If you’re on a weight loss journey or ever have been before, you’ll be very familiar with the words calorie deficit. Wiping away the fad diets and workouts that promise to ‘blast belly fat’ there’s actually just a very simple science behind weight loss.
To lose body fat, you need to burn more energy than you consume over a prolonged period. It doesn’t matter what you eat or how you burn it, keeping yourself in the negative when it comes to energy stores will lead to weight loss.
But in reality, we’re all busy human beings. Our lifestyles, relationships with food, relationships with exercise and many other factors make this simple equation pretty difficult to execute. Being told ‘calorie deficit’ over and over again doesn’t really help with this.
So, Hussle is here to help with understanding what a calorie deficit actually is, and how to create one for weight loss. If that’s what you want to do.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. Every single food can be defined by a number of calories and so can every single physical activity.
When taken into the body, this energy is either used immediately, kept in your glycogen stores or converted to fat. If it’s not used immediately, the body converts and keeps the energy in your glycogen stores. This is easy for your body to access and is what keeps us going between meals. Our glycogen stores have a maximum capacity. When they’re full, any additional energy gets converted and stored in the fat cells of our body. When our glycogen stores are depleted, our body turns to its fat stores for energy.
That’s why we don’t lose and gain weight constantly over the course of a day or a couple of days. Weight loss happens when we’re consistently using up our fat stores due to a lack of calories available to us.
How many calories do I need?
Another continually asked question without a definitive answer. Daily energy intake is dependent on the individual. The recommended numbers from the NHS are 2000 calories for women and 2500 calories for men. But age, activity level, metabolism, hormones, genetics, and many other factors can have an impact on exactly what is required each day to maintain your current weight.
It helps to understand what your intake of calories is used for each day. TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure and describes the total amount of calories your body needs to carry out everything it needs to do in a day. It can be broken down into different sections to help you understand better what that includes.
REE stands for resting energy expenditure. REE is your BMR or basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of energy your body needs to carry out its functions to sustain life. Breathing, circulation, nutrient processing, cell production. All the things going on that we can’t even control that require energy. This figure makes up the majority of our TDEE.
NREE stands for non-resting energy expenditure. You guessed it. It describes all things we do when not resting that burn energy. It can be broken down into further categories:
- TEF is thermic effect of food. Just digesting, processing and converting food requires energy from the body.
- NEAT is non-exercise activity thermogenesis and describes all physical activity and movement we undertake that’s not us purposely exercising. Standing, sitting, walking, reaching, lifting. Anytime we move a muscle we’re contributing to our NEAT.
- In this scenario has nothing to do with eating. In fact, the opposite. It stands for exercise activity thermogenesis and describes the energy expenditure that happens when we purposely engage in physical exercise. At the gym, on a run or wherever.
What is helpful to understand is the percentage of each of these components as a part of our TDEE. From the chart below, you can see that our BMR makes up the majority of the energy we expend, whereas our EAT only accounts for around 5%.
How to create a calorie deficit?
Looking at all the science and the maths, there’s only three things you can control when it comes to creating a caloric deficit.
Your intake. How much goes into your body will determine how much needs to come out in order to be in a calorie deficit. For example, if you’re an average male and for your weight need 2500 calories per day to maintain it then consuming 2000 calories for 7 days will result in 1 pound of fat lost.
Your NEAT. This is why lots of calorie calculators ask you for your average activity level when calculating how many calories you might need. If you walk lots each day, have a physically demanding job, or stay up on your feet for long periods of time then you’ll burn more calories from NEAT than a person with a desk job.
Your EAT. This is the exercise you manage to fit into your schedule. Arguably the hardest part to do and to calculate accurately.
How big should the calorie deficit be?
There’s a reason people say that sustainable weight loss plans are the only ones that work. Because it’s true. Creating enormous caloric deficits will leave you weak and fatigued and worse, hangry. They are also nearly impossible to sustain. What’s worse is that the impact on your feeding cycles and relationship with food that happen off the back of these attempts can often result in an overall increase of calories in the near future, undoing any weight loss achieved.
Let’s go back to the maths. To start, you’ll also need to know how many calories you need per day to maintain your current weight. There are lots of handy calculators you can use to predict this which rely on data such as your age, gender, height, current weight and activity levels.
Pick a deficit each day that feels sustainable and something you can maintain for a long period of time without impacting your quality of life or your lifestyle.
Some rough guidelines: 1000 is probably too much. 100 is probably too little.
There are around 3500 calories in 1 pound of fat. That means you need to create a deficit of 3500 calories from your maintenance calories to lose this amount of weight.
A deficit of 500 calories would lead to a weight loss rate of 1 pound per week. A deficit of 250 calories would lead to a weight loss rate of 1 pound every two weeks. Within this range is probably a realistic and sustainable target.
Ok, but how do I apply a calorie deficit to real life?
This is the hard part. It’s all well and good knowing the numbers but putting that information into real life is not as straight forward. But there are some handy tips that can help you get started.
Look at your week, not your day
We’re all guilty of a similar pattern of behaviour over the week. We’re good at eating less and moving more on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On Thursday we might treat ourselves to a bit more dessert, but we won’t overdo it. On Friday night we drink more than we expected to. Saturday leads to multiple meals out and by Sunday we’re a bit cross at ourselves and order a pizza to make it feel better. Any work we did during the week is undone at the weekend, even if we don’t notice.
It’s normal. And it’s okay. Treating ourselves and eating more on some days than others is reflective of a healthy lifestyle. Our appetite fluctuates day to day and naturally we regulate throughout the week. But if you’re trying to lose weight, this can be a bit unnerving. It just means you might need to think ahead a little bit and consider your plans for the week and not just the day.
For example, the graph below shows that you can still stay in an overall caloric deficit over the course of the week, despite the deficit being lower on some days and non-existent on others. No plans on Thursday but a fancy meal out on Saturday? That’s fine. Make it work.
Don’t underestimate your NEAT
It’s the factor that people often don’t pay much attention to. But increasing your daily NEAT can help to increase your caloric deficit without you even realising. This is where the trend of the 10,000 daily step count comes from. Although that number isn’t the magical solution to weight loss, its grounded in a strategy that could help towards your efforts. Take the stairs. Get some steps in at lunch. Add a on walk to the end of your commute. All these little things can begin to add up if they become habits and routines.
A weight loss journey can be a really positive one. But it should never impact your desired lifestyle or quality of life. Be realistic with the changes you can and want to make.
In the short term, make sure you’re still taking joy in your weekdays and allowing yourself to be flexible at weekends. Socialise. Exercise for fun. Eat the foods you love. Restriction and misery shouldn’t be a part of your weight loss journey.
In the long term, be aware that as your weight reduces, the total number of calories you will need to maintain that weight will also reduce. So, if your current maintenance calories are 2700 per day and you reduce to 2000 per day to achieve your goal weight, your daily calories to remain at that weight will reduce permanently. So, any large in daily intake increase following the achievement of your goal weight will result in regain in the long term. Just something to be aware of.
Life is busy, demanding and can be very fast paced. It’s hard to fit fitness in. Being flexible helps you to keep that work, life, fitness balance in check. With Hussle, your fitness can be flexible. You get unlimited access to our huge network of gyms in the UK that you can use whenever you want. With only monthly pass you can use multiple locations for the gym, swim and spa whenever you want. One near home on Monday morning. One near work on Tuesday evening. One up North when you’re travelling at the weekend. You can stop and start whenever you like, making exercise easier to fit in to your busy lifestyle.