How to Create a Calorie Deficit to Lose Weight

Do you want to lose weight? Stop the fad diets, toss out prepackaged meals, and put your grade-school counting abilities to the test by keeping track of your daily calorie intake.

Weight loss is basically accounting, but with the exact opposite goal. You want to end up in the red, burning more calories than you consume. We asked Men’s Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, M.S., and Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The 6 Pillars of Nutrition, to give us a budget-busting weight-loss plan. And Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., president of the American College of Sports Medicine, weighs in on the best exercise for when you’re trying to lose weight.

Here’s what to do:

First, Figure Out Daily Calorie Intake

“How many calories should I eat a day to lose weight?” you might be wondering. Let’s start with how many calories you’re currently eating.

Track everything you eat and drink for 3 days and tally your daily total at or with an app like Lose It!, MyFitnessPal, or MyPlate.

Next, estimate the number of calories you need to maintain your weight using Aragon’s formula below based on your activity level—specifically, how often you work out. These are sample calculations for a 185-pound man.

A. Zero workouts

Multiply your weight by 10. (At 185 pounds, that’s 1,850 calories a day.)

B. One or two workouts a week

Your weight x 12 (2,220 calories)

C. Two to four workouts a week

Your weight x 14 (2,590 calories)

D. Five or more workouts a week

Your weight x 16 (2,960 calories)

Now compare those two numbers—the number of calories you currently eat vs. the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your weight. How far off are you? If you’re eating more than your target number, you’ll gain weight; if you eat less, you’ll lose weight.

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Then, Determine Daily Calories Burned

If you’re not already in a caloric deficit, Aragon recommends a maximum daily deficit of 500 calories when you’re trying to shed some pounds. Aim for a healthy and sustainable 1- to 2-pound weight loss per week. That means either eating fewer calories or burning more calories throughout your day.

So if our 185-pound man works out 2 to 4 days a week, eating 2,590 calories a day maintains his weight. Here’s how his body uses those calories and a few ways he can burn more calories.

1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): 60 to 75 percent of daily calories burned

This is how much energy your body uses just to stay alive. You can get a rough estimate of this number with an online BMR calculator that takes into account your height, weight, gender and age.

70 percent = 1,813 calories

BONUS BURN: High-intensity exercise can elevate your metabolism for 14 hours after exercise (or up to 36 hours afterward, according to one 2002 study), depending on the type and intensity of the workout. This phenomenon is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), a.k.a. the afterburn effect. “The amount you need to exercise to lose weight is more than most people want to do,” says Dr. Schmitz. “It’s high intensity, for a minimum of one hour a day.”

And adding muscle mass through strength training also increases your resting metabolic rate by an average of 5%, according to a 2015 study. “Strength training is important if you are doing enough exercise to lose weight for two reasons,” says Dr. Schmitz, “1) to avoid injury from so much cardio and 2) muscle burns more calories than fat.”

(+100 to 240 calories)

2. Thermic Effect of Food: 10 percent

These are the calories burned by digestion. In general, you burn 0 to 3 percent of the calories of fat you eat, 5 to 10 percent for carbohydrates, 20 to 30 percrntfor protein, and 10 to 30 percent for alcohol.

10 percent = 259 calories

BONUS BURN: Load up on protein! Since you use far more of the calories from protein for digestion than you do with fat or carbs, make sure you reach your target amount of daily protein. That way, you can burn more sans a ton of effort. For adult men, that means at least 56 grams of protein a day. Opt for a lean protein source like chicken or fish.

(+100 calories)

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3. Physical Activity: 15 to 30 percent

These are the calories you expend through your daily activity level, including exercise and any other movement. If you wear a fitness tracker, you can get a pretty good estimate of how many calories you’re burning each day based on steps or heart rate. Or you can enter individual activities and workouts into an online exercise calculator.

20 percent = 518 calories

BONUS BURN: You don’t have to sweat through two-a-days to get the benefit of moving more Minimize your sitting time, take the stairs, fidget—it all adds up. In fact, our 185-pound man burns 178 calories in 30 minutes just by walking.

Add some “exercise snacks” to your routine, says Dr. Schmitz — a 20-second intense run up the stairs, followed by 40 seconds of slow walking back down and repeat. Or do burpees for 20 seconds, and then walk around and recover 40 seconds.

(+200 to 600 calories)

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