While fad diets come and go, the common denominator is a caloric deficit. 
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It's estimated that almost 50% of Americans try to lose weight every year. Whether it’s keto, paleo, intermittent fasting, or another exclusion diet, they all have one goal in common – to help you lose weight. But, no matter what fad diet you try, there's only one way to lose weight: by burning more calories than you consume.

Enter the caloric deficit diet. Without the strict guidelines of which foods to eat or exclude and what time to eat them, this diet is based solely on the principal that we should burn more calorie than we consume every day. Here, we look at the principals and benefits of the most basic, tried and true diet plan. 

What are calories?

A calorie or kilocalorie (kcal) is a unit of measurement used to determine the amount of energy found in food. Our bodies need a certain amount of daily energy, measured in calories, to maintain the body’s basic functions.

The amount of calories needed by our body every day to perform basic functions is called our basal metabolic rate (BMR). Our BMR is influenced by our gender, age, height, and current weight.

When the calories we consume are greater than the calories we need, our body stores that energy as fat and we gain weight. To lose weight, we need to create a caloric deficit – to consume fewer calories than what our body needs so that our bodies use the energy we’ve stored as fat.  

How to create a caloric deficit 

To create a caloric deficit, we first need to know our BMR. Once we have our BMR, we need to factor in activity level. The more active you are, the more calories you need to maintain your weight. You can calculate your BMR and account for activity level by using the Harris-Benedict Equation.

To calculate BMR:

  • For men: BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) + 5
  • For women: BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161

Then, use the Harris-Benedict Equation to account for daily activity level:

  • Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR x 1.2
  • Lightly active (light exercise 1-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375
  • Moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
  • Very active (hard exercise 6-7 days a week): BMR x 1.725
  • Extra active (very hard exercise & a physical job): BMR x 1.9

There are a number of online calculators that will do this equation for you. 

When factoring for activity, carefully consider the category you choose so that you get accurate numbers. It should be a representation of your current activity level, not the level that you aspire to achieve. 

Another consideration to take into account is that your BMR will change as you lose or gain weight, as you age, and as your activity level changes. To continue to lose weight, you should periodically re-calculate your BMR. 

Remember, the number that you get for your BMR is the number of calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight. To lose weight, you’ll want to create a caloric deficit by following a diet and nutrition plan and increasing your daily activity. 

How to follow the caloric deficit diet 

Once you’ve calculated your BMR, you can figure out how many calories you need to either cut from your diet or burn in addition to your current activity level in order to lose weight.

Approximately 3,500 calories equals one pound. So, if you want to lose one pound per week, divide 3,500 calories by seven days and determine that you need to either cut 500 calories a day or burn 500 additional calories per day. 

To successfully use the caloric deficit diet, you’ll track the number of calories you consume each day to ensure a deficit against your BMR.

Here’s an example:

  • My BMR, including activity, shows that I need 1,973 kcal per day to maintain my weight
  • My goal is to lose one pound per week
  • I need to reduce my BMR by 500
  • I need to consume 1,473 calories daily to create a caloric deficit to meet my goal

Benefits of the caloric deficit 

There are many benefits of the caloric deficit diet:

  1. It’s easy to understand and, with the many calorie tracking tools and apps now available, it’s easy to put into practice. 
  2. You can eat the foods you love as long as you stay within your recommended daily calories.
  3. It encourages daily healthy eating routines that are key in losing weight and maintaining weight loss. 
  4. You don’t have to be hungry. There are a number of low-calorie foods that are also filling.  Substituting the higher-calorie foods in your diet with lower-calorie options means that you can lose weight without feeling like you’re depriving yourself.
  5. Tools like the Cooking Light Diet take out all the guess work to ensure your success with daily meal plans and shopping lists tailored to your specific daily caloric needs. Cooking Light Diet utilizes the caloric deficit as a key component of its weight loss formula, in part because of its adaptability. 

Carolyn Williams, PhD RD and lead registered dietitian for Cooking Light Diet, shares, “While calories and macros are part of the framework of Cooking Light Diet, our formula also considers additional factors that research suggests are key for long-term weight loss success — from specific dietary needs like avoiding gluten, dairy, or certain allergens to food preferences and lifestyle needs.”

Studies also show that weight loss can be maintained by eating more vegetables, choosing high-quality and nutritious whole foods, preparing food at home, and avoiding trans fats, added sugars and refined carbohydrates. All of these principals have been applied to the Cooking Light Diet and can help keep daily calories in check. 

Keys to weight loss success

Research indicates that individuals who are successful in losing weight and maintaining their weight loss over long periods of time have five characteristics in common:

  1. Engage in daily physical activity – approximately one hour per day
  2. Eat a low-calorie, low-fat diet
  3. Eat breakfast regularly
  4. Self-monitor weight
  5. Maintain a consistent eating pattern across weekdays and weekends

The bottom line is that in order to lose weight, we have to burn more calories than we consume. By calculating your BMR, sticking to a caloric deficit, exercising daily, and focusing on nutritious foods that you enjoy, you can see sustainable, long-term weight loss. 

Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.