Considerations For Your Calorie Deficit

Last week, I was speaking with a client who is currently trying to lose fat.

Their goal is to drop about 50 pounds with no particular timeline.

When we started looking at the plan to reach the goal, my client said they were currently consuming about 2000 calories a day.

That sparked a conversation that I wanted to share with you today.

In efforts to keep some anonymity to the discussion, I’ll give you what I believe is pertinent.

The client currently weighs about 250 pounds and wants to reach 200 pounds.

In my estimation (and we’ll dive into more in a moment), 2000 calories is somewhat aggressive but not unreasonably so.

If you’re on a fat loss journey, here are some points I’d love for you to consider.

We used my client’s current information: age, gender, height, weight and an estimation of daily activity to grab a couple of numbers.

For simplicity’s sake, I used the Harris-Benedict equation, which, like all calorie calculators, has margins of error but it gave us a place to start from.

I toggled between two different activity levels, one of which assumed that my client did not burn as many calories as we would hope and one where they would burn a bit more.

That gave us a range of approximately 2600-2900 for maintaining their current body weight.

As a reminder, all calorie calculators are estimates only and what we burn in a day is not static but dynamic.

I asked my client to split the difference and we’d use approximately 2750 as a day’s maintenance.

That means that their proposed 2000 calories per day would be about a 27% deficit.

There is a school of thought that the more conservative you can keep a deficit (let’s say 10%), the more a client can be adherent to a plan. Yes, it may mean that progress comes more slowly but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In this case, a 10% deficit would put my client at just under 2500 calories a day.

While 20% (or more) will potentially get the scale to drop faster, it may be too aggressive OR too difficult to stick with long term.

One way to sort that is to look at a calendar week and see how many days you could actually adhere to the more aggressive deficit.

As I posed to my client, let’s say that they are able to hit 2000 calories Monday through Thursday. By time Friday rolls around, they’re tired, stressed from a long week of work and ready to unwind with some social time with friends and family.

What happens then?

Normally, there’s an uptick in calories.

I call this a “spike”. It’s neither good nor bad, it simply is.

The first thing to acknowledge (without judgement) is: How big is the spike?

Let’s say it’s 3400.

One type of dieter may look at the spike, regret their choices and decide to let the rest of the weekend go to pot as well. So, Saturday might be 3200 calories and Sunday might be 3100 calories while the dieter tells themselves: I’ll get back to my plan on Monday.

This dieter might also decide to step on the scale on Monday and see that not only is the number not going down, it’s potentially higher than it was the previous Monday. That starts the week off on a discouraging note.

Allow me to pivot.

Another type of dieter may look at the same spike and say: What’s done is done and I’m going to get right back to my plan on Saturday.

They don’t give themselves too much leeway and they don’t allow the snowball to happen.

Suffice to say, the second type of dieter has a greater potential for success.

However, there’s another way to look at this.

There is the chance that the initial 2000 calories, while not unreasonable, may simply be too aggressive for this client to consistently work with.

Remember that our proposed maintenance was 2750, so, in theory, anything below 2750, done consistently, will result in fat loss.

A client may want to downshift to 2300, 2400, or 2500 (for conversation’s sake) and this may keep them from spiking as high as the example above.

Keep in mind, that your personal approach to a deficit is not only reflective of your body’s current needs but also, psychologically and socially what you can tolerate.

Some people have low stress lives and others do not.

Some people have great sleep patterns and others do not.

Some people train with high intensity and some are completely sedentary.

Some clients menstruate monthly, some clients no longer have periods, and some clients (men) do not have periods. (Cycles or the absence of can affect hunger, sleep and cravings, all of which can affect dietary adherence).

I estimated that my client had about 120-140 pounds of lean muscle. I did not do any body measurements, I just estimated based on working with other clients with similar build and goals. I used this reference point as a place to set a protein range, so my client could aim for 120-140 grams of protein per day. They don’t have to be perfect and it’s not the end of the world if they fall below 120 or overshoot 140. It’s just a guide.

Generally speaking, protein tends to be a fairly satiating macronutrient so many dieters are encouraged to keep protein intake on the higher end to reduce feelings of hunger. This does tend to work better if the protein is coming from whole food sources as opposed to liquids.

In addition, I encouraged my client to keep their fiber intake high to also help with feelings of fullness. Typically, you’ll want to vary your fiber sources and have options from fibrous fruits and vegetables to whole grains and some nuts and seeds.

I try my best to encourage a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to dieting for those who are in a good mental space to make it work.

-Have a good awareness of your current maintenance calories.

-Find a deficit that supports your lifestyle including your work activity, your recovery, and your style of training (hopefully some combination of resistance training and cardiovascular activity).

-Consistently hitting a high daily step count can be more advantageous than high intensity training. It’s easy to recover from, has less potential for injury and is less likely to raise your hunger signals.

-Remember that a potential drawback to aggressive deficits is that your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) levels can drop even without your awareness. This can have a negative impact on how many calories you burn in a day.

-If possible, take your time with fat loss. Nearly every one I know wants to lose unwanted fat immediately. Learn to listen to what your body is telling you. Sometimes, fast fat loss can be effective and possible with little negative consequence. Other times, the slower, more methodical approach is better. For more of my thoughts on fat loss approaches, you can read more HERE.

(Photo courtesy of Charles DeLuvio)