How to safely create a calorie deficit for weight loss

Today’s article is about how to safely create a calorie deficit for sustainable weight loss. I say safely because I often notice folks getting far too aggressive when dieting. Leaving them starving, moody, and falling off the wagon in a few weeks.

I could say more but I hate long-winded introductions that have nothing to do with the content.

I’ve already said too much.


What is metabolism

Metabolism is the set of chemical processes that occur within living organisms to maintain life. These processes include breaking down food for energy, building and repairing tissues, and eliminating waste products.

Metabolism can be divided into two processes: catabolism and anabolism. Catabolism is the breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones, which releases energy. Anabolism, on the other hand, is the synthesis of complex molecules from simpler ones, which requires energy.

In simple terms, metabolism is the process by which your body converts food into energy to fuel its various functions. A faster metabolism can help you burn more calories at rest, while a slower metabolism can make it harder to lose weight. However, it’s important to remember that everyone’s metabolism is different and can be influenced by many factors, so it’s not always a straightforward matter of “speeding up” or “slowing down” metabolism.

How your body uses calories

Photo Credit: JISSN

The rate of metabolism varies from person to person, and it can be influenced by a variety of factors, including age (not as much as we once thought), sex, body composition, genetics, and activity level.

The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories that a person needs to maintain their body’s basic functions at rest. BMR accounts for approximately 60-70% of the total energy expenditure, with the remaining energy used for physical activity and digestion.

NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which refers to the energy expenditure associated with all daily activities that are not considered exercise, such as walking, standing, fidgeting, and other daily movements.

NEAT can account for a significant portion of the body’s total energy expenditure, and it varies greatly between individuals depending on factors such as occupation, lifestyle, and leisure activities. For example, someone with a desk job may have a lower NEAT compared to someone with a more physically active job, such as a construction worker.

Research has shown that NEAT can play a significant role in weight management and overall health. Increasing NEAT through small lifestyle changes, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, standing instead of sitting, or doing household chores, can increase energy expenditure and potentially lead to weight loss.

The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the energy expenditure associated with the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of food. Simply put, it’s the amount of energy required by the body to process the food we eat.

When we eat, the body uses energy to break down the food into smaller molecules, absorb those molecules into the bloodstream, and transport them to the cells where they are needed. This process requires energy, and the amount of energy required varies depending on the type of food we eat.

Protein has the highest thermic effect on food, meaning that it requires the most energy to digest and metabolize. Carbohydrates have a lower thermic effect, and fats have the lowest. As a result, a diet that is high in protein can increase the TEF and potentially help with weight loss.

It’s important to note that the thermic effect of food is only a small part of the body’s total energy expenditure. Your BMR and NEAT account for a much larger percentage of the body’s energy needs.

Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) refers to the energy expenditure associated with planned physical activities or exercise, such as running, weightlifting, cycling, swimming, or any other structured exercise program.

EAT can vary greatly depending on the type, intensity, and duration of the exercise. High-intensity exercises, such as sprinting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can significantly increase EAT and energy expenditure. On the other hand, lower-intensity activities such as walking or yoga may have a lower EAT.

Let’s be crystal clear. This does not mean one is better than the other for weight loss.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking burning more calories is the most efficient way to lose weight. As you can see your EAT will only make up a small portion of your today daily energy expenditure. Trying to burn as many calories as possible may leave you beat up and burned out. Instead, use exercise as a side dish to the main course of weight loss. As you can see your EAT will only make up a small portion of your today daily energy expenditure.

The most important part of losing weight is adherence. If you can’t stick to your plan you can’t be successful. You do this by eating foods you enjoy and exercising in a way you like. By creating a calorie deficit with those foods you can lose weight.

✅ Resource: Getting started guide – Improving your diet.

nutrition importance

What is a calorie deficit and why is it important for weight loss?

A calorie deficit is a state in which an individual consumes fewer calories than they burn over a given period of time. This can occur through a reduction in calorie intake, an increase in physical activity, or a combination of both. When a person maintains a calorie deficit over time, their body will begin to use stored energy (i.e. fat) to make up for the shortfall, leading to weight loss.

For example, if a person needs 2000 calories per day to maintain their weight, and they consume only 1500 calories per day, they are in a calorie deficit of 500 calories. If they maintain this deficit consistently, they can expect to lose weight over time.

Calculate Your Caloric Needs (How do I calculate my calorie deficit)

There are a number of ways to estimate what your daily calories could be and this can get fairly complicated. Below are a few formulas that give you your estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is an estimated number of calories per day to perform basic life-sustaining activities like breathing, circulation, and cell production.

Harris-Benedict Formula:

  • Males: 66 + (13.7 x BW in kilograms) + (5 x height in centimeters) – (6.8 x age)
  • Females: 655 + (9.6 x BW in kilograms) + (1.8 x height in centimeters) – (4.7 x age)

Cunningham Method:

  • 500 + (22 x lean body mass in kilograms)

NIH bodyweight planner and calculator (factors in activity levels)

  • Calculations can be done here

The method I use is The Mac MET BMR Method:

  • Males: Bodyweight in kilograms x 24 (or bodyweight in pounds x 11)
  • Females: Bodyweight in kilograms x 22 (or bodyweight in pounds x 10)

How to track calories and macronutrients using The Mac MET BMR Method and activity levels

Using The Mac MET BMR Method a 150-pound male and female looking to maintain weight could start with the following macros and calories.

First, determine BMR calories. Overall calorie intake is most important for weight management.

  • Male calories: 150 x 11 = 1650 calories
  • Female calories: 150 x 10 = 1500 calories

Second, estimate your activity levels.

If you’re not sure, most people fall into the lightly active category. 

Activity Multiplier:

  • Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
  • Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise/ sports 1-3 days/week)
  • Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise/ sports 6-7 days/week)
  • Very active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising 2 xs/day)
  • Extra active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise 2 or more times per day, or training for
    marathon, or triathlon, etc.

Let’s assume the male and female in this example are lightly active. They work a desk job but regularly walk 30 minutes per day and get light exercise.

  • Male: 1,650 x 1.375 = 2,268 calories
  • Female: 1,500 x 1.375 = 2,062 calories
This gives you an estimated number of calories to maintain your weight. If your goal is weight loss you would subtract 250 to 500 calories from this total and continue with the calculations. If your goal is to build muscle you would add 250 to 500 calories to this total and continue with the calculations.

Third set protein intake. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use 1 gram per pound of body weight. Recommended intakes are going to range from .8-1.2 grams per pound of body weight (1.8 to 2.7 g/kg)

  • Male: 150 x 1 gram per pound of bodyweight = 150 grams 
  • Female 150 x 1 gram per pound of bodyweight = 150 grams 
If you are overweight or obese, aim for .54 to .68 grams per pound of bodyweight or 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. Or, use 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal weight.

Fourth, set fats. For most people between 15-35% of total calories. If you like including more carbs in your diet choose the lower end of this range. If you’re ok with moderate to lower carbs in your diet choose the higher end of this range. 

  • Male: (2,268 x .35) / 9 calories per gram of fat = 88 grams 
  • Female: (2,062 x .35) / 9 calories per gram of fat = 80 grams 

Last will be figuring out your carb intake. 

This is where some math is used. You’ll need to take your total calories and subtract your protein and fat calories from it. Then divided that number by 4 to get your carbohydrate intake.

  • Male: 2,268 – (600 + 792) = 876 calories / 4 calories per gram of carbs = 219 grams 
  • Female: 2,062 – (600 + 720) = 742 calories / 4 calories per gram of carbs = 185 grams 

To sum it up.

Tracking macros calculator
Total calories are calories x activity level

Whoa. That’s a lot of math. Is there an easier way to do this?

Yup, it sure is and in all honesty, it’s not something you need to worry about doing. I’ve found the following to be a simple way to estimate calories based on goals without having to do as much calculating. 

  • Fat loss: Bodyweight x 10-12 
  • Maintain weight: Bodyweight x 13-15
  • Gain weight: Bodyweight x 16-18

From here you would still set your protein intake around 1 gram per pound of body weight and let carbs and fats fill in the remaining calories based on your personal food preferences. 

There is no “best” macro ratio. If weight loss is your goal the most important part is creating a calorie deficit and eating adequate protein. Carbs and fats can fill in the rest of your calories based on your personal food preferences. The same is true if weight gain is your goal.

If you are tracking calories and macronutrients it’s important to ensure the accuracy

Please keep in mind that if you are tracking the magic is not in the numbers. It’s a way to self-monitor what you’re doing and what you’re not doing. Tracking is an opportunity to be a more mindful eater.

✔ Do NOT factor in your activity levels or calories burned: Wearables, fitness trackers, and estimated calories burned are terribly inaccurate (1). You end up eating back calories, wiping out the calorie deficit you created.

✔ Use the tare function: The tare button (often labeled as zero) will reset the displayed weight on your food scale back to zero.

The Tare button can be used to measure multiple items in the same container. Simply add your first item, note the weight, press Tare and you are ready to weigh your next item.

✔ Log food the same way you weigh it: If you weighed your food item raw or cooked. Make sure to select the raw or cooked version in your tracking app. This is important because foods can gain (rice) or lose (protein) water when cooking.

✔ Raw food: Nutrition labels and the majority of entries in tracking apps will list the weight for raw foods. Unless of course it says otherwise.

✔ Double-check accuracy: Most tracking apps allow users to add entries. This can create inaccurate logs. In Myfitnesspal look for the green shield with a checkmark in it for verified foods. Or use the USDA food database or Nutritionix to double-check an item.

✔ Scan barcodes (but adjust the amounts): Most tracking apps will allow you to scan the barcodes for easy entry. Make sure to still weigh the item and adjust the portion according to what you eat.

✔ At restaurants: If you can not find a menu item in your tracking app select a similar item from another restaurant. Or, estimate the portion sizes of each item using your hands and enter them in manually. Error on the side of overestimating. You can also use the Nutritionix restaurant database to look up an item and enter it manually.

✔ Track drinks, bites, licks, nibbles, and tastes: You’d be surprised at how the calories can add up. In these situations, you most likely will have to estimate. Use the hand estimates in the FAQ to help with this.

✅ Resources: 

Set a Realistic Calorie Deficit (How much of a calorie deficit should I have per day)

There are a number of ways to go about this.

After you’ve figured out your maintenance calories a general place to start is by subtracting 250-500 to get an appropriate calorie deficit for steady weight loss. You can also use percentages to calculate your calorie deficit.

  • Aggressive deficit: 25-30% of maintenance calories (i.e. 2,000 calories x 25-30% = 500 to 600)
  • Moderate deficit: 15-20% of maintenance calories (i.e. 2,000 calories x 20-25% = 300 to 400)
  • Slight deficit: 5-10% of maintenance calories (i.e. 2,000 calories x 20-25% = 100 to 200)

Those with more weight to lose can usually be more aggressive because they will have more body fat to use for energy. While smaller bodies or less body fat to lose may struggle with an aggressive deficit because it brings calories too low and may increase hunger levels. Making it harder to stick with the diet. 

How do you create a calorie deficit without tracking calories?

There are a number of ways that I go in-depth in these articles.

But the gist of each of them is below.

Creating a calorie deficit by restricting a macronutrient or food group

How diets work

This is not my favorite method but it’s worked well for a number of clients of mine

Restricting a macronutrient is what we could call a “diet.” The Keto diet restricts carbs, a vegan diet restricts animal protein, and the Paleo diet restricts grains, legumes, and dairy. 

In the image above you create a calorie deficit by restricting a particular food group. Thus, reducing your overall calorie intake. If you don’t replace those calories and it puts you in a calorie deficit you may lose weight. 

For example, if you eat on average 2,000 calories per day and your carbohydrates for the day include:

  • Breakfast: 2 slices of toast (200 calories)
  • Lunch: 1 apple (80 calories)
  • Dinner: 1 cup of rice (200 calories)
  • Total calories: 480

If you restricted carbohydrates you would decrease your calorie intake by 480 calories. This would now have you eating 1,620 calories per day. This puts you in a calorie deficit and you may start losing weight. 

Creating a calorie deficit by skipping a meal or intermittent fasting (creating eating windows)

Intermittent fasting 16/8

If you currently eat breakfast, stop, and don’t replace the calories. You may lose weight provided you create a consistent calorie deficit over time.

For example, if you eat 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight and your first meal of the day includes the following:

  • Protein: 3 slices eggs (210 calories)
  • Carbs: 1 apple (80 calories)
  • Fat: Avocado and slice of cheese (300 calories)
  • Total calories: 590 

By skipping this meal you’ve reduced your total calorie intake by 590 calories. You are now averaging 1,410 calories per day. You’re now in a calorie deficit and you may start losing weight.

Creating a calorie deficit by keeping the same diet but eating less of it

1% better

You reduce serving sizes at one or more meals. Skipping snacks could be another way to eat less of what you currently do. The idea is to be 1% better. Simple swaps and adjustments can go a long way.

For example, if you eat on average of 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight and every day for lunch you grab a burger and fries from a favorite spot down the street.

  • Cheeseburger (with bun): 350 calories
  • Fries (medium): 340 calories
  • Diet Coke: 0 calories
  • Total calories: 690 

And let’s say you have 2 glasses of wine each night as well.

  • Wine: 240 calories
  • Total calories (plus lunch): 930

If you made the following 1% better swaps you would create a calorie deficit.

  • Hamburger (with bun): 250 calories
  • Fries (small): 220
  • Diet Coke: 0 calories
  • Total calories: 470 (-220 from your previous lunch)

Now those 2 glasses of wine turn into 1.

  • Wine: 120 calories
  • Total calories (plus lunch): 590

By making these small adjustments you’ve put yourself in a 340-calorie deficit. You may start losing weight.

Creating a calorie deficit by improving food quality (this usually leads to less calorie density)

Instead of a caramel macchiato and bagel with cream cheese, you now have water, apple, and scrambled eggs. Whole foods will usually be less calorie-dense and more filling. Thus, helping to create a consistent calorie deficit over time.

Old meal:

  • Caramel macchiato (grande): 220 calories
  • Bagel with cream cheese: 400 calories
  • Total calories: 620

New meal:

  • Apple: 80 calories
  • Eggs(2): 140 calories
  • Spinach and onion: 50 calories
  • Water: 0 calories
  • Total calories: 270 calories

If you average 2,000 calories per day and are maintaining your weight you’ve now created a 350-calorie deficit and you may start losing weight.

You can also do things, such as tracking calories or macronutrients, using your hands to estimate portion sizes, or moving your body more by increasing steps or exercise.

Just keep in mind that all of these methods are tools that you use to do a job. You’re not married to a particular one and you don’t have to join a “diet cult” ( I see you Keto people). Any one of them can help you lose weight and belly fat if they help you create a calorie deficit. 

Create a calorie deficit by choosing more nutrient-dense foods (add and adjust instead of restrict and subtract)

Add and adjust

Nutrient-dense foods are foods that provide a high amount of essential nutrients per calorie. Examples of nutrient-dense foods include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and legumes. Consuming these foods during a calorie deficit can help ensure that your body is getting the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that it needs to function correctly.

If you’re not getting enough nutrients while in a calorie deficit, your body may start breaking down muscle tissue for energy, which can hinder your weight loss goals. Additionally, nutrient deficiencies can cause a range of health issues, including fatigue, weakened immune function, and a higher risk of chronic diseases.

Overall, focusing on nutrient-dense foods during a calorie deficit can help you maintain optimal health, preserve lean muscle mass, and achieve your weight loss goals more effectively.

A big mistake I see people making is trying to eat uber “clean” or healthy all the time. This makes it nearly impossible for them to follow their diet consistently enough to get results. They’re constantly on and off of it. If you can stick to your diet it’s hard to make progress.

You don’t need another food list to tell you what to eat (although there’s one below). Most people already know Fruit Loops are not an ideal breakfast but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat them on a Sunday morning with your kids and still make progress.

Stick with the foods you already know you should eat 80-90% of the time and the “fun stuff” 10-20% of the time and you’ll do just fine.

Risks of setting too large of a calorie deficit

There are several risks associated with too large of a calorie deficit:

  • Muscle loss: When you create a large calorie deficit, your body may start breaking down muscle tissue for energy. This can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, which can negatively impact your metabolism and overall health. This is one reason getting enough protein and resistance training is important. 
  • Nutrient deficiencies: A large calorie deficit can make it difficult to get all the nutrients your body needs to function properly. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, which can cause fatigue, weakness, and other health problems.
  • Metabolic adaptations: When you create a large calorie deficit, your body may respond by slowing you down (fatigue so you move less for example) to conserve energy. This can make it harder to lose weight over time and may lead to weight gain in the long run.
  • Increased risk of binge eating: Severely restricting calories can lead to intense hunger and cravings, which can increase the likelihood of binge eating and overeating.
  • Mood changes: Calorie deficits can also impact your mood and energy levels. Some people may experience irritability, depression, or anxiety when they are not consuming enough calories.

Monitor Progress and Adjust as Needed

There are several ways to self-monitor for a calorie deficit, including:

  • Keeping a food diary: This involves tracking the foods and drinks you consume throughout the day, along with their calorie content. You can use a notebook, a smartphone app, or a website to log your meals and snacks.
  • Using a calorie tracking app: There are many apps available that can help you track your calorie intake, such as MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, or Fitbit. 
  • Using a food scale: Weighing your food using a kitchen scale can help you accurately measure your portion sizes and track your calorie intake. Or just use the food scale without tracking to learn more about portions.
  • Paying attention to hunger cues: Eating slowly and stopping when you feel full can help you avoid overeating and stay within your calorie deficit.
  • Monitoring your weight: Weighing yourself regularly can help you track your progress and ensure that you are consistently in a calorie deficit.

You can also self-monitor using a simple rating scale for sleep, stress, hunger, and energy.

Expect to have challenges as you progress. You may have a little hunger and experience some fatigue. We just don’t want these things to become chronic. If that happens, it lets us know things need to change.

Sleep quality: 0 = no issues, 10 = insomnia

Sleep quality can affect your training and recovery. Which can affect your results while in a calorie deficit. Sleep can affect hunger, energy levels, and decision-making. If you’re finding yourself hungry all the time, experiencing cravings, and not able to progress in the gym. Fixing your sleep can help.

Stress: 0 = no issues, 10 = death in the family, divorce, etc..

Stress can influence your desire and performance while training as well as your ability to recover. It can cause water retention, and affect sleep, and your mood.

Hunger: 0 = no issues, 10 = eat my own face off

Chronic hunger tells you that your calorie deficit is too low, you’re not getting enough protein, or you’re overtraining.

Energy levels: 0 = no issues, 10 = difficult to get out of bed

When you’re energy low it affects all areas of your life. Training desire and performance may suffer immensely. This may result in your ability to build muscle, lose fat, and get motivated. Extreme fatigute could mean your calorie deficit is too big (calorie intake is too low) or you’re overly stressed or not sleeping well. If that’s the case, those things could be addressed before increasing calorie intake.

Expect to have challenges as you progress. You may have a little hunger and experience some fatigue. We just don’t want these things to become chronic. If that happens, it lets us know things need to change.

The most important thing is to self-monitor in a way that works for you.

Any questions about today’s article? Don’t hesitate to contact me here