Most of us want to feel strong and healthy and look better in our clothes. People often try to change their exercise and diet habits to have a leaner, trimmer body.
In my years as a registered dietitian, I’ve seen people try to get leaner in ways that don’t work or aren’t healthy long term. Often, people try to lose weight too quickly. They choose unsustainable, extreme diets that leave them feeling like they’re starving or punish themselves with long workouts they aren’t ready for and thus can’t enjoy.
Getting a leaner body won’t happen overnight. I’ve witnessed clients give up too quickly or expect results too fast when they’re trying to get leaner. Steady, consistent habits lead to progress and help you change your lifestyle for good instead of quickly dropping a few pounds.
A quick-fix diet approach is not the answer if you want to get lean and stay that way. To help you get leaner, I’ll share tips for creating a calorie deficit that I’ve seen work for clients.
What is a calorie deficit?
In the most simple terms, a calorie deficit means you consume fewer calories than your body needs per day to meet its energy needs. Energy for the body is measured in calories, and your daily calorie needs are variable.
On any given day, your calorie needs depend on your basic metabolic needs + any extra daily activities like doing household chores, playing with your kids, and working out. If you eat less than your body requires for your metabolic needs and all of your daily activities, your body uses its fat stores to make up the energy difference.
Often, diet plans advise aiming for a calorie deficit of about 500 calories per day. This advice is generally expected to help you lose a pound a week, though results vary. There’s no one size fits all answer to the question of how much of a calorie deficit would make you leaner.
Though regular exercise is crucial for overall health and is an excellent tool to prevent weight gain, weight loss from calorie deficits depends on diet more than exercise.
Will a Calorie Deficit Make You Leaner?
Maintenance of weight is complex and involves hormones and other body processes that regulate your energy needs. In general, if you consistently stay in a calorie deficit over time, you should lose some fat stores from all over your body. When you lose some fat stores, you should eventually feel and look leaner.
Creating a calorie deficit is part of getting leaner, but hyper-focusing on calorie intake is generally unhealthy and might be detrimental to you. Any healthy changes that create even a small calorie deficit can lead to weight loss over time, so there’s no need to have a rigid approach. Counting calories or tracking intake for longer periods can become unhealthy for some people, so use caution if you try those methods to create a calorie deficit.
It’s worth noting that calorie deficits won’t always lead to long-term weight loss. However, eating a healthier diet and increasing lean muscle mass are worthwhile pursuits, even if the outcome isn’t weight loss or a visibly thinner body. A healthier diet and regular exercise habits lead to non-weight related benefits, like improved blood pressure, better blood sugars, healthier joints, less risk of injuries as you age, and sometimes better mental health.
Lose Fat But Keep Your Muscle
It’s possible to lose body fat without losing large amounts of muscle gains. To do this, aim to lose weight gradually over time. Losing fat more slowly can help preserve muscle, especially for people with less body fat to lose.
People often want to target their belly fat for weight loss, but it’s impossible to spot tone or lose weight from just one area of the body.
For some people, it will likely take time to notice that you’re becoming leaner despite consistent habit changes. A period of three months might be long enough to see some difference in body composition if you’re working on creating healthier diet habits and building muscle with exercise.
It’s possible that you may not notice many physical signs of losing fat and gaining muscle, as you might still wear the same clothing size or have the same basic body shape. You may even stay the same weight, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t changing your body composition or getting stronger.
How to Create A Calorie Deficit Without Counting Calories
Try some of the dietitian-approved tips below to identify areas where you can easily reduce calories. Incorporating some of these diet and lifestyle tweaks should help you create a calorie deficit and become leaner over time.
Put all meals and snacks on a plate or serving dish instead of eating out of a bag or container. This strategy should help you slow down and better visualize your portions.
Don’t eat while distracted so you know what and how much you eat. Turn off the tv, put down your phone or close up your magazine, and try sitting down to eat.
Use a slightly smaller plate size, especially if you’re a habitual plate finisher.
Increase your vegetable intake at meals to feel fuller while eating larger quantities of lower-calorie foods. Use the Plate Method to make sure about half of your plate is filled with veggies.
Cut out sugary beverages and drink mostly water. Sugary drinks are a sneaky source of extra calories, and it’s easy to drink juice, lemonade, or a sugary coffee drink and not realize that you’ve consumed a lot of extra calories.
Try tracking your food for a few days. Use a notes app on your phone or a simple notebook page to do this. The goal of tracking is to identify any mindless eating. Review the log and see if there are foods or drinks that you’re consuming just because you’re bored and not because you were hungry.
Eat fewer refined or processed grain foods. Whole grains have more fiber than their processed versions which should help you feel fuller longer.
Eat regularly throughout the day, and avoid skipping meals. In my experience, people who skip meals tend to overeat at the next meal or choose something that doesn’t support their diet goals when they do eat. Think back to when you’ve been really hungry - does your brain want a balanced, healthy meal, or do you crave ice cream or french fries?
Include a source of protein at all meals and most snacks, but focus on leaner protein choices. Fatty cuts of meats (greasy chicken wings or beef burgers) have much higher calories and unhealthy fats than leaner cuts like grilled chicken breasts, baked fish, or legumes.
Eliminate alcohol, or save it only for special occasions. Alcohol adds extra calories daily for many adults but provides no nutritional benefits.
The Bottom Line
Sticking to a very low-calorie diet to get lean often becomes miserable and unsustainable over time. If you want to become leaner and stay that way, you will need to eat a generally healthy diet that’s low in alcohol, sugar, and treats. If you need help personalizing a nutrition plan, reach out to a registered dietitian or sign up for a free consultation with a certified nutritionist today.