Calories in minus calories out: That’s the simple, age-old equation for creating a calorie deficit. Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight, right? If only it were that easy! They key to creating a calorie deficit is to burn a little more (or eat a little less) than your body requires for weight maintenance. The calories burned through exercise + non-exercise activity + basal metabolic rate need to be more than the calories consumed through food to produce weight loss. But how much of a calorie deficit should you create through your calorie burn and reduced intake? In general, you’ll need to create a deficit of 250-500 calories per day to lose 1/2 to 1 pound per week.
OK, so now you know the what and why of calorie deficits; let’s talk about how to actually achieve it.
Figure Out How Many Calories You’re Burning
Know Your BMR: Start By Understanding Your Metabolism
The best place to start is at the beginning. Since your basal metabolic rate (the calories you burn at rest) accounts for 60–70% of the calories burned throughout the day, it’s important to calculate that as a starting point if you’re wanting to create a deficit. How much your body burns at rest depends on many variables such as genetics, age, hormones and muscle mass.
Wear a Fitness Watch
Are you burning as many calories as you think? Workout intensity, efficiency, muscle mass, duration — there are many factors that influence how many calories you burn during exercise, and the elliptical machine is likely not giving you an accurate measure of your total burn. Wearable fitness watches provide more reliable data for you to to add to your basal metabolic rate when creating your calorie deficit.
Walk It Out
You may be surprised, but the simple act of walking can be enough to lose weight and get in shape. Walking can help you build fitness and lose weight by helping you create a calorie deficit. Even if you’re a regular exerciser, upping your daily step count through walking increases non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which has been a big area of research of late because it may be an answer to how body weight is maintained, gained or lost.
Up Your Nutrition Game
Track Your Intake! A Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
What you put into your body makes a difference in your health and your weight. That slice of banana bread at the bakery looks divine. But choosing it over a banana adds more than just extra calories — you’ll be piling on more unhealthy fats and added sugar. As you track your intake, you get the bigger picture of what your food contains: carbs, fats, proteins, fiber, vitamins and minerals. To get the biggest nutritional bang for your calorie buck (and create a bigger calorie deficit), consume the majority of your calories from unprocessed whole foods.
Learn to Count Calories Without Making Yourself Crazy
Don’t get lost in the numbers, which can be overwhelming. While it’s important to be as accurate as you can with food tracking when trying to create a calorie deficit, don’t lose your mind in the process. It definitely gets easier with practice. Stick with it: Logging your food consistently (even if it’s not perfect) is one of the most effective ways to lose weight.
READ MORE > DO YOU NEED TO BREAK UP WITH YOUR SCALE?
Your Secret Weapon: Mindful Eating
This isn’t as touchy-feely as it might sound. “Mindful eating” simply means being aware of the taste, texture, aroma and presentation of what you eat, as well as your body’s signs that you’re full. Ask yourself: Do you really want that last bite of food because you’re still hungry? Discover your cues for eating so that you can be empowered to stop when you’re satisfied, even if there’s still food on your plate.
Consult an Expert!
If you hate math or are confused about how many calories you should be eating to create a deficit, go to a pro. A nutrition consultation with a registered dietitian (Full disclosure: like me) provides a personalized approach and game plan based on your medical and diet history and fitness goals.
Put Some Simple Strategies Into Pratice
Spring Clean Your Pantry
If you’re trying to set yourself up for success, the leftover holiday candy and cookies aren’t going to do you any favors. Give your pantry and fridge a little makeover to stay on track with your goals.
Learn What Midnight Snacking Is Doing to You
Late-night noshes are usually high-calorie, large portions or snacky foods (Read: cookies, ice cream, chips and candy) eaten mindlessly out of enjoyment to unwind from the stress of the day. It’s a recipe for weight gain and disaster.
Be Smarter at Restaurants — But Still Enjoy Yourself
Eating out can rack up the calories, so knowing how to make healthy menu swaps is key. Whether you’re dining at your favorite taqueria, steakhouse, Italian trattoria or ordering Chinese takeout, this guide gets you on the right track toward making the healthiest selection.
Arm Yourself with “Hacks” to Save Calories
Whether it’s swapping hummus for mayo or noshing on zucchini noodles in lieu of traditional spaghetti, the calories you save really add up when you’re trying to create a calorie deficit. Here are 10 simple tricks that’ll help.
And If You Slip Up…
What to Do When You Blow Your Daily Calorie Budget
We get it, we all fall off the wagon sometimes. It’s OK — what’s more important is understanding why you blew it and getting back on track. Try, fail and adjust … it’s a journey.
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