March 03, 2021

Is there a magic calorie deficit number?

Well, the short answer is no. There’s not a magic number, but there’s definitely a sweet spot! Here’s everything you want to know about finding your deficit sweet spot and what you can do to maximize it.  

First thing’s first - what is a calorie deficit? When you are consuming fewer calories than your body is using and/or increasing your daily workout activity (without adding more calories) that puts you at a deficit. If you’re looking to lower body fat %, or lose fat and inches, understanding calorie deficit is important.

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say: 

3,500 calories equals about 1 pound of fat, and it's estimated that you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound.

So, in general, if you cut about 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your typical diet, you'd lose about 1 to 2 pounds a week.

It sounds simple. However, it's more complex because when you lose weight, you usually lose a combination of fat, lean tissue and water. Also, because of changes that occur in the body as a result of weight loss, you may need to decrease calories further to continue weight loss.

Okay, so there’s a level of complexity here, but let’s keep it as simple as possible. A deficit % IS NOT the percentage of body weight or body fat you wish to lose. The percentage you choose will determine the RATE at which you’d like to lose it. In the Clean Simple Eats App, we give the option for weight loss at different deficits (between 10-30%); 10% being moderate and slower, 30% being more aggressive and quick. 

Here’s the thing - a deficit that would work great for one person might be dangerously low or not aggressive enough for another. Like everything else in life, there’s not an easy one-size-fits-all model (and that’s a good thing!). Depending on your age, gender, and activity level, results will vary—and that’s okay.

Now that you know what it is, how do you figure out what’s right for you? The most effective way to figure out where you should be calorically is to use a sliding scale (based on percentages from your TDEE).

Here are the deficit guidelines ranging from conservative to very aggressive weight loss:

  • Conservative: 10-15% below TDEE
  • Moderate: 20-25% below TDEE
  • Aggressive: 30-35% below TDEE
  • Very Aggressive: 40%+ below TDEE
  • 50%+ puts you in the semi-starvation/starvation category and is potentially dangerous.

Remember a deficit % is how far below your TDEE or maintenance calories you will eat on plan. You can apply the formula below to ANY calories at ANY deficit, but ultimately, results will vary slightly depending on age, gender, cheat meals, and activity level. We've seen people lose upwards of 20-30 lbs at a 25% deficit. It's all going to depend on your unique body! 

(maintenance calories X deficit percentage (use .10 for 10%, .15 for 15% etc) X 7 days X 6 weeks) 

Then, divide that number by 3500 and you’ll calculate your expected lbs lost in 6 weeks. 

For example, if your TDEE is 2,000 calories and you select a 25% deficit, you would eat on plan at 1500 calories to reach your goal. A 10% deficit for you would mean cutting 200 calories per day (bringing your daily calorie total down to 1,800 calories). It would take 17.5 days at that 10% deficit (if you’re not going over your daily caloric limit for your cheat meals) to lose 1 lb. Over the course of the 6 week plan, you would lose 2.4 lbs. 

If you are doing this plan for the first time, we recommend you start with about a 10% deficit. If you're nursing, 10-20% deficit (but always consult your doctor). If you're pregnant, select maintenance (read more here if you are pregnant or nursing). Keep in mind, if you go out to eat and go way over one night, it could wipe out your deficit for the week completely. If you consistently stick to 10% everyday, that would be awesome! 

The good news is you can always adjust these numbers based on your current goals and needs. And don’t get hung up on the numbers on the scale. Shedding those pounds may feel good in the moment, but finding confidence and creating healthy habits that last a lifetime is always more satisfying!

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