Generally, to lose weight, you have to create a calorie deficit by eating less or using more energy daily. And weight loss diets tend to tout big calorie deficits as the secret to slimming down.
But what is a calorie deficit? Is a bigger deficit better when it comes to weight loss? And how do you make sure you’re following a healthy calorie deficit? We’re getting to the bottom of these questions.
What’s a healthy calorie deficit?
Everyone’s calorie needs are different. A “healthy” calorie intake for you will depend on factors like your age, sex, and activity levels. Your doctor can help you find a healthy-for-you calorie deficit that’s based on your unique needs and goals. In general, many experts recommend keeping your calorie deficit as small as possible.
Minimizing this deficit helps minimize the changes your bod might make in response (like slowing your metabolism and increasing hunger). These counter-productive responses can make long-term weight loss maintenance difficult, so finding the right balance for you is key.
A calorie deficit is how many more calories your body’s burning than you’re taking in. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories and burn 2,300 calories every day, you’d be in a calorie deficit of 300 calories per day.
A calorie is just a measure of energy. When you eat calories, your bod will either use them immediately, or it will store them as glycogen or fat to use as energy later.
You can achieve a calorie deficit by taking in fewer calories. This can be done by eating less or by burning more calories when using more energy. If you’re taking in fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. This is why most weight loss diets recommend cutting calories.
But even though this whole calorie deficit concept is pretty straightforward, weight loss isn’t.
It’s important to understand that although a calorie deficit created through eating less or burning more calories will typically result in weight loss, certain factors can make it more difficult. Several things affect your body weight, weight loss, and energy needs, including:
- changes in hormones
- body composition
- food quality
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to create some level of calorie deficit. Most diets that are promoted for weight loss, like low calorie diets, slash calorie intake by 500 or even 1,000 calories per day.
That’s a lot for most people. For example, if you’re creating a 500 calorie deficit by cutting calories (cals) alone, this means you’ll be cutting out an entire meal’s worth of calories every day.
Low and very low calorie diets typically result in rapid weight loss, but are almost impossible to follow long-term. Most peeps need way more calories per day to feel their best and have the energy they need to get through their day.
Super low calorie diets can have serious downsides
Although greater calorie deficits result in more significant weight loss, cutting cals too drastically can lead to a number of issues like:
- low energy
- nutrient deficiencies
- extreme hunger, dizziness
- mood disturbance
Super low calorie diets also *are not* sustainable. So, even if you notice significant weight loss following an extreme low calorie diet, chances are, it won’t last.
Additionally, calorie restriction leads to changes in your bod, including:
- loss of muscle mass
- increased appetite
- reductions in your resting metabolic rate (the calories you burn at rest)
These changes make long-term weight maintenance difficult.
Small calorie deficits are more sustainable
Even though any type of calorie reduction will result in some reactionary changes, many health experts recommend choosing smaller, more sustainable calorie deficits to minimize them.
For example, instead of choosing to cut cals by 500 or 750 per day, you could choose a more moderate calorie reduction of 250 cals per day. Or, you could reduce 150 calories per day and simply be more active, which will create a calorie reduction by increasing energy output.
Even though this smaller calorie deficit will result in slower weight loss, it will be much easier to sustain long-term and won’t make you feel hangry all the time.
There are *so* many variables when it comes to calorie needs.
If a person claims to know your exact calorie needs without knowing your size, sex, age, activity levels, wellness goals, and underlying medical conditions, be skeptical.
Even online calorie calculators that use formulas like the Mifflin-St Jeor equation to determine calorie needs aren’t 100 percent accurate and can only give you a general idea of how many calories you need each day.
On average, an adult woman needs around 2,000 calories to maintain weight, while a man needs around 2,500 to maintain weight. In order to promote weight loss, calorie intake would need to be lower. However, this is just an estimate.
A doctor or registered dietitian can provide guidance on finding a healthy-for-you calorie deficit based on your unique needs and goals.
Big calorie deficits are unsustainable, dangerous, and most importantly, unnecessary.
But many peeps follow super low cal diets in hopes of losing lots of weight quickly. This can lead to a number of unpleasant side effects that impact your physical and mental health.
Here are a few symptoms, which show that your low cal diet is not healthy and that you’re cutting cals way too much:
- extreme hunger
- fatigue and weakness
- dizziness, especially upon standing
- hair Loss
- an obsession with calorie counting
- preoccupation with low calorie foods and fear of high calorie foods
- not being able to enjoy food because you’re concerned about the calorie count
These are just a few signs that your current diet isn’t right for you and may be harming your health.
Keep in mind that these symptoms could be caused by inadequate calorie intake, but they may also be related to underlying medical conditions. If these symptoms don’t resolve after you’ve increased your calorie intake, it’s important to call a healthcare professional to get checked out.
Cutting calories too severely can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health, which is why choosing less restrictive weight loss methods that you can follow long-term is always the best choice.
After all, the most important factor in any diet or weight loss plan is your ability to stick to it long-term.
Here are a few of the best ways to lose weight while supporting your overall health and well-being.
- Eat whole, nutritious foods. Whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, nuts, and eggs are packed with nutrients your body needs to thrive. Plus, these foods are high in nutrients like protein and fiber that help you feel full.
- Reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods and added sugar. Cutting back on fast food, packaged snack foods, ice cream, candy, and sugary beverages (like soda and energy drinks) can help you reduce your calorie intake and lose weight.
- Get active. Moving your body on a daily basis can help promote weight loss by burning more calories and can also improve cardiovascular and respiratory health, reduce disease risk, and boost your mood.
- Cut back on take out and fast food. If you’re currently consuming most meals out of the house, try cooking more meals at home. Not only can this help save you money, but cooking meals at home can help improve your diet and may help you control your calorie intake.
- Choose filling over low cal. Many people choose foods that are low in calories when they’re trying to lose weight. (We’re looking at you rice cakes and fat-free cheese.) Although eating low cal foods like fruits and veggies can help curb your calorie intake, choosing filling foods high in protein and fiber is just as important and can help keep you feeling satisfied.
- Get help from professionals. A registered dietitian can help you develop a safe, healthy weight loss program that supports your overall health, allows you to enjoy food, and doesn’t make you feel deprived.
It is possible to lose weight while enjoying food, participating in activities you enjoy, and nourishing and respecting your body.
If your current weight loss program makes you feel restricted, tired, stressed, and out of control, it’s time for a new approach to weight loss.
Even though extreme calorie deficits are more likely to result in significant weight loss, they aren’t sustainable and they’re more likely to cause adverse side effects.
If you’re interested in losing weight in a healthy way, it’s best to create a small calorie deficit using sustainable methods like adding in more physical activity and choosing whole, nutrient-dense foods over ultra-processed foods.