3 Powerful Calorie Deficit Tweaks To Lose Weight
These Small Adjustments Make All the Difference
If you’re in an eternal struggle to lose weight, then you know it’s not as simple as eating less and exercising more.
During a calorie deficit, you lose weight at first but the progress always stops. Often, you even regain the weight you lost.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can lose weight and keep it off with a few simple changes to your diet.
What is a Calorie Deficit?
A calorie deficit is simply a shortage of calories caused by eating less than you burn.
Calories In < Calories Out = Calorie Deficit
As an example, let’s say you eat 1,500 calories and burn 2,000 calories daily.
Then your calorie intake is less than your expenditure. So you have a deficit of 500 calories per day.
Reasons Calorie Deficit Diets Fail
While a negative calorie balance is required to lose weight, it can also cause unwanted side effects.
You Lose Muscle
At the start of a calorie deficit diet, you almost always lose weight. Though it’s possible that most of that weight is muscle.
The reason is that muscle requires a lot of energy to maintain. So your body eliminates muscle when there’s not enough energy to support it.
To illustrate, researchers from Stanford University put active men on a 40% calorie deficit diet1. Then tracked their weight, lean mass (muscle), and body fat for 3 weeks.
Adapted from Friedlander, et al.
As a result of the diet, participants lost an average of 8.4 pounds in 21 days. Sounds great, right?
Well, in this case, over half of the weight lost was lean mass.
Maybe you don’t care that much about being muscular. But the bigger problem is that muscle loss has a negative effect on metabolism.
Your Metabolism Slows Down
When you lose lean mass your metabolism slows down so your body can survive on less energy. Which sounds efficient, but it comes at a cost.
Like tossing gold out your car window to get better gas mileage… you go further on less fuel, but you lose a valuable resource.
In the previous study, researchers also tracked the participants’ metabolic rates. And they found that metabolism dropped by as much as 230 calories.
Adapted from Friedlander, et al.
Admittedly, 230 calories doesn’t sound like much. Over the course of 3 months, however, that’s enough energy to burn an additional 5 to 6 lbs of fat.
Also, the calorie deficit doesn’t have to be large to lose muscle. A similar study reported metabolism decreases after 19 days of a 20% calorie deficit2.
The point is, a slower metabolism means you don’t burn as many calories. So the calorie deficit goes away and you stop losing weight.
You Stop Losing Weight
As an example, let’s say you eat 2,500 calories per day to maintain your weight. In order to lose weight, you decide to create a 500 calorie deficit by eating 2,000 calories per day.
500 / 2,500 = 0.2 (20% deficit)
After several weeks, your metabolism slows down to 2,000 calories. This is when you stop losing weight and hit a plateau.
Common sense tells you to cut another 400 calories per day to continue losing weight. So now you’re eating just 1,600 calories.
400/ 2,000 = 0.2 (20% deficit)
And for a few weeks, it works. But then you hit a second plateau.
At this point, you’re hungry all the time. Worse yet, you don’t look or feel the way you thought you would after losing weight.
Frustrated, you give up and go back to eating 2,500 calories per day. Sound familiar?
Don’t feel bad. This outcome is almost inevitable in the situation described. Unfortunately, it’s also a formula for rapid weight gain.
You Lose Motivation & Regain the Weight
After the calorie deficit diet, your metabolism stays low. So when you go back to eating more food you’re now in a large calorie surplus. And you regain a lot of weight (that scary red bar).
In many cases, you regain more weight than you lost. Even worse, 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 a prolonged calorie deficit isn’t the answer. The good news is, with a few easy changes you can lose weight & keep it off.
3 Calorie Deficit Tweaks
Before starting a diet, it’s important to realize that your goal is not to make the number on the scale go down as fast as possible. Because that can incentivize the wrong behaviors – like severe calorie restriction.
Instead, focus on fat loss while preserving lean mass and metabolism. With that in mind, here’s how to be in a calorie deficit without crashing your metabolism.
1. 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 would eat to maintain your weight.
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 large calorie deficit.
The rate of fat loss will be slower, but you achieve more long term success. So think of it as an ongoing lifestyle change instead of a crash diet.
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 muscle loss.
Therefore, the best defense against muscle loss is to eat plenty of protein. That could range from 0.8 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight daily. As you get leaner and your calories get lower you should aim for the higher end.
3. Periodic High Calorie Breaks
A refeed is when you temporarily increase your calorie intake slightly above your expenditure. That is, you eat more calories than you burn.
The goal is to counteract the negative metabolic effects of a calorie deficit. And there is evidence that refeeds increase hormones like leptin5, which stimulate your metabolism. Essentially, you “trick” your body into thinking it’s not in a calorie deficit.
Typically, a refeed is a 24 hour period once per week. And you should target 200 to 300 calories above your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
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.
1) Friedlander, Anne L., et al. “Three weeks of caloric restriction alters protein metabolism in normal-weight, young men.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism 289.3 (2005): E446-E455.
2) Heyman, MELVIN B., et al. “Underfeeding and body weight regulation in normal-weight young men.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 263.2 (1992): R250-R257.
3) Trexler, Eric T., Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, and Layne E. Norton. “Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition11.1 (2014): 7.
4) Helms, Eric R., et al. “A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes.” (2014): 127-138.
5) Chin-Chance, Catherine, Kenneth S. Polonsky, and Dale A. Schoeller. “Twenty-four-hour leptin levels respond to cumulative short-term energy imbalance and predict subsequent intake.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 85.8 (2000): 2685-2691.