What You Don't Know About Caloric Deficits

by Christian Thibaudeau

Eating Less vs. Moving More

You can eat fewer calories, burn more, or combine the two to create a caloric deficit. One strategy is far superior.


“The only thing that matters for fat loss is being in a caloric deficit.” That’s what we’re told, anyway. But that’s an oversimplification. Not all deficits are the same.

People only equate a caloric deficit with reducing food intake. That mentality typically leads to all the bad stuff associated with a diet: metabolic adaptations, behavioral changes, hunger, cravings, falling off the wagon, weight rebound, poor sleep, mood changes, and low energy.

See, a caloric deficit is not equivalent to eating less, at least not exclusively. A caloric deficit is the difference between calories in (what you eat) and calories out (daily energy expenditure). Your metabolic rate, energy expenditure from training, and daily activity level (NEAT) greatly affect the latter part. Even stuff like hormones and neurotransmitters (mostly adrenaline) affect how much energy your body uses daily.

So, you can create a deficit by:

  • Reducing calories
  • Increasing daily expenditure of calories
  • A combination of both

The way you create a deficit matters. The more you rely solely on a reduced food intake to create that deficit, the more “side effects” you’ll likely have.

A deficit, no matter how it’s achieved, may lead to the same amount of fat loss. Still, if you create the deficit with a greater caloric expenditure (calories out) than reduced intake, you’re less likely to suffer from the problems mentioned earlier. Those problems aren’t caused by getting lean; they’re caused by insufficient food and nutrient intake.

Researchers studied this in 2009. They compared similar total deficits created either via a larger caloric intake reduction (-25%) or a smaller reduction (-12.5%) plus an increase in caloric expenditure via physical activity (+12.5%). They also compared both groups to an even more drastic caloric restriction – only 890 calories per day. The results:

  1. Both groups (-25% intake and -12.5% intake/+12.5% output) had the same fat loss over several months.

  2. The larger deficit group suffered metabolic adaptations (slowing metabolic rate) and behavioral changes (moving less, being lazier to save energy) for an average of 454 fewer calories per day. This means the combo of metabolic adaptations and moving less led to a decrease in daily energy expenditure of 454 calories.

  3. The smaller deficit group with the increased activity suffered no significant metabolic adaptations and no behavioral changes.

  4. The more the caloric intake was reduced, the greater the metabolic adaptations and instinctive reductions in activity levels. The drastic caloric restriction group had an even higher decrease in daily energy expenditure (-633 calories per day) than the 25% reduction group.

Those metabolic adaptations (mostly metabolic rate reduction) and behavioral changes (moving less) impact how easy it is to maintain the level of leanness achieved during the diet.

Remember This Before You Diet Again

If, at the end of your fat loss phase, you’re expending 400-600 fewer calories per day, it’s much easier to regain fat when you start eating normally. And most dieters DO start eating normally. Many times, they even go beyond eating normally and consume more than they did to begin with.

Not to mention, the greater food/caloric reduction will likely make you feel a lot worse during the fat-loss phase. This makes it more likely that you’ll give up before you achieve your goal, and you’ll be more likely to overeat or binge after the diet. (Refeeding syndrome.)

I can attest to this from personal experience. In the past, I’ve dieted down to very low body fat levels (for photoshoots or competitions). When I got there using a larger restriction in food or using a more extreme diet approach, I always felt like crap, had monster cravings, was super lazy and non-productive, and was horrible to be around. And I always regained the fat back quickly after the event.

Contrast that to the present: I’m photoshoot lean, but I do it without a large food/caloric restriction. I cleaned out all the processed, calorie-dense foods in my diet, but I still eat a lot and consume plenty of carbs. More importantly, I feel amazing. Based on my previous experiences with getting lean, I shouldn’t feel this good.

And I’m moving a lot! My weekly schedule looks like this:

  • Daily: Minimum of 10,000 steps a day
  • Two conditioning-based workouts, either circuit style or CrossFit skill style
  • Three or four strength sessions
  • Starting each strength session with a warm-up that has me moving at a fast pace for five minutes, making it extra “conditioning” work.
  • Three martial arts classes
  • One boxing class
  • I typically do three 45-60 minute, low-intensity cardio sessions, but I count those toward my step count since it’s very low effort.

I get it. You might not have the time to do all of that, and you don’t have to. But it does illustrate that by moving a lot, you don’t have to reduce caloric intake much to lose fat and get lean, especially if you make good food choices.

Simple Strategies For Moving More

We often talk about the number of steps taken per day. While this can be a significant component of your daily background physical activity, “moving more” isn’t the same as walking more. Basically, we’re talking about being more active overall, whether that’s walking, doing chores, or playing a sport.

I get that not everyone has time to invest in physical activity. Maybe getting a daily workout is all you can afford. Does that mean that you’re doomed? No. It makes increasing your daily energy expenditure more challenging, but you can still significantly increase it over what you are doing now.

1. Use Active Rest Periods

This one doesn’t require more time. Let’s say you’re resting two or three minutes between work sets. Typically, you’d just stand there. Instead, turn those 2-3 minutes into an active rest period. Basically, walk for most of that period. If you have two minutes of rest, walk for 90 seconds. If you have three minutes of rest, walk for two and a half minutes. You can walk on a treadmill or walk at a decent pace around the gym. I prefer the first option, which allows me to use a slight angle, but the second option is more practical.

Remember, this is still a rest period. You shouldn’t see it as exercising, just as walking normally. It shouldn’t tire you out. If you walk at your normal pace, it won’t interfere with your recovery. Let’s say you do 20 total sets in your workout. That can easily add 2400 to 3000 steps to your day.

2. Try the Efferding 10-Minute Post-Meal Walk

After you finish each meal, take a 10-minute walk. It’ll add another 1800 to 2200 steps daily (if you do it after three meals) and improve digestion.

3. Aerobic Warm-Up and Cool-Down

This should be part of a good training session anyway (mostly the warm-up). Many people skip it because they’re too eager to hit the weights or think it wastes time. But if your goal is to increase background physical activity, it’s very useful, and it might even improve your workout.

Start your workout with a 10-minute walk on the treadmill on a slight incline. It should be slightly more difficult than normal walking, but you should still be capable of having a conversation without being out of breath. Then finish with a 5-10 minute cool-down at the end of your workout using a similar intensity level. That’s good for another 1200-1500 steps without much effort.

These first three strategies will increase your step count by at least 5000, likely more.

4. Warm-Up Circuit

I started doing this when I started boxing training, but now I use it before every workout. I use the circuit to warm up my shoulders, arms, torso, and legs and also to get used to doing work for 3-5 minutes non-stop to help with boxing endurance. Basically, I do 6-8 exercises as a circuit. I go for 30 seconds, giving me 3-4 minutes of work. (For brevity’s sake, I did each station for 10-15 seconds in the video.)

5. Take the Long Way

Whenever possible, put yourself in a situation where you have to walk more to get somewhere. For example, if you’re going shopping, park as far as possible from the store. If you have to go a few floors up, take the stairs. These little things don’t seem like much, but they add up!

Also, “walkable” cities/neighborhoods (where everything is within walking distance) have a significantly lower rate of obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. So, whenever you can, walk. Going to the convenience store near you? Instead of a 3-minute drive, take the time and do a 15-minute walk. Just don’t get hit by a car because that’ll make your caloric expenditure drop significantly.

6. Do a Recreational Sport Weekly

This is a great way to rapidly boost activity levels and energy expenditure without it feeling like a chore. I do three martial arts classes and one boxing class per week. I enjoy it so much it doesn’t feel like exercise. Choose what you love and what you won’t get injured doing: basketball, pickleball, hockey, golf, or whatever you like, as long as you’re moving and enjoying yourself.

7. Get a Dog (Really)

Unless you’re a lousy dog owner, you’ll walk your dog daily. It shifts your priorities, forcing you to take the time to go walk instead of watching one more episode on Netflix.

Moving More is NOT Training More

When I say to increase overall daily physical activity, I don’t mean increasing lifting volume. Yes, more lifting volume increases calorie burn, but it’s not that much, and you run the risk of training burnout.

“But Christian, you said earlier that every little bit counts!”

True! The difference? The increase in caloric expenditure comes with a greater need for recovery. When you’re reducing food intake, you’re in a worse situation to repair muscle damage and recover from your hard workouts. I’m not saying that all increases in lifting volume are bad, but that it shouldn’t be your primary way of increasing physical activity because it has a lot higher cost than increasing background physical activity.

One Last Thing

If you’re using both a large caloric restriction and a significant increase in overall physical activity, you’ll likely feel like crap, feel tired, or even have a low libido. The goal of the increase in physical activity isn’t to create a mega caloric deficit when added to an already large caloric deficit from food reduction. The purpose is to be in the required deficit without reducing food as much.

A good weekly rate of fat loss is 0.5 to 1% of your body weight. Faster than that and you risk negative metabolic adaptations. You’ll also be increasingly likely to feel fatigued, irritable, and sleep-deprived.

The exception is the first week of a diet, where you can lose 2-3 times more than the 0.5 to 1.0% mark. That’s because you’ll initially lose a lot of glycogen and water weight. But past that first week, shoot for a 0.5 to 1.0% decrease in body weight per week. And this should be reached with the smallest possible reduction in calories. For example, if you’re 200 pounds, this means losing 1-2 pounds per week.

Losing fat is an emotional endeavor: you may hate what you see in the mirror, and you want the fat gone yesterday, but you still need to be smart about it:

  • The faster you lose the fat, the less likely you are to maintain the new level of leanness.
  • The faster you lose fat, the less sustainable your efforts.
  • The faster you lose fat, the more likely you will have negative metabolic adaptations.
  • The more food you consume while losing fat at the appropriate rate, the more successful you’ll be.
  • The more food you consume while losing fat at the appropriate rate, the better you’ll feel.

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References

References

  1. Redman LM, Heilbronn LK, Martin CK, de Jonge L, Williamson DA, et al. (2009) Metabolic and Behavioral Compensations in Response to Caloric Restriction: Implications for the Maintenance of Weight Loss. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4377. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004377
  2. Chiu, Maria, et al. “Walk Score and the prevalence of utilitarian walking and obesity among Ontario adults: a cross-sectional study.” Health Reports 26.7 (2015): 3.)
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Great article! I’ve also found a synergistic effect, where activity is the best appetite suppressant - when I move more I don’t have to be as hungry because I’m less likely to get hungry.

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True, it can also help digestion if some low-stress activity (e.g. walking) is done after a meal.

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CT, it seems that we should be gathering that you endorse an Eat More Exercise More kind of strategy? Move a little more towards a heavy exercise g-flux kind of lifestyle?

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This sounds entirely correct to me. From my own experiences implementing these protocols, ease into it gradually and when you hit a mental limit, and that will happen, dial things down for a bit. Recover physically and mentally and then ramp things up again. Essentially deload.

PS - I’m a big fan of the Efferding protocol around meals. It works really well for me.

This may be the single best article on dieting for fast loss and general health, that I have ever read.

Many of us tend to gravitate towards extreme methods which have the side effects mentioned.

As a result of this, I will be shifting my entire approach.

There are only a handful of fitness people whose articles I think are a must: CT is one of them, along with TC Louma, Dr Joel Seedman and Arnold (listen to his daily podcast. It will change you

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Another tip: whenever reading or texting something on your phone, or listening to podcasts do it whilst walking around.

Actually, I do subscribe to the original G-flux approach of just being more overall active. As I stated in the article, adding more hard training is rarely the best solution. YES it does increase caloric expenditure but it also increases recovery needs and often leads to moving less during the day as a subconscious strategy to recover more easily or just because you are more tired from the training.

I personally can do a bit more training because my life stress is very low (after decades as a coach, I’m now focusing exclusively on content creation and online coaching) and also because, through the years, I’ve adapted to a large volume of work.

But even with that in mind, I have scaled back my training a bit, because I found that it led to decreasing my overall level of activity.

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That’s pretty good

That’s EXACTLY it. That is what also happened to me (being excessive in nature has its drawback). And by doing too much it actually led to doing less (by being too tired). I scaled it back, while still focusing on a high overall activity level, and everything improved.

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Much appreciated, mate

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I appreciate the article! Thank you for writing it

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