Creating a calorie deficit is essential when it comes to an active fat loss phase.
The basis of every “diet”, whether it’s a safe or effective diet—even the unsafe ones—stem off of creating a DEFICIT with your caloric intake.
The most common go-to for a calorie deficit is simply just cutting one’s intake or cutting out a food group. In reality, there are a TON more avenues and options out there.
How do you know what avenue to go in?
I’ve said it before:
The science is in the compliance.
Meaning what you can adhere to is the best approach for you. Every diet works. Keto, Paleo, carb-cycling, MATADOR, plant-based, macros, no macros etc. All of them can and will work. What makes the difference between success and failure is whether YOU can adhere to it.
*note this isn’t an excuse to eat junk and wonder why it’s not working...just because you can comply to a diet doesn’t mean it’s effortless or an excuse to eat whatever you want*
One of the coolest and most interesting parts of what I do is tailoring each client’s nutrition plan to THEM, the individual.
It’s a plan that matches their personal lifestyle, their fitness training program, their cravings and hunger cues, their job, their social life, you name it...all so it’s a plan that they can follow for years to come. It’s no longer just a 60-day program they follow.
In today’s blog I’m going to teach you not only the science of fat loss and how a calorie deficit drives it, but also how to individualize your calorie deficit so you can live flexibly, remain consistent and compliant, but still see results.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND FAT LOSS
Like I’ve already alluded to, it comes down to calories.
To lose body fat, you need to be taking in fewer calories than you’re expending.
Calories in < Calories out
How does this lead to fat loss you might be wondering?
Your liver and your muscles store fuel, known as glycogen. This glycogen comes from glucose, specifically carbohydrates consumed (that were digested and broken down to glucose to be stored as glycogen). When you burn calories (see here for a breakdown on what defines your total daily energy expenditure – it’s more than just exercise!!), your body primarily uses stored glycogen for a couple of reasons most notably because it’s quick and readily available (as compared to stored fats).
When you eat at maintenance calories (meaning calories in = calories out), your body uses all, or realistically most, of its stored glycogen as you go through your many activities in the day. As you eat, your body replenishes all the glycogen that was used as fuel. Each day, you experience a net zero change, as all glycogen is replenished via glucose and carbohydrates.
Now let’s talk about that fat-loss phase. When you eat in a calorie deficit, you will run out of that stored glycogen. This is why a deficit almost always cuts carbohydrates and most likely fats, as well, as opposed to protein or just cutting calories (without specificity). The goal is to deplete your existing glycogen stores. In doing so, when your glycogen stores have run out, your body starts relying on fats, particularly stored fats (again, why cutting a balance of carbs and fats is optimal). When your body starts tapping into those fat stores, your adipose tissue releases triglycerides (what makes your fat cells “fat”) into your bloodstream which breakdown to release glycerol and fatty acids. These molecules then go to your liver and to your muscle tissues to provide your body with the fuel needed. As your fat cells release more and more triglycerides (and glycerol and fatty acids), they shrink causing you to “lose body fat”, weigh less, and get smaller in size.
This is the very simplified description on how your body “loses” fat and why a calorie deficit drives that process.
HOW MUCH OF A CALORIE DEFICIT
Now, talking numbers. One pound of fat is equivalent to roughly 3500 calories. Ideally, we’re shooting for a rate of weight loss around 0.5-1% of your body weight per week. For most individuals this is going to average between 0.5-2lbs per week. This number depends mostly on how much weight you have [and should] realistically lose. A 300lb individual with 100lbs to lose is going to lose weight at a faster rate—and be able to sustain it—than say a 150lb individual with maybe 10lbs to lose.
When you create a calorie deficit, you want to keep these numbers in mind.
Knowing 1lb of fat = 3500 calories, and generally we’re aiming to lose ~1lb per week, your weekly calorie deficit is going to need to be roughly 3500 calories.
Now I don’t always immediately start with that high of a deficit. Generally, I personally like to start clients a little less than that simply because a 10% deficit can be highly effective, while also keeping my clients sustainable and adherent (fewer cravings, more energy, manageable hunger, etc.). The goal is to create as minimal of a change as possible to elicit a response...so if you can create a 2000 calorie deficit over the course of the week that’s going to create sustainable fat loss, then I prefer to start there to lessen the severity of that deficit and also give us wiggle room for potential plateaus in the future.
Knowing that, you can play around with these numbers to create a calorie deficit. You could create a daily deficit of 3500/7 = 500 calories per day. Say you just want to cut for 3 days out of the week, you need to create your 3500 calorie deficit from there, so roughly a 1000 cal-deficit over three days. If you’re eating 3000 calories per day, eating 2000cals for three days out of the week (while 3000 for the remaining 4).
There are two general directions we can take a calorie deficit. The first question to ask is whether you want to track your intake or not.
Tracking provides a number of benefits:
It allows more flexibility
It allows for more breaks and high calorie days
It requires less intuition and attention to biofeedback and hunger cues
It lets you create less of a deficit and therefore hunger response
However, tracking can be taxing and a stressor for many people. For many, it can be overwhelming or even a trigger, especially for people with histories of disordered eating habits or thoughts.
Benefits for not tracking are:
It teaches more intuition
It lets you pay attention to biofeedback
It doesn’t require apps and math and numbers
It’s often less obsessive
It has a lot of application
Whether you track or not is completely up to you. Tracking, just like any diet, is all a matter of compliance. Remember...the science is in the compliance! I personally love tracking because I hate massive hunger responses and can just let the numbers do their job. Others find it unsustainable. Both are right. It all comes down to you!
TYPES OF CALORIE DEFICITS W/ TRACKING
If you choose to track, here are some of your options.
I’ve mentioned this one earlier. In a linear-style calorie deficit, you create a deficit and hold there. Generally, a 300-500 calorie deficit is sufficient to elicit fat loss and see progress both on the scale and visually in your body composition.
I recommend starting with a 10% deficit and evaluating your biofeedback every 2-3 weeks and consider a small refeed or diet break (see next section).
If you either don’t see results (again we’re just looking for roughly 1lb/week) within 2-3 weeks OR you hit a plateau (and have waited 2-3 weeks), cut another 5%...and so on. Some people need more aggressive cuts. Others see great progress at small 200-cal deficits.
Refeeds and Diet Breaks
The downside of straight linear deficits is they plateau quickly.
The beautiful thing with tracking your calories and your macros is you can get creative and even more individualized...specifically through refeeds and diet breaks. You’ve likely heard of these before and I’ve written a ton of blogs and posts and emails about them, so I won’t go into a crazy amount of detail.
Refeeds are intentional higher calorie days, specifically via carbohydrates to increase leptin (satiety hormone which decreases in a deficit), improve energy and gym performance, satiate hunger and cravings, and protect hormonal and metabolic health. These are usually 1-3 days in length and range from 50-100g of extra carbs.
Diet breaks are usually a bit longer in length and can include non-tracking breaks (or tracking say just calories or protein) to improve mental motivation and sustainability.
There are a number of ways to include refeeds and diet breaks in your calorie deficit. If I have a client coming to me with cravings or a sweet tooth or someone who wants a social life, we’re going to start right off the bat with some higher calorie days.
A 6:1 or 5:2 would include 6 days on (deficit), 1 day off (refeed) or 5 days on (deficit), 2 days off (refeeds) respectively. Those 5-6 days “on” would likely need to be a ~15% deficit to still give a ~3500-cal weekly deficit.
My personal favorite is a bit longer of a deficit AND refeed. It includes 2 weeks on and 1 full week off. That two weeks on may be between 15-20% of a deficit BUT I find this 2-week grind is sustainable, gets that seemingly “quick response” then you back off for a full week. This can be adjusted to a 3:1 if you hit a plateau or shorten the refeed days.
Carb and calorie cycling is just a fancy deficit with refeeds and diet breaks.
In carb cycling, you use your training days as higher calorie days and rest days as your lower calorie days...specifically via carbohydrates.
The big benefit for carb cycling is it keeps gym performance high and realy only means you have to create a deficit 2-3 days out of the week. Many people struggle eating more food on rest days, so carb cycling is a very natural way of eating. The higher calorie days can either be at maintenance or a small 5% deficit and the lower calorie days are often a good 20% deficit. You can bump up fats a bit on those rest days to increase satiety.
If you don’t have a consistent gym routine, carb/calorie cycling isn’t for you.
Again, I’ve got a ton of info already out on this. Check it out here.
TYPES OF CALORIE DEFICITS W/O TRACKING
Now if you choose not to track, this is your section. You still have options to choose from! You will note that this is a bit more black and white and has less wiggle room simply because we’re not dealing with numbers. The downside to an un-tracked calorie deficit is that you always run the chance of actually not being in a calorie deficit.
IF you are a tracker, still read this section because many strategies given here can be applied to effortlessly make your calorie deficit a lot easier.
Remove A Food Group
One way to effortlessly create a deficit is to remove [or limit a food group].
One cup of pasta is equivalent to 10 cups of broccoli. Swapping out those calorie-dense processed foods for lower calorie-dense foods is an easy way to create a deficit without crunching numbers.
Now, what you might be thinking is “how is this sustainable?”
The removal is only part of the process. You have to supplement or ADD in other foods.
Say your classic dinner is rice, chicken and maybe some veggies. To create a calorie deficit, you would either remove the oils used to cook (for cooking spray – my usual recommendation) or the rice (some or all – usually I recommend starting with 1/2 and 1/2) and swap out with more veggies. This will likely increase the volume of food at your meal, so you don’t even realize you’re in a calorie deficit.
Instead of grains, use veggie-rice.
Instead of a cookie each night, have a small bowl of yogurt and fruit.
Instead of alcohol, have a seltzer w/ lime.
Instead of cooking with oils or topping meals with fats, swap for cooking spray or some herbs for flavor.
This approach has a NUMBER of benefits. It will likely improve your gut health, energy, and overall health because subbing out processed (less nutrient-dense foods) with whole foods (at their highest nutrient state) gives your body more micronutrients, fiber, water, and volume of food.
I recommend tracking your food for 3-5 days and assess what foods can be swapped out. If you don’t cook with oils as it is except maybe once a week but do eat 2-3 cups of rice per day, removing fats won’t be effective, but substituting the rice for veggies will.
Use of Hunger Cues
When in a calorie deficit, you’re eating less than you’re expending which will lead to a hunger response.
Often times, even in tracking clients, the hunger response is there long before the actual weight loss or body comp changes. It’s often the case where 2-4 weeks have gone by without change and the client is begging for a change in macros/calories. IF they have a hunger response, I don’t change a thing and keep them waiting. Sure enough, after enough time, that weight starts falling off.
If you’re hungry, you’re in a deficit.
We can use that to create a calorie deficit by eating to a point of ~75% satiation and “fullness” at each meal. Basically, eat ALMOST to a point of fullness but not quite there.
This takes some practice and mindfulness. You want to eat slowly and chew your food. Set down your fork every few bites and assess your satiation. Take about 20-30 minutes at each meal. Avoid distractions while you eat, so you can pay attention to those hunger cues. Put less on your plate if you are someone who struggles with wasting food. You’re looking to that point where you feel you COULD eat more if you tried but realistically can set down the fork and be okay. Make notes of how your hunger cues and responses typically go during these meals.
The most difficult thing with the hunger cues is you ARE hungrier. Apply strategies from the earlier section to keep food volume high so cravings and hunger aren’t building to the point of breaking.
Maybe you love the food you’re eating or you’re trying to break through a plateau and know a lower intake is going to be a struggle.
The point of a deficit is you’re eating less than what you’re doing.
That can be made by eating less food, obviously. You can also attack the other end of the spectrum by doing more and increasing your “calories out”!
This isn’t just “go for more runs”. In fact, that’s often a LAST resort due to the high adaptability and stress response from moderate-intensity cardio (basically you become more efficient overtime with moderate-intensity cardio and therefore will burn fewer calories).
Here are a number of ways you can “do more”:
You can increase the number of days you’re training. If you only train 2-3x/week, bump that up to 4-5x.
If you don’t lift weights, start doing that 2-3x per week (or more).
Add cardio/HIIT finishers to your lifting session or do your work in circuits
Increase your daily step count with walks (morning, midday or evening, in between sets at the gym, during work, parking further away, etc.)
Walk/bike to work or the gym if able
The only caveat to “doing more” is if you’re already doing everything under the sun. More exercise poses more chance of injury, higher stress, weakened immune system, and more. If you already train 5-6x per week and/or live a high stress life, then sticking to low-intensity cardio (like walking) is your safest bet or managing your food intake.
This is last on the list simply because there are so many more individualized options to try first.
Contrary to what you may think, fad diets DO work by creating a calorie deficit.
What usually makes fad diets fail is the strictness and rigidness of it and the adaptation from a person’s already existing lifestyle. Every suggestion up to this point keeps your lifestyle in mind. Following a fad diet does mean you likely have to adapt your lifestyle to it.
My recommended “fad diets”:
Those are the general three that essentially are very similar to deficit-strategies suggested above. They improve or maintain food quality, build habits that can be applied later on after your calorie deficit, likely increase the volume of food at each meal, and likely aren’t TOO much of a deviation from your current lifestyle. Fasting is one of the more effective “fads” because you just restrict your eating window. Just make sure you don’t fast so long to the point where you’re gorging out on food in that window.
There are your calorie deficit ideas I employ with many clients.
Remember, it comes down to the COMPLIANCE. What can you realistically follow? What seems most in line with your lifestyle? THAT is your starting point.
Lastly, it’s important to emphasize that this blog article is written with the assumption that you’re already in a place to create a calorie deficit. If you’re eating below 1500 calories, constantly fatigued, experiencing broken sleep, stress, etc. then you will need to first reverse to your maintenance intake to repair that biofeedback, heal your body, and recover before creating that calorie deficit.
Earn your right to do more and eat less by first doing less and eating more.
If you’re not sure how to go about this or ready to create a calorie deficit but not sure what’s the best option or simply JUST need the accountability, my books are open to taking on a few more clients heading into the fall and holidays. Apply here.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.