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What Is a Calorie Deficit? How to Use It for Weight Loss

Make sure you consider your body's needs when calculating a deficit.


One of the earliest concepts I encountered during my weight loss journey was the calorie deficit — and, boy, was it helpful. You’ll often see cutting calories and calorie counting mentioned in diets, meal planning and body weight management programs, and other weight loss “hacks.”

When it comes to planning my daily calorie intake and deciding on the best low-calorie diet for me, I always consider my body’s needs, how my body burns calories, and the specific ways in which caloric intake, meal planning, and physical activity work together to keep me strong, healthy, and confident. It turns out that sustainable weight loss programs that support weight management without sacrificing healthcare needs exist. One of them is the concept of calorie deficit.  

Calorie Deficit at a Glance

The concept of calorie deficit is relatively straightforward. When you expend more calories than you consume through the course of a day, you begin to lose weight over time. When you consume more calories than you expend, you experience weight gain. Thus, calorie deficit comprises two functions: calorie consumption and calorie use. For the most part, it can be achieved by increasing your exercise activity level while consuming fewer calories through reduced food intake. Replacing high-calorie foods with nutrient-rich foods is a good place to start your healthy weight loss journey. 

What are the best calorie deficit practices for weight loss?

While a caloric deficit is an essential piece of the weight loss process, it’s important to remember that developing a plan that’s customized to your unique calorie needs and weight loss goals is essential. That’s where a registered dietitian or nutritionist can be helpful. Whether you’re working with a healthcare team or designing your  meal plan and weight loss program yourself, there are a few actions to take and factors to consider when using caloric deficit to lose weight. 

Consider individual needs.

Individual weight loss needs will vary among dieters. Factors affecting these include height, weight, age, sex, genetics, physical composition of the body, and level of physical activity. For instance, a woman aged 31 to 50 with a moderate physical activity level will need about 2,000 calories a day to maintain her current weight. For men aged 41 to 50 with a sedentary lifestyle will need about 2,400 throughout the day. You can determine your caloric needs using an online calculator or basal metabolic rate (BMR) calculator. The more you know about your baseline caloric needs, the easier it will be to determine how many calories to remove from your diet. (One pound of fat is roughly equal to 3,500 calories.) This can help you to remove extra calories sustainably and create a meal plan that works for your body composition. 

Start slow.

When reducing caloric intake, it’s important to start slowly. Your BMR can calculate caloric intake needs, but determining where and what you can afford to cut will require testing. Pay attention to how your body responds to reductions in caloric intake and increases in daily energy expenditure. If you notice that bringing up your physical activity level is requiring you to change your diet or that reducing your morning calorie intake leaves you feeling tired throughout the day, tweak your plan accordingly until you find a balance that works. Food is fuel, and it’s important that you’re fueling your body with sufficient vitamins, nutrients, and minerals. 

Make simple changes.

You’ll be surprised at what a big difference small changes can make. Look at some of the practices you follow every day, like drinking alcohol or sugary juices regularly. Consider swapping first some, then all, to water or a low-calorie alternative. While this change may present a minor challenge at first, you will see major benefits in a short amount of time. 

Rely on smaller portions.

Smaller portions are a simple way to reduce calorie intake. Weight loss can be psychological, which is why it’s useful to remove temptation. Rather than having to stop eating while there is still food on the plate, smaller portions remove the willpower and discipline component by telling us it’s time to stop eating. Reducing portion sizes also helps guide your appetite, making you more likely to eat when you’re hungry and less likely to eat when you’re bored. 

Combine with exercise.

Exercise plays a big role in achieving calorie deficit. If you have a low activity level, try to reach a moderate one. If you have a moderate level, try to increase your exercise level to high. This enables you to increase your daily calorie allotment while still losing weight. Of course, exercise has many wellness benefits beyond weight loss. For example, exercise can boost your mood and increase your metabolism

Work with others.

Trying to lose weight on your own can be difficult. After all, a lot of our extra calories come from social events like drinking or sharing meals with friends. When I brought my friends and family into my weight loss journey, their support kept me motivated and helped me to stay disciplined in my food decisions. Inviting friends on your food journey will reduce temptations — and having fewer temptations makes it easier to stay within the boundaries of your daily caloric intake. 

Set goals.

When it comes to weight loss, it’s natural to goals that can be measured on a scale. But failing to meet those goals right out of the gate can be discouraging, and cause you to lose sight of the incremental progress you’re making. I’m most excited to exercise when my goal is to execute a new yoga pose or exceed my personal best daily steps. Without these benchmarks, I have trouble self-motivating. You’ll want to set progress expectations (like how many days you’ve walked per week) or plans (like how many new recipes you have tried). While you can certainly measure your weight on the scale, it’s a good idea to incorporate a range of goals, expectations, and success metrics. Doing so will help to keep you energized and inspired to continue. 

Remember, it’s not all about calories.

One of the most important things to remember when following a caloric deficit diet is that there are factors beyond food and exercise that can influence how quickly you lose weight. As earlier mentioned, age, sex, and genetics all play a role in the weight loss process, as well as resting metabolic rate, family history, pre-existing conditions, and menopause. Be sure to factor these into your plan, and consult your nutritionist if you’re not sure about substitutions. I’ve also found that it helps to count wins beyond simple weight loss. When you exercise regularly and eat healthy foods, you’ll feel better, increase your muscle mass, and boost your intake of vitamins and nutrients, all of which contribute to improving your overall physical and mental health. Now, it’s easier for me to keep up with my grandkids when they come to visit — and that’s the best feeling in the world.

The last word…

There are many benefits to healthy weight loss, and a low-calorie and high-activity regimen can help to achieve this. By aiming for a calorie deficit every day, you’re working to expend more calories than you consume, which typically leads to weight loss and better overall health. Still, there are best practices for ensuring your weight loss is healthy and sustainable. Make small changes, set reasonable goals and expectations, consider the individual needs of your body, and always consult with a doctor before starting any new diet, exercise, and/or weight loss program. Team up with friends and family, and start with small changes like switching to whole grains and drinking more water.

For more information on healthy weight loss — and to get started on your weight management and wellness journey — explore the growing library of resources and information available here at Woman’s World today.

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