Fixing Your Calorie Deficit

3 Simple Adjustments to Help You Lose Weight

Written By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: August 25, 2023

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight through a calorie deficit diet, you know that it’s not always as simple as eating less and exercising more. The process is actually much more complex, as your body is a biological machine that responds to changes in energy inputs.

Unfortunately, this complexity is also why most diets fail. But don’t worry; I can help you make a few simple adjustments to your calorie deficit that will get you back on track for sustainable weight loss. Keep reading to learn more.

calorie deficit

What is a Calorie Deficit?

Achieving a calorie deficit means consuming fewer calories than you burn, resulting in a negative balance of bodily energy. Consistently maintaining a caloric deficit triggers the body to burn stored tissue for energy, leading to weight loss.

While reducing food intake is the easiest way to create a calorie deficit, it may not always be enough. Engaging in physical activity and exercise to burn more calories is also an effective option.

Calories In < Calories Out = Calorie Deficit

How to Calculate a Calorie Deficit

Before calculating a calorie deficit, you must determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which includes your resting metabolic rate (RMR), daily activities, and exercise.

Once you know your calorie expenditure, you can subtract a nominal number from your daily total to find your ideal calorie intake. For instance, many people eat 500 fewer calories than they burn each day.

calorie deficit chart

When trying to lose weight by cutting calories, it’s important to understand that the “500-calorie rule” may not work the same for everyone. This is because the amount of weight loss achieved by cutting 500 calories from your diet depends on how many calories you burn each day.

For example, for a small person who doesn’t exercise much and burns 1,200 calories a day, cutting 500 calories would be a bigger percentage of their calorie intake than for a larger person who is more active and burns 3,500 calories a day.

So, it’s better to think of your calorie deficit as a percentage of the calories you burn each day. A good goal for sustainable weight loss is to aim for a calorie deficit of 10-25% of your daily energy expenditure.

Calorie Deficit Diet for Weight Loss

It is important to maintain a calorie deficit to lose weight, but doing so improperly can result in negative side effects. This section clearly explains how calorie restriction can fail and halt your weight loss progress. Additionally, it provides three simple steps for losing weight in a sustainable manner.

Why Most Calorie Deficit Diets Fail

The main reason why calorie deficit diets fail is that the energy restriction is too severe. When you cut down on calories too much or for too long, your body goes into a “starvation” response, which triggers a cascade of adaptations.

This may sound like science fiction, but it’s a primitive survival mechanism that evolved to keep our bodies running when food was scarce. In modern society, these responses mainly cause frustration in getting fit.

Here are the steps that lead to diet failure:

  1. You Lose Lean Mass From Eating Too Little
  2. Your Metabolism Slows Down
  3. You Stop Losing Weight (Or You Cut Calories Even More)
  4. You Lose Motivation & Regain The Weight

Problem 1: You Lose Muscle Due to Over Restriction

When beginning a reduced-calorie diet, weight loss is often seen as a positive sign of progress. However, it’s essential to understand that this weight loss can come from either body fat or muscle tissue.

In fact, restrictive diets can often lead to significant muscle loss, as muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain.

Research from Stanford University showed that active men on a 40% calorie deficit diet experienced a loss of both lean mass (muscle) and body fat over a period of three weeks1.

Participants lost an average of 8.4 pounds in 21 days on this diet, but more than half of the weight lost was lean mass. Unfortunately, muscle loss negatively impacts metabolism.

calorie deficit change in body mass

Adapted from Friedlander, et al.

Problem 2: Your Metabolism Slows Down

When you lose muscle, your metabolism slows down to conserve energy. This is actually very efficient, but it’s like tossing gold out your car window to get better gas mileage. Even though you can go further on less fuel,  you lose a valuable resource.

In the previous study, researchers also tracked the participants’ metabolic rates. And they found that daily energy burned by metabolic rate dropped by as much as 230 calories.

Another study showed metabolic rate decreased after 19 days of a 20% calorie deficit2. So, the deficit doesn’t need to be huge to cause a negative response.

While it may not seem like much, a reduced metabolic rate means fewer calories burned and eventually causes the deficit to disappear entirely.

calorie deficit change in metabolic rate

Adapted from Friedlander, et al.

Problem 3: You Stop Losing Weight

When you lose muscle and your metabolism slows down, your calorie deficit decreases and weight loss to stalls.

For example, if you usually burn 2,500 calories per day and consume 2,000 calories per day to lose weight, your energy expenditure will eventually decrease to 2,000 calories, causing you to stop losing weight.

If you reduce your calorie intake again to 1,600 calories per day, your weight loss will start again, but you will hit another plateau after several weeks.

calorie deficit graph

Problem 4: You  Lose Motivation & Regain the Weight

At this point, you feel hungry all the time and may not look or feel the way you wanted despite losing weight. This makes it tempting to give up and go back to your old eating habits, which can lead to rapid weight gain.

After prolonged calorie restriction, your metabolism stays low for a period of time. So when you go back to eating more food and you regain a lot of weight because now you’re in a large calorie surplus.

In many cases, you regain more weight than you lost, and the majority of the weight gained is body fat! Over time, your metabolism will gradually increase again. But the damage has already been done.

By now, it should be clear that an aggressive or prolonged calorie deficit isn’t the answer. The good news is, with a few easy changes, you can lose weight & keep it off.

How to Be In a Calorie Deficit Sustainably

Before starting a diet, it is important to understand that your goal should not be to lose weight as quickly as possible. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors like extreme calorie restriction.

Instead, focus on losing fat while maintaining muscle and a healthy metabolism.

Here’s how to achieve a calorie deficit without harming your metabolism.

  1. Start with a smaller deficit and adjust as necessary.
  2. Maintain a higher protein intake to preserve lean mass.
  3. Periodically increase your calorie intake to offset metabolic adaptation.

1. Make Small, Incremental Changes

Calorie restriction is a slippery slope where a larger deficit is likely to result in more muscle loss3. Therefore, you should use the smallest possible deficit that results in fat loss. Start with eating 100 to 200 calories less than you burn.

In addition, you should gradually step down calories when your weight loss slows. Typically it’s good to re-evaluate your calorie target once every two to four weeks.

Small, incremental adjustments ensure the slight calorie deficit remains and you continue to lose weight. But also prevent the unwanted side effects of the excess calorie restriction.

The rate of fat loss may be slower, but you achieve more long-term success. So think of it as an ongoing lifestyle change instead of a crash diet.

small incremental calorie deficit

2. Eat Plenty of Protein

You need more protein as calories drop and body fat decreases4. Even a small calorie deficit can cause a negative protein balance which results in the breakdown of lean mass.

Therefore, the best defense against muscle loss is to follow a high-protein diet where 25-35% of your calories come from protein. As you get leaner and your calories get lower you should aim for the higher end.

Related: Protein Intake Calculator for Weight Loss

3. Periodically Increase Calories

It’s possible to prevent your metabolism from adapting to changes in calorie intake by using metabolic confusion. This involves eating 5-10% more calories than you burn, once per week on a refeed day.

Evidence suggests that refeeds can increase hormones such as leptin5, which stimulate your metabolism and signal your body that it’s not in a starvation situation.

Of course, this is not an excuse to binge eat or consume unhealthy foods. Consider it a critical part of your diet program and treat it like an opportunity to refuel your body with nutrients and glycogen.

Calorie Deficit FAQ

Next, I’ll review some of the most common questions people ask about being in a calorie deficit.

Why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit?

The first reason you may not be losing weight is that you’re not actually in a calorie deficit. This can happen if you eat more calories than you realize or burn fewer calories than you thought.

Another reason your weight loss may stop is that your metabolism has adapted to the calorie deficit. What used to be a deficit that resulted in weight loss is now your maintenance calorie target.

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

When you’re in a calorie deficit, your body lacks the energy and nutrients to generate new muscle tissue. As a result, building muscle is virtually impossible if you consistently consume fewer calories than your body expends.

However, there are some exceptions if you’re in a calorie deficit but consume more calories than before. In this case, your lean mass may increase, but the gains will be minor and mainly due to stored glycogen and water.

To build muscle consistently, you must be in a calorie surplus, consume sufficient protein, and follow a progressive resistance training program.

Is 1,200 calories a day a deficit?

Consuming 1,200 calories daily would be a large calorie deficit for most people, resulting in significant weight loss. However, a deficit that’s too large can often be counterproductive.

To avoid muscle loss and metabolic slowdown, it’s recommended to calculate your calorie deficit as a percentage of your energy expenditure.

How much of a calorie deficit do you need?

When it comes to weight loss, the most effective calorie deficit is often the smallest one that still produces results. This approach avoids the metabolic changes that can occur with chronic calorie restriction.

However, it’s important to note that small calorie deficits may also lead to slower weight loss. For most people, a calorie deficit of 10-20% less than their daily energy expenditure is a moderate and sustainable approach to losing weight.

This method can lead to long-term weight loss success, but there are certain cases where a more significant calorie deficit may be necessary, such as for an obese person who needs to lose substantial weight for health reasons.

Calorie Deficit Calculator

The information you’ve learned so far should clear up the confusion surround calorie deficits. But you might still be unsure about calculating your ideal calorie deficit for weight loss.

That’s why I’ve created a free calorie deficit calculator that you can use to find your personal target based on your body composition, activity level, exercise habits, and fitness goal.

Click here to Calculate Your Calorie Deficit for weight loss.

calorie deficit calculator

More Nutrition Information

With traditional calorie-restriction diets, you end up crashing your metabolism. This means you can’t sustain weight loss, and you even gain weight.

However, the small adjustments you just learned can prevent you from crashing. So you can reach your weight loss goal and maintain it.

Check out my related articles below to learn how to apply this information to your daily routine.

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The Macronutrient Calculator Everyone’s Talking About

How to Get Shredded: 11 Secrets of the Pros

5 Awesome Benefits of Carb Cycling

Weight Loss Calculator Shows How Much You Can Lose

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By |August 25, 2023|Nutrition|0 Comments
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