The truth about calorie-deficit diets

By Khala Hurd October 13, 2021 | 5 MIN READ

The Dirt

Once again, social media steers their readers in an interesting direction as calorie-deficit diets light up TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. Many fitness trainers endorse this method to burn fat and build muscle, which is why my fiancé gave it a shot. But as I watched him obsessively calculate every bite and push-up, I wondered…is it worth the sacrifice, or does it go too far?


The truth about calorie-deficit diets


By Khala Hurd October 13, 2021 | 5 MIN READ

The Dirt

Once again, social media steers their readers in an interesting direction as calorie-deficit diets light up TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. Many fitness trainers endorse this method to burn fat and build muscle, which is why my fiancé gave it a shot. But as I watched him obsessively calculate every bite and push-up, I wondered…is it worth the sacrifice, or does it go too far?

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Even my fiancé got on the bandwagon. I think of him as smart, educated on food — thanks to D2D 😉 — and cares about his health. Yet, even he fell victim to this crazy diet. Observing his one-month ordeal on this special diet was not pleasant, to say the least.

But what exactly does it mean to eat in a calorie deficit? Being on a calorie-deficit diet means that you eat fewer calories than what you burn in a day as opposed to a calorie surplus, which is consuming more calories than what we burn. It seems simple, but it’s actually more complex than I initially thought. I learned this from watching my fiancé, let’s call him “Chad”, attempt to adhere to the core principles to achieve his fitness goals.

This guidance came from a fitness trainer who recommended this diet to burn fat and build muscle. But, before we get into that, let’s take a deeper dive into what it means to eat in a deficit.  It is a little more complicated than just ‘calories in – calories out’.

How to identify your deficit numbers  

First, you want to calculate your maintenance calories, which your body needs to support your energy and activity. This is no easy feat as it takes a considerable amount of time. For example, you need more calories if you work out than if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. To find your maintenance calories, you’ll want to track your calories for ten days. You can do this fairly easily with apps on your phone, including the MyFitnessPal app.

calorie deficit diet, The truth about calorie-deficit dietsDuring these ten days, you’ll also need to track your weight. The easiest way to do this is to weigh yourself every morning when you wake up. If your weight stays about the same during those ten days, then you’ve found your maintenance calories. It’s always normal to experience a little fluctuation day-to-day, but your weight should stay within a few pounds.

Next, you’ll want to find the average amount of calories you consumed. This can be done by averaging your daily calorie intake over those ten days. Then subtract 500. You’ve just found your calorie deficit.

Why 500? Studies show that decreasing your daily caloric intake by 500 does not change your hunger or energy levels. This means that by eating 500 fewer calories a day, you’ll still be able to perform your daily activities without an energy loss or feeling starved. Or so we thought…

I watched Chad track every single bite.

I’ve never tracked my calories. I feel as though there are so many other things we must think about when it comes to being healthy that tracking all these specific numbers is where I draw the line. But when Chad told me he would log his calories, protein, fat, and carbs to remain in a deficit and build muscle, I was supportive — yet skeptical.

Now, he’s already a thin, built person. He works out all the time, eats very healthy, and honestly barely has any fat on him, which is why I was a bit confused by this decision, especially since he tried it once before and hated it.

I watched him do this for a couple of weeks, and I was exhausted. Every time he ate, he’d take out his phone, go to an app, and start typing in everything he was consuming and in what portions. This means he had to use a scale to measure what he was eating to ensure it was within the appropriate range. So, when I was sitting at the dinner table after cooking a delicious meal, I had to watch Chad put everything on a scale, scoop by scoop until he achieved his portions. I’m tired just thinking about it!

I waited for what felt like an eternity, staring down at my steaming hot plate of Caprese pasta with chicken, thinking, “Why can’t we just eat healthily since we know how to? I wish it could be that simple.

And how can we find the balance between health, food, and fun?

Here come the hangries”

The other thing I noticed was Chad developed a severe case of being “hangry,” or hungry-angry (it’s a real thing, I swear). He could only eat a specific amount of calories and would often remain hungry after eating. This often left him not very pleasant to be around, which I understood entirely since I’m the same way.

I heard a quote once that said, “If I say I’m hungry, we have about 30 minutes before I turn into a different person”…

I definitely felt this on a personal level.

He also experienced a complete lack of energy, especially in the afternoon since his lunch-time calories were cut. He had to up his caffeine intake just to get through the workday. Above, I mentioned that 500 calories shouldn’t impact energy or hunger levels, but my fiancé experienced an energy loss.

My activities change day-to-day. Shouldn’t my caloric intake?

As I wrote in my intuitive eating article, I practice listening to my body when it’s hungry and full. If I’m not full, I continue to eat or at least allow myself to have a healthy snack. With a calorie deficit, you have to make sure everything stays within your caloric intake for the day.

I also find myself eating more if I have a longer workout. And since I burn more calories with a longer workout, wouldn’t I need to eat more? There’s a lot to factor in on a day-to-day basis.

Every day is different. How can we only eat a specific number of calories when our daily exercise, activity level, and food choices change? And, what matters more: the amount of calories we eat or where those calories come from? For example, a 400-calorie fast-food sandwich is very different than a 400-calorie salad filled with lean protein, grains, and veggies. Yet, for many practicing a calorie deficit diet on social media, they only think about the calories, not so much where they came from. This seems wrong to me, since we know we need to eat a well-balanced diet for good long-term health.

calorie deficit diet, The truth about calorie-deficit diets

The date-night guilt

The last thing I noticed was that Chad would beat himself up if he went over his caloric intake for the day. For example, if we wanted to have a spontaneous date night and order a couple of drinks, he’d get stressed if he didn’t have enough room in his daily intake to accommodate. While I sat back, happily sipping on my Pomegranate Martini, I watched him calculate in his mind how he would make up for this the next day. It made our date night less than romantic…

The one thing I didn’t want to see, that I sadly did, was that my fiancé became so consumed by his diet program that he stopped enjoying life like he used to.

This demonstrates that, although this diet may work for some people, it definitely does not work for all.

What’s the science?

Chad organized his calorie deficit in a particular way based on his personal goals and what his trainer told him to do. For other people, it can be very different. And for many, it’s been a successful way to lose weight.

One study from 2007 examined the different ways that overweight individuals can shed pounds to determine which method of weight loss was best. This included a diet-only method and a diet-plus-exercise method. The researchers found that it did not matter which group the individuals were part of, but that a negative energy balance, or a calorie deficit, consistently leads to weight loss.

A second study from 2018, also researched various weight loss practices, including low-fat, low-carbohydrate, and calorie deficit. The research found that a calorie deficit is successful for weight loss, especially in the first few months, but it can be dangerous if the individual consumes too few calories. Eating too few calories can put your body into fat-storing mode instead of fat-burning because it doesn’t think it’ll get more food. The study also said that eating in a calorie deficit long-term is difficult to do, which makes sense for my fiancé because he stopped his strict diet deficit after a month. Now we just make sure to eat all of our fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

The Bottom Line

As heartbreaking yet comical as it was to watch Chad eat in a calorie deficit, it can be an excellent method for those looking to lose fat and build muscle, as long as you’re eating the right amount of calories and the right foods, like more protein. Eating in a calorie deficit also takes a lot of work, focus, and dedication. For my fiancé, it didn’t change anything because he’s already in good shape, eats well, and leads a healthy lifestyle. As always, when it comes down to it, we recommend you eat a balanced diet of fruits, veggies, protein, and carbs, and stay active.