Ep. 75 How To Create A Calorie Deficit (If You’re Into That Sort of Thing)

We’re back with another FAQ from my clients. It’s pretty common in fitness for people looking for specific physique or weight changes to try and achieve a calorie deficit. So, this week, we’re diving into exactly what that means. We’re covering everything from:

  • What exactly is a calorie deficit
  • Why it is or isn’t necessary for your physique goals
  • Several ways to achieve a calorie deficit
  • The issue with most online tracker formulas
  • My recommendation for determining maintenance calories & an appropriate deficit
  • And more!

While I do recommend the self-tracking method I mentioned above, if you do feel the need to get a baseline number to start you on your journey, I highly recommend the Precision Nutrition Calculator.

If you’re struggling with constant dieting, maybe too large of a deficit and yo-yoing back and forth between diets, I highly recommend my Ditch the Diet Drama program to learn how to eat sustainably, without restriction and with a feeling of satisfaction without overindulgence.


Welcome back to the Not Your Mama podcast. This is your host Kelly Bryant, and I am back again this week with another very, very frequently asked question. Lately I’ve been recording a lot of episodes about common conversations that I find myself having over and over and over and over again with my clients.

So if you are a client, this is hopefully something that you’ve heard before. And if you’re not a client, you can thank my clients for, you know, saving you the money and getting the answers to the questions. Just kidding. We are going to jump into how to create a calorie deficit, and we’re gonna kind of talk a little bit about the science of like what is a calorie deficit, all of that. And then we’re gonna dive into my personal perspective on the best way to create a calorie deficit. So I wanna differentiate, some of the things I tell you today are gonna be just straight facts. This is just how it is. And some of the things I tell you today are going to be, this is my coaching philosophy and this is what works for my clients most of the time.

So I’ll try to differentiate that as we go. So first off, let’s talk about what is a calorie deficit? So a calorie deficit. The number of calories your body utilizes minus a certain amount. So the deficit is how much less than your body’s calorie needs are you consuming? So where do our calorie needs come from?

Because if you’ve done a Noom or a MyFitness Pal, any kind of calorie calculator, you put in a bunch of information and it said your calorie needs. Blah, blah, blah. And that number seems like it just is a fact that comes from the sky, and that’s not the case. Your calorie needs are actually composed of several different things, some of which are static and some of which are dynamic.

So first off, you have your BMR or your basal metabolic rate, which is basically just what does it require for your body to exist? Not moving around, not doing anything, but just to pump blood to keep your organs functioning. All of that that’s impacted by things like your height, weight, age, as well as sex.

So that part of it pretty much is what it is. It changes slightly over time, but there’s a little bit of like a, a misunderstanding that it changes drastically as we age. Your BMR actually doesn’t change a ton from your late teens, early twenties until your sixties. Slight, slight decreases, but not significant.

Then you have your non-exercise activity. So that’s walking around the house. That’s just living your life. That’s not anything that you are doing intentionally to exercise. It also can include things like fidgeting, right? So if you’re a fidgety person or if you’re someone who just like stands up, moves around a little bit more, that’s, that’s in there as well.

Then there is your exercise activity, which is obviously the, the part of it that we feel like we have the most control over and where we can make the biggest difference. The reality is that our exercise activity is a fairly small percentage of our total calorie expenditure, but it is the, the part that we have control over.

And then there’s eating induced. Thermogenesis is what it’s called. But basically the work of digesting. So this may not be completely obvious on the surface, but the more food you eat, the more calories you burn actually digesting food. So there’s, that’s a little bit dynamic. The more you eat, the more you burn.

The less you eat, the less you burn. But again, it’s a very small portion of our overall calorie expend. Now something that’s not captured here within general BMR calculations is that different types of muscle tissue take more or less calories to maintain. So if you have more muscle mass on your body, you are going to have a little bit higher bmr.

You’re also gonna have a little bit higher calorie expenditure in the form of your non-exercise activity. And your exercise activity just takes more, you know, if you have bigger muscles moving them takes a little bit more energy. So to some extent, you have a little bit of control over your bmr and that portion.

That fat, or muscle or bone density, that part of it is not really covered within most BMR calculations. So if you plug your information into Noom, they don’t know what your tissue distribution is, so they’re gonna give you the best guess that they have, but it’s not going to be a hundred percent perfect.

That’s a really important thing to understand just starting off, is that any calculator you use is not gonna be a hundred percent right. That includes both the calculation that comes out based on like your bmr. That includes the estimate that they give for your non-exercise activity. So my preferred calorie calculator, if I’m gonna use one, my preferred one is precision nutrition and they try to roughly estimate how many calories you burn with non-exercise activity based on like how much do you move generally throughout the day.

So you can say like, I work at a desk, I don’t move much at all. I am a teacher, and so I kind of stand up and move around a little bit there, it’s an estimate. They’re only ever guessing. And then your exercise activity calculation, which might come from a watch or it could come from a treadmill at the gym, those can be wildly off once again, because some of them do consider your personal demographics.

Some of them don’t. Some of them, I mean, they’re all just a little bit estimates they’re, they’re a rough estimate. Calculating your calorie expenditure is imperfect, and that’s a big part of why I don’t like using those calculations to create a calorie deficit. So that’s the first thing I really wanted to touch on is that your calorie expenditure, the amount of calories your body uses is very individual to you.

It’s impacted by a lot of different things, which all sort of cascade into one another. That can result in if you use a calorie calculator being fairly far off not enormously, but a couple hundred calories here and there. Then I wanna talk about why would one want to create a calorie deficit. If you’re listening to this, you probably know the answer or you probably have an answer of your own, which is something along the lines of, because I wanna lose weight.

Okay? Weight loss happens from a calorie deficit. This is true. However, physique change looking different does not necessarily come from a calorie deficit. And what I mean by that is if you eat less than your calorie expenditure, you will lose mass. That can be fat tissue and it can be muscle tissue. In fact, if you live at a calorie deficit, Exercising, you are much more likely to lose muscle than fat.

And if you’ll remember back, one of the things I said is that your muscle mass does impact your calorie expenditure. So losing muscle mass actually contributes to making it harder and harder and harder to maintain a calorie deficit cuz you’re taking down your calorie expenditure. So short version of that is basically, You can lose calories or you can lose weight by being at a calorie deficit, but not all calorie deficits are created equally.

You can also lose fat without being at a calorie deficit or while even being at a calorie surplus. So if you are increasing your muscle mass, you are getting more muscular and eating your maintenance calories or more , it is possible that you will still be losing fat tissue, and that would happen without seeing the scale go down.

That’s really important to keep in mind because so often we get hyper focused on one scale weight, which is not necessarily correlated with how we look, and is not necessarily the best way to sustainably lose, and that’s important because having a a fat loss goal is probably more impactful on your physique than a weight loss goal.

Often the two do change together, often, not a hundred percent of the time, but often we see our scale weight go down as our body fat goes down. Typically that weight loss is still gonna come a little bit from fat and a little bit from muscle. We typically lose both. If we are at a calorie deficit, even if we’re exercising, we’re gonna do our best of course to maintain muscle mass and only lose fat if we’re trying to lose weight.

But that doesn’t necessarily happen perfectly. So first off, the disclaimer I give every time we talk about nutrition, diet fat loss, weight. You don’t have to lose a damn pound. I am team stay at your same weight. Who cares? It is not necessarily a reflection of your health. It’s not a reflection of your fitness.

It’s not necessarily a refl, not necessarily it’s a hundred percent not a reflection of your goodness as a person, so you don’t have to lose a damn pound. That said, we live in a culture. We live in a society that is very fat phobic. If you have a goal of losing body fat or losing weight, I understand that, and I would much rather that you be an informed consumer who knows what they’re doing versus someone who is just pulled into one diet program after another and ends up ultimately kind of trashing their health because they get onto this diet rollercoaster where you are severely restricting, depriving yourself.

Having emotional and physiological rebounds of overeating and losing muscle mass and having a lot of these hormone effects. I’m not down for that. So if you’re going to have a fat loss goal or a weight loss goal, I want you to know how to do that safely and effectively. So, how do I go about when I’m working with a client, how do I go about creating a calorie deficit?

If we know that the calculations that are out there both for your kind of baseline expenditure, as well as the parts of it that you can control, which is your exercise and your intake, all of those calculations are really just estimates and they can be pretty far off. And that can be really frustrating cuz it’s like, well, I’m doing all this work to track every single thing.

They can ultimately all be wrong and I can make no progress. I can make a ton of progress. So what can I do that is actually going to be I think of it as being more scientific. I guess that’s, it’s not gonna feel as scientific because it doesn’t feel as precise, but it is more effective in my opinion.

The first thing is you have to be at weight maintenance for three to six months. This is a really hard one for people. So if you have seen your weight slowly nudging up, you can say with great certainty that you have been in a calorie surplus for some time. If you’ve been seeing your weight consistently go down, you can say that you’ve been at a calorie deficit.

The hard part: we don’t know how much surplus or how much deficit you’re really at, and you probably don’t have a consistent enough routine that we can make any assumptions. So I would rather that you start at maintenance for three to six plus months. Your your weight has not changed, then that’s step number one.

Step number two is we get really aware of what you are currently doing because this is the scientific part. We can say pretty decisively if your weight has stayed the same, your calorie intake and your calorie output have been the same. So we don’t need to know the exact numbers. We don’t need to know precisely how many calories you’ve been consuming and how many calories we’ve been you’ve been burning because we know that they’re at equilibrium.

Right. I’m gonna say that one more time cuz I think it’s really important. If your weight has been steady, we know without counting a damn thing that your calorie intake and your calorie expenditure have been at equilibrium. All we have to do, if you want to lose weight or gain weight for that matter, is take those amounts and slightly shift the equilibrium toward deficit.

Or of course, if you wanted to gain weight toward surplus, this is where we can get creative. So there’s two sides to the equation. Calorie intake, calorie expenditure. We’ve already talked a little bit about calorie expenditure. You know how it’s calculated. You know how you make it go up. You make it go up by exercising more in your, you know, intentional workout exercises by generally moving your body around more, or potentially by increasing your muscle mass, thereby increasing your bmr.

So you can increase your calorie expenditure in any of those ways. You can take your calorie intake. And for our purposes, just to make this conversation easier, I’m gonna assume that your goal is a deficit. You can take your calorie intake and just eat a little bit less. What is a little bit less? This is step number three, you, or pardon me.

This is step number two, step number one, be at maintenance. Step number two, actually know what you’re currently eating. Not a number of calories, but general trends and behaviors. Many people who have been seeing their weight do all kinds of wonky stuff going up, continuously, bouncing up and down. They don’t eat consistently.

They don’t have a set regimen, and therefore it’s very hard to create a slight deficit. Because they’re bouncing all over the place. So the first thing you do is just take your Monday to Friday and your Saturday, Sunday, or maybe it’s Monday to Thursday and your Friday to Sunday, and get those to more or less balance out so that you’re eating roughly the same Monday to Sunday.

That’s a big deal for a lot of people. Many of us eat very differently over the weekends because we’re like, Ooh, I don’t have to be good. I can go wild with food, eat everything. Versus Monday to Thursday, we’re like, oh, I have to be really, really good. Take your indulgences. Take your weekend indulgences, spread them out across the week.

Take your really nutritious, healthy foods and spread them out across the week. Enjoy both seven days a week. Likewise, take your diet and make it similar week over week. Eat the same on vacation that you do Monday to Friday. That doesn’t mean not Monday to Friday, but normal life. Eat the same on vacation that you do in normal life.

So that you are not depriving yourself on vacation, but actually taking those vacation indulgences, spreading them out across the year, those holiday indulgences and spreading them out across the year, those nutritious things that you’re eating when it’s quote unquote a normal week, have those when you’re on vacation, have those when it’s the holiday.

So instead of constantly ping ponging back and forth between quote unquote healthy and unhealthy, indulgent and restric. We can just eat the same most of the time. First of all, that’s gonna feel so much more satisfying in those weeks that are normally restricted. It’s gonna feel so much more nourishing in those weeks or those time periods that are normally more indulgent, so it feels better and it gives you a baseline from which to subtract.

So, now we’re on step three. Step number one, establish weight maintenance. Step number two, establish diet maintenance. Actually eating the same all the time. Then it’s so easy. It’s so simple to just look at what do I normally eat? Where is one to 300 calories a day that I’m not attached to? This is going to be very different for every person, and this is why this is so much more sustainable long term than going and purchasing a meal plan.

You go and purchase a meal plan, you’ve got a completely different way of eating. You’ve got a bunch of new groceries you have to buy. You have to cook all your food, or you have to pay a bajillion dollars for someone else to cook all your food. It’s just not sustainable. If you take the way that you’ve always eaten and you identify 100 to 300 calories that aren’t that meaningful to you, you can do that forever.

That’s a piece of cake. And this for you part, again, very individual. For one person, that might mean going, Hey, I have a glass of wine seven nights a week. Let me cut out three or four. I could easily let go of the wine three to four nights a week, or someone else might go, don’t touch my glass of wine.

That’s really impactful for me. It’s very meaningful for me. I’m a a sommelier. I’m not gonna cut any wine. Instead, let me take the snack that I normally have mid-afternoon cuz I’m just kind of feeling meh. Let me eat a little bit more protein in lunch or a little bit more fiber in lunch and forego that mid-afternoon snack.

That can be a really impactful way to do it. 100 to 300 calories is not a lot. Right. I think about those like a hundred calorie packs that they, they make, I don’t know how I was about to say, like, Nabisco makes as if like Nabisco’s the only one who does it. Everybody. . Those are so little. They’re so unsatisfying.

It’s so easy to eliminate that if you know that it’s a meaningful change. If you don’t know that it’s a meaningful change and you’re like, screw it. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just eating whatever, then it’s a lot harder to change that kind of behavior cuz it’s like, oh, who cares? It’s not, it doesn’t matter in the big picture, it’s only a hundred calories.

But if you can eliminate 100 to 300 calories a day, stay with me on the math here. One pound of weight loss is 3,500 calories. I would never encourage, unless someone has a significant amount of weight that they’re aiming to lose. I never ever encourage more than a one pound weight loss per week. In fact, half a pound is very reasonable.

So we take, let’s say on the high end, you’re gonna aim. Create a deficit of 3,500 calories a week or 500 calories a day, and that 500 calories a day can come from both sides of the equation. So we cut one to 300 calories. We burn to the math, right? 400, 200 to 400 calories. It’s not, it’s neither of those things is crazy and that can feel, when I talk to clients about this, they’re like, that’s not hard enough.

That’s not enough that they should be hardcore. It doesn’t have to be hardcore. You can lose a pound a week by burning two to 400 more calories a day and eating one to 300 calories less. But in order to do that, you have to have a real baseline established or else you’re shooting in the. So my first step would always be start to eat consistently and watch what the scale does.

Start to eat consistently and watch what the scale does. Then look at how you’re eating. Cut out one to 300 calories. That is not meaningful to you. That part is essential. It has to be something you don’t care about. Cutting on the exercise side, two to 400 calories a day can come from increasing your exercise activity or increasing your non-exercise activity.

So that can just be like, I’m gonna drink more water so that I have to get up and go pee more frequently. I’m gonna go for a walk. It doesn’t have to be, you know, hu you know, start doing interval training five days a week. It can be fairly light ways of increasing exercise. And keep in mind all of those numbers are based on a pound.

If you wanna go even slower, which is always what I encourage, you can do half that, right? You can cut 50 to 150 calories a day and burn one to 200 more. I think that math was right off the top of my head. Sit with that. I encourage you to start going through those three steps. Get to weight, maintenance, breathe.

You have the rest of your life to do this. There is no rush to start losing weight immediately. Sit at maintenance weight for three to six plus months and eat consistently over that time so you can establish your baseline and then create a deficit. I hope this has been helpful. I would love to hear from you if you try it.

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