When it comes to losing weight, deciding which diet and exercise plan to follow can be overwhelming. While diets may differ in approach, the basic principle is the same for most: Burn more calories than you consume.
Eating fewer calories than you expend through exercise and daily living is called a calorie deficit. While the concept is simple, there are several factors that can affect whether you lose weight, and every person’s calorie deficit will be different.
What Is a Calorie Deficit?
In basic terms, a calorie is a unit of energy. So if a milkshake contains 250 calories, it means your body will obtain 250 units of energy by consuming it. To avoid gaining weight from drinking the milkshake, your body will need to burn either the same number of calories or more calories as the milkshake contains, creating a deficit.
But sometimes the math isn’t that simple. How your body burns, or metabolizes, calories differs based on a variety factors:
Basal metabolic rate (BMR): This is the amount of energy your body needs to keep all its basic systems — breathing, heartbeat, digestion and cell growth, among others — functioning correctly. Calculated using your height, weight, gender and age, the BMR accounts for 50 percent to 80 percent of your daily calorie expenditure. Several online tools exist to help you calculate your BMR, including this one.
Muscle-to-fat ratio: Determined through a person’s body mass index (BMI), those with higher muscle mass will burn calories faster.
Activity level: The more intense your activities, the more calories you will burn
Hormone function: Endocrine issues such as menopause, diabetes and even stress can affect hormonal weight gain. Similarly, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, women may need to consume additional calories to keep their babies growing at a healthy rate.
Overall medical health: Certain illnesses and medications, like steroids, can cause you to put on weight, regardless of your diet and exercise level.
Since each person has a different genetic makeup and medical health history to take into consideration, one-size-fits-all calorie deficits like the ones you can select on many fitness apps (usually 1,200 or 1,500 calories a day), won’t work for everyone.
Tips To Track Your Calories
To determine your desired calorie deficit, you’ll first need to keep track of your daily diet and activity level. There are many methods available to do this, from phone apps and smartwatches to wearable fitness trackers.
Or simply write it all down in a food journal using nutritional information from labels or an internet search. You’ll also need to keep an accounting of your daily activities, the length of time, and the intensity of each, to determine the number of calories you burned.
Keep track of your calories for an entire week, and then take the average of each day’s calorie consumption. Once you know how many calories you generally consume during the week, then you can begin to make changes toward a daily deficit.
Make These Changes
To lose a pound of fat, you’ll need to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume in a week.
In other words, to drop one pound a week, you must have a deficit of 500 calories a day. For two pounds, you’ll need a deficit of 1,000 calories a day. This calorie reduction can be achieved by increasing activity levels or eating fewer calories, although a combination of both is ideal.
And remember, your body does not treat all food calories equally. The source of the calories affects how your body metabolizes its energy. Stay fuller longer while maintaining a calorie deficit by choosing these foods:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
Work with your doctor or a dietitian to create a deficit that shaves off those extra calories — and pounds — without leaving you feeling hungry or deprived.