Though fad diets and extreme calorie restriction tend to do more harm than good for those looking to lose weight long-term, achieving a calorie deficit isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s essential for shedding body fat.
“The only reason one diet or another could have ‘worked’ for anyone would be because, for one reason or another, it helped that person achieve a calorie deficit,” says nurse and health coach Tara Allen, R.N., C.P.T., F.N.S. “However, it is important not to overdo this deficit, as that can lead to malnourishment and will cause your body to break down lean mass (like muscle) on top of fat.”
Achieving a calorie deficit simply means that you’re burning more calories than you consume, explains Jason Kart, P.T., D.P.T., owner of Core Physical Therapy—The Loop in Chicago. The goal is that your body then uses stored energy (fat) to make up the difference in those calories.
“If you eat more than you burn, you gain weight, and vice versa,” Kart says. “However, it’s important to note that it’s much easier to consume calories than burn them.”
Since everyone has different needs, genetic makeups, and responses to various diets and exercise programs, there’s no one magical caloric deficit needed to achieve weight loss, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. That said, for the majority of clients who want to lose 10 to 30 pounds, he usually suggests having a daily deficit of 500 to 750 calories, through a combination of decreased intake and increased expenditure.
“Taking too much out of the diet can cause the body to sense starvation patterns and may cause a hormonal ‘survival’ type of situation, causing the metabolism to slow down,” he warns. “The same situation can occur with too much exercise. If we do too much on the energy expenditure side, we may cause panic that the body may hormonally compensate for by slowing down weight loss.”
For this reason, you’ll want to come up with a plan for how to create a calorie deficit that’s healthy, sustainable, and doesn’t feel restrictive. Here, experts share their best tips for doing so.
1. Think critically about your approach
If you feel like you’re really restricting yourself when creating a calorie deficit, you may need to reevaluate your approach. “When you actually break things down, all you need to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way is to create enough of a calorie deficit to lose 0.5 to one percent of your body weight per week,” says Allen. “For a 200-pound person, that’s enough to lose one to two pounds of body weight per week.” This might require a smaller deficit than you might think, so don’t restrict yourself unnecessarily.
In some cases, a perspective check is also due. “This isn’t about you not being allowed to have everything you want; this is you choosing your long-term goals over short-term comfort,” Allen says. Are your efforts truly supporting your health in the long run? Let that motivate you in tough moments.
2. Add non-workout movement to your day
Even if you don’t have time to fit in full workouts, you can find ways to decrease the amount of time you spend sitting idly in a chair—and doing so makes a difference. One 2016 study published in Diabetes Care found that decreasing prolonged sitting time can improve blood sugar and insulin levels, increase metabolism, and help you burn more calories.
“Stand instead of sit when on conference calls, use the restroom on a different floor (if you’re in an office building), or either walk to the end of your block and back or do a quick household chore each hour,” suggests Adams. “Just set a timer and move.”
3. Add more spices and herbs into your meals
“Very often people associate fat loss with bland, boring meals because many condiments and sauces pack a significant calorie punch,” says Allen. However, you don’t have to choose between eating bland and boring meals or incorporating high-calorie toppings and condiments. Instead, Allen recommends using a variety of spices and herbs, like garlic and cinnamon, to give your food extra oomph. This way, you’ll feel more satisfied with your meals without adding many calories (if any at all).
4. Don’t drink your calories
Unbeknownst to most of us, liquid calories add up fast. “Whether it’s alcohol or smoothies, liquids don’t really fill us up for too long, so we either consume too much too soon or find our stomachs feel empty quickly and then we eat again,” says Adams.
When it comes to alcohol, Adams recommends sticking to one to two drinks per day maximum and being careful about adding sugars from mixers.
When making smoothies, he recommends keeping your blends protein-based (think peanut butter and protein powder) and having your fruit on the side. Not only does having to chew and swallow your fruit slow down your eating, helping you better tune into your satiety cues, but eating your fruit solid maintains its volume, adding physical bulk to your meal and stomach.
You’ll also want to be mindful of any flavors, creamers, and other products you add to low-calorie beverages, like coffee and tea. “The calories can add up quickly when you start adding whole-fat creamers, sugar, toppings, syrups, and flavorings,” says Adams. If you’re not a fan of these beverages plain, opt for low-calorie sweeteners, fat-free or low-fat creamers, and lower-calorie milk substitutes to add flavor without adding a lot of calories.
5. Eat more mindfully
Mindful eating is a buzzy term these days, but for good reason. It works! “Mindful eating involves paying more attention to our food than anything else at that moment, focusing on how eating and our food makes us feel, and experiencing the full sensory awareness eating brings,” explains Adams. As you become more aware of your food (how it makes you feel, how it tastes, smells, sounds, etc.), you naturally eat more slowly, which allows you to better tune into your hunger and fullness cues over time.
6. Prep healthy snacks for the week
If you find yourself snacking pretty often, Adams recommends prepping plenty of healthy options to turn to through the week. “Swapping high-calorie snacks like granola bars out for low-calorie ones can really cut down calories if you find yourself mindlessly eating throughout the day,” he says. “The main solution is really to focus more on your eating, but if that’s too much to handle, switch those snacks.
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A few of his go-to’s: sliced red bell peppers, baby carrots, and cucumbers with fiber-rich hummus or guacamole, as well as easy-to-grab fruits.
7. Incorporate treats regularly
Allen warns against incorporating cheat meals or a full cheat day into your rotation because they encourage you to eat an excessive amount of calories in one meal or day. This can then set you up to restrict your intake afterward, potentially leading to a binge-restrict cycle of disordered eating that can be hard to break free from.
Instead, Allen recommends regularly incorporating moderate amounts of your favorite treats into your days or throughout the week. “If you have prioritized balanced meals full of protein, healthy fats, veggies, and smart carbohydrates and would like to work in a glass of wine or some chocolate a few nights a week, that can be done while still maintaining a calorie deficit,” she explains.