A calorie deficit is an important piece for weight loss. Before talking about what a calorie deficit is, what is a calorie? When talking about food, a calorie is basically just a measure of energy or heat that is found in a food. The body uses the amount of energy in food or drink we consume to fuel muscles, build new tissues, hormones, store for later use, etc.
The calories we consume and the calories we burn during exercise are two ways to target weight loss. Being in a calorie deficit means calorie intake is less than the body needs.
How big a calorie deficit is can affect weight loss and overall health.
What is a calorie deficit?
Being in a calorie deficit means you are eating less calories (energy) than your body is using. When this happens, it encourages your body to use fat stores for energy. This is the goal in weight loss, to get your body to use energy stored as fat for energy.
A calorie deficit can be done by lowering your food intake, raising your calorie need by increasing exercise or a combination of both.
For sustained weight loss, most health professionals recommend combining increasing your calorie output and cutting your calorie intake by eliminating empty calories.
How big should it be?
How big your calorie deficit should be can vary. A general guideline is being in a deficit of about 500 calories per day if you’re aiming to lose a few pounds a week. This amount is significant but could be sustainable for prolonged weight loss.
This can be done by cutting back 500 calories from your diet, increasing your calorie expenditure by 500 calories or a combination of cutting back calories and increasing your exercise. If you are aiming for a higher weight loss, being in a calorie deficit between 500-1,000 calories per day may be needed.
How much of a calorie deficit you need or want to be in can also be determined how many calories you are currently getting, how many calories you are expending and your health history.
How do you know if you are in a calorie deficit?
Does a 1,800 or a 1,200 calorie diet put you in a deficit?
How do you know when you are in one? While there is no magic way to tell immediately, you should notice your body changing for the better when you are in a deficit.
Another helpful tip for some people is to know an approximate amount of calories their body needs. Everyone’s calorie needs vary.
There are many factors that go into determining how much energy your body uses every day, and it can fluctuate day to day.
There are equations, fitness apps and weight loss plans that can give an estimate for determining how many calories your individual body needs. Once you know that, shoot below this number as a target for your calorie intake for weight loss.
How do you get into a calorie deficit that is healthy?
If you drastically cut your calorie intake for an extended amount, it can cause your body harm. For example, anorexia nervosa or semi starvation can increase your risk for many dangerous health conditions and can lead to organ damage.
Some weight loss plans call for extremely low calorie intake. Any program that recommends eating less than 800-1,000 calories should be monitored by a medical team.
Being in a healthy calorie deficit means you are cutting out excess empty calories and filling up on nutrient dense foods. You aren’t starving yourself, and you aren’t constantly feeling hungry all the time. You are still able to work out and keep your muscle mass.
You can go by the numbers and track your food intake and exercise every day to make sure you’re hitting your goal.
Just keep in mind you need to constantly readjust your calorie needs throughout weight loss as metabolic rate goes down with weight loss.
Keep in mind there is more to weight loss and health than just tracking calories in versus calories out. The quality of the calories matters along with how many other nutrients you are getting from your food.
A calorie deficit means your body is using more calories than you are taking in. This in turn should promote fat loss, which is the goal for any weight loss. A calorie deficit can be accomplished by lowering your calorie intake, increasing your calorie burn through exercise or a combination of both.
Your calorie needs change as you lose weight, so it is important to adjust your calorie goals as you go through weight loss.
Also keep in mind, following specific numbers can be a good guideline, but there are many other things to focus on besides just a calorie number.
Calorie deficits that are safe and effective can vary depending on individual needs, but in general a deficit of about 500-1,000 calories a day can be a guideline for losing a few pounds a week.
For individual help with constructing a weight loss plan with a healthy calorie deficit, talk with a dietitian.