What is a Calorie Deficit?

salad for calorie deficit and weight loss

Weight loss is a huge thing on people’s minds around this time of year. And generally, when someone wants to lose weight, their first thought is to cut back on how much they’re eating. Consuming fewer calories than you burn is called being in a calorie deficit. But simply hopping into a calorie deficit doesn’t always make sense for everyone.

Here’s what you need to know about calorie deficits to make the most informed choice for your nutrition.

What is a Calorie Deficit?

A calorie deficit is when you consume fewer calories than your body burns, and it’s often used to promote weight loss. But actually figuring out your calorie deficit and planning proper nutrition isn’t always straightforward.

There are a lot of factors that determine how your body uses calories and what kind of calorie deficit you need. Things that impact your calorie needs include height, weight, sex, age, body composition, and current state of health. If you’re pregnant, fighting disease, a cancer survivor, these states all impact your caloric needs.

Put simply, It’s intricate, and there’s not a one size fits all approach.

Is a Calorie Deficit a Good Idea?

Weight loss and optimal health are two dramatically different things. You can lose a bunch of weight quickly, yet not be living the healthy lifestyle you crave.

First, let’s break down the negative impacts of a calorie deficit if it’s not done correctly. A thoughtless calorie deficit could end up:

  • lowering your metabolism
  • Negatively impacting fertility
  • Causing nutrient deficits
  • Resulting in fatigue
  • weakening bones
  • lowering immunity
  • causing headaches
  • decreasing muscle mass

Yikes! We definitely want all of our clients and readers to avoid these and approach a calorie deficit from a healthy standpoint. But how?

How to Plan for a Calorie Deficit

Before you hop into decreasing your calories, there are a few steps to take to increase your chances of success.

Calculate your caloric needs

Calorie needs are not one size fits all, and two people that decrease their calories by the same amount won’t necessarily lose the same amount of weight either. So anyone embarking on a calorie deficit must calculate their unique needs by working with a physician or using a formula or online calculator.

The NIH’s body weight planner is a useful online tool that can help you figure out an appropriate calorie intake based on your current weight, height, and physical activity level. It also allows you to input your goal weight and the timeframe in which you’d like to hit it. Once you have your target calories, then it’s time to get to work on implementing it and staying consistent.

Focus on eating whole foods

Some sugary and highly processed foods will be absorbed much more rapidly than others with more nutrition. That’s why it’s essential to look at your micro and macronutrients to be sure that despite reduced calories, your body is still getting what it needs to function properly. Focus on eating as many whole foods as possible, like vegetables, fruits, quality meats and seafood, and nuts. Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is a good rule of thumb when you’re trying to clean up your diet for weight loss.

Choose a gradual exercise program

A common mistake people make with a calorie deficit is falling into the “more is better” mindset. (“If cutting out 200 calories a day is good, then surely 400 calories a day is better!!”) But doing so could mean you’re lacking energy and too fatigued to make fitness part of your plan.

While you’re in a calorie deficit, you also want to build muscle to help with weight loss. Doing so will help you feel stronger and healthier, plus having more muscle on your frame can actually increase the speed of fat loss. If you’re not confident in your ability to stay consistent, working alongside a personal trainer or joining a group fitness class is an option to consider.

Always consult with a health professional

Having another person review your eating plan to ensure you’re getting the nutrition your body needs is the best way to ensure a safe calorie deficit that will help you see results. That’s where a nutritionist, physician, or other qualified health professional comes in to help you monitor progress and make changes when needed.

The Last Word About Calorie Deficits

A calorie deficit can do more harm than good if not done the right way. As fitness professionals, we’ve seen many people use calorie deficits to lose weight too quickly, only to have it come back on quickly as well. Focus on whole foods, be sure you’re still moving, and always consult with a health professional before you decide to dramatically alter your diet.

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