Your Quick & Easy Guide to Creating a Calorie Deficit

by Kristina LaRue, RD, CSSD, LDN
Share it:
Your Quick & Easy Guide to Creating a Calorie Deficit

Calories in minus calories out: That’s the simple, age-old equation for creating a calorie deficit. Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight, right? If only it were that easy! They key to creating a calorie deficit is to burn a little more (or eat a little less) than your body requires for weight maintenance. The calories burned through exercise + non-exercise activity + basal metabolic rate need to be more than the calories consumed through food to produce weight loss. But how much of a calorie deficit should you create through your calorie burn and reduced intake? In general, you’ll need to create a deficit of 250-500 calories per day to lose 1/2 to 1 pound per week.

OK, so now you know the what and why of calorie deficits; let’s talk about how to actually achieve it.

Figure Out How Many Calories You’re Burning

Know Your BMR: Start By Understanding Your Metabolism
The best place to start is at the beginning. Since your basal metabolic rate (the calories you burn at rest) accounts for 60–70% of the calories burned throughout the day, it’s important to calculate that as a starting point if you’re wanting to create a deficit. How much your body burns at rest depends on many variables such as genetics, age, hormones and muscle mass.

Wear a Fitness Watch
Are you burning as many calories as you think? Workout intensity, efficiency, muscle mass, duration — there are many factors that influence how many calories you burn during exercise, and the elliptical machine is likely not giving you an accurate measure of your total burn. Wearable fitness watches provide more reliable data for you to to add to your basal metabolic rate when creating your calorie deficit.


Walk It Out
You may be surprised, but the simple act of walking can be enough to lose weight and get in shape. Walking can help you build fitness and lose weight by helping you create a calorie deficit. Even if you’re a regular exerciser, upping your daily step count through walking increases non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which has been a big area of research of late because it may be an answer to how body weight is maintained, gained or lost.

Up Your Nutrition Game

Track Your Intake! A Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie
What you put into your body makes a difference in your health and your weight. That slice of banana bread at the bakery looks divine. But choosing it over a banana adds more than just extra calories — you’ll be piling on more unhealthy fats and added sugar. As you track your intake, you get the bigger picture of what your food contains: carbs, fats, proteins, fiber, vitamins and minerals. To get the biggest nutritional bang for your calorie buck (and create a bigger calorie deficit), consume the majority of your calories from unprocessed whole foods.

Learn to Count Calories Without Making Yourself Crazy
Don’t get lost in the numbers, which can be overwhelming. While it’s important to be as accurate as you can with food tracking when trying to create a calorie deficit, don’t lose your mind in the process. It definitely gets easier with practice. Stick with it: Logging your food consistently (even if it’s not perfect) is one of the most effective ways to lose weight.


Your Secret Weapon: Mindful Eating
This isn’t as touchy-feely as it might sound. “Mindful eating” simply means being aware of the taste, texture, aroma and presentation of what you eat, as well as your body’s signs that you’re full. Ask yourself: Do you really want that last bite of food because you’re still hungry? Discover your cues for eating so that you can be empowered to stop when you’re satisfied, even if there’s still food on your plate.

Consult an Expert!
If you hate math or are confused about how many calories you should be eating to create a deficit, go to a pro. A nutrition consultation with a registered dietitian (Full disclosure: like me) provides a personalized approach and game plan based on your medical and diet history and fitness goals.

Put Some Simple Strategies Into Practice

Spring Clean Your Pantry
If you’re trying to set yourself up for success, the leftover holiday candy and cookies aren’t going to do you any favors. Give your pantry and fridge a little makeover to stay on track with your goals.

Learn What Midnight Snacking Is Doing to You
Late-night noshes are usually high-calorie, large portions or snacky foods (Read: cookies, ice cream, chips and candy) eaten mindlessly out of enjoyment to unwind from the stress of the day. It’s a recipe for weight gain and disaster.

Be Smarter at Restaurants — But Still Enjoy Yourself
Eating out can rack up the calories, so knowing how to make healthy menu swaps is key. Whether you’re dining at your favorite taqueria, steakhouse, Italian trattoria or ordering Chinese takeout, this guide gets you on the right track toward making the healthiest selection.

Arm Yourself with “Hacks” to Save Calories
Whether it’s swapping hummus for mayo or noshing on zucchini noodles in lieu of traditional spaghetti, the calories you save really add up when you’re trying to create a calorie deficit. Here are 10 simple tricks that’ll help.

And If You Slip Up…

What to Do When You Blow Your Daily Calorie Budget
We get it, we all fall off the wagon sometimes. It’s OK — what’s more important is understanding why you blew it and getting back on track. Try, fail and adjust … it’s a journey.


  • TN Tanner

    Consulting your doctor should be the first step in doing something like this not listed at the bottom as an after thought. This is a much more complex issue than this article leads us to believe.

    • Theresa

      Pop-up adds here are impossible!

      • I stop earning a living at shopritte and afterwards currently I am generating Seventy five $ – Ninety Seven $ per/hr. How? I’m working over the internet! My occupation didn’t make me happy consequently I have decided to take a chance on something new…after four years it wasn’t simple to end my day job however right now I couldn’t be more delighted.>>> S.ID/1dR

    • Holly Sherman

      I don’t know. Is it really that complicated and complex ?
      A visit to the doctor and a 60$ co payment to say…uh yes , great I agree, and leave the room and charge you a moderate level office visit! CHa Ching
      Now on the other hand if the individual actually loses weight than I agree they definitely need to follow up promptly, since often medications can be titrated down..

    • Mary McCarty

      In general doctors have very little training on nutrition and healthy eating. I have found they are not helpful in this area. They are good at handing out pills though

      • Patient

        Agree, Mary, I’m married to a doc that will say just what’s in this article, Calories In minus Calories Out and eat whole foods close to the form in which they grow. No powdered shakes, no protein bars. There is no effective diet that can cause you to lose weight with no hunger. Hunger can be uncomfortable, especially if you have been eating a lot of sugar and then quit. Your body says “Where is my sugar hit?” Feed it good things in moderation.

  • abc

    how to be consistent at his calorie deficit??

  • Ann Nonymous

    My doctor recommended no soy, dairy, gluten, or sugar and NO FRIED FOOD. I will have to do a 180 degree turnaround in order to accomplish that. I blew it bad this weekend. I tried to be good today, but I found out the pecans on my salad contain sugar. Ugh! I have to get serious starting Monday.

    • jalapenopepper

      I think there is a delicate balance. Doctors love to say “no” to so many things. If you think you will be able to totally avoid soy, dairy, gluten, sugar, and fried foods for the rest of your life, you will set yourself for what will certainly be an unattainable goal. Try reducing those things first. I started with sugar and fried foods. I looked at where I added sugar, like my morning coffee, and I focused on reducing it. Over time, I reduced it until I was only adding a splash of cream and a dash of cinnamon. Now, I can’t hardly stand any kind of coffee with sugar in it. It takes time. It won’t happen overnight. Just a few words of advice that helped me.

      • Ann Nonymous

        I have really good intentions, but when I get stressed, hungry and short on time, I just get whatever. I really try to eat salads, eggs (protein) and cut out bread. But then the restaurant will throw Hollandaise sauce on stuff where I wouldn’t expect it. Next thing you know, you’re blowing your day. The coffee with just cream has been a habit for a while now. No sugar. It’s the sugar craving I get in the evening that’s hard to beat! I need to bring healthier snacks (like fruit and veggies) into the house, but my husband has an aversion to the produce aisle.

    • robinbishop34

      This advice is fundamentally at odds with what the article states. Of course you’ll want to back off fried foods and sugar but you can certainly have them… as long as you stay within your calorie deficit limit.

      In other words, once your TDEE is figured out, and you’ve decided on a reasonable decrease in calories based on that amount, your job is to then limit yourself to that number. Regardless of what you eat… be it ice cream and twinkies, or baked fish and broccoli, you will lose if you stay below that limit.

      That said, you probably don’t want to do that. It is advised that your total calories be broken down by macros (protein, healthy fats, low-glycemic carbs). If you are simply overweight and looking to lose fat, then a 30/30/40 breakdown should be good. Keep in mind that a higher protein and lower carb intake is even better.

    • Mark Evans

      Ann, unless you’re lactose and gluten intolerant there should be no reason to cut out dairy and gluten. Dairy is fantastic for essential proteins. Most ‘gluten-free’ grain based foods are devoid of any real nutrition. Remember it’s the big picture. Too much calories of anything can create a calorie increase. Demonizing spec food groups is what makes people not be able to maintain there goals. I would amend the recommendation to cancel fried foods, sodas and refined foods & sugars. Also restaurant food is very difficult to track since most do not provide their macro and calorie counts not to mention the massive portions. So salad is the only thing on the menu with a side of dressing when eating out for me. Also, natural foods and fruits/nuts do not spike your blood sugar the same way cookies and cake do. So it’s okay to have modest amounts of natural sugars. Again, it’s all about your TOTAL caloric intake. Good luck and enjoy life.

      • Ann Nonymous

        Actually, yes, I am gluten and lactose intolerant. Thanks for your helpful comment. Even hummingbirds need sugar! LOL

        • Susan Elizabeth

          Hummingbirds need lots of sugar!

    • Dana

      If the worst thing you did today was to eat pecans in your salad, you are successful! We blow it, we try to be good, we will blow it again. Just aim for eating less of the bad stuff than you did last week. Next week do the same. Before long you will be eating better without thinking. It takes time to change those habits.

      • Ann Nonymous

        I did really well when I had a serious health wake up call. I only ate dark, leafy green salads with grilled chicken. I fell off the wagon now though!

        • TzuZen

          Noticing you fell off the wagon means you can get back on the wagon. If you’re making a radical change (it sounds like you are based on what you’ve written here), then be prepared to fall off the wagon. Just get back on. If you’re eating a day “the old way” every week when you were eating that way all the time, that’s pretty good.

          Pat yourself on the back for more meals being “the new way”. That’s a big deal. Bravo.

          I found “I can have it later” has helped me manage through eating to take weight off. I am not giving it to myself right now yet I could have it later.

          Hang in there. Celebrate the accomplishments. Eating the new way 5 days of the week is a start. That’s pretty big. The more you practice it, it will get easier.

        • Anonne

          I don’t blame you. You need variety, and eating other things in moderation is good. Fish is a good source of proteins, and so are legumes and nuts. Mix things up a bit.

  • Molly

    “Don’t get lost in the numbers”

    “Logging your food consistently is one of the most effective ways to lose weight”

    I dont understand how a dietitian could make an article and include these two conflicting points. Keeping in mind the audience of women and men alike some young, some old;not knowing the trap they are about to fall into with confusing information given by hundreds of ‘dietitians’ who must ‘know it all’.
    Humans weren’t built with a calorie counter attatched to them when we were once at our fittest so i dont see how thats going to get us there now.

    • Shari Rogerson

      I think she means by getting lost in the numbers to not worry too much about BMR and tDEE and RMR and such. Start with a reasonable estimate and adjust as you move through your program. Also, the number on the scale can e deceiving and discouraging. The big question is how do you feel? Do your colothes fit better? Are you fitter? More toned?

      Logging your intake helps in that it can surprise you where the hidden calories are. Also it inspires you to keep up your plan when you do well, and check yourself if you slip. Using MyFitnessPal worries about the numbers (carries) for you.

  • Felicia Lyles

    How do you track your BMR?

  • Brian

    I like the part where a paragraph is introduced as, first, figure out your basal metabolic rate. Then, you teach USB that Thebes basal metabolic rate is hard to figure out. That part was super helpful.

  • Paul

    My understanding is that BMR for any one person can vary up to 40% depending on many factors, most of which I believe actually are not known. If we assume that 70% of caloric expenditure is for BMR, that means my caloric expenditure can vary by 600 calories (for me, assuming an average of 2200 calories per day) by factors that are essentially unknown. I’ve done caloric deficits as low as 1700 calories for as long as 60 days with minimal weight loss, and I felt like crap (and I gained the weight back rapidly as soon as I went back to a normal caloric level). In your experience, how does one get their BMR up and have it stay up, and most importantly, how do you know its up (really, no rules of thumb)?

    • robinbishop34

      I’m not sure where you’re getting the 40% margin of error on BMR? What you’re probably thinking of is TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), which is a person’s BMR multiplied by a specific number that reflects their normal, everyday, level of activity. This can/will affect an individual’s caloric limit for maintenance… from which you can figure a deficit for fat loss; or a surplus for muscle gain (in conjunction with heavy lifting).

      So for instance… if your BMR is 1500, but your activity level is “moderate,” you would multiply 1500 x 1.375 to figure TDEE at 2062 (maintenance).

      • Paul

        Replied yesterday and included links to references, but I believe the links didn’t pass the auto-moderator. I’m actually speaking about BMR, or more accurately one’s resting metabolic rate (RMR). And not really a margin of error, but an accurate measurement. Caloric restriction, for example, is known to reduce one’s RMR, so much so that, even with exercise, one’s TDEE while dieting can be less than with no diet at all (and no exercise at all). I’m looking to understand how to raise my RMR.

        • robinbishop34

          My advice? Don’t worry about any of that minutiae.. it is meaningless. If you want to raise your RMR/BMR/TDEE all you have to do is drop fat through a sensible calorie restricted diet with balanced macros; then begin heavy lifting program w/calorie surplus to build muscle.

          • Paul

            4 years into that plan. Certainly better than where I started but no where near where I want to be.

  • Drea

    As a 44 year old WOMAN , that has had a hysterectomy and is going through menopause , this counting calories s*** dont Work.Get your butt out and exercise 5 days a week, push back from the table, don’t eat until your stomach is touching the table, stop eating junk food, stop sugars and soda. Drink lots of water and you will lose some weight. It differs for each individual. I’m not counting calories, I’ve changed the way and the food I eat.

    • Roger Gaytan

      Right on target. Good job.

  • Rich Gould

    I use my apple watch2 and I do not care what others say as I go by my experience. How I feel, the weight I lose and am able to keep off and how sustainable is my eating style. Nobody knows your body as well as you do. So use your experiences along with common sense and this app as a guide and see what happens. I have lost 60lbs by doing this, though I could eat healthier. I am working on that.

    • Steph

      Wow! Well done rich gould that is fantastic achievment 60 lbs !!!!

  • robinbishop34

    Google “TDEE calculator”

  • Beautiful Deplorable

    If I can just get everyone in the family to eat healthy. I have to make two dinners because….teenagers.

    That’s a hassle, and also any tips on getting fruits and vegetables not to go bad in two days? Literally, my kale went bad in two days. Would love to hear real world solutions for working women who don’t have time to go or even find a farmers market and just want to look hot in a bikini