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What is a Calorie Deficit & How Do You Set One Up in Your Diet?

When most people begging grappling with the idea of losing weight, one of the first things they think about is finding the right diet.  

While it can be easy to get bogged down in all of the different options, what you don’t want to do is lose sight of what’s really necessary when it comes to losing weight.

No matter what eating strategy you choose to go with (low-carb, low-fat, intermittent fasting, etc.), there one thing you’ll definitely need to have in place if you want to lose weight and that’s a calorie deficit.    

In other words, regardless of what foods you’re eating in your daily diet, you have to be taking in fewer calories than your body expends in order to see regular, measurable results.  

While that may sound straightforward enough, there are a few things you’ll need to figure in order to set up a calorie deficit in your diet.  

From figuring out how much energy you actually burn off in a day, to understanding what kinds of adjustments you need to make to your calorie intake, were covering everything you need to know about creating a calorie deficit in your diet.  

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s first talk in a little more detail about what a calorie deficit is and why it’s so important when it comes to losing weight.  

What is a Calorie Deficit?

In order to stay up and running, your body needs a continuous supply of energy.  When you consume a meal, the food is ultimately broken down and converted into energy that can be used to meet your body’s energy demands.  

The only problem is that when you take in more energy than your body needs -- i.e. you consume more calories than you burn off -- your body converts those extra unneeded calories into fat and stores them as a reserve energy supply.  

Obviously, that’s the opposite of what you want to do when we’re talking about losing weight.  In order to stop storing extra calories as fat and start burning off what reserves you’ve already built up, you have to be in a calorie deficit.

A calorie deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body requires to maintain your current weight.  When your body isn’t able to meet its energy needs through your diet, it ultimately turns to those extra calories it’s stored up as fat to make up the difference.

It’s ultimately through this process of converting stored fat into energy that weight loss occurs, and no matter what diet you’re on, you have to be in a calorie deficit for that to happen.   

The only problem is that everybody’s calorie needs are different, so creating a deficit in your diet first requires figuring out just how many calories your body actually needs.  Once you know that,  creating a deficit is relatively simple.    

Figuring Out Your Calorie Needs

Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is an estimate of how much energy your body uses up over the course of a day.  It takes into account things like your age, height, weight, gender, and activity level to give you an approximation of how many calories it takes to maintain your current weight.  

While you can calculate your TDEE by hand -- there are a number of different formulas available -- you can also use an online TDEE calculator to quickly figure out roughly how many calories you’re consuming every day.   

Once you have a good idea of what your TDEE is, you can begin subtracting calories from your diet to create the necessary deficit you need to lose weight.  

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How Big of a Calorie Deficit Do You Need to Lose Weight?

While there’s no one magic number that’s going to be right for everybody, a calorie deficit of somewhere between 20% - 40% seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to seeing steady, consistent weight loss.  In other words, that means taking in twenty to forty percent fewer calories than you actually burn off each day.  

For example, let’s say your current TDEE is 1,700 calories per day and you want to go with a 35% calorie deficit.  Here’s what the math looks like:

1,700 cal x 0.35 = 595 cal

1,700 cal - 595 cal = 1,105 cal

So based on those calculations, in order to lose weight, you’d need to be taking in somewhere around 1,105 calories per day -- again, this number will change slightly depending on how much or little of a restriction you choose to apply.  

Generally, the higher your deficit is, the more likely it is you’ll be able to lose weight consistently.  However, you don’t want to get too extreme with how much you restrict your calories.   

On top of increasing your risk of muscle loss, going past somewhere around a 40% deficit also further increases your risk of incurring micronutrient deficiencies, which can impinge on your health in multiple ways.  

Tips For Long-Term Dieting Success

Ok, so you’ve figured out how to do all the calculations you need to set up your calorie deficit, but now comes the tricky part: actually implementing it in your diet in a way that allows for long-term success.  

It's hardly a secret that being on a calorie-restricted diet can be challenging, especially when it comes to managing your hunger.  After all, in order to see lasting results, you have to be able to maintain consistency day in and day out.  

Sure, a cheat meal every once a week isn’t the end of the world, but giving in to hunger and food cravings time and again can certainly get in the way of hitting your goals.

So with that being said, here are some tips and tricks for making your calorie deficit more manageable on a day-to-day basis.

Achieve Your Calorie Deficit Gradually

The first thing you can do to avoid being overridden by hunger when you start restricting your calories is to ease your way into a deficit.  While it can be tempting to jump right into a relatively large calorie deficit to see maximum results, doing so can spell disaster for long-term success.

That’s because your body will be thrown all out of whack if you immediately cut 500+ calories out of your daily diet; you’re stomach will certainly be unhappy with your and your mind will make it very difficult to stick with your plan.  

 So, instead of jumping right into a 40% calorie deficit, for instance, start by chizzling off a couple of hundred calories from your TDEE over the course of a few weeks.  

Once your body has become more accustomed to your restricted calorie intake, you’ll be much better equipped to get into the kind of deficit you need to start seeing significant amounts of weight loss.  

Avoid Highly Processed Foods

Another way to keep your calorie intake down on a regular basis is to cut highly processed foods out of your diet.  

While things like microwave meals, breakfast cereals, and certain deli meats may be convineint, they’re less filling and less nutritious in comparison to whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and lean unprocessed meats.   

In fact, research shows that for some people, simply eliminating processed foods from their diet was enough to start seeing significant amounts of weight loss.  That’s because consuming whole foods is more satiating calorie for calorie, which can ultimately help to reduce your daily calorie intake in and of itself.  

Make Protein a Priority

On top of steering clear of highly processed foods, increasing your protein intake can also help to reduce your food cravings and overall calorie intake.  

In addition to helping to prevent muscle loss during a weight cut (which can be a pretty common occurrence), protein is also more filling than either carbs or fat.  

And indeed, research also shows that people on high-protein diets tend to eat less over the course of the day in comparison to those on either high-carb or high-fat diets.  

Wrap up

No matter what diet you’re on, in order to actually lose significant amounts of weight, you have to be in a calorie deficit, which occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.  

To assure you’re in a calorie deficit, you’ll need to know how many calories it takes to maintain your current body weight -- AKA your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).  

Once you know your TDEE, you simply apply a 20% - 40% restriction to your calorie intake to achieve the kind of deficit necessary for weight loss.  

In order to increase your odds of long-term success on a calorie-restricted diet, make sure to ease your way into a calorie deficit, instead of drastically reducing your calorie intake all at once.  

On top of that, avoiding processed foods and increasing your protein intake can also help to decrease your overall calorie intake and make being in a calorie deficit far more manageable.  

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