The calorie deficit diet plan is a proven strategy for weight loss that relies on eating less to create the calorie deficit needed to lose weight. This diet plan is based on the simple principle of calories in vs. calories out, which states that if you consume fewer calories than your body needs, you will lose weight. A calorie deficit can be created by either consuming less food or increasing physical activity (or both).
Overeating and not doing enough exercise are two common reasons people gain weight. This diet plan reverses those problems by focusing on decreasing calorie intake while also increasing exercise. So what does it mean to eat less?
In this article, we will discuss the principles of creating a calorie deficit. What happens to your body in a calorie deficit? As well as give you a sample calorie deficit diet plan.
Why Do Calories Matter?
You have probably heard the phrase “calories-in vs. calories-out” before. But what do these terms actually mean? Simply put, if you consistently eat fewer calories than your body needs, it will burn your stored fat for energy; if you eat more calories than your body needs, it will store the excess energy as fat (15).
A caloric value is assigned to foods based on how much potential energy they contain. This number is often referred to as the food’s “Calorie content” (capitalized because it represents kilocalories). Potential energy can be understood as usable operational energy that organisms receive and store in the chemical bonds of nutrient molecules.
For instance, foods like vegetables and lean meat have fewer calories than french fries and candy. This is because foods with a higher fat and added sugar content contain more energy (calories).
What Is My Calorie Deficit?
Your calorie deficit is the difference between your energy requirements (how many calories you burn) and the amount of energy from food that you consume. The size of this difference impacts the rate at which you progress toward your desired goal (weight loss or muscle gain). For example, if you want to lose one pound each week, you need to create a calorie deficit of around 500 calories/day. According to research, you need a calorie deficit in order to lose weight (6).
Calorie deficits can be tricky because our energy needs vary based on many factors:
- Gender. A man typically burns more calories than a woman. This is because men have more muscle mass, so their metabolisms require more energy all day long.
- Age. As we age, our metabolism slows down, and it becomes harder to lose weight because we don’t burn as many calories as we used to.
- Activity Level. If you are extremely active, you will burn more calories with everyday tasks and exercise than someone less active.
When running a calorie deficit, you must be running an appropriate deficit for your situation. You need to run a calorie deficit large enough so that your body mobilizes its fat stores but not so large that you lose weight too quickly and your metabolism slows down. This is why it is recommended to target a maximum of about 1-2 lbs of weight loss per week, which would be about a 500-1000 calorie daily deficit (11). However, you’ll want to consider factors such as age, sex, height, activity levels, and starting weight that can determine what size of caloric deficit might be best for you.
The simplest way to create a calorie deficit is by eating less, however, it can also be achieved by increasing exercise. For example, if you cut 200 calories from your daily food intake and burned an extra 300 through exercise every day, then you would have created a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories.
Remember that you don’t need to hit the exact number of calories in vs. calories out every day, rather, try to stay within the right range (maybe you eat less one day, burn more the next), and over time your weight loss will be continuous.
Side Effects Of The Calorie Deficit Diet
If you eat less than your body needs for an extended period, your body will naturally drop its metabolic rate so it can compensate for the lack of food available (1). When this happens, it becomes nearly impossible to keep losing weight because when trying to reduce caloric intake further, there just isn’t enough food available for your body to use as energy.
For instance, if you eat 1500 calories per day to maintain your weight and then decide to only eat 1200, your body will sense the lack of food availability and drop its metabolic rate down to about 1200-1300 total calories. Therefore, even though you are technically eating less than before, it doesn’t matter because your body is now using fewer total calories as energy (aka creating a calorie deficit), so you will hit a plateau.
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Ideal Foods For Calorie Deficit Diet Plan
Keep in mind that no matter how “clean” and healthy your diet becomes if you don’t reduce your caloric intake down to a level where your body perceives no other option but to burn stored fat, then at best you will only lose some excess water weight.
Here are some foods that you can include in your reduced-calorie diet to help you lose weight:
Vegetables are a great source of vitamins and minerals, but they also contain a lot of fiber which helps you feel full faster and for longer (8). When choosing vegetables, go for those that have a lower glycemic index (GI), which will keep your blood glucose levels from rising too quickly. These include asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, squashes, greens, cucumbers, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
In addition to being low on the GI scale, these vegetables are also high in fiber, so if eaten raw or lightly steamed, they can easily fill you up without adding very many calories to your daily intake.
Fruits are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants but they also contain fructose, which has the potential to be stored as fat if you eat more than your body needs (8).
Although many fruits do indeed contain sugar, they are low on the GI scale because they also contain fiber, so they don’t typically cause a rapid rise in glucose levels within your bloodstream. The fiber also contributes to satiety and gut health. Even if you are trying to limit sugar, fruit is good to include in your overall healthy and balanced diet.
Lean Protein Sources (Fish And Lean Meat)
High-protein foods like fish and lean meats can help increase satiety (fullness), which is helpful when you are trying to eat less but still want to feel satisfied. Research has also shown that eating foods high in protein can have positive effects on metabolism (12).
Poultry, eggs, dairy products, lean beef, turkey are all great sources of lean protein so try to include them in your reduced-calorie meal plan.
If you’re going to eat grains, then it’s better to make sure they are whole grains. These types of carbohydrates contain fiber, which helps keep blood sugar levels steady and provides a feeling of fullness (14). Whole wheat bread is an excellent source of fiber, but you should make sure it is 100% whole grain.
To find out if a loaf of bread is 100% whole grain just look at the label, and you will see that it contains more than one ingredient. If whole wheat flour or some other whole grain flour is listed as the first ingredient, then it is most likely 100% whole grain. The key is to look for the word “whole.”
Other whole grains that can help you maintain a calorie deficit are:
- Brown rice
Dietary fat has gotten a bad rap over the years, but it is an essential nutrient that provides lots of benefits to your body (2).
It is true, however, that some types of fats are better for you than others. So if you’re going to include fat in your diet, then make sure it’s the right kind. As long as you keep to healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which are usually found in olive oil, nuts, avocado, and fish, then there should be no reason why they can’t serve as part of a reduced-calorie meal plan to help you lose weight. The fats to limit are saturated fats from animal products, and the ones to avoid completely are trans fats in ultra processed foods.
Reduced-Fat Dairy Products
You need calcium to maintain healthy bones so if you’re watching your calories, it’s important to make sure you get enough. Fortunately, the kind of dairy products that are low in fat taste just as good as full-fat versions so they can be added to your diet plan with no feeling of sacrifice. As a bonus, reduced-fat dairy products such as 1% milk and non-fat yogurt offer other benefits such as potassium which helps regulate blood pressure levels and magnesium which plays a role in normal muscle function (4).
When used as part of a calorie deficit meal plan, plant-based milk should be unsweetened and unflavored because these kinds will not contain any sugars or additives that might hinder weight loss efforts. Just watch out for the word “light” on the label because this could be a sign that sugars have been added, which means you should avoid them while trying to create your calorie deficit.
Seeds, Nuts & Nut Butters
Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein and healthy fats (9). Remember to keep your portion sizes small because they are also high in calories, however, if eaten in their whole form rather than added to other foods like oatmeal or yogurt, they can help satisfy hunger without adding too many extra calories.
Foods To Avoid On The Calorie Deficit Diet Plan
Carbohydrates that contain added sugars, such as soda, candy, baked goods, and highly processed foods, can cause a rise in blood sugar levels. They also typically provide a lot of calories but don’t make you feel full, so it’s easy to eat more than you should, which will make it difficult to lose weight (3). The same goes for foods with high fructose corn syrup or other types of sugar as the first or second ingredient because these types of refined carbohydrates are equally as bad as those containing regular table sugar.
In addition, soft drinks such as soda, sports drinks that have added sugar, and fruit juices should be avoided whenever possible because their high sugar content makes them empty calories that offer no nutritional value at all (10). If you’re going to drink a beverage, stick with water, unsweetened coffee, or tea. You can add lemon wedges, mint leaves, or cucumber to your water to give it a little more flavor if that helps.
When you see a ready-to-eat or shelf-stable meal or snack that contains lots of ingredients that sound like additives or stabilizers, then there is a good chance it’s from one of the many processed food companies whose products have been linked to obesity and health problems. If you’re trying to lose weight, then these ultra processed foods should be avoided because they typically are full of calories but low in nutrients and fiber. They may also contain ingredients such as hydrogenated oils or trans fats that are associated with heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels (13).
Whether they are low-fat or fat-free, diet foods often contain artificial sweeteners that not only don’t help weight loss but might even contribute to weight gain (7). In addition, diet foods are often not as filling as their full-fat counterparts, so they can lead to overeating and weight gain over time.
The problem with fast food is that it’s usually high in calories and fat but low in nutritional value, which means you’re going to be hungry soon after eating it (5). While there is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a fast food meal, doing so regularly will make it difficult to lose weight.
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Sample Calorie Deficit Diet Meal Plan
Here’s how a day of eating a total of 1500kcal on the calorie deficit diet would look like:
- Breakfast: 1 serving of cinnamon apple oatmeal and 2 servings of microwave poached eggs (489 calories, 52.2g carbs, 7.6g fiber, 23.7g protein, and 16.8g fat)
- Lunch: 1 serving of mango strawberry arugula salad with 1 ounce of almonds (388 calories, 37.7g carbs, 12.8g fiber, 10.5g protein, and 25.7g fat)
- Snack: 1 serving of carrot with hummus (175 calories, 22.4g carbs, 7.9g fiber, 7.1g protein, and 7.5g fat)
- Supper: 1 plate of tilapia, pepper, asparagus, and egg stir-fry with 1 serving of asparagus with sliced almonds and parmesan cheese (499 calories, 17.9g carbs, 7.5g fiber, 44.6g protein, and 29g fat)
The Bottom Line
Losing weight is not an easy task, but the recipe for success is simple – you just create a calorie deficit daily by consuming fewer calories than you burn through exercise and normal bodily functions. The most common mistake people make when trying to do this is that they drastically reduce their calorie intake, which can lead to excessive hunger or cravings that cause them to give up before they see results.
The key if you’re trying to lose weight using a calorie deficit meal plan, whether it’s with supplements or food, is moderation. Aim for a 300-500 calorie deficit daily. Focus on whole, nutritious foods that you enjoy eating.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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- Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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- “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories (2017, journals.physiology.org)