Many people begin their fat-loss journey by cutting calories. This is a tried-and-true fat-loss tactic research shows is more effective than relying on exercise alone.
However, many people cut calories so dramatically they feel hungry all the time. Not only is this unpleasant, but it won’t actually help you lose fat. Your best bet for fat-loss success is to create a modest caloric deficit, and make smart food choices so you feel satisfied — not starved.
Though you may think cutting tons of calories automatically speeds fat loss, it actually works against you over the long-term: “It’s going to slow the metabolism and cause the body to not want to let go of fat stores because it believes it’s in a ‘starvation state,’” says Ginger Hultin, MS, a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Plus, it’s hard to maintain a severe caloric deficit. When your body doesn’t get the energy it needs to function, it spikes your hunger hormones, causing you to seek food. “You could end up gaining weight in the end, ironically,” Hultin says.
It’s not uncommon for nutrition experts to recommend cutting 500 calories per day if your goal is fat loss. According to this line of thinking, cutting 500 calories per day equals a 1-pound loss per week, which is considered a safe, healthy and realistic amount.
However, Hultin recommends taking a more individual approach: Get an idea of how many calories you’re currently eating, and how many calories you actually need. A registered dietitian can help you here, but you can also experiment on your own using an app like MyFitnessPal.
First, track your food for a week or two with the MyFitnessPal calorie counter to see how much you’re really eating. This helps you identify areas where you might be able to cut excess foods and drinks or sources of sneaky calories.
Calorie-tracking apps also give you an idea of how many calories you should be eating for fat loss so you can see how your actual intake measures against your target intake.
In general, Alix Turoff, RDN, nutrition consultant and owner of Alix Turoff Nutrition in New York City recommends starting with a 15–20% deficit. “That means if your maintenance calories are 2,000 calories per day, your deficit would be 300–400 calories,” she says. Note: “Maintenance calories” refers to the amount of calories you need per day just to maintain your current weight. You can get this number from MyFitnessPal or by entering your height, weight and current activity level into this interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“If you start with the 15–20% deficit and you’re not seeing results after four weeks, you can decrease your calories by [another] 100 calories per day,” Turoff says.
However, keep in mind your daily calorie needs change as you lose weight. Turoff recommends recalculating your calorie requirements every time you lose 10–15 pounds.