What Is Calorie Deficit?

calorie deficit

Losing weight basically boils down to one thing: by burning more calories than you eat, a mathematical solution called a calorie deficit. You can create a calorie deficit by reducing your calorie intake or by combining fewer calories with more exercise. But, even then, you may still have a hard time losing weight. Read on to learn more about calorie deficit and tips for creating one. 

What Is a Calorie Deficit and Why its Vital for Weight Loss?

Calories are the units of energy you get from food and drink, and you reach a calorie deficit when you consume fewer calories than you burn.

The number of calories you burn or consume each day – also known as calorie expenditure – consists of the following three components:

  • Thermic effect of food. This involves the amount of calories your body burns as it digests, absorbs and metabolizes food.
  • Activity energy expenditure. This refers to the calories you burn in activities like exercise and non-exercise related activities, including fidgeting and doing household chores.
  • Resting energy expenditure (REE). REE is the amount of heat your body uses to maintain your life’s functions, such as breathing and circulation, while you are at rest.

If you are providing your body with fewer calories than it needs to support the caloric expenditure of these three components, you are putting your body in a caloric deficit. Consistently doing this over time can lead to weight loss.

Conversely, if you regularly provide your body with more calories than it needs to support these functions, you will gain weight. This is called a calorie surplus.

How do I Figure out My Calorie Deficit?

The general recommendation is to create a 500-calorie deficit each day. The body stores 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so theoretically, a 500-calorie deficit could result in a weight loss of one pound per week. 

It is estimated that the average sedentary (inactive) adult male needs about 2,200 calories per day to maintain his weight, while a physically active person needs 2,800 calories per day. 

To experience weight loss, it is generally recommended that women consume 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day and men consume 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day. 

However, the exact number of calories you need depends on your metabolism, health status, muscle mass and activity level. 

You can figure out how many calories you burn per day by wearing a fitness tracker or by testing your resting metabolic rate at a medical center.

How to Create a Calorie Deficit 

Once a person knows how many calories they need each day or week, they can work on creating a calorie deficit.


One component of creating a calorie deficit is changing what a person eats on a daily basis. A person should focus on foods that are rich in nutrients but low in calories.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, a healthy eating pattern that is lower in calories should include:

  • vegetables, including dark green, red, orange, starchy, and other vegetables
  • grains, at least half of which should be whole grains
  • fruits, with a focus on whole fruits
  • proteins, such as lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, soy products, and seafood
  • low fat or fat-free dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages
  • healthful oils, such as olive oil, or canola oil

A person should also avoid sugary drinks and trans fats.

They may also want to increase the amount of water they drink, which will help them stay hydrated and replace any sugary drinks they normally consume.


Studies show that diet changes alone are more likely to raise your calorie deficit than exercise alone. However, you tend to get the best weight loss results if you combine diet changes with moderate to heavy exercise.

Aim to do 30 minutes or more most days of the week, although 45 minutes or more may be better for keeping the weight off. You don’t necessarily have to do them all at once. You can do some shorter, 10-minute sprints throughout the day. Take a walk around the block or do some gardening in the afternoon.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before you start strenuous exercise, especially if you are overweight or have other health problems.

Remember. Even if you don’t lose weight, regular exercise can go a long way toward protecting your health. It can stop your body from accumulating fat. If you’ve lost weight, it can help you keep it off.

Tips on Eating Fewer Calories

Cutting calories from your diet to create a calorie deficit doesn’t necessarily require drastic changes.

In fact, there are several strategies that can help you reduce your calorie intake to lose weight and keep it off – and they don’t even require calorie counting.

Don’t drink your calories

You may be able to eliminate hundreds of calories from your diet simply by reducing or eliminating the intake of sugary beverages such as sodas, juices and specialty coffee drinks.

Alcoholic beverages can also bring in a lot of calories.

The calories in these beverages do not provide satiety and, in excess, can lead to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.

Add more protein, fiber, and healthy fat to your diet 

Cook with foods high in fiber, such as fruits and vegetables, so that even though your entrée size may be smaller than you’re used to, you’ll still be satisfied. Adding more fiber, protein and healthy fats to your meals will help you stay satisfied longer and help you eat less.

Limit highly processed foods

The sugar, fat and salt in highly processed foods, including sugary drinks, fast foods, desserts and breakfast cereals, make these high-calorie foods very palatable and encourage people to over-consume.

In fact, one study showed that people who were allowed to eat as much as they wanted ate 500 more calories per day compared to a diet containing highly processed foods.

Stop eating after dinner

This is usually the best way to get a deficit. Most people have met their caloric needs by then, so eating after dinner or before bed just adds extra calories.

Do more strength training

In general, exercise can help burn more calories, but strength training helps increase your body’s energy needs and increases the number of calories you burn at rest. Muscles require 24 hours of calories or energy, so if you have more lean muscle, you will need more calories to maintain your weight. Therefore, you will not have to cut back on food to create a deficit as you did before.

What are the Dangers of Calorie Deficit?

If you have any existing health conditions, a calorie deficit has the potential to cause problems. A calorie-deficient diet can hurt you. Here’s what you need to know if you have:

  • Type 2 diabetes: Be careful when your blood sugar drops too low in a calorie deficit.
  • Kidney problems: While reducing your calorie intake, water fluctuations may strain your kidneys.
  • High or low blood pressure: Changes in your hydration and water intake can affect your blood pressure.

Before starting a calorie-deficient diet, it’s best to talk to your health care providers. If they allow you to follow this diet plan, make sure you don’t fall into two common traps: eating too little protein and cutting too many calories.


In order to lose weight, you have to create a calorie deficit, but that doesn’t mean you have to focus on cutting out your favorite foods and depriving yourself. Instead, focus on adjusting your diet and participating in the physical activities you enjoy.

You can also get help from a registered dietitian. These professionals can design an effective meal plan that meets your individual needs. In the long run, the plan that is tailored to your individual needs is usually the one you are most likely to stick to.

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