make the most of your discretionary calorie allowance:

  • Focus on nutrient-dense foods first. Build your meals and snacks around fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, etc. Discretionary calories should complement these healthy choices.
  • Use a calorie tracking app. Apps like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt make it easy to calculate discretionary calories as you log your daily food intake.
  • Re-calculate as needed. Adjust your discretionary calorie allowance if your activity level or weight loss goals change over time.
  • Be mindful of portions. Even healthy fats like olive oil and avocado count as discretionary calories. Monitor serving sizes.
  • Boost nutrition with discretionary choices. Pick desserts and snacks made with nutritious ingredients like fruit, nuts, dark chocolate, etc.
  • Bank calories for later. Skip discretionary foods earlier in the day to have extra calories for a special dinner out.
  • Stay hydrated. Thirst is sometimes confused for hunger. Drink water before reaching for discretionary snacks.

Tracking and budgeting discretionary calories takes some extra work but yields big rewards. The flexibility helps sustain healthy habits over the long-term without constantly feeling deprived.

Foods that fit into discretionary calories

Nearly any food can fit into your discretionary calorie allotment in appropriate portions. Here are some common examples:

  • Desserts – cakes, cookies, ice cream, chocolate, candy, etc.
  • Fried foods – french fries, potato chips, chicken nuggets, etc.
  • Fast food – pizza, burgers, tacos, etc.
  • Alcohol – beer, wine, cocktails, liquor, etc.
  • Sugary drinks – soda, juice, sweetened coffee and tea, etc.
  • Condiments – ketchup, mayo, salad dressing, oil, butter, etc.
  • Sauces – soy sauce, marinara, cheese sauce, gravy, etc.
  • Processed snacks – granola bars, crackers, dried fruit with added sugar, etc.
  • Starchy sides – white rice, quinoa, regular pasta, potatoes, etc.

The key is sticking within your allocated discretionary calories for these foods and enjoying them in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.

Foods that don’t count as discretionary

Since the point of discretionary calories is to account for extras beyond nutritious foods, the following do not count toward your discretionary allowance:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread
  • Beans and legumes
  • Lean proteins like chicken breast, fish, tofu
  • Low-fat dairy like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Nuts, seeds and natural nut butters
  • Spices, herbs, mustard, hot sauce
  • Beverages like water, unsweetened tea and coffee, sparkling water
  • Plain Greek yogurt and hummus

These nourishing foods should make up the foundation of your daily calorie intake before using any discretionary calories. Focus on getting a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, plant compounds, and protein from whole food sources.

How many discretionary calories per day?

Recommended discretionary calories per day vary based on your total calorie needs and goals:

  • Maintenance – 10-20% of total calories
  • Mild weight loss – 5-10% of total calories
  • Moderate weight loss – No more than 5% of total calories
  • Extreme weight loss – Less than 5% of total calories

As a general guideline:

  • 2,000 calories per day – 200-400 discretionary calories
  • 1,500 calories per day – 75-150 discretionary calories
  • 1,200 calories per day – 60-100 discretionary calories

However, the best approach is to calculate your individual calorie needs and divide discretionary calories accordingly. Focus on getting most calories from filling, nutritious whole foods.

Sample discretionary calorie budgets

To see discretionary calorie budgets in action, here are some examples for both weight loss and maintenance goals:

Weight loss

Jessica is aiming to lose about one pound per week. Her TDEE is calculated at 1,900 calories per day. She decides to eat 1,400 calories daily to create a 500 calorie per day deficit.

  • Total daily calories: 1,400
  • 90% from nutritious foods: 1,400 x 0.9 = 1,260
  • Discretionary calories: 1,400 – 1,260 = 140

So Jessica has 140 discretionary calories per day for times when she wants a small treat, glass of wine with dinner, sauce on her chicken, etc. This moderate deficit – coupled with regular exercise – will help her lose weight while still allowing for flexibility.


Ryan is focused on maintaining his current weight. His TDEE comes out to 2,400 calories per day to neither gain nor lose. He decides to designate 15% of his calories to discretionary foods.

  • Total daily calories: 2,400
  • 85% from nutritious foods: 2,400 x 0.85 = 2,040
  • Discretionary calories: 2,400 – 2,040 = 360

Ryan’s discretionary calorie allotment is 360 calories, which gives him room for a daily treat like a small bowl of ice cream. He fills the rest of his diet with nutritious whole foods to stay satisfied.

Adjusting discretionary calories for goals

You may need to adjust your discretionary calorie allowance over time based on changing needs and goals:

  • Reducing calories for weight loss – Cut 100-200 discretionary calories to create a moderate deficit for shedding pounds.
  • Increasing calories if underfueling – Add an extra 100-150 discretionary calories if feeling low energy, moody and hungry.
  • Making room for special occasions – Slash discretionary calories for a few days beforehand to “bank” calories.
  • Accommodating changing activity – If you burn significantly more or less than normal, adjust total calories up or down.
  • Transitioning off aggressive diet – Slowly increase discretionary calories by 50 per week to prevent rebound overeating.

The most sustainable diets build in flexibility to account for the changing circumstances of real life. Focus on your overall pattern of eating rather than perfection each day.

Sample meal plan with discretionary calories

Here is a sample daily meal plan for a 2,000 calorie diet with 300 discretionary calories (15% of total):

Breakfast – 400 calories

  • 1 cup oatmeal cooked in water – 150 calories
  • 1 cup blueberries – 80 calories
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter – 95 calories
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk – 30 calories
  • 1 cup coffee with 1 tbsp half & half – 45 calories

Lunch – 550 calories

  • Tuna salad made with 3 oz tuna, 2 tbsp light mayo, mustard, celery, lettuce on whole grain bread – 550 calories
  • 1 medium apple – 95 calories

Snack – 170 calories

  • 1 oz dry roasted almonds – 170 calories

Dinner – 680 calories

  • 4 oz grilled salmon – 230 calories
  • 1 cup roasted broccoli – 60 calories
  • 1/2 cup brown rice – 100 calories
  • Tossed salad with 2 cups greens, 1 tbsp light dressing – 90 calories
  • 1 tbsp olive oil used for cooking – 120 calories
  • 1 cup unsweetened iced tea – 0 calories

Discretionary calories – 300

  • 1 slice chocolate cake – 300 calories

This sample day has a good balance of filling, nutritious foods along with a small treat that fits into the discretionary calorie budget. You can adjust the specific foods based on your own preferences and diet.

Should you count nutrients along with calories?

When structuring your diet, it’s important to consider nutrients in addition to just calories and discretionary amounts. Strive to meet your recommended intakes for:

  • Protein – Needed for building and repairing muscle. Choose lean sources like poultry, fish, legumes, tofu.
  • Fiber – Promotes fullness and digestive health. Found in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
  • Vitamins and minerals – Essential for energy, immunity, bone health and more. Eat from all food groups.
  • Healthy fats – Help absorb nutrients. Include oils, fatty fish, avocado, nuts, seeds.

Nutrient-dense whole foods that provide a good nutritional profile should make up the foundation of your diet before adding in any discretionary calories.

Tracking both macros and micros ensures your needs are met for optimal health and performance. Don’t just count calories alone.

Discretionary calories on various diets

The use of discretionary calories may look a bit different depending on your overall dietary pattern:

Ketogenic diet: Very low carb, high fat diet. Most calories come from fat with minimal carbs and moderate protein. Discretionary calories make up 5-10% of total intake.

Paleo diet: Based on foods presumed to have been available in the Paleolithic era. Mainly meat, fish, eggs, veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds. 10-15% of calories are typically discretionary.

Intermittent fasting: Cycles between fasting and eating. May limit eating to set hours of the day or certain days per week. Often done with keto or paleo diets. Discretionary calories fit within preset feeding times.

Low FODMAP diet: Restricts certain carbs to ease digestive issues. Focuses on easily digested proteins, some fruits and veggies, lactose-free dairy. Leaves about 10-20% discretionary calories.

Vegetarian and vegan diets: Exclude meat or all animal products, respectively. Rely on plant-based proteins, fruits, veggies, whole grains. 15-20% of calories are often discretionary.

No matter what diet you follow, discretionary calories have a place in a balanced lifestyle. Just tailor them to fit your individual calorie needs and eating pattern.

The bottom line

Discretionary calories provide wiggle room in your diet for the occasional treat or indulgence while still supporting your health goals. Use these steps to calculate your allowance:

  1. Determine your total daily calorie needs.
  2. Decide what percentage should come from nutrient-dense foods.
  3. Multiply total calories by nutrient-dense food percentage.
  4. Subtract calories from nutritious foods from total daily needs.
  5. Remaining calories are your discretionary allowance.

Aim to get at least 80-90% of calories from fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. Fill the rest in with the occasional dessert, glass of wine or condiment. Adjust as needed based on your weight and goals. Tracking discretionary calories takes the guesswork out of making room for fun foods!

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