How to Calculate a Calorie Deficit
Weight loss is possible when you create a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you are burning. Here’s everything you need to know on how to calculate your own calorie deficit.
What is a Calorie Deficit?
You may have heard before that to lose weight, you have to eat less than you burn, and it’s true. This is why you should consider creating a calorie deficit as an effective way to reach your weight loss goals. (research study: Fat Loss Depends on Energy Deficit Only)
(I have a full post on getting started with calorie counting here)
First of all, what exactly are calories?
Your body requires food (a.k.a, energy) because nutrients support all its autonomic systems and functions like breathing, digestion, immune function, and body temperature regulation (to keep you warm). You also need energy to perform any daily activities that involve physical movement. Some examples are exercising or simply walking around the grocery store. So, the more physical activity you get, the more energy (food) your body requires.
We refer to these units of energy as calories. Have you ever wondered what exactly a calorie is? It’s the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1°C. So, our bodies function even when resting, because the calories we take in provide energy in the form of heat.
How many calories do I need?
How much energy you burn each day is called your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE. Your TDEE is calculated based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR), activity level (calories burned through exercise or other movements like showering or playing fetch with your pups), and thermic effect of food (the calories you burn during digestion). Your BMR is calculated using equations that consider specific characteristics, including your weight, height, age, and gender. (USE THE MACRO & CALORIE CALCULATOR HERE)
Apart from figuring out your TDEE, the simplest way to remember why this matters is that if your calories are equal to your TDEE, you will maintain your weight; if the calories you consume are less than your TDEE, you will lose weight.
You’ll also need to know your resting metabolic rate (RMR) to determine how many calories your body needs for its most basic functions. Your RMR can be used to estimate your total TDEE using an online calculator. I had mine calculated at a gym. Easy as pie! It is all pretty simple once you get your numbers, so don’t stress.
What is a calorie deficit?
The thing about calories is that it is easy to take in more than your body needs, and many people do each day. When you take in more than you need to maintain your current weight regularly, the extra calories get stored as fat. A calorie deficit comes into play to help you lose that excess fat and weight by eating less. A calorie deficit is created when you do not get all the calories your body needs to carry out all the necessary functions like the ones I mentioned in the beginning.
How does a calorie deficit help you burn fat? Well, when your body does not have all the calories it needs to carry out its functions, it begins to use the stored fat in your body for fuel. You know, the fat that builds up primarily in your belly area but also around your thighs and hips.
Creating a calorie deficit as a form of dieting is like taking advantage of the fascinating fact that stored fat is stored energy. So, when your body burns that fat for energy and functions, you lose the fat and lose weight.
How do you get into a calorie deficit?
Okay, so we’ve established that you need to intake less food energy than your body needs to create a calorie deficit. So how exactly do you do that? While the process is straightforward, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. But there are a few ways you create a calorie deficit, and it all boils down to finding what is manageable for you.
According to research, if you wanted to lose one pound of fat per week, you would need a deficit of 3,500 calories total each week. It may seem like an overwhelming number, but if you divide by the number of days in the week, you’re looking at 500 calories less per day to meet that total deficit goal and lose one pound.
A calorie deficit is not like any other diet where you have to avoid certain foods or eat within specific time windows, although some of these things may help you. You can healthily create a calorie deficit without feeling overly restricted, and the best part is you only have to count calories!
Here are a few ways you can accomplish a calorie deficit, based on food intake and activity level:
Eating less each day doesn’t have to feel like you’re taking extreme measures. As mentioned before, many of us are taking in more than we need, and you might already be thinking about the little extra snack or dessert you’ve been eating just because you enjoy it that you could eliminate if you put your mind to it.
Everything adds up!
A few other things you can do include eating lower calorie foods (see my low calorie recipes here) at mealtime, not drinking your calories in alcohol or soda, and monitoring your portion sizes more closely. Plan your meals or cook them at home whenever possible to stay in control of ingredients and portions (a.k.a, calories).
Be more active
What you need, what you expend, and what you drop in terms of calories is not just one magic number that applies to everyone – remember that this is all based on calculations that consider multiple factors like physical activity levels. That said, if you increase your activity level, you will increase the number of calories your body needs. So, if you continue to consume the same number of calories, you can create a deficit this way.
Diet and exercise
In my experience, people see the most success when they combine both diet and exercise. Exercise itself has many physical and emotional benefits. When combined with intentional eating, think it makes creating a calorie deficit even more manageable.
For example, if your goal is to cut out 500 calories a day, you can easily burn an extra 300 calories during a 30-minute medium intensity workout; then all you have to worry about food-wise is cutting out 200. But everyone needs a day of rest from the gym each week. So, one day you might consider a long walk or creating your deficit solely based on food intake. As long as you can find some combination that works to hit that 500, the diet and exercise don’t have to be consistent. Just the number.
What are the benefits and disadvantages of being in a calorie deficit?
By creating a calorie deficit, you will achieve success; it’s just that simple. This is because calories are the most influential factor in weight loss. Not only will you be successful if you stay consistent, but some people can lose weight pretty quickly this way.
Your goal to lose weight through creating a calorie deficit could end up being the drive you needed to create an overall healthier lifestyle. By cutting out snacks, you’ll probably cut out more processed foods. And by eating and cooking at home, you are likely to get more nutrient-dense foods. All of this contributes to a healthier you, along with a lower risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
The main potential downside to a calorie deficit is taking it to the point where you become obsessive over what you eat. If you have any history of problematic eating, this might not be the safest route for you. The things is, that’s okay, because there are always other ways! But the idea is to be more aware of what you are eating and still enjoy it, even though you are cutting back.
Try creating a calorie deficit:
If your goal is to lose weight, I recommend trying a calorie deficit diet! I have seen it help many people, including myself. (read my weight loss story here).
While there are different methods out there, such as cutting out certain foods or fasting during certain times, these diets are successful because they create a calorie deficit. So why not just try it the straightforward way without feeling as restricted? Those other methods lead to mindsets that usually only want to make us give up.
The best thing about a calorie deficit is that it can be achieved through small goals and daily changes. Just as quickly as calories add up, so will any efforts to cut them back. Just something to remember when you are considering a diet plan that you can stick to.
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