There's an actual science to cutting calories for weight-loss success. Use it to your advantage.

By Lauren Bedosky and Melissa Daly
December 25, 2017
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Photo: Getty Images/Chris Ryan

To lose weight, you need to figure out how to cut calories. Sounds easy, but there's more to this age-old weight-loss wisdom than meets the eye. After all, if you're not smart about your methods for cutting calories, you'll wind up starving (read: hangry) and unable to sustain your diet long enough to budge the scale. And if you've added exercise to your weight-loss plan, you need to know how to eat just enough to fuel your workouts without going overboard in the process. (Ravenous after workouts? Here’s how to deal.)

Of course, you can always use exercise as your main weight-loss strategy, but it's typically easier to simply consume less energy than try to burn it off. "The idea that diet is a more important element for weight loss isn't necessarily because the calories from your diet are more significant, it's just that it's easier to target," says Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College and former research fellow at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Let's put it this way: You can run for a solid hour to create a 600-calorie deficit, or you can just cut that jumbo muffin from your diet in the first place. Either approach can lead to weight loss; it's just a matter of which is easier to manage both physically and mentally. "At the end of the day, [weight loss] is a math equation," Pojednic says.

To cut through the confusion, we tapped experts to show you exactly how to cut calories for weight-loss success.

A Word on Food Tracking

When cutting calories, you'll be far more successful if you count 'em as you go. But while calorie counting often gets a bad rap, it's key to weight loss for a few reasons. (Before we go any further, check out if you’re counting cals wrong.)

For starters, counting calories keeps you accountable. "If you need to write down and acknowledge the 400-calorie cupcake you have with your afternoon chai latte, you're more likely to make a healthier choice," says Pojednic.

In addition, chances are you underestimate just how many cals are in your go-to breakfast burrito, post-workout smoothie, or afternoon cookie (don't worry, we all do it). Logging your food will give you a better handle on exactly how many calories you're consuming, which is critical if your goal is weight loss, says Kristen F. Gradney, R.D.N., director of nutrition and metabolic services at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Related: This Eating Trick Keeps You Young)

When using food tracking apps (we’ve rounded up some of the best here!), manually enter your food items when possible to ensure accuracy, Gradney says. Many apps even allow you to scan barcodes so figuring out how to cut calories is easier than ever. Pojednic recommends MyFitnessPal.

Before You Cut

But before you start slashing calories left and right, you need to figure out how many calories you need per day just to maintain your weight. You can do this by figuring out your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the number of calories your body burns at rest. Your BMR is determined by a host of different variables, including sex, age, height, muscle mass, genetics and even the weight of your organs. And according to a review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, your BMR is responsible for a whopping 60 to 75 percent of your total daily caloric expenditure, while physical activity and digestion account for the remainder. (Bonus: Is It Harder to Lose Weight When You’re Short?)

The best way to get an accurate BMR number is to visit a doctor, nutritionist, or fitness facility for an indirect calorimetry test to measure your oxygen consumption. But FYI, these tests can cost $100-plus, according to Marie Spano, C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S., sports nutritionist for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. For a woman on a budget, your quickest, easiest option is to plug your height, weight, and current activity level into an interactive calculator online.

Once you have your daily caloric estimate and are trying to figure out how to cut calories—and how many to cut—Spano recommends subtracting no more than 500 calories to get your new daily total. Just keep in mind, this total is a starting point. Feel free to adjust if you find you need fewer-or more-calories than you're currently allotted. If you slash calories too low, you may lose weight initially, but you'll risk some unpleasant side effects: headaches, moodiness, and low energy, Pojednic says. Not to mention, calories are what fuel your workouts (those carbs are crucial!) and recovery. So, if you find you're struggling with your current calorie allotment, don't be afraid to tinker with it until you find a sustainable total. Otherwise, you'll sabotage your weight loss later on. "Typically you end up overcorrecting after you've lost the weight and put it all back on. Or more," Pojednic says.

Just keep in mind that once you start dropping pounds, your daily calorie needs will also drop, Spano says. This is because simply put, smaller things require less energy to power them. Think of it this way: Your smartphone likely uses less juice than your laptop or tablet. So, if you're using the USDA calculator or another online tool, recalculate your daily caloric needs once you lose 10 pounds. This way, you don't eat more calories than you need. If you coughed up cash for an in-office test, wait until you've lost 20 pounds or more to get re-tested, and use an online calculator to tide you over until then. (Related: 6 Tricks for Preventing Weight Gain and Staying at Your "Happy" Weight)

Making the Cut

Once you're ready to cut calories, start by slimming your bevvies, Gradney says. To avoid feeling deprived, pick calorie- and sugar-free versions of your favorites. From there, cut high-cal condiments like mayonnaise, and top your salads with vinegar-based dressings instead of creamy ones. You can also reduce calories by subbing in fiber-rich fruits and veggies for your mid-afternoon snack, which offer the added benefit of keeping you fuller longer. Your best options include apples, bananas, raspberries, dark greens like spinach, carrots, and beets.

Spano also recommends cutting fat before carbs, especially if you're a runner or HIIT-lover. "You need a certain amount of carbohydrate for high-intensity exercise," she says, but adds that you can cut back on carbs if you have a light workout planned or the day off. You'll want to stick with general dietary recommendations, which suggest approximately 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories.

And (no surprise here), fueling up on small amounts of junk food is not the smartest fix for how to cut calories. Swap out high-fat, high-sugar foods like muffins, chips, and processed meats for nutritionally dense options like leafy greens, whole grain breads, and lean protein. This will give you the most nutritional bang for your buck, helping you fill up while you slim down. (Related: This 30-Day Clean-ish Eating Challenge Will Reset Your Diet)

When to Get Help About How to Cut Calories

Okay, so you've calculated your daily caloric needs and dutifully tracked your food intake to stay within a 500-calorie deficit. What if, after weeks-or even months-of effort, the scale hasn't budged? (Ugh!) According to Pojednic, if you're sticking to a 500-calorie per day deficit, you should be on track to lose about 2 pounds per week. So if you haven't seen any progress after 30 days, it may be time to enlist the help of a physician or registered dietitian, Pojednic says. (P.S.: These 6 Sneaky Factors May Be Why You’re Not Losing Weight)

According to Spano, it's not uncommon for people to calculate their calorie needs incorrectly, overestimate how many calories they're burning through exercise, or underestimate how many calories they're eating. A physician or registered dietitian can help pinpoint your problem, and advise new strategies to get you on track (think increasing exercise or meal frequency, or re-evaluating your calorie-counting method).

How to Cut Calories and Lose 10 Pounds a Year

Scientists at Harvard and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge found that people who lowered their calorie intake lost an average of 13 pounds in six months no matter what kind of diet they were on. "This is the best weight-loss news in a long time," says Frank Sacks, M.D., nutrition professor at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study. "If you don't like what you're eating, you're not going to stick with it. These findings give you flexibility to trim a bit here and there and still enjoy your favorites." (Related: How Many Cheat Meals Should You Have Per Week?)

In fact, by nixing just 100 calories a day, you'll lose more than 10 pounds a year. Up your cuts to 250 and you're down 26 pounds. Want to lose faster? Ditch 500 calories daily and you'll drop those pounds in half the time. We asked the following pros to share their top tips for how to cut calories so you can trim a little but save a lot.

Smart Strategies for How to Cut Calories

How to Cut Calories: 100-250 at Breakfast

  • Use unsweetened almond milk in place of flavored Coffee-mate in your morning mug.
  • Eat a bowl of high-fiber cereal and you'll consume fewer calories all day. (And be sure to measure out your breakfast cereal; overestimating by just 1/3 cup can add 100 calories.)
  • Order bacon, not sausage, with your eggs.
  • Choose a yeast doughnut instead of a denser cake one.
  • Trade a reduced-fat blueberry muffin for instant oatmeal topped with 1/4 cup of fresh blueberries. Bonus: You'll stay satisfied all morning.

How to Cut Calories: 100-250 at Lunch

  • Use 1 tablespoon of mayo and 1 tablespoon of low-fat cottage cheese to make tuna salad.
  • Swap in barbecue sauce for honey mustard.
  • Top your burger with onions, lettuce, and tomato and skip the cheese.
  • Ask for the 12-ounce child-size soda instead of the 21-ounce medium.
  • Slim down your sandwich by using whole wheat sandwich thins instead of whole wheat bread.
  • Toss your salad with 1 tablespoon of dressing until every lettuce leaf is coated. You'll get away with using half the usual serving size. Try this trick at dinner too.
  • At the salad bar, reach for shredded Parmesan instead of cheddar and skip the bread.

How to Cut Calories: 100-250 at Dinner

  • Use 1 tablespoon less butter or oil on your bread.
  • Making meatballs? Mix half the amount of ground beef the recipe calls for with half as much cooked brown rice.
  • Instead of pan pizza, choose thin-crust.
  • When munching on chicken wings, don't toss the bones midway through. Seeing the evidence of your feast may help you eat less, studies show.
  • Make your own salad dressing using 3 tablespoons of hummus in place of 3 tablespoons of oil.
  • Having fajitas? Fill up one tortilla rather than three, then eat the rest of your fixings with a fork.
  • Sub black beans for refried and hold the side of Mexican rice.
  • Order filet mignon instead of a New York strip steak.
  • Opt for broccoli chicken over sweet-and-sour, and for steamed brown rice, not fried.

How to Cut Calories: 100-250 Per Snack

  • Ordering an ice cream cone? Make it the sugar, not the waffle, kind. (Pair that cone with one of these tasty vegan ice cream options!)
  • Munch on Pirate's Booty. In a study, switching to an air-puffed cheesy snack twice a day saved about 70 calories a pop.
  • Grab a low-fat plain yogurt, not a low-fat fruit blend.
  • Replace half the butter in cake, muffin, and brownie recipes with an equal amount of applesauce or mashed bananas. You'll save about 100 calories for every tablespoon you swap.
  • Indulge in a slice of angel food cake drizzled with chocolate syrup rather than three cookies
  • Bite into a chocolate-covered strawberry rather than a chocolate chip cookie.
  • Skip the small movie-theater popcorn and bring your own 1-ounce bag of Lay's.
  • At the mall, curb a craving for a soft pretzel with a serving of plain mini pretzels.

How to Cut Calories: 500 Per Swap

  • Eat fruit before every meal. Research has linked munching on an apple 15 minutes before lunch with eating about 187 fewer calories per meal.
  • When making mac and cheese, resist temptation and prep just half the box. Save the rest in a zip-top bag for next time.
  • Use your grandmother's Joy of Cooking and you'll save an average of 506 calories over three meals. The secret: Smaller portion sizes and lower-calorie ingredients were called for back then.
  • Instead of a sugar-heavy coffee drink (like a Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha) for your afternoon pick-me-up, order coffee with a little milk and a dusting of chocolate.
  • At happy hour, drink two vodka sodas and back away from the bowl of stale snack mix.

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