In order to lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit
This means you need to consume fewer calories than what is necessary to maintain your current weight.
You’ve probably heard this before, but how do you go about this?
The first step is to figure out your maintenance calories.
Maintenance calories are the number of calories you’d eat in order to maintain your current weight. No weight gain or weight loss.
There are many ways to estimate your maintenance calories and several online calculators out there that will help you.
The one I like is the calorie calculator at calculator.net because it’s very simple and performs the same calculation used by MyFitnessPal, which I’ll talk more about later in this post.
All you need to do is enter your own stats into the form. Your maintenance calories will be the first number displayed when you click calculate.
Now that you know your maintenance calories, how do you set a daily calorie target for weight loss?
Well, you know you must eat below your maintenance calories to lose weight. But how far below?
This depends on how fast you want to lose weight.
Since a pound is 3,500 calories, if you want to lose one pound per week, you’d target 500 calories below maintenance per day.
If you want to lose weight faster, you’d target a larger calorie deficit than 500 per day. If you are okay with losing weight more slowly, you can target a smaller calorie deficit.
Always consider your personal circumstances.
If your maintenance calories are 1,300, losing one pound per week would mean eating only 800 calories per day!
This target is technically correct, but that doesn’t mean 800 calories a day is necessarily the best course of action for you.
It’s also not the only course of action you can take to achieve your long-term goal.
The calculator is simply taking your desired inputs and backing into a number. Once you understand the math behind weight loss, you can customize your approach.
Let’s look at a couple of options for someone with maintenance of 1,300 calories:
Option 1: You can increase your activity level to raise your maintenance calories.
If you burn an extra 200 calories per day, that would increase your maintenance calories to 1,500 and you’d be able to eat 1,000 calories per day instead of 800 calories to achieve the same 500 calorie deficit and the same rate of weight loss of 3,500 calories or 1 pound per week.
This will require a little bit of effort on your part, but that’s the price you pay for allowing yourself to eat more. If you go this route, I suggest incorporating a simple daily walk into your routine.
Depending on your weight, you can burn upwards of 50 calories per mile walking, which means walking 3-4 miles should get you there. This may seem like a lot, but keep in mind a mile is only 2,000 steps on average.
If you want a more accurate estimate on how many calories you’d burn walking, use this online calculator.
I prefer walking to running or a formal exercise program when I want to increase my daily maintenance calories because walking is easier to commit to. Running may also increase your appetite, which will make it more difficult to regulate your food intake.
Option 2: You can lose weight more slowly.
If you lower your rate of weekly weight loss from 1 pound per week to 0.5 pounds per week, then you only need a 250 calorie daily deficit and you can target 1,050 calories per day instead of 800.
When your calories are already low to begin with, an extra 250 calories will make a big difference. Sure, it will take you longer to achieve your goal, but your journey will be less stressful.
If your long-term goal is to lose 20 pounds, you’ll be on a 40-week timeframe instead of 20 weeks, which isn’t that much more time in the big picture. But your likelihood of success will be much higher on a more manageable calorie intake.
When it comes to weight loss, it’s important to pick an approach that you can stick with long enough to actually see results since losing even a small amount of weight will take some time.
I suggest a calorie deficit of around 20%.
This is a large enough deficit that you will start to see results fairly soon, but not so large that it’s intimidating and difficult to stick with.
For example, if your daily maintenance calories are 2,000, a 20% calorie deficit would be 400 calories and you’d target a daily consumption of 1,600 calories per day.
The next step is actually tracking your food.
The best way to do this is to use an app. I recommend MyFitnessPal.
MyFitnessPal is the only calorie counting app I have ever used and it is outstanding.
I count calories daily and I’ve never felt the need to try any other apps because MyFitnessPal gives me everything I need and more.
Here are five reasons why I think MyFitnessPal is the best app for calorie counting.
Reason 1: They get the big picture.
When I say this, I mean that their whole system is based on the concept of generating a calorie deficit for weight loss.
If you’re not sure how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, MyFitnessPal will tell you the answer.
MyFitnessPal estimates your basal metabolic rate (BMR) when you sign up. It then gives you a recommended daily calorie intake to lose weight based on your activity level. The more active you are, the more wiggle room they build into your calories.
From the get-go, they force you to specify a weight goal and a deadline. No screwing around. They are in the business of getting you results, which I love.
Reason 2: It has a very comprehensive food database.
MyFitnessPal will assign a calorie count to almost any food you can think of.
It also provides in-depth nutritional information on macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat), cholesterol, fiber, and vitamins/minerals. In fact, the reason I started using MyFitnessPal was to monitor my carb intake.
Many of the numbers from restaurant items come directly from the nutrition facts on their websites. There is even information specific to variations of popular chain restaurants in different countries!
Reason 3: It does a good job of measuring calorie expenditure.
Calories in is only half of the weight loss equation.
You must also estimate how many calories you are burning from daily activity and exercise in order to target an appropriate calorie intake for weight loss.
MyFitnessPal accounts for your overall lifestyle when you set your initial weight loss goal and allows you to log your exercise to capture day-to-day fluctuations in activity to keep your calorie estimates accurate.
MyFitnessPal gives you an estimate for calories burned from various types of activities based on the amount of time you spend exercising. The exercise database includes various speeds of running and walking. It even has two levels of soccer (casual and competitive)!
These days, activity trackers are everywhere and MyFitnessPal is compatible with many of them. In fact, I never have to log my exercise in the MyFitnessPal app anymore because it estimates my daily calories burned from exercise by syncing with my Fitbit.
Reason 4: It has some great social features.
MyFitnessPal has a huge user base, support forum, and a popular blog. and it even allows users to create their own blogs.
Their social media reach is massive: more than a million Facebook fans and over one hundred thousand Twitter followers as of the time of this writing.
This fosters a community to help people interact and support each another in reaching their weight goals. Pretty cool.
Reason 5: Last but not least, it’s simple and free.
Look, we’re all busy. We can’t spend hours a week on this stuff. We need a system we can execute in less than five minutes a day.
With MyFitnessPal, it’s ridiculously easy to search for foods and enter them into your calorie log for tracking.
Their mobile apps offer all of the functionality of their main website and even more, so it’s just as easy to track your calories while you’re on the go or away from a computer. In fact, with features like the smartphone barcode scanner, it’s even easier.
Best of all, the web application and smartphone apps are all free.
Unfortunately, no apps are perfect. There are some limitations to MyFitnessPal.
People are able to enter their own meals and figures into the food database.
This can be good and bad. Good because you will almost always be able to find a food. Bad because you have to watch out for some of the “generic” or “homemade” entries, which may be inaccurate.
Despite these limitations, I still believe MyFitnessPal is your best bet for tracking your calories.
Also, if you use MyFitnessPal, you can skip step one because they will do this for you.
One thing to keep in mind is that your tracking will never be 100% accurate because as you mentioned, it’s not always easy to find the calorie counts for the foods you eat.
Just do your best.
MyFitnessPal has a lot of generic food entries and you can always swap similar foods for something you can’t find.
For example, if you can’t find your school cafeteria pizza, enter Domino’s pizza instead. The calories might not be exactly the same, but they will be similar. I do this all the time.
The final step is to stick with it, monitor your progress, and make adjustments if necessary.
When you first start, it will take some time to learn the calorie counts for common foods you eat.
But over time, it will become easier and more intuitive, especially if you are using the time-saving features in MyFitnessPal like saving foods and copying meals from previous entries.
If you believe you are consistently hitting your calorie deficit and still aren’t making progress, then you are probably underestimating your calorie intake, overestimating your maintenance calories, or both, and may need to make adjustments.
Calorie counting works, but you have to give it time.
You need to be diligent and honestly track your food for a long enough time to see results, which will likely be months.
But if you do this, you will learn that it is possible to lose weight on a fairly consistent and predictable schedule.