Creating a calorie deficit — where you burn more calories than you eat — can help you lose weight. And calculating your calorie deficit can help you determine how many calories to eat and burn every day to accomplish your weight-loss goals.
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A caloric deficit is created by eating less, moving more or a combination of both.
What Is a Calorie Deficit?
A calorie deficit is when you burn more calories than you eat in a day, which can help you lose weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories in your diet, exercising more or a combination of both.
What Calorie Deficit Is Needed for Weight Loss?
Exactly how many calories you should eat per day to maintain your weight varies based on your age, sex and activity levels. But in general, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends people assigned female at birth (AFAB) eat 1,600 to 2,000 calories and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) eat 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day to maintain weight.
To lose weight at the safe and sustainable CDC-recommended pace of 1 to 2 pounds per week, the Mayo Clinic suggests cutting approximately 500 to 1,000 calories from that daily baseline. Why? You lose 1 pound when you burn about 3,500 more calories than you eat. Here's how many calories to cut for your weight-loss goals:
- To lose 1 pound per week: Maintenance calories - 500 = Daily calorie goal
- To lose 2 pounds per week: Maintenance calories - 1,000 = Daily calorie goal
Your calorie intake shouldn't dip below 1,200 per day if you're AFAB or 1,500 per day if you're AMAB unless under doctor's orders, per Harvard Health Publishing. Anything less than that may deprive you of nutrients.
How to Calculate Your Calorie Deficit
There are a few ways you can calculate your calorie deficit for weight loss.
1. Use a Calorie-Tracking App
A diet- and fitness-tracking app like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate is like a calorie deficit calculator in your pocket. Here's how to get started:
- Download the app onto your phone or other device.
- Fill out your height, weight, goal weight and activity level for an automatic daily caloric intake recommendation.
- Track your calorie intake by adding your foods and beverages (you can search MyPlate's catalogue or scan the food or drink's barcode).
- Track your calorie burn by entering your exercise sessions (you can search by activity or manually enter the amount of calories you burned).
2. Calculate Calorie Deficit Manually
You can also manually calculate your daily caloric intake for weight loss. To do so, you first need to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or resting metabolic rate (RMR), which are measures of how many calories your body needs at rest, per the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
While BMR and RMR are similar, BMR is typically used in more controlled settings like a doctor's office, whereas RMR may better represent how many calories your body needs at rest in everyday life, per ACE.
1. Find Your BMR or RMR
Calculate your BMR using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation or Katch-McArdle equation:
- Mifflin-St. Jeor equation for people AFAB: (9.99 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) – 161
- Mifflin-St. Jeor equation for people AMAB: (9.99 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (4.92 x age) + 5
- Katch-McArdle equation: 370 + (21.6 x lean body mass in kg). Lean body mass = total body weight in kg – weight from body fat in kg.
Calculate your RMR with the following equation:
- Cunningham Equation: 500 + (22 x lean body mass in kg)
2. Use Your BMR to Find Your TDEE
Once you know your BMR or RMR, you can then factor in physical activity to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is the total amount of calories you burn every day, per ACE. Just multiply your BMR or RMR by the number below that best corresponds to your activity level:
- Sedentary: 1.2
- Lightly active (exercise 1 to 3 times per week): 1.375
- Moderately active (exercise 3 to 5 times per week): 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise 6 to 7 times per week): 1.725
- Extremely active (hard daily exercise and a physical job): 1.9
3. Subtract Weight-Loss Calories
From there, subtract your daily calorie deficit goal of 500 to 1,000 to calculate how many calories you should eat per day for weight loss.
Example of Calorie Deficit for a 30 Year Old 5'6" AFAB Person Weighing 200 lbs with 30 Percent Body Fat Who is Moderately Active and Wants to Lose 2 Pounds Per Week
Maintenance Calories Minus Calorie Deficit
Daily Caloric Intake for Weight Loss
(9.99 x 90.72) + (6.25 x 167.64) – (4.92 x 30) – 161
1,645.44 x 1.55
2,550.44 - 1,000
370 + (21.6 x 63.5)
1,741.6 x 1.55
2,699.48 - 1,000
500 + (22 x 63.5)
1,897 x 1.55
2,940.35 - 1,000
Each formula gives a slightly different result, so pick whatever equation best fits the information you have or calculate all three for a caloric range to aim for.
How to Achieve Your Calorie Deficit
Now that you know how to calculate a calorie deficit, here are some tips to actually create that deficit to lose weight.
1. Eat Fewer Calories
Cutting back on your daily food intake can create a calorie deficit, per the Mayo Clinic. This doesn't necessarily mean drastically reducing how much you eat, though: In general, prioritizing nutritious whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains over processed foods like packaged baked goods will help you naturally eat fewer calories.
The Mayo Clinic also recommends trying these strategies:
2. Exercise More
You can also supplement a deficit by burning calories through regular physical activity. The CDC recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise (including cardio activities and strength training) each week.
If you'd like to keep track of how many calories you burn during your workout rather than rely on the activity multipliers listed above, cardio machines and calorie-tracking apps can usually estimate it for you. But if you'd like to do it yourself, there's a formula to help.
Before crunching the numbers, start by determining your heart rate with the help of a heart rate monitor or by placing your fingers on the side of your throat and counting how many times your heart beats in a minute. Then use the following equations:
- AFAB: [(-20.4022 + (0.4472 x heart rate in beats per minute) + (0.278 x weight in lbs) + (0.074 x age in years)] / 4.184. Then multiply your result by the number of minutes exercised
- AMAB: [(-55.0969 + (0.6309 x heart rate in beats per minute) + (0.438 x weight in lbs) + (0.2017 x age in years)] / 4.184. Then multiply your result by the number of minutes exercised
How to Determine How Many Calories to Eat With Exercise
Rather than using the activity multiplier, you can factor the exact number of calories you burned during exercise into your daily caloric allowance with the following calculation:
- BMR + calories burned during exercise - calorie deficit goal = daily calorie allowance
For example, a person with a BMR of 2,000 calories a day who burns 300 calories from exercise with a weight loss goal of 1 pound per week has a daily caloric allowance of 1,800 calories (2,000 + 300 - 500 = 1,800).
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Finding a Balance"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Losing Weight"
- American Council on Exercise: "Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure It—And Raise It, Too"
- American Council on Exercise: "BMR vs. RMR"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie counting made easy"