A calorie deficit, to those who aren’t already aware of what one is, can sound a little intimidating. In reality, however, it’s an extremely logical and straight explanation of how we lose weight and burn fat.
If you’ve ever counted calories for fat loss and have managed to lose a few pounds, you’ve unknowingly been in a calorie deficit.
Being in a calorie deficit is a crucial component of cutting fat and getting lean – however, if you don’t get it right, you can also lose some muscle mass too.
What is a calorie deficit?
A calorie deficit is a state your body enters when you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning on a daily basis, whether that’s through exercise or simply going about your daily business.
Anybody can enter a calorie deficit, whether you’re a seasoned kettlebell veteran, a competition powerlifter, or a fresh-as-morning-dew newbie.
It all comes down to what you put into your body versus how much energy you use each day.
What factors impact a calorie deficit?
There are many different things that can impact your calorie deficit, and every human body is different.
Everything can have an influence on the calories you burn on a daily basis, such as your gender, age, your height and weight, the amount of exercise you get on a daily basis, and your body composition (your muscle to fat ratio).
To give you a rough idea, a middlingly-active (a couple of workouts per week) male in his 30s needs around 2600 calories per day. A female of the same age and activity level needs only around 2000.
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We typically need fewer calories per day as we age, and men generally need more than women. And obviously, the more exercise you treat your body to each day, the more fuel you’ll need to put in it—by which we mean, of course, delicious and nutritious food!
Can you use a calorie deficit to lose weight?
Short answer: yes! In fact, you can’t possibly lose weight if you’re not in a calorie deficit. That’s not to say that a calorie deficit for weight loss is the only thing you need to do; there are other components too, namely healthy eating and exercise.
However, even if you’re lifting weights and eating a ton of veggies, if you’re packing on more calories than you’re burning, you’ll end up packing on fat and/or muscle, rather than burning it.
In order to shed between one and two pounds in a week, the average person would have to undercut their daily calorie requirements by between 500 and 1000 calories.
Also Read: How to measure your body fat percentage
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go hungry. To stave off hunger, you can increase the amount of water you drink per day (it works wonders at making you feel full), eat low calorie foods like vegetables and fruit, and eat plenty of fiber.
Foods packed with fiber will keep you feeling satisfied for longer and don’t typically contain any troubling amount of fat or calories.
How to calculate how many calories you burn per day
Everything your body does burns calories, even when you’re lying in bed. Repairing your muscles, maintaining your organs, digesting food, daydreaming—all of it requires fuel.
If you want to figure out how many calories you burn on an average day, there’s a simple(ish) formula you can follow that will give you a reliable ballpark figure.
If you’re moderately active, i.e. you exercise a few times a week, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 15. This gives you a rough estimate of how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your current weight with losses or gains of any kind.
If you weigh 175 pounds, for example, you would times this number by 15 to get 2625, which is your daily calorie allowance. If you then wanted to lose weight, it would simply be a matter of ensuring you eat fewer than 2625 calories per day.
Also Read: How to calculate your BMR and TDEE
The speed of your weight loss depends on how large a deficit you create. Too large a drop in calories is, of course, not sustainable, and can be unhealthy. It’s recommended you subtract 500 from your average calories per day.
Calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
If you want to get a little more precise, there’s a formula to use. Get your calculators ready:
Adult male: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lb) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
Adult female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lb) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
Once you’ve got your Basal Metabolic Rate, which is the number of calories you burn without doing anything at all—just your body’s internal processes—you can then factor in your activity level to establish a more accurate depiction of how many calories you need per day to maintain your current weight.
Little or no exercise = BMR x 1.2
1–3 days per week of exercise or activity = BMR x 1.375
3–5 days per week of moderate activity or sports = BMR x 1.55
6–7 days per week of hard exercise = BMR x 1.725
Athletes = BMR x 1.9
Again, once you have this number, subtract 500 from it to get your target calorie number per day for weight loss.
How to achieve a calorie deficit
To lower your daily calories by 500 you need to consume less (or healthier) food per day, or to increase the amount of exercise you’re getting. Ideally, do both!
When it comes to your diet, switch up fatty foods and processed goods for green vegetables, whole grains, fruit, lean meats such as chicken and fish, and low-fat dairy products.
And ditch the sugary drinks!
Maintaining muscle in a calorie deficit
You don’t only burn fat in a caloric deficit—you can use up a little muscle too. To minimize this, while you’re cutting calories, be sure to get plenty of protein and lift heavy at the gym.
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