The Importance of a Calorie Deficit in Weight Loss

Dr. Christopher McGowan
August 17, 2021

Every year, tens of millions of Americans spend tens of billions of dollars on various weight loss products and systems. This is all meant to counter the still worsening obesity epidemic that affects over 40% of the population in the United States. Yet with all of this effort and all of these resources, most people don’t actually achieve the weight loss they desire. There are many reasons why people don’t end up losing body weight, but one of the biggest culprits is also one of the basic truths about weight loss: being in a calorie deficit. 

What Are Calories?   

The cells in the human body naturally require energy to function, and that energy is obtained through food broken down in the digestive system. The unit used to measure the energy in food is called a kilocalorie, or just a calorie for short; a calorie in a nutritional context is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. In practical terms, calories are a measurable way of describing the amount of energy your cells can get from a given food or beverage. 

Though calories have gotten a bad reputation in popular culture and in the parlance of weight loss regimens, they aren’t “bad for you” in actuality. Everybody needs to consume calories through the foods they eat so that their body functions in a normal and healthy way. Additionally, different food components have different amounts of energy; for instance, proteins and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram while fats have 9 calories per gram. This also means that the body burns calories from different sources at different rates.  

What is a Calorie Deficit?

Each person’s body is unique, of course, and that includes differences in the amount of energy it requires for normal functioning. Ideally, everyone would consume the same amount of calories the body needs and no more. In practice, however, most people (especially Americans, unfortunately) tend to consume more than they need. When this happens, the body stores the excess energy as fat cells that can later be used if necessary. This was very beneficial for the earliest humans who were desperate to survive when food was harder to come by. In modern times, though, food is plentiful in the United States but our bodies still function as though starvation is a real threat.  

Gaining body weight because of eating too much is a common occurrence, but it isn’t always clear what “too much” means because of the differences in metabolism from person to person. Metabolism is a term that refers to the various chemical reactions that occur when food is digested and converted to energy. In general, younger people have faster metabolisms because they have greater energy needs. As we age or become less active, our energy expenditure diminishes; though if we continue consuming calories at the same rate, we will accumulate more body fat and eventually become obese. 

In order to reverse that process and convert those fat cells to energy, we must be in a caloric deficit. In simplest terms, this means taking in a lower number of calories than the body requires. While this can look different for different people, the fact remains that you cannot and will not lose weight unless you have a calorie deficit. So, regardless of the claims of fad dieting plans or elaborate exercise plans, weight loss won’t happen until you make changes to the balance of calories going in and calories going out. 

How Many Calories Do I Need Each Day? 

Getting to a calorie deficit is ultimately an issue of arithmetic; you need to determine how many calories your body uses and then reformulate your diet so your caloric intake is smaller. One way to find out this number is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate calculator; this allows you to enter information about your height and weight in order to calculate how many calories you will approximately burn each day. Another quick and easy way to find your daily calorie needs (also known as BMR - basal metabolic rate) is to take your current weight and multiply by 15. 

Once you have determined how many calories you use by default on a daily basis, you need to decide how much of a calorie deficit you’ll have. The key is to find the “sweet spot”: a large enough deficit to stimulate fat loss but not so large that you’ll be hungry and lethargic. There are different ideas about how low to go, and therefore talking with a nutritional consultant or a registered dietitian is an option if you’re unsure. But a good rule of thumb is to be 300-500 calories under your regular metabolic rate so that you can maintain energy levels and lose weight in a healthy way.

Ways to Create a Calorie Deficit    

There are many different factors involved in metabolism: age, sex, diet, activity level, stress level, sleep quality, and others. Because it can look so different for different people, there are few hard and fast rules about how to achieve a caloric deficit. Yet there are nevertheless a number of principles and methods that can make a difference and help you intake fewer calories and get you on the road to weight loss: 

Counting Calories: The most direct way of creating a calorie deficit is simply to eat fewer calories. This, of course, is often easier said than done; even though nutritional content is now required by the FDA to be displayed on food packaging, it can be burdensome to track calories consistently. Yet tracking consumed calories is often the first step in the process toward making diet changes. Indeed, many nutrition specialists recommend tracking calories even before you begin to make changes (and there are food tracking apps to help with this). Tracking calories helps you see what you’re eating as well as identify elements of your diet that are easiest to change first.

Dietary Changes: Once you have gotten used to tracking calories, it’s time to look for ways to reduce daily calorie intake. One of the easiest changes to make is cutting out sugary beverages like soda and juices; though juices seem healthy, they often have added sugars that increase the calorie count. There are also low calorie foods or low sugar options for packaged foods, but the best path toward a better diet involves incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into your daily eating habits. 

Exercise: In addition to cutting calories, you can also increase your physical activity level. The resting metabolic rate determined above usually assumes a moderate to low level of activity on a daily or weekly basis. While diet changes are still crucial, you can also increase the likelihood of a caloric deficit by simply burning more calories than you previously did. This can be achieved through a variety of ways, from simply walking more each day to beginning a regular exercise plan. 

Additional Considerations   

Although this isn’t a major concern for most people, it is also possible to not eat enough calories when adjusting one’s diet. Since the body needs a certain amount to function, going too low can create health issues and even potentially arrest your weight loss progress. In general, a good goal is to cut calories enough that you start losing a maximum of 1-2 pounds a week. Weight loss that is faster than that may indicate too few calories. 

Looking thinner may be a driving force for many people who attempt to lose weight, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. The obesity epidemic is considered a health crisis because of the many negative health outcomes that are associated with being overweight or obese. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnea, and many other diseases are much more likely when you’re obese. That’s why it’s important to consider a weight loss plan even beyond the usual cosmetic considerations. 

Freedom is WaitingTo really find success, weight loss is best viewed as a journey that needs to be sustainable over the long term. Getting into a calorie deficit is critical for weight loss, but the traditional methods of getting there are often not successful for a lot of people. At True You Weight Loss, we specialize in state-of-the-art non-surgical weight loss procedures that are designed to help you lose weight and keep it off. If you’ve been trying to lose weight without much success, it may be time for a new approach. Contact us today to request a consultation so you can start your journey toward fully experiencing life again.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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