It sounds simple enough: To lose weight, you expend more calories than you take in—a.k.a. you create a calorie deficit. If you were to judge this weight loss tip on social media chatter, it would probably rank pretty high in ways to shed pounds. But it can also bring more attention than necessary to calorie counting—and take some of the joy factor out of eating.

Plus, creating a calorie deficit is one thing—maintaining it is another. To stick with it long enough to see results, you have to undo that “diet” mentality. You know, that pressure to cut foods left and right until all that’s left is bland chicken and broccoli? Instead, focus on creating a healthy calorie deficit while still eating the foods you love.

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“A healthy calorie deficit should, in theory, result in slow, maintainable weight loss,” says Colleen Johnson, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist and adult diabetes educator at Joslin Diabetes Center. That’s an average loss of one to two pounds per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In other words, a healthy calorie deficit is a lot more enjoyable than restrictive dieting. And it also happens to be more effective long-term.

How do you determine a healthy calorie deficit?

Sadly, finding your ideal calorie deficit for weight loss isn’t always straightforward. “There’s no perfect number or range,” says M. Nicholas Burke, M.D., an avid cyclist and a cardiologist with Allina Health in the Minneapolis area.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to get input from a doctor or registered dietitian. They may estimate your resting metabolic rate (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 create a customized meal plan that takes your cycling routine into account.

As a cyclist, it’s essential to stay well-fueled. So, take care when deciding which foods to cut back on, and be 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 numerous benefits to the body and mind,” Johnson says. Omitting certain foods—not to mention whole food groups—can mean missing out on these benefits.

Restricting carbs, for example, is usually a bad idea. “Avid cyclists consistently burn fuel and have higher recommendations for carbohydrate intake than the general population,” Johnson explains. Getting in too few carbs will only come back to bite you when you ride, causing that mid-workout energy crash known as “bonking.”

However, you could focus on having smaller portions of certain types of carbs—namely, simple ones. Dr. Burke says that by aiming to eat fewer of these types of carbs—which you’ll find in high-calorie foods like pastries, ice cream, and soda—can be a good starting point when you’re aiming to cut back on calories. Plus, they don’t pack much of a nutritional punch so you’re not missing out on essential vitamins and minerals.

Keep in mind, it’s the idea of labeling certain foods “off-limits” or making drastic dietary changes that can not only feel overwhelming, but it also takes the joy out of eating. What’s worse: A diet that’s too restrictive can make you tired, irritable, and constantly hungry, Johnson says.

Instead, keep your eye on small changes. Weed out cookies one day a week or reach for fresh veggies over potato chips on another day.

Is a calorie deficit the only way to lose weight?

A calorie deficit can be a great tool for weight loss. However, there are other factors that can influence your numbers, including stress, sleep, hormones, body composition, and even your genetics, Johnson says.

Stress, for instance, can throw a wrench in your efforts if left to run wild. “When people are stressed, they may have abnormal hunger and fullness cues, experience loss of appetite, or they may overeat in some cases,” Johnson says.

Similarly, a lack of sleep can intensify your cravings for salt, sugar, and fat, and make you more likely to overeat, she adds. In fact, a study published in February 2020 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women with insomnia ate up to 286 more calories per day than their well-rested counterparts.

So, while focusing on a calorie deficit can be helpful, don’t let it overtake your life. Make sure you’re giving attention to other components of a healthy lifestyle, like stress management, sleep, balanced diet, and regular exercise.

The bottom line

Weight loss doesn’t have to be miserable. Creating a healthy calorie deficit is not only more enjoyable than a restrictive diet (because who wants to cut their favorite foods anyway?), but it’s also the more effective approach. Not to mention, following a healthy calorie deficit helps ensure you have the energy you need for your rides. Work with a doctor or registered dietitian to create a healthy eating plan to support your weight loss and performance goals.

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Lauren Bedosky

Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Runner’s WorldPrevention, Experience Life and Women’s Running.