A calorie deficit (or surplus) is the difference between the number of calories you consume and the number of calories your body burns. It’s a crucial part of weight management because it determines whether you will lose, maintain, or gain weight. But how do you calculate your calorie deficit? And what does it mean for your health? Let’s find out!
What Is A Calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. Your body needs calories, just like your car needs gas. To survive and function normally, the human body requires a minimum number of calories per day. However, this number varies depending on factor such as age, sex, body composition and activity level. The average person consumes around 2000-2500 calories per day (8). Calories are burned primarily through bodily processes such as respiration (i.e., breathing), digestion, circulation, muscle movement, etc.
What Is A Calorie Deficit And Why Does It Matter?
A calorie deficit (or surplus) is a difference between the number of calories you consume and the number you burn. When your calorie intake is less than what you burn, then a deficit exists. This results in weight loss because your body uses its stored fat to provide the rest of the energy it needs.
How To Calculate Your Calorie Needs And Deficit
To determine how many calories you should eat each day, figure out first how many calories you require to maintain your current weight (your basal metabolic rate or BMR plus activity). To figure out how many calories you burn each day, simply add up all the ways your body expends energy. Three main components that determine how many calories you burn each day:
Resting Energy Expenditure (REE)
This is the number of calories you burn at rest for basic body functioning, such as breathing and keeping your heart beating. It’s also called basal metabolic rate (BMR). Men typically have a greater REE than women because they are generally larger with more muscle mass. People who weigh more will burn more calories at rest. Your REE is a function of both your weight and height, as well as your age (2).
Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
The thermic effect of food refers to the number of calories you burn digesting and metabolizing food. This accounts for about 10% of your total calorie expenditure. Generally, the more you weigh, the greater your TEF (2).
Active Energy Expenditure (AEE)
This refers to physical activity and exercise. This is variable but can account for anywhere between 15-30% of your daily calorie expenditure (2). The amount is determined by what type of work or daily activities you do, how much time you spend doing them, and how much and how vigorously you exercise.
There are formulas and calculators to help you figure out each of these values. To determine your total daily calorie needs, simply add up all three numbers. Be sure to use the same units for all metrics (i.e., calories, pounds). To create a calorie deficit, just reduce your calorie intake to less than your daily needs. This will result in weight loss if you do it over time because you are reducing the number of calories stored as fat. If you are trying to lose weight, it may help if you are more active throughout the day. This will result in additional calories being burned beyond your maintenance levels, leading to weight loss. A good goal to start out with is to create a deficit of around 500 calories per day. This should result in weight loss of approximately 1 pound per week, a safe and sustainable pace.
How To Achieve A Calorie Deficit?
Calories in vs. calories out is the basic principle of weight management. You can achieve a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you need to maintain your current weight. Or, you can burn extra calories through increased physical activity. Some of the ways to create a deficit are:
Strength training is an excellent way to burn extra calories while building lean muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat does even at rest, so the more lean muscle mass you have, the better your metabolism will be at burning stored body fat. Furthermore, since lean muscles weigh more than adipose tissue (i.e., fatty tissues), strength training also helps support healthy bone density and optimal organ function (11).
Reduce Refined Carb Intake
Removing added sugars from your diet can decrease caloric intake significantly. So can limiting refined grain products like white bread, white rice, and pasta. These foods provide calories but little to no fiber, so they don’t make you feel as full for as long as higher fiber foods. This can lead to you overeating and/or needing to snack more between meals, increasing your overall calorie intake for the day. Opt instead to get your carbs from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
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Reduce (Certain Types Of) Fat Intake
First, it helps to understand what types of fats are beneficial and which ones are harmful. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats typically come from plant sources or fish and are considered healthy fats because they have some proven health benefits. On the other hand, some saturated fats and trans fats (from high fat animal products and ultra processed foods) have been linked to obesity and inflammation, which contributes to chronic disease (4).
Eat More Fruits And Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain fewer calories than other foods. A higher fruit and vegetable intake is associated with increased diet quality, better nutrient status, improved weight management, as well as decreased risk of chronic disease (6). This makes them some of the healthiest choices you can make!
How To Sustain A Calorie Deficit For Long-Term Weight Management?
Unfortunately, while it’s possible to lose weight this way, long-term sustained energy deficits are hard for most people. It is common that when people restrict their diets and don’t eat enough calories they will eventually hit a plateau or even start regaining weight.
This is because the body responds to the shortage of calories by slowing the metabolism – the rate at which it uses energy. When you eat too little, your body goes into conservation mode, conserving its energy rather than burning it. This is why when people starve themselves for too long they often end up gaining more weight than they started with.
Here are some helpful tips to follow while restricting calories to lose weight:
Choose A Sustainable Deficit
As a general rule, calorie deficits should be between 500 and 1000 calories per day (7). For most people, something within this range is a sustainable caloric deficit that won’t force your body to lose lean mass or burn precious muscle. We are all individuals with unique bodies, so you may have to experiment to find the right balance that allows you to lose weight but doesn’t make you feel tired or hungry all the time. Weight loss of a pound or so per week is a sustainable rate for most women and men.
Restricting yourself too much is not sustainable because most people cannot maintain that type of diet for long periods. If calorie restriction is too intense, then the body responds with hunger cravings and hormone imbalances (e.g., cortisol), which can lead to overeating and/or loss of lean tissue (3).
Eat Mindfully To Satiety
Eat slowly and stop when you’re no longer hungry. Get reacquainted with your body’s hunger and fullness cues. When you feel more satisfied, it may also be easier to avoid high-calorie processed foods. Pay attention to your eating habits and develop mindfulness of what, why, and how much you eat.
Don’t Skip Meals
Skipping meals makes it easy to overeat later on because you’re already hungry. Plus, by the time your next meal rolls around, you may have low blood sugar (i.e., hypoglycemia), which can lead to headaches and mood swings (9). This is one of the most common causes of “binge eating” late at night. So, don’t skip meals and control your portions instead.
Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Alcohol contains many calories per gram, and it also causes drinkers to consume more food (i.e., it’s a “food pusher”). Plus, alcohol can affect judgment and self-control when it comes to eating/drinking; the person may unknowingly consume more than usual (1).
Limit Caffeine Intake
Limit caffeine intake to one or two cups of coffee or tea per day. Caffeine is a stimulant that can affect your energy levels, mental acuity, and overall health when consumed in large amounts. Overconsumption may also contribute to insomnia, anxiety, and chronic stress. The recommended safe range for daily caffeine consumption is 100-200 milligrams, so try to stick within this range (12).
Consider acupuncture and massage therapy. These complementary therapies can help reduce stress levels, increase endorphin production (which helps you feel good), and improve the body’s natural detoxification process. Some people also claim that they’re a great way to lose weight because they “stimulate the metabolism,” but no evidence has been published in peer-reviewed journals to support this claim.
Risks Of Eating Too Few Calories
There are several risks associated with eating too little food, including nutrient deficiency, slower metabolism, lethargy, and the risk of gallstones.
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When you don’t eat enough calories to meet your energy needs, it can negatively affect the body’s ability to function properly. For example, nutrient deficiencies may result if your calorie intake is so low that it doesn’t support normal metabolic processes or physical activity levels. Furthermore, insufficient amounts of calories can lead to loss of lean muscle mass, which leads to a reduction in metabolic rate (3). As a result, the number on the scale might not change much or even increase, and you may feel tired and weak all the time.
When your calorie intake is too low, it can slow down your metabolism (i.e., the rate at which your body converts food into energy). This reduction in metabolic rate means that it will be harder to lose weight. Furthermore, a slower metabolism means less physical activity, which means fewer calories burned throughout the day. As a result of this poor diet and inactive lifestyle, some people who engage in crash diets end up gaining more weight than they lost in the first place.
Eating too few calories can leave you feeling lethargic or exhausted, which makes exercise difficult or impossible, making it even more challenging to reduce your calorie intake over time (3).
Risk Of Gallstones
The body stores fat in the liver as well as around the waist, hips, and thighs. When your calorie intake drops too low, it can prevent these fatty deposits from being metabolized normally because of the lack of sufficient energy. This may lead to gallstones or other health issues (5).
The Bottom Line
Calorie deficits are often required for weight loss. Certain diets can help you create a calorie deficit without counting calories or weighing food portions. However, if your goal is to maintain your current weight or reduce your caloric intake by 500 or more calories per day on an ongoing basis, then these methods are probably not feasible long-term. The best way to achieve a sustainable calorie deficit is through eating less and exercising more— consistently over time.
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!
- Alcohol Use and Your Health (2021, cdc.gov)
- A review: exercise and its influence on resting energy metabolism in man (1989, pubmed.gov)
- Caloric Restrictions in Humans: Impact on Physiological, Psychological and Behavioral Outcomes (2011, nih.gov)
- Effect of reducing total fat intake on body weight: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised control trials and cohort studies (2012, bmj.com)
- Gallstone formation and weight loss (1993, nih.gov)
- Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables (2012, nih.gov)
- Healthy weight loss (2014, jamanetwork.com)
- How Many Calories Should You Eat Per Day? (2019, medical.net)
- Hypoglycemia rebound migraine (2001, nih.gov)
- Low Carbohydrate Diet (2021, nih.gov)
- Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health (2012, nih.gov)
- The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review (2017, nih.gov)