1. It’s true: Cutting calories is pretty much essential to losing weight.
To go from your current weight to a lower weight, you’ll need to take in fewer calories, on average, than you currently are. For most people, the best way to do this is tweak their diet to eliminate some calories and exercise regularly to support the effort.
2. But that tip about cutting 500 calories a day to lose a pound a week? That’s not really a thing.
Maybe you’ve heard that 3,500 calories equals a pound of fat and in order to lose one pound per week you need to cut 500 calories from your daily diet. But there are two reasons that this doesn’t translate to people’s IRL weight loss efforts, explains registered dietitian Brian St. Pierre of Precision Nutrition.
First of all, your body adapts to losing weight, so that 500-calorie deficit has incrementally less effect as time goes on — simply because as your body gets smaller, it requires fewer calories, says St. Pierre. The other thing that prevents weight loss from happening in this simple, linear way is that over time, the body’s response to weight loss causes hormonal changes that make it harder to burn calories. “Those hormonal changes become more significant as you get leaner,” St. Pierre says.
3. That’s why the amount of calories you cut is pretty much your call.
Since there’s no mathematic equation for weight loss and because everyone responds differently to the physiological and emotional aspects of trying to lose weight, it takes some trial and error to figure out your caloric sweet spot, says Toronto-based registered dietitian Abby Langer.
What you want to do is find a point where you’re losing weight consistently but also feel great physically and emotionally. In other words, you don’t have to be the person who’s working out all the time, skipping every dessert, and never having a cocktail. The trick is to align your caloric cut with your lifestyle. And Langer says that losing weight more slowly actually makes it easier to do consistently and effectively.
4. One option would be to go the counting, tracking, and calculating route.
If you’re into data or prefer not to have to guesstimate, you can use online calculators to determine what your caloric intake should be for your goal and then use an app like MyFitnessPal to track your calories, says Holly Lofton, M.D., director of the Medical Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Medical Center.
5. Or you could also just basically eyeball it.
Actually counting calories isn’t the only way to lose weight and it’s not a good method for everyone, says Langer. If you’re someone who has struggled with a disordered relationship with food, counting calories probably isn’t for you. Langer recommends keeping a food journal to see what you’re eating and start to figure out what you can remove from excess calories, whether they’re from sweets and processed foods or overeating. (More on both of these later.)
6. After you choose your method, from there it’s all about trial and error.
Once you’ve figured out about how much you need to eat each day to meet your goal, there will be a period of testing things out so you can assess whether it’s working. For example, are you losing weight at a decent rate, but not so much that you’re feeling tired and hating life? Langer says that losing one pound per week is considered doable and healthy for most people, but of course what feels good for you could be less or more than that.
7. But you should not eat less than 1,000–1,200 calories per day.
It’s not a good idea to eat fewer than 1,000 calories per day, and some experts even say a healthy minimum is closer to 1,200. This number will feel different to different people, so no matter what the numbers might say, Langer recommends paying attention to signs that you’re not eating enough, like feeling fatigued (even though you’re getting enough sleep), or your skin getting really dry. These could be signs that you need more calories in your diet.
8. You don’t want to cut just any calories. You want to cut them from highly processed foods.
Super-processed foods like soda, chips, and sweetened coffees have lots of calories but don’t really help you feel full (or provide, you know, nutrition). They also enter and leave the body quickly — they require less chewing and digestion, which means they just don’t leave you feeling like you really actually ate, says Lofton. They also tend to be high in carbs with no protein, which means your blood sugar spikes and drops, leaving you hungry.
So, the thing you want to do is cut calories from the stuff that doesn’t contribute to your nutrition or help you feel full — sugary drinks, sweets, alcohol and mixers, and any ultraprocessed foods. The good news is that you actually can cut this stuff and still feel full and satisfied, which isn’t really the case when you cut out whole foods. Craving sugary stuff is a whole other thing, but there are ways to deal with those cravings.
9. Replace the calories you’re cutting with foods that are less processed (and as a result not as calorie-dense).
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they cut calories is getting rid of stuff they really like without seeing if there’s a way you can have some version of it that you still enjoy but supports your weight loss goals a little better. For example, if you love your morning egg and cheese on a croissant, don’t just ban it entirely or you’ll miss it and feel deprived AF. Instead, maybe swap the croissant for whole wheat bread to make the sandwich take longer to chew and digest (so you’ll still feel like you ate, says Lofton), while also being lower in calories and more filling. Finding small swaps you can live with is key to feeling fuller and happier while you eat less.
10. And also sometimes just enjoy reasonable amounts of whatever you want.
You can make all the healthy swaps you want, but sometimes you really just want Oreos, damnit. Langer says that it’s not that you have to skip your favorites forever or only eat the healthier versions of them. Have the egg and cheese on a croissant, but once a week instead of every day. Have Oreos but only two, not five. Or a gingerbread latte, but a small instead of a medium. Feeling deprived sucks and can lead to bingeing down the road.
11. Don’t eat a low-fat diet.
Low-fat diets (technically any diet where less than 30% of your calories come from fat) are tough to stick to, says Lofton, because dietary fat helps us feel full. If you’re already using a calorie calculator, you can also use a macronutrient calculator to learn what 30% of your d
aily calories looks like.
Or, again, you can eyeball it. Here are a few common foods and how much fat they have per serving:
- 2 Tbsp. of peanut butter: 17 grams
- 1 Tbsp. of oil (olive, canola, etc.): 14 grams
- 1 oz (about 20 to 24) almonds: 14 grams
- 1/4 avocado: 7.5 grams
12. And the same goes for products labeled “low fat” and “fat free.”
Be on the lookout for products that are labeled as low fat or reduced fat, because they tend to have more added sugar than the full-fat versions, says Lofton. In those products, they’ve “replaced fat — which the body needs and mouth likes — with sugar, which is not needed and not satiating,” says Lofton.
13. But, OK, maybe rethink your relationship with nuts and cheese.
Half a cup of almonds, which is probably just a couple handfuls for most people, is about 400 calories. And half a block of cheddar cheese is over 300 calories. Both of these are foods you can mindlessly snack on without feeling like you’re really even eating and definitely without getting full. Lofton recommends not thinking of them as snacks in and of themselves but as toppings to be sprinkled on salads or in soups.
14. When possible, don’t start your meal with a starch.
Consider starting your meals with vegetables and protein and ending them with carbs, suggests Lofton. Vegetables stay in the stomach for a while — their fiber content means it takes longer for them to digest — and protein sends satiety signals to your brain. If you start a meal with dinner rolls or go to town on pasta before the other stuff on your plate, you’ll end up taking in a ton of your calories and still feeling pretty hungry.
15. Eat from reasonably-sized dishes.
That thing where you go to have a few chips from the bag and accidentally eat the entire thing? Lofton says this happens because the size of the containers we eat from influence how much we eat. The first thing to do here is to not eat directly out of a takeout container or bag of popcorn but to serve yourself a portion on a plate. And take a look at your dishes — if you use cavernous bowls and huge plates, consider replacing them with smaller ones. It’ll help you eat a more reasonable portion while still eating off a full plate, says Lofton.
16. And definitely figure out if emotional eating is a thing for you.
If you suspect you might be a run-of-the-mill stress eater — like you feel hungry after your boss yells at you or your commute sucks — you can work on addressing that hunger without overeating. When you feel an urge to eat, Lofton recommends asking yourself, “Do I feel actual hunger in my stomach or do I have a desire to eat?” If you feel that it’s the latter, Lofton recommends putting something in your mouth — maybe a mint or gum or some carrots — which will help the urge to eat pass.
17. And be really aware of your relationship with food.
Of course everyone eats emotionally to some extent, but the key to a successful weight loss effort is to understand what role food plays in your life, says Lofton. If a main focus of your time alone is about food and eating, trying to cut calories might make you feel isolated, lonely, or even depressed. In those cases it’s important to work with a therapist as you work to lose weight. If you’re using a calorie-tracking app and start to feel obsessive about eating, that method is not for you, says Langer. Be sure to check in with yourself throughout your calorie-cutting process to make sure you’re feeling healthy — physically and psychologically.