How to Cut Calories In A Healthy Way

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Cutting calories means creating a calorie deficit by eating less than you burn each day. This process is how your body can reduce weight over time. There are many ways you can reduce your calories to encourage a healthy, balanced weight if weight loss is your goal. Keep reading to learn how to cut calories healthily with science-backed strategies.

Weight loss is not necessarily the correct goal for some people and losing weight is not the same as being healthy. However, 74% of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and other chronic health conditions. Speak to a health care provider to determine whether weight loss is a healthy goal for you.

Why Cutting Calories Helps You Lose Weight

Cutting calories helps you lose weight because it creates a calorie deficit, meaning you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning through your metabolism and daily activity. When you consume fewer calories than you burn, your body cannot support all of your body's tissues, leading to a loss of tissue mass. The tissues you lose include primarily fat mass and muscle mass.

There are 3,500 calories in one pound of body weight, so many diet strategies are based on cutting 3,500 or more calories from your weekly intake to induce a 1lb or more loss per week. However, the body is more complex than a mathematical equation, and often, weight loss does not work this way. It may happen faster or slower and is affected by several factors, including hormones and digestion.

Avoid Cutting Too Many Calories

When you cut calories, your body will begin to fight to preserve your weight. It might seem frustrating, but the physiological defenses your body uses to slow down weight loss have evolved to help humans survive times of famine and prevent starvation. In today's world, this is less helpful for many people trying to lose weight.

Cutting too many calories from the start of a weight-loss attempt can work against you by causing these evolutionary mechanisms to kick in. This includes hormonal adaptations such as a rise in the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry and seek out food.

You may also end up moving your body less due to reduced energy and feelings of fatigue when you don't eat enough to support activity. When this happens, you can end up burning fewer calories than you used to during the day, which causes your calorie deficit to shrink or even be eliminated, thereby slowing down or stalling weight loss.

How to Determine Your Calorie Needs

Although the 3,500 calorie equation for determining weight loss is not always accurate, it is a useful starting point. The CDC suggests a rate of weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week. This would require a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories per day.

For many people, this level of calorie reduction is too much, and some experts suggest never reducing your calorie intake below 1,400 per day. It is best to discuss your ideal calorie reduction target with a registered dietitian or doctor. You can use this tool to get an idea of a weight loss calorie goal that may be suitable for you, but keep in mind this is only an estimate, and your individual needs likely differ.

If you've been cutting calories for a long time or have cut them in the past only to regain weight, it is likely that your metabolism has slowed due to hormonal adaptations. If this is the case, cutting calories further may not be a successful strategy for you. You may need to increase calories for a time or rely on food quality and exercise to help your body recover.

How to Reduce Your Calorie Intake Without Counting or Measuring

Cutting calories does not necessarily mean you need to count them or weigh and measure your food with a scale. Although those techniques can be effective, there are several other strategies that can help you reduce your calorie intake.

How to Eat Fewer Calories

  • Reduce portion sizes
  • Limit high calorie beverages
  • Make food swaps
  • Fill up with water, protein, and fiber
  • Choose lower calorie preparation methods

Reduce Portion Sizes

Reducing your typical portion sizes for meals is a smart strategy for naturally creating a calorie deficit. It's best to start slow and aim to cut a little bit of food from your meals at a time, adjusting as needed to see results.

Portion sizes in the United States are often much larger than recommended for healthy weight balance by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For example, cookies average 700% larger than USDA standards, cooked pasta 480% more, steaks are 224% larger, and bagels are 195% larger.

A straightforward way to reduce your portion sizes is to use a smaller dinner plate. Research indicates that using a smaller plate when eating can naturally lead to less food consumption. You can choose a side or salad plate (8 or 9 inches) instead of larger dinner plates (10 to 12 inches), or there are commercially available portion-controlled dishes you can purchase.

Another way you can estimate portion sizes is by using your hands as indicators for the ideal portions in each meal. Your hand is convenient and is typically sized differently depending on your body size, providing an individualized tool for measuring approximate portions without a scale.

How To Use Your Hand to Estimate Portion Sizes

  • Grains, starches, and fruits: Choose an amount the size of your fist
  • Vegetables: Choose as much as you can hold in two hands
  • Meat and alternatives: Choose a palm-sized amount that's as thick as your pinky finger
  • Fats: Choose a thumb-sized amount of fats

Limit High-Calorie Beverages

High-calorie beverages can easily lead to an overconsumption of calories. Beverages containing a lot of sugar especially increase calories and often do not provide any nutrition or means of keeping you feeling satiated. The USDA recommends limiting foods and beverages high in added sugars as a method for encouraging healthy weight loss and maintenance.

Drinking your calories rather than eating them may lead to overconsumption of overall calories. As well, consuming soft drinks is associated with weight gain regardless of whether or not you are physically active, indicating that it is not very likely you'll be able to counteract the calorie intake from soda by exercising.

Make Food Swaps

It is unnecessary to eliminate higher-calorie foods that you love, even if they are not nutrient-rich. Consuming higher-calorie foods in moderation can be part of any balanced eating plan and enjoyable lifestyle. However, for your overall eating pattern to support weight loss, keeping these higher calories, less nutritious foods to the occasional treat rather than a large part of your daily eating plan is wise.

One way to do this is by making smart food swaps that are tasty and satisfying, but lower in calories or higher in volume and nutrients, leading you to eat less than you would otherwise. Examples of food swaps to try include:

Fill Up with Water, Protein, and Fiber

Water, protein, and fiber are elements of a diet that helps keep you feeling full and satiated. They fill your stomach and influence your digestive system in ways that naturally reduce your calorie intake.

A diet with a suitable amount of protein combined with high fiber carbohydrates can help sustain your energy levels and stabilize blood sugar. Protein intake also supports the growth and maintenance of muscle mass, which influences your metabolic rate. Higher levels of muscle increase your metabolism and it's essential to preserve your muscle when losing weight so that the majority of your weight loss comes from fat, which is not metabolically active like muscle.

Protein is more filling and satiating than carbohydrates and fats. When you feel more full and satiated, you will naturally tend to eat less. Protein also takes longer to digest, slowing stomach emptying. Fiber works similarly, slowing digestion and adding bulk to the food in your stomach and intestines, which keeps you full for longer.

According to the USDA, most Americans do not meet the recommendations for fiber intake. When increasing fiber in your diet, aim to meet or exceed the RDA for fiber. Adult women should get 22 to 28 grams of fiber per day, and adult men should consume 28 to 34 grams per day.

Choose Lower Calorie Preparation Methods

Choosing lower calorie preparation methods for your meals can naturally result in reduced calories throughout the day. Aside from making healthy lower-calorie food swaps, such as those mentioned previously, there are ways to further lower calories that can be used in conjunction with swaps, or on their own.

The number one way to lower your calories when it comes to food preparation is to actually prepare your meals at home yourself. Restaurant and fast food meals are almost always higher in calories than home-prepared foods and you can control the ingredients of what goes into your meals when you make them yourself.

Other lower-calorie prep methods include baking instead of frying, steaming, grilling, and sauteing. Using non-stick pans can help you reduce the amount of oil you need when sauteing or cooking. To make a significant reduction in calories, avoid breading and oil-frying your food. If you enjoy the texture of fried foods, you can try using an air fryer.

A Word From Verywell

Weight loss is a goal for many people, although it is not the only way to improve your health. If you want to lose weight, it is essential that you aim to do so in ways that also support your overall health. These behaviors include increasing protein, fiber, and water, including all of the recommended nutrients, and eating enough to support your daily activity with a slight deficit to induce weight loss.

Remember that an active lifestyle is also important for weight loss, healthy weight balance, and general health. Include exercise in your weight loss efforts to see better results.If you are unsure if you should lose weight or the best way to go about it, speak to a health care provider or a registered dietitian for further guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What would result from cutting 500 calories per day?

    Cutting 500 calories per day from your current calorie intake can lead to weight loss. How much weight you will lose depends on whether you are currently gaining or maintaining your weight and how your metabolism adjusts. Many experts recommend a daily 500 calorie reduction as a starting point for weight loss of approximately 1lb per week.

  • What if I feel light-headed when cutting calories?

    If you feel lightheaded when cutting calories it is possible you are eating too little. Dizziness and headaches are other signs of your calorie intake being too low. It is important to speak to your health care provider if you are feeling lightheaded consistently while cutting calories.

  • How can I stay strong when cutting calories?

    When cutting calories, your strength may be reduced in the gym. Strength gains require a lot of energy which is reduced when cutting calories. It is wise to continue strength training to preserve your muscle mass but it is less likely that you will see gains in strength at this time.

  • If you cut calories to lose weight, how do you maintain your weight afterwards?

    Weight maintenance can be difficult after weight loss, especially if it occurs too quickly. Aim to reduce your weight slowly with incremental habits that become permanent rather than drastic measures. Adding physical activity will also increase the likelihood that you will maintain your weight.

18 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.