“It’s just calories in versus calories out!”
If you’ve been looking to lose body fat, you’ve probably heard this phrase spoken like it’s the holy grail of weight loss.
And in theory, it’s not wrong; if you burn more calories than you consume, your body weight will decrease. But just because the answer is simple doesn’t suddenly make weight loss effortless; an understanding of caloric intake is important, but knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into action.
If you’re aiming for healthy, sustainable weight loss, there are a few key strategies to keep in mind that will allow you to implement the principle of calories in/calories out in a way that guarantees results.
Today I’m going to walk you through the process of determining what your caloric needs are, how to get into a calorie deficit, and how to nourish yourself while achieving sustainable fat loss.
But first, let’s take a trip back to nutrition school to learn the basics of weight loss – and what science has to say about it.
What is a Calorie Deficit?
If you’re studying to become a dietitian, energy balance is one of the first concepts you learn about. Energy balance refers to the idea that when energy consumption and energy expenditure are equal, body weight will remain the same (1).
And that’s what we’re aiming for! We all hope to reach a weight where we are comfortable and confident and then maintain that weight throughout our lives.
But if you’re currently in a phase of your health journey where you want to reduce body fat, we have to alter the balance a bit to take in less energy than is burned, creating a negative energy balance – also known as a calorie deficit.
So before we go about creating that important deficit, we should probably answer a key question: what is a calorie anyway?
What is a calorie?
If you’ve been dieting for a long time, calories may be something you’ve come to fear and avoid. But a calorie doesn’t need to strike fear into your heart.
First, our bodies NEED calories to function. Like overeating, undereating is associated with many negative health outcomes, particularly in the long term.
Second, a calorie is just a way we measure energy in the form of heat, specifically, the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of water by 1°C (approximately 34°F). Doesn’t it seem a lot less threatening when I put it like that?
This unit we use to measure the energy provided by our food is actually called a “kilocalorie”. So when people talk about the number of calories in the bagel they just ate, or the ice cream sandwich they’re having for dessert, they’re really talking about kilocalories, although most of the time we just shorten it to “calories”.
The body gets its energy by breaking down, or “oxidizing” the chemical bonds in food and converting this chemical energy into forms of energy the body can use to move and to fuel the body’s internal processes (1).
We can find some answers about how weight loss occurs by first looking at the calories that our bodies are taking in. Energy comes into the body in the form of the three macronutrients (“macros”): carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as well as alcohol, which – if you needed some confirmation – is not a nutrient. Here is some key info for you to keep in mind:
As a side note, alcohol provides 7 calories per gram.
The number of calories on the packages of foods you eat or the values you see in MyFitnessPal and other nutrient tracking apps are determined using a tool called a “bomb calorimeter”. Essentially, this device measures the heat released from a food as it is burned and allows us to determine how much energy is in the food based on how much heat is released (1).
With this said, calories in food are highly variable and just because a product says it has X calories does not necessarily mean that is the EXACT amount. Calorie measures are always very close approximations.
“Calories out”, or the number of calories your body burns, depends on four factors.
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, makes up 60-70% of the energy you burn in a day. This is the rate your body burns energy to perform all the functions to keep you alive, including breathing, circulating blood, building tissues, and getting rid of waste.
Even if you lay bed all day not moving, your body would still burn all these calories just to keep you alive. The term “BMR” is often used interchangeably with “RMR” or Resting Metabolic Rate (1).
In the fitness and nutrition industries, there’s a lot of discussion on metabolism, and particularly on “speeding up your metabolism”. This refers to increasing the amount of energy that your body burns at rest – your BMR.
While much of the talk around supplements and certain foods to speed up metabolism has no scientific basis, one reliable way you can speed up your metabolism is through weight training! Weight training increases muscle mass, and your body requires additional energy to sustain this new tissue. Furthermore, muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so even if your weight on the scale stays the same, you will burn more energy when your weight comes from muscle rather than fat.
Eating a very low-calorie diet can cause your BMR to slow down as much as 10-20%, essentially adapting to starvation. So it’s important to nourish your body with sufficient calories to keep your BMR high (1).
2. Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT)
Another contributor to the energy you burn each day is Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or the calories burned through intentional physical activity, such as going for a run, hitting the gym, attending a fitness class, or playing a sport. This makes up 10-30% of your daily energy use, depending on how much time you dedicate to fitness and sports.
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
Outside of what we typically picture when we hear “physical activity”, there is also another form of movement that can burn a significant number of calories each day. This is what we call Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT, which refers to all your other daily activities (walking, running errands, doing chores) that burn calories through movement, outside of planned exercise (1).
4. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
The fourth and lesser known component of the energy we expend is the energy we use to digest food and absorb nutrients. About 10% of our energy intake is used for the process of digestion. More energy is used when you consume more food – but I’m not saying you should eat more to boost this form of calorie burn!
One thing you should keep in mind though is that proteins require more energy to digest and store, and fats require the least energy to digest, so you will burn slightly more calories from a diet that is higher in protein (1).
Creating a Calorie Deficit
So, in summary (and to throw a little math at you), our equation for energy balance looks like this when someone is aiming to maintain their weight:
Calories In = Calories Out
Energy Consumed from Food = BMR + EAT + NEAT + TEF
So in order to shift that equation in favour of weight loss (by creating a calorie deficit), we have to either reduce the energy consumed from food, or increase the energy burned on the “calories out” side.
In the long term, increasing “calories out” could mean increasing BMR through weight training, as described above. In the short term, you can consider getting more exercise, such as through circuit training or HIIT cardio. Furthermore, increasing NEAT is an excellent strategy to burn more calories without even realizing it, by doing things like:
- Parking further away from work or the grocery store and walking
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Playing outside with your kids or your pet.
- Working at a standing desk.
While physical activity has an important role to play, today we’re going to keep our focus on nutrition, and discuss strategies we can use to modify the “calories in” side of the equation to optimize for weight loss.
Where Diets go Wrong
So if weight loss is dependent solely on calories in and calories out, maybe cutting weight by focusing on your nutrition isn’t so difficult after all? All you do is cut your calories, stick to a meal plan, and cut out all those “bad” calorie-dense foods, right?
No, no and ABSOLUTELY NOT.
If you start on a “diet”, the first mistake that is often made is slashing calories far too low. In the beginning, when motivation is high, you may see some success and the number on the scale will start to drop, or you’ll start seeing changes in the mirror.
However, eventually your results will stagnate, and you will get bored of eating the same foods day in and day out. Eventually, as you continue without additional results, you’ll get fed up with the restriction and go back to the way you were eating before, often reaching an even higher weight than your starting point.
The other issue with diets is that they usually demonize specific foods and food groups, recommending you completely remove these foods from your diet to achieve success.
But what usually happens when you tell yourself you can’t have something? That thing is suddenly on your mind ALL THE TIME. This can lead to overeating or binging.
How then, can you achieve sustainable fat loss without the restrictions of dieting?
How to Get into a Calorie Deficit with Macro Counting
We’ve established that dieting isn’t going to work if you’re looking for a sustainable, long-term solution to improving your health and body composition. But what options do you have to meet your nutrition goals and create lasting change in your health?
We need to get rid of quick fixes, “magic pills”, and restrictive meal plans and focus on tools that will help you to create more satisfying meals, adjust your nutrition based on your goals, and have greater freedom in your diet.
Macro counting is one tool that can help you to develop awareness around how to meet your body’s needs, while eating flexibly without restrictions or guilt. This strategy considers how foods fit into the bigger picture of your diet and focuses on fueling your body in a way that shows it care and love, rather than starving your body because you don’t like the way it looks.
Before we get into the process of determining the macros that are right for your body and goals, we should understand why this process is the most effective one to build a nutrition plan that incorporates a calorie deficit for fat loss.
The Nutrition Hierarchy is a concept created by Dr. Eric Helms that explains the various factors at play in whether an individual can successfully build muscle or lose fat. He ranks these factors in order of their importance, with the bottom tier of his pyramid being the most important and providing a basis that can be built upon by considering the factors at higher levels of the pyramid (2).
We’ve already discussed this tier of the pyramid in detail above, so you should have a strong understanding of its importance. It doesn’t matter what style of eating you choose to follow, or what foods you include or exclude; if it doesn’t create a calorie deficit, you won’t lose weight.
Macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – are the sources of the calories that you consume. In order to optimize your results, there is an ideal ratio that determines how much of each macronutrient you should include in your diet.
Adhering to this ratio can help control appetite, keep energy levels high, and prevent the loss of muscle as you work to lose fat. Counting macros also allows for flexibility in your diet, so you can include foods you love that are less nutrient-dense and prevent feelings of restriction. Below we will get into how to determine the ideal ratio of macronutrients that will set you up for fat loss.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels
Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (chemical compounds found in plants with a number of health benefits). If you’re aiming to lose weight, micronutrients do not have an impact on the energy balance equation.
However, consider for a moment why you want to lose weight. For many people, the main motivators are to feel better in their bodies, have more energy, and improve their overall health. Micronutrients may not contribute directly to weight loss, but they are essential to maintaining a healthy body overall.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels
Meal Timing or Frequency (Optional)
Meal timing and its impact on fat loss has long been a subject of debate and interest in the world of nutrition. You probably remember being told at some point that you should eat every 2-3 hours “to boost your metabolism”; however, research actually doesn’t suggest that eating more frequently leads to increased fat loss (3). Lately, intermittent fasting is another meal timing strategy that many have been implementing with great success, but we won’t get into that in this article.
The bottom line is that meal timing is not the key to fat loss, but it can support someone who is trying to stay in a calorie deficit. Some people may feel satisfied with three larger meals, while others may prefer to split up their caloric intake into smaller meals. Many fat loss clients find it more satisfying to have 2-3 large meals a day; it all depends on individual preferences and lifestyle.
Have you ever caught yourself browsing the supplement section of a health food store in search of something that will help you speed up your results?
It’s tempting to think that if we just look hard enough we’ll come across some magic solution that will be the secret to easy fat loss. Consequently, people often start with supplements when looking to lose weight, rather than considering the lower tiers of the pyramid that are the true drivers of results.
Supplements can fill gaps in nutrition (for example, protein powder can help you meet your protein targets) and some supplements can be advantageous for sports performance. But their role is supportive, rather than central.
How to use Macro Counting to Lose Fat
Now that you have all the background information, it’s time to look at how these ideas apply to your life. Follow along with the steps below to find the quantities of carbs, proteins, and fats that are right for you!
Just a disclaimer before we begin: the calculations below are not meant to provide the exact number of calories you should be consuming each day; these numbers are to be used as estimates only. Please consult with a registered dietitian or nutrition coach for more detailed information about your specific situation and lifestyle in order to achieve the best results.
Step 1: Calculate your Caloric Needs
There are many ways to determine how many calories your body needs, some more complex and specific than others. In a lab setting, two of the primary methods are direct and indirect calorimetry.
Direct calorimetry measures the amount of heat given off by the body, which is proportional to the energy used. While very accurate, this method is impractical because it requires an individual to spend a long period of time in an insulated chamber (1).
The second method, indirect calorimetry, measures oxygen inhaled and carbon dioxide exhaled, because the use of energy in the body consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. However, this is also impractical outside a lab because of the equipment required (1).
Typically, equations can be used to estimate caloric needs, and there are many online calculators available, each which may give you slightly different results.
For today, we’re going to keep things simple: to determine your maintenance calories (ie. the calories you burn each day) multiply your current weight in pounds by 14.
Note: If you are currently significantly overweight or obese and looking to lose a large amount of weight, you should use your goal weight in this calculation, as your current weight will likely result in overestimating your caloric needs.
Step 2: Adjust Calories for Fat Loss
Next, to get into a calorie deficit, you must subtract 200-300 calories from your maintenance calorie value. Even though it may be tempting, DO NOT subtract more than 300 calories. Otherwise you’re getting back into restrictive diet territory and that is what we’re trying to avoid! You may adjust lower as you move towards your goal but we like to stay conservative here.
Step 3: Determine Protein Needs
When you’re trying to lose fat, it is important to ensure you’re consuming enough protein. Protein helps promote satiety, maintains muscles and tissues, and supports the immune system.
If you are an active person that performs resistance training regularly, your protein intake should be the same number of grams as your current weight in pounds.
If you recall that every gram of protein provides 4 calories, then the total number of calories each day that should come from protein is 150 x 4 = 600 calories (based on our sample weight of 150 lbs.).
Note: In the case of overweight and obese individuals, your goal weight or your lean body mass if you know it (you would need to know your body fat%) should be used to do the previous protein calculation.
Step 4: Determine Fats and Carbohydrates
Now that we have 600 calories in our diet coming from protein, using our sample values, we now must determine how many of the remaining calories should come from carbohydrates and how many should be from fat.
We like to allocate 60% of the remaining 1300 calories towards carbs, and 40% towards fats.
Therefore, based on the calculations above, your ideal macronutrient breakdown for fat loss would be: 150g of protein, 195g of carbs, and 58 grams of fats.
The macro breakdown and calories calculated using this method can be adjusted according to training and exercise, taking into consideration rest days and active days, but we will leave that for another article.
More than Calories In vs. Calories Out
The stand-by advice of calories in versus calories out only gives us part of the picture when it comes to meeting weight loss goals. In order to optimize health and create sustainable change, we have to work on creating a sensible calorie deficit while considering the macronutrient breakdown of our food choices.
You now know how to calculate your caloric and macronutrient needs to meet your goals, but this information will only be useful to you if you take action. You have the tools necessary to improve your nutrition, but now is the time to apply this knowledge and see how it can transform your life.
If you’re looking to make a change, you don’t need to do it on your own. For specific advice about your unique lifestyle, body, and goals, your best strategy is to consult with a dietitian about the plan that is right for you. I encourage you to take a look at the coaching programs we have available at Vive Nutrition and apply to join our team if you’re ready to take the next steps towards transforming your eating habits, body, and health.
- Smolin LA, Grosvenor MB. Nutrition: Science and applications. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2010.
- Helms ER, Valdez A, Morgan A. The Muscle & Strength Pyramid – Nutrition. Independently Published; 2019
- Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition. 1997 Apr;77(S1):S57-70.