Caloric Deficit: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 06, 2023
3 min read

To lose weight, you need to eat and drink fewer calories than you burn. That's called a calorie deficit.

If you take in more than calories than you burn, then you don’t have a calorie deficit and you won’t lose weight.

There are two ways to raise your calorie deficit: changing what and how much you eat, and exercise. Most doctors and nutritionists suggest a combination of both for healthy weight loss.

There’s no single best approach to cutting calories. In general, as long as you cut the calories and maintain a minimum amount, you will lose weight.

One proven method is to replace all sugar-sweetened beverages with water. This simple change can lead to a 2% loss of body weight over 6 months.

The DASH and Mediterranean diets also show some success. These focus on eating:

Just be sure to watch your calories. Smaller portions can help, too, along with careful planning of your meals.

A registered dietitian can help you figure out healthy ways to manage your portions and lower your daily calories.

Research shows that diet changes alone raise your calorie deficit more easily than exercise alone. Still, you often get the best weight loss results if you combine diet changes with moderate to hard exercise.

Shoot for 30 minutes or more on most days of the week, though 45 minutes or more may be better for keeping the weight off. You don’t have to do it all at once. You can do shorter, 10-minute spurts throughout the day. Take a walk around the block or do a bit of gardening in the afternoon.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before you start hard exercise, particularly if you’re overweight or have other health conditions.

And remember: Regular exercise goes a long way in protecting your health even if you don’t lose weight. It stops your body from packing on the pounds. And if you have lost weight, it helps you maintain.

Different approaches work for different people. A therapist may be able to help you change thought patterns about food and exercise. Methods include:

Smartphone apps can help you watch your food intake and remind you to exercise, among other things.

A good rule of thumb for healthy weight loss is a deficit of about 500 calories per day. That should put you on course to lose about 1 pound per week. This is based on a starting point of at least 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day for women and 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day for men. It can be unhealthy to take in less than that per day. Talk to your doctor about the minimum calories you need.

Keep in mind that you may not need a calorie deficit at all. You only need it if you want to lose weight for health or other reasons. Always talk to your doctor before you start a weight loss plan, especially if you have other health problems.