There are three specific indicators/times when I like to re-calculate my calorie deficit to continue seeing weight loss progress. The first is when there is a change to my physical activity level, I have lost more than 5% of my initial body weight, or if I am experiencing a plateaued weight loss.
What is a calorie deficit?
A calorie deficit is when you eat fewer calories than used that day. Eating less than you use daily leaves you in a negative energy balance, which causes you to rely on your body’s energy storage (fat tissue) for energy.
The goal of a calorie deficit is to encourage weight loss. You start losing weight after days and weeks of maintaining a negative energy balance.
Dieting is a delicate balance of eating enough to support your daily activities while maintaining a 5-20% (200-500 calories) calorie deficit. Learn more about calorie-deficit diets.
Why do you need to re-calculate a calorie deficit?
There are many reasons why people need to re-calculate their calorie deficit. Some people might increase their workout frequency or intensity, while others have lost weight.
The reason why people need to re-calculate a calorie deficit boils down to the fact that their energy demands have changed.
For example, you have been following a 500-calorie deficit for 5 weeks and want to start running. Introducing running will burn calories. You are adding to your nutritional calorie deficit of 500 calories.
This might seem reasonable, especially with your short-term weight loss. However, you may need help to maintain both the deficit and the extra calories burned from running. Which eventually will lead to you no longer adhering to your plan.
Also, calorie needs will change due to weight loss and body composition. For example, someone who starts on a weight loss journey at 230 pounds then loses 40 pounds. Now, at 190 pounds, this person’s calorie needs will significantly differ.
We will get into more detail about when to re-calculate your calorie deficit. Before you consider re-calculating your calorie deficit, let’s discuss what to do.
Before re-calculating a calorie deficit
When a client comes to me and asks if we should lower their calories, pulling them further into a caloric deficit, 9 times out of 10, it is because they saw little to no weight loss progress.
While it may be the case that my client’s calorie deficit is no longer appropriate, chances are other factors are at play.
Before readjusting a calorie deficit, I like to ensure that we accurately track our food intake, give the calorie deficit enough time, and consistently make good food choices.
- Accuracy: Are you regularly tracking/ journaling your food intake? Are you measuring your portion sizes?
- Time: Have you tracked your food intake, measured portion sizes, and maintained the deficit long enough?
- Food choice: Are you consuming 2-3 cups of fruits, 3-4 cups of vegetables, 2-3 servings of whole grains, 5-6 oz of lean protein, and 3 servings of dairy per day? Are you tracking and hitting your macros?
Maintaining accuracy, time, and food choice when an individual complies with the diet and actively works toward weight loss.
Okay, but what happens if I am doing all of this? When should I consider re-calculating my deficit? Let’s get into when to re-calculate a calorie deficit.
Change in activity level
Your daily routine involves work, spending time with family, exercising, walking, showering, doing house chores, and other activities that require you to be active. These activities contribute to about 10% of your daily calorie needs, but this can sometimes vary.
Changes in your daily routine can affect the calories you need to consume. If you increase or decrease your activity level, you may need to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
When I regularly lift weights, maintaining a calorie deficit becomes more challenging. Therefore, I re-calculate my calorie needs to account for the calories I burn while weightlifting.
Significant weight loss or body composition changes.
Losing weight results in losing body fat, muscle, and bone and shrinking the gut and organs, decreasing daily calorie needs.
Consider this scenario:
A person who weighed 230 pounds has now lost 40 pounds and weighs 190 pounds. Before their weight loss, they needed to consume approximately 3200 calories to maintain their weight.
However, now that they weigh 190 pounds, they only need around 2800 calories daily to maintain their new weight.
It’s important to note that if the 230-pound person consumed 2800 calories while trying to lose weight, they would be successful. However, the 190-pound person would not lose weight at that rate of caloric intake.
Therefore, the individual weighing 190 pounds must re-calculate their calorie deficit to continue their weight loss journey.
Weight loss plateau
Hitting a weight loss plateau is another good sign that it might be a good time to re-calculate your calorie deficit.
Weight loss plateaus result from several factors, including increased hunger and a lack of energy to maintain your current physical activity level.
All factors leading to weight loss can be summarized as your body adapting to your current lifestyle.
As you restrict calories and lose weight, your body will send signals that you are hungry. In addition to feeling hungry, your body will begin to preserve energy by getting you to move less.
As a result of a prolonged calorie deficit, you will be hungry and tired. This combination makes it hard to stick to your weight loss plan.
There are several options for managing weight loss plateaus. Some of my favorites include refeeding days and diet breaks. I have created a helpful guide for each that will give you a better handle on your weight loss journey.
I like to re-calculate my calorie deficit when I increase my workouts, have lost significant weight, or have hit a weight loss plateau. I have created a guide that talks about managing plateaus called Your First 30 Days: A Guide to Weight Loss and Building Muscle. Grab your copy!
If you want more help on when to re-calculate your calorie deficit, reach out and let me know how I can help you.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.