How Long is Too Long in a Calorie Deficit?

How Long is Too Long in a Calorie Deficit?

Are you currently in a calorie deficit and wondered how long until you can be done with it? Is it when you reach your goal weight or is it when you finally look satisfied with your physique when you look in the mirror? When do you ask yourself the question: how long is it too long to be in a calorie deficit? Or perhaps, the question you should be asking first is: how long should I be in a calorie deficit for? This is the topic we will be discussing in today’s article.

Usually, at the start of a diet, we plan out how long we want the diet phase to go on for and set the calorie deficit according to that. For example, let’s say someone wanted to lose 10 kgs of fat, which means they will need to burn a total of  77,000 calories (1kg of fat = 7700cal). They plan to eat at a 500 calorie deficit per day. If we do the math, 77000/500= 154; it will take this person 154 days to reach their goal. But, this isn’t always the case as there are other factors to account for such as: individuality, lifestyle, aggression of calorie deficit, metabolic feedback and adherence to diet. Another important factor in determining how long is too long in a calorie deficit before taking a break is if you start feeling some negative side effects such as: low energy levels, fatigue, low sex-drive and loss of strength and performance in the gym. Let’s look at each of these individual factors one-by-one.

First things first, I’d like you to think about the following statement and why is it so:

“A person who has 20kg to lose will be in a calorie deficit longer than a person who has 5kg to lose.”

There’s a couple of reasons behind this. One is how much fat you have to lose, two is it depends on your lifestyle and activity levels. What we mean by that is what sort of lifestyle do you currently live?

For example, you may be a mum of three kids, you workout three times a week, you try and get about 6000 steps a day, you don’t get the best sleep every night and have a lot of stressful things going on. Ultimately, you may be in a calorie deficit for a longer period of time to reach your weight loss goal compared to if you are a university student, living by yourself, you do all your grocery shopping, meal-prepping, you go to the gym five times a week, other than studying, you have all the time in the world. Which means you can go full-force, 110% into your nutrition and training, so you can potentially be in a calorie deficit for a shorter period of time and will speed up the process of your fat loss. 

Another factor we need to consider is the aggression of the calorie deficit. Basically, how low are you taking your calories? Normally, the more aggressive you go into your calorie deficit, the shorter you’re going to be in a calorie deficit; whilst the less aggressive you go, the longer you can remain in a calorie deficit whether it be before you reach your goals or you start running into some of the negative side effects mentioned at the start of this article. 

To put things into perspective, let’s look at someone eating 1800 calories VS another person who is eating 1200 calories per day. On paper, eating 1200 calories will get you to your goal faster, right? Not so fast, as there are two underlying factors that will determine how much truth there is to the above statement:

  1. Will you actually stick to eating 1200 calories per day and not cheat on your diet?
  2. It’s harder to adhere to eating fewer calories due to potentially running into negative side effects and slowing down your metabolism.
  3. Most of the time, people who choose to diet on lower calories, will stick to it for a couple of weeks and fall off it for a couple of weeks; this up-and-down cycle repeats and they find themselves restricting and binging since this dieting style is not sustainable. So in the grand scheme of things, they may not actually take less time to reach their goals as opposed to if they were to eat at a moderate calorie deficit for a longer period of time; because they will have better adherence to the diet and technically will allow them to make quicker progress in the long term. 

The next factor we will look at is your metabolism and how your body can run into some potential negative side effects based on the length of your calorie deficit. Again, I’d like to link this back to the adherence issue. Think about it this way. If you’re always tired, always hungry and starving 24/7, if you’re never having fun, your workouts suck, if you can’t sleep; then you’re probably not going to stick to a calorie deficit for that long, which means you probably won’t see the fat loss results as you will not be sticking to your diet consistently. 

If someone came up to me and said: I’ve lost my period, my hair is falling out, I’m mentally drained and physically exhausted; how do I lose more weight? For this individual, I’d tell them to stop being in a calorie deficit immediately and have them eat more calories so they can restore their period and fix up their metabolic issues. More often than not, this person has been on a calorie deficit for too long and their body hasn’t been intaking adequate calories to fuel their biofeedback systems, which is the root cause of all the problems they are experiencing. 

Another common occurrence which is a tell-tale sign of a person who has been going too long in a calorie deficit is their loss of strength and performance in the gym. If they have been having poor workouts week after week and they are finding their weights dropping in all their exercises; this suggests their body is drained from being in a calorie deficit too long and not acquiring enough fuel sources to support their workouts. Again, this person will need to increase their calories in order to further prevent additional issues such as muscle loss and neurological-fatigue. 

One thing that is for sure is that your metabolism is going to slow down when you go deeper into a calorie deficit whether you like it or not. So ultimately, your rate of fat loss will slow down and even come to a complete halt. But don’t let somebody fear monger you into believing that you’re going to ruin your metabolism if you accidentally stay in a calorie deficit for too long. For the most part, all these negative side effects mentioned above are reversible. Your metabolism and biofeedback systems slowing down when you go into a calorie deficit is just a way your body reacts for it to survive because it needs to conserve energy for other bodily processes that are essential in keeping you alive. So if you were to eat at maintenance or a surplus of calories, your metabolism will speed back up and these issues will be solved. I believe most of us have heard of diet breaks and this is exactly the time to implement them if you have been in a calorie deficit for too long.

As a summary, to answer the question: “How long is too long in a calorie deficit?” Unfortunately, there is no definite answer to this question; however, it is imperative that you take into account the following factors when determining if it is time to take a break from your calorie deficit and bump up your calories or not: 

> How much fat have you got to lose

> How aggressive your calorie deficit is

> How well you adhere to your diet

> How healthy your metabolism is

> How healthy your biofeedback system is

After considering all of these factors, there is really no limit to how long you can stay in a calorie deficit. You can be on a calorie deficit for as long as you want. Maybe you are superman or wonder woman, maybe none of the negative side effects on your metabolism and biofeedback systems affect you or you just have the strongest willpower ever known in existence. Of course, that was a joke, but I truly hope you are able to assess the factors mentioned above and make an informed decision when it comes to how long you should stay on a calorie deficit in order for you to reach your fat loss goals and know when it’s time to take a break.

Are you confused about the best nutrition strategy for your circumstances? We take out the guess work so you can focus on the results.

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