Calories are units of energy that are found in food and drinks.
So what is a calorie deficit? A deficit means consuming fewer calories than your body burns in a day.
For example, if you use 1800 calories but only consume 1500 calories through food and drinks, you have a deficit of 300 calories.
Read on to learn more about what a calorie deficit is, including its pros and cons and how to achieve lower calorie intake healthily.
4 Benefits of a Calorie Deficit
Calorie counting often gets a bad rap, but it is one of the most tried and true methods for weight loss. However, you don’t need to count calories to get into a deficit and reap the benefits of weight loss – especially once you learn about healthy portion sizes.
1. Weight loss
When your body burns fat for energy due to a calorie deficit, you lose weight. While your weight will fluctuate daily, a sustained calorie deficit will result in weight loss.
Many effective weight loss programs are designed around creating a calorie deficit. Jenny Craig offers an effective meal plan for weight loss with chef-crafted meals. Meal plans take the guesswork out of counting calories to help you reach your weight loss goals.
Be sure to set a realistic target weight goal and work toward that goal one day at a time.
2. Fat loss
A higher fat-to-muscle ratio is considered a risk factor for many chronic diseases such as heart disease, metabolic disease and Type 2 diabetes.1
Achieving a calorie deficit can help decrease body fat and may help reduce the risk for many chronic diseases. Lower body fat may also help you feel good and boost your self-esteem.
3. All foods can fit
Popular fad diets that promote “clean eating” often don’t allow for occasional treats.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet rich in fruits, veggies, lean proteins and whole grains is optimal for weight loss. But you can still squeeze in that occasional brownie as long as you’ve met your calorie deficit goal.
Try to achieve a negative energy balance for the remainder of your day to leave room for dessert. Hooray for sweet indulgences!
4. Save money
Many people think a healthy diet is more expensive – but the opposite is true.
Cooking more meals at home can help you save more money. A recent study showed that people who cook dinners at home saved $2 per day on food and had healthier diets than those who dined out.
Plus, by eating smart portions, you may not need to stock your pantry as often. Or you may be able to take one restaurant meal and divide it into two.
6 Negatives of a Calorie Deficit
While achieving a calorie deficit can result in healthy outcomes like weight loss over time, there can be some consequences.
Experts generally regard losing 1-2 pounds per week as safe, depending on your current body weight. And watch out for fad diets that promise unrealistic results — these tend to rely on extreme calorie deficits to achieve quick weight loss but are not sustainable. Always consult your physician before making changes to your eating pattern.
1. Time-consuming to track
If you aren’t accustomed to tracking calories, it can be overwhelming! What is a calorie deficit and how would you know how many ounces of chicken you’re eating? Closely monitoring your calorie intake and understanding portion sizes can take time and effort.
Tools like MyFitnessPal can help make counting easier but may take some practice to master. Incorporating healthy foods for weight loss may help take the guesswork out of calorie counting.
Small changes over time lead to sustainable weight loss. Extreme restriction of calories may not be able to offer you the balance to go out for a meal with friends or indulge from time to time.
3. Harder to build muscle
When your body is in a calorie deficit, you lose both muscle and fat.
While incorporating strength training into your regimen can help ensure you build or maintain muscle mass, only achieving fat loss isn’t possible.
Extreme caloric restriction over long periods can result in feeling sluggish or tired. Calories provide energy for daily activities and help contribute to essential functions in your body.
By restricting calories, you may deprive your body of the energy it needs to perform at its best.
5. May lower your metabolism
Raise your hand if you’ve successfully lost a couple pounds, only to regain them a couple weeks later – you’re not alone!
When we consistently eat fewer calories than our bodies need, our metabolism may slow down., This means that when we return to eating what we’d normally eat, it’s common to see regaining weight.
6. Potential nutrient deficiencies
Eating fewer calories may mean that your eating pattern does not provide enough essential nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron.
Slow and steady wins the race for healthy weight loss that you can maintain over time. Be sure to work with your physician to monitor your bloodwork regularly for any nutrient deficiencies.
How to achieve a calorie deficit
Now that we have the answers to what a calorie deficit is and understand the pros and cons, let’s break down how to achieve one.
Your options are:
1. Eat fewer calories
2. Burn more calories by increasing your activity level
3. Combination of eating fewer calories and burning more calories through exercise
For example, let’s say you would like to lose one pound per week. To achieve this, you would need a total calorie deficit of 3500 calories.
There are seven days in a week, so with diet changes alone, you’d need to cut back on 500 calories per day compared to what you currently eat.
Let’s say you also get in 30 minutes of walking at a brisk pace per day which may burn up to 200 calories. Then, you’d only need to cut back on 300 calories from food to lose that same weight. Try to incorporate strength training as part of your activity regimen since muscle burns more calories than fat at rest.
How to eat fewer calories
If you’ve decided a calorie deficit works for your weight loss goals, use these tips and tricks for eating fewer calories.
For extra motivation and accountability, consider working with a weight loss coach to help you stay on track.
Build a healthy plate
It’s often time-consuming to count or measure everything we eat — especially when on the go or dining out!
An easy way to make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs while curbing your calories is designing a nutrient-dense meal as outlined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables — vary your veggies and focus on whole fruits
- Make a quarter of your plate grains — choose mostly whole grains
- Make a quarter of your plate protein — vary your protein routine
- Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt with your meals
Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash
Check the nutrition label
Most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts Panel on the side or back of the package. Check the nutrition label and scan the calories, fats and added sugars before you buy.
Many chain restaurants have also started to flag lower-calorie items on the menu. Ask for the nutrition facts or check out the restaurant’s website. Tip: If you know where you’ll be dining out, look up the menus ahead of time to identify a couple of lower-calorie entrée options.
Keep sugar-free gum or mints on hand
Even when we aren’t hungry, we’re prone to checking the pantry and the fridge out of boredom (or when we’re stressed and need a little pick-me-up!). By chewing sugar-free gum or having small mints in between your meals, you can maintain a healthy energy balance.
Did you know that sugar-sweetened beverages are the top source of added sugars in American diets? Most sugar-sweetened drinks don’t contribute nutrients but often contain many calories.
Consider skipping the sugary energy drinks, fruit juice, sports drinks, soda and mixed alcoholic beverages and choose water. Water is an easy way to stay full while maintaining a calorie deficit.
Studies have shown that 37% of people often mistake thirst for hunger. So the next time you feel hungry, try sipping on some H2O before you reach for that next snack. If you’re bored of regular water, try adding some sliced fruit and mint for flavor. Try these infusions for hydration.
Tip: Consider investing in a bigger-sized water bottle so that you can track how much you’re drinking throughout the day.
Check in with how you’re feeling
With the holidays coming up, it’s tempting to immediately go for seconds on your favorite dish! Our brains need time to process what we’ve eaten, so the sensation of hunger may persist even after consuming a full plate.
If you still want more food after finishing your plate, try waiting 30 minutes to see if you’re still hungry. You can also ask for a doggie bag to bring home any extras for the following day.
Want a simple weight loss plan that removes the guesswork from creating a calorie deficit? Jenny Craig can help. Learn more about our delicious meal plans for weight loss and get started today.
 Analysis of What We Eat in America, NHANES, 2013-2016, ages 1 and older, 2 days dietary intake data, weighted.
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals.
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