It sounds simple enough: To lose weight, you use more calories than you consume – you also create a calorie deficit. If you were to rate this weight loss tip on social media chats, it would probably rank pretty high on ways to shed pounds. But it can also bring more attention than necessary to calorie counting – and take some of the joy out of eating.
Plus, creating a calorie deficit is one thing – maintaining it is another. To hold on to it long enough to see results, you need to regret the “diet” mentality. You know, that pressure to cut food left and right until all that’s left is boring chicken and broccoli? Focus instead on creating one healthy calorie deficit while still eating the food you love.
“A healthy calorie deficit should, in theory, result in slow, sustained weight loss,” says Colleen Johnson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist and adult diabetes educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center. That’s an average loss of one to two pounds a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In other words, a healthy calorie deficit is much more fun than restrictive diets. And it also happens to be more effective in the long run.
How do you determine a healthy calorie deficit?
Unfortunately, finding your ideal calorie deficit for weight loss is not always straightforward. “There is no perfect number or range,” says M. Nicholas Burke, MD, an avid cyclist and cardiologist with Allina Health in the Minneapolis area.
For this reason, it is a good idea to get input from a doctor or a registered dietitian. They can estimate your resting metabolism (how many calories you burn at rest) and subtract a modest number of calories (typically 250 to 500) to find a daily calorie range for you. You can even look for a doctor or dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and ask them to make a customized meal plan that takes into account your cycling routine.
As a cyclist, it is important to stay well-run. So be careful when deciding which foods to cut back on and make sure not to eliminate whole food groups to speed up your weight loss. “A balanced diet that includes a variety of sources of macronutrients and micronutrients will provide several benefits for body and mind,” says Johnson. Omitting certain foods – not to mention whole food groups – can mean missing out on these benefits.
Limiting carbs, for example, is usually a bad idea. “Generous cyclists consistently burn fuel and have higher recommendations for carbohydrate intake than the general population,” Johnson explains. Ingesting too few carbohydrates will only come back to bite you when you ride, causing it to become energy-intensive in the middle of training, known as “bonking”.
However, you can focus on having smaller portions of certain types of carbohydrates – namely simple. Dr. Burke says that by striving to eat fewer of these types of carbohydrates – which you find in high-calorie foods like cakes, ice cream and sodas – it can be a good starting point when you want to cut down on calories. In addition, they do not provide much of a nutritional power, so you do not miss important vitamins and minerals.
Keep in mind that it is the idea of labeling certain foods “forbidden” or making drastic dietary changes that not only can feel overwhelming, but it also takes the joy out of eating. What’s worse: A diet that is too restrictive can make you tired, irritable and constantly hungry, Johnson says.
Instead, keep an eye out for small changes. Turn off cookies one day a week, or take fresh vegetables over potato chips another day.
Is a calorie deficit the only way to lose weight?
A calorie deficit can be a great tool for weight loss. But there are other factors that can affect your numbers, including stress, sleep, hormones, body composition and even your genetics, Johnson says.
Stress, for example, can throw a wrench into your efforts if it runs wild. “When people are stressed, they may have abnormal hunger and satiety signals, experience loss of appetite, or in some cases they may overeat,” Johnson says.
Similarly, lack of sleep can intensify your craving for salt, sugar and fat and make you more likely to overeat, she adds. In fact, a study published in February 2020 in Journal of the American Heart Association found that women with insomnia ate up to 286 more calories a day than their well-rested counterparts.
So while it may be helpful to focus on a calorie deficit, do not let it overtake your life. Make sure you pay attention to other components of a healthy lifestyle, such as stress management, sleep, balanced diet and regular exercise.
The bottom line
Weight loss does not have to be miserable. Creating a healthy calorie deficit is not only more fun than a restrictive diet (because who wants to cut into their favorite foods anyway?), But it’s also the more effective approach. Not to mention that following a healthy calorie deficit helps ensure you have the energy you need for your trips. Work with a doctor or registered dietitian to create a healthy diet plan to support your weight loss and performance targets.
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