You’ve probably heard this term used in discussions around weight loss, the idea being that you should eat fewer calories than you need to burn fat. But are calorie deficits as simple as that? To answer the question, we’ll discuss what calories actually are, how we use them, what the health implications are and, of course, what is a calorie deficit?
What are calories?
A calorie is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of a quantity of water by one degree. To put it more simply, a calorie is just a unit of energy. In the context of nutrition, the more calories a certain food contains, the more energy it can provide for our bodies. The less calories food contains, the less energy we can get from it.
How do our bodies use calories?
There are three major ways our bodies use energy (or calories) throughout the day:
- Basic functions – They are required for survival in terms of pumping blood, breathing, keeping organs functioning, etc.
- Physical activity – This could include anything as minor as fidgeting in your seat or walking around your home, to things as strenuous as vigorous exercise, running or lifting weights.
- Digestion – We need energy to digest our food as well as to absorb nutrients from it. Some foods need more than others to be digested properly.
There are numerous other factors that can also influence how much energy you require, but this differs from person to person. It depends on age, sex, environmental temperature, pregnancy, traumatic injury and severe illness. This is the reason dietitians never prescribe a one-size-fits-all calorie target.
What is a calorie deficit?
Calories are not bad for us. In fact, we really need them to survive. What most people don’t know, however, is that we often end up eating and drinking more energy than our bodies need. If we don’t need it, we won’t use it and it gets stored as extra energy. This is found in our muscles, liver and body fat.
While there are many reasons someone could be putting on weight, calories are definitely a big part of the equation. To maintain a stable weight, the energy we put into our bodies needs to be roughly the same as the energy we use up.
A calorie deficit is when you eat and drink fewer calories than your body uses up. When you do this for extended lengths of time, it results in the loss of body fat. You can also reach a calorie deficit by increasing your energy output through more physical activity.
Am I in a calorie deficit?
All you have to do is think about if your weight is increasing, or staying the same. You can also an energy calculator to find out your calorie requirements and begin tracking. It’s important to remember that there are often underlying contributors that can influence your weight, and these need to be addressed for healthy and lasting weight loss. These include:
- Physical activity
- Sleep habits
- Medical conditions
- Mental health
- Socio-economic factors
How to make a calorie deficit healthy
If you’re going to embark on working towards a calorie deficit, it’s important to never compromise on your overall wellbeing. Here are some pieces of advice to get started:
- Cut down on processed foods and drinks – They may contain a lot of added sugar and salt.
- Don’t cut down on nutritious foods – This is not necessary, and you need them to provide important macronutrients and micronutrients
- Liquids count! – Reduce your intake of alcohol, fizzy drinks, fruit juices and hot beverages with added sugars
- Increase your protein intake.
- Boost your fibre intake – Do this by eating more plant foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and legumes.
- Portion correctly – A good starting point is to have ½ your plate filled with colourful veggies, ¼ filled with protein and another quarter of your plate filled with carbohydrates. Add a sprinkle of healthy fats and you’ve got yourself a meal that will keep you feeling satisfied.
- Cook at home – You can decide on what ingredients are going into your food and can better control your portion sizes. If you have takeaways, try not to eat it all at once, and save some for tomorrow.
- Slow down – When we inhale our food quickly and mindlessly, we usually end up eating more than we need.
- Stay hydrated – Sometimes, we can mistake the feelings of dehydration for hunger. Aim to drink at least 2 L of water a day.
- If you’re sedentary, add some more movement into your day.
If you want to lose weight, our weight management expert, Lauren, can help you with a plan of action that will have you feeling good in no time. If you’re looking for the opposite and want to gain weight for fitness purposes, check out some of the work our founder, Chloe Mcleod, who specialises in performance nutrition. If you’re interested, don’t hesitate to book your first appointment with either of them.