Losing weight can be really hard. The fact that there are so many supposed experts, new methods, and "right" ways to do it just makes it all the more complicated. But putting aside all the fads, a basic mandate of weight loss is that you should be burning more calories than you consume.
If you're achieving a calorie deficit, your body will tap into its own energy stores (aka, fat) and use that instead. "For many people, but not all, losing weight requires eating less," Caroline Cederquist, M.D., founder of diet delivery program bistroMD , tells SELF. Exercise is important, too, but there's truth to the adage, "You can't outrun a bad diet." It's generally easier to lower calorie intake than it is to burn enough calories through exercise to compensate. On the flipside, it's very easy to overeat highly caloric foods in two seconds flat, but burning calories through physical activity takes time (and a whole lot of energy).
If you cut calories without having a strategy, it'll leave you starving and unable to stay on track for your weight-loss goals. But if you're smart about cutting back, you can safely (and sanely) lose weight. Here are some important guidelines to keep in mind:
A few calculations can help you determine approximately how many calories you should be cutting to lose weight.
There's no magic number or one-size-fits-all recommendation, but doing a few calculations can give you an idea of how many calories you should eat for weight loss . First, figure out your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories your body burns at rest, by just keeping basic functions running (like breathing). Experts use a formula called the Mifflin St. Jeor equation: (10 x your weight in kilograms) + (6.25 x your height in centimeters) – (5 x your age in years) – 161. You can also get your BMR measured at an endocrinologist's office. Then, factor in your activity level—try using this interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture, which will give you a rough estimate of how much you should eat to maintain your current weight considering your BMR and activity level. To lose weight, you need to cut calories from that base number, either by deleting intake or increasing output. "Losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is reasonable, safe, and healthy for most," Cederquist says. Since 1 pound of fat is around 3,500 calories, you'd need to achieve a 500-calorie deficit each day to lose 1 pound each week.
Make sure you're eating the right kinds of calories.
"It’s important to remember that not all calories are created equal when it comes to providing your body with the nutritional foundation for weight loss," Cederquist says. The calories you are eating should come from macronutrients like lean protein, healthy fat, and whole grains. If you're cutting the number of calories, but only eating processed, sugary foods , your body won't be getting the fuel it needs to run efficiently. "I find that for most people, starting with an analysis of their protein intake is the best place to start when cutting or replacing calories." Eating lean protein is essential to preserve lean muscle mass as you lose weight, and to keep your metabolism chugging along. Other healthy nutrients like fats and whole grains will help keep you satiated and decrease the chance you'll feel starving and be tempted to binge on empty calories (read: sugar).
Finding the ideal amount of protein to eat can be tricky. The Institute of Medicine says the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)—how much you need to avoid deficiency—of protein for adults should be 0.8 g/kg body weight. To calculate it, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2, then multiply by 0.8. But when you're trying to lose weight, your protein needs may change. Some research suggests doubling lean protein intake to help assist weight loss and prevent muscle mass loss. Cederquist recommends: "For a woman of average height (which in the United States is 5'4") I recommend 110–120 grams of protein per day," or about 4 ounces at each meal. "This is the equivalent of a small chicken breast —not an enormous burger or steak!" Before doubling up on protein, talk to a registered dietitian to make sure it's safe for you.
Don't cut back on calories too quickly.
Crash dieting can backfire and actually make it harder to lose weight—not to mention increase the chance you'll gain it back when you start eating again. At the same time, if you're cutting out calories without assessing and ensuring you're still eating the right ones, "you actually stop losing weight," Cederquist says. You can also feel weak, lightheaded and fatigued, like you're running off fumes. Not exactly the best motivation to hit the gym.
You should never eat less than 1,200 calories each day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics . If you dip below that, you risk losing muscle mass, screwing with your metabolism, and depriving yourself of the nutrients you need to sustain a basic level of activity.
Look for easy ways to automatically pare down your daily calorie count with minimal effort.
Load up on veggies—"Both cooked and raw veggies add satiety and nutrients without a lot of calories."
At the end of the day, it's always a good idea to consult a professional when you're changing your diet drastically.
A dietitian can help assess what balance of macronutrients you need. But it's also important to talk to your other doctors when you're cutting calories, especially if you're making a huge change, to make sure it won't affect any current medications you take or conditions you have. Losing weight may be your No. 1 goal, but maintaining your health throughout the process is just as—if not more—important.