How Athletes Should Do a Calorie Deficit

How Athletes Should Do a Calorie Deficit

Elisabeth Akinwale

(Click here to jump to a summary of this article)

The “Science Lab” is a service I offer to active individuals that are looking to reach their body composition goals.  The classes work in a similar fashion to the way WOD’s work, they are scheduled and our coaches walk you through what you need to do to achieve your optimal physique.  Click the button for more info on what you get and how to buy Met Flex for Fat Loss.

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In a previous article, I offered you the “Eat To Perform” calculator that basically takes your height, weight, age, and bodyfat percentage (if you know it) to determine the calories that you need to supply basic function to your organs and nervous system.  It then applies a multiplier related to your activity levels to determine your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).  Getting an accurate guess at your BMR and TDEE can be extremely useful as a jumping-off point for figuring out how to achieve an optimal, balanced nutrition plan but there’s a ton of conjecture and misinformation surrounding the subject.  A big part of what I teach in the seminars is a deficit strategy that emphasizes sleeping more, eating better and maintaining a healthy metabolism through non-restrictive eating.  This leads to better work capacity, improved recovery and increased fat mobilization.  Understanding the difference between a healthy deficit and a potentially disastrous reduction in calories can be difficult, and that’s what I want to talk about in this post.

This is how the calculator works in a nutshell:  you input the variables, and it spits out both your BMR, and then your TDEE.  There are three options, all of which serve to describe some level of activity.  The first selection is “moderately active” (WOD 2-3x a week), the second is “very active” (for folks who WOD 4-5x a week), and then finally “extra active” (for the “two-a-day” folks and people with active jobs that also lift weights).  There are three standard formulas used to calculate BMR displayed, as well as an average.  The final TDEE calculation cannot factor in little things like walking up stairs or standing in line at the movies, but for most people it’s an extremely useful guide.

What We Teach

The basis of what we teach is that first and foremost, as an athlete, you “Eat to Perform”.  What does that mean in real-life terms, and can it help you lose fat?  While many people think that the be-all, end-all, “works 100% of the time” fat loss solution is extreme calorie deprivation, that line of reasoning does not apply to anyone with a career, a family and athletic aspirations on the side (this goes double if you are a competitive athlete!)  In the real world, a human being with a real life needs real food and they need enough of it to recover from the stress of their daily lives, so if you are looking to take the information you gleam from a calculator, and eat at your BMR (the number without the activity calculated in) until you reach your body fat goals, you will be sorely disappointed with the results.  Once you have used your low carb/low calorie “Ace card” and beaten it into the ground, you don’t get another one for a while (if you ever do again).  If you started from a place of calorie restriction, and then started low carbing as well, you probably got really confused.  It wasn’t the panacea that everyone had made it out to be.  I’ll tell it to you straight: when all is said and done, for 99% of the people I work with, deprivation is not the answer.

Every day, you have a few dietary “goals” you need to achieve to maintain your body and keep getting stronger.  At the top of the list should be to eat enough total calories, and then depending upon where you’re going and how you feel, possibly a little more.  That’s what “Eat to Perform” means; it means realizing that active populations need to prioritize supplying their bodies with enough quality nutrients to support athletic achievement, no matter how great or small these achievements are, we are all athletes.  It doesn’t however mean that you need to be obsessive about your diet, or even count calories.  Rather, you need to be aware of times when you’re just not eating enough; don’t fret about the over-consumption you always assumed was the real problem.  By putting how you perform in the gym and in your sport first and eating enough, you put cravings (both physiological and mental) to bed and set yourself up to achieve an optimal body composition without all the neurotic behavior we commonly associate with looking good naked.

Getting There

People that haven’t been engaging in an overly-restrictive diet method can start eating close to (or more than) their TDEE with extremely good results.  Everything under the hood is usually in working order and the added energy (specifically from carbohydrates) fires up their metabolism.  They start hitting personal records and sleep becomes more restorative; they become a less-cranky and less-fatigued athlete ready to pound the living daylights out of any challenge that presents itself.  For others, it will take a while to get the machine fired up and tuned correctly but in time everything will kick into gear.  For those folks I recommend caution.  But what does caution look like?

This is an example, so take it as such.  Using the information and tools we’re making available to you throughout this blog, you should be able to reverse engineer it to apply to your life:

Let’s say you plug all your numbers into the calculator and you get a TDEE calculation of 2440 calories.

I would suggest starting slowly with a 10% reduction in calories, trying to work up to your TDEE number (if you are an athlete and you are cutting more than -10% off of this number, you are probably causing serious damage hormonally.  It’s unnecessary and it’s not conducive to your goals.)

We subtract 10% from 2440, bringing us to roughly 2200 calories as our goal.

If you counted your calories and figured out that the “healthy” broccoli and chicken diet you’ve been eating every day for the past six months only adds up to about 1200 calories a day, proceed with caution.  Start by upping mostly your fats initially, and strategically add in carbs around workouts and in the evening.  I will attempt to show you how you can do this, but for the future we are designing a more advanced calculator and this will serve as the template for how that will work (it actually exists now).

Solving for Fats

I need to update this part of the article but currently my recommendation is to solve for carbs using the fat recommendations I have on the calculator page.  I am finding this to be a much better approach than random macro suggestions.  Here is what I wrote:

“Let me also add a note, many people adjust the carbs lower and end up getting a higher fat number and try this with high fat using a lot of oils to get there.  This is a mistake.  Try solving for “carbs” using the paramaters below (also note that adjusting protein higher is typically favorable and will keep your carbs at a reasonable level, this is a guide not a rule):

Women 75g-100g (I would probably default to 100g in most instances)

Men 125g-150g (I would default to the lower number in most instances)

The simple fact is that if you want to get your metabolism kick started carbs and protein are better for doing that but you want to try and play with things a bit, you are in charge not a calculator on the internet.  The goal is adequate protein and moderate carbs.”

A nice safe spot I recommend as a starting point for carbs is 150g for women and 200g for men (for someone already lean and trying to polish off that last bit of fat you would actually up the “safe spot number in carbs to body weight in grams as a starting point).  The ultimate goal, however, is to continue adding carbs to fuel your performance in the manner we teach.  Each gram of carbohydrate yields 4 calories, so for women that is 400 calories derived from carbohydrates, and 600 calories for men.  I am going to use the example above and apply it to a woman (though technically gender is irrelevant).  Our gal weighs approximately 150 pounds, so that gives her two options: to solve the energy deficit with fats, we need to factor her protein requirements, but protein is easy.  The two best ways to estimate protein needs are simple.  You can eat 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight in (for example, 150 g of protein).  The alternative, and what I recommend when people have a good approximation of their body fat (even if you are wrong it probably doesn’t matter all that much, knowing this puts you way ahead of the curve) is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass (LBM).  Our example is sitting at 25% bodyfat.  (All of this by the way is conveniently done for you by using the calculator, we are only offering this up to show you the “what’s and why’s”)

The easiest way to do this is to multiply her bodyweight (150) by 75%.  150×0.75=112.50.  This would be the minimum amount of protein in grams that I would recommend for a 150 pound woman, and I can assure you that many 150 pound women aren’t getting this much.  That scenario is not favorable as it relates to maintaining the amount of muscle mass we’re churning over in our workouts.  This negatively affects body composition, leading to a lower BMR and ultimately body fat retention.

If you are struggling reaching your protein goals we recommend Progenex products and when you use our banners and links you receive 10% off.  If you are interested here is a post on why the hydrolyzed whey that Progenex uses is better than standard whey products.

As far as rest days and training days go, there are a few strategies you can employ to determine how much protein you need.  On higher fat days, I like to see people eat more protein; the amount should be closer to your body weight in grams.  For our example, we would have her at 150g.  This actually serves as additional protection related to protein turnover when carbs are low by providing adequate amino acids to fuel gluconeogenesis as well as protein synthesis.

Now we’ll get down to some final calculations.  This will be a low carb, high fat example using our example’s bodyweight as a protein goal.  We have her carbs at 100g, therefore 400 calories of her daily intake will come from carbohydrate.  Remember, this is not a fixed number or “standard recommendation”; this is a starting point.  You will often do better on more carbs.  Protein also is factored at 4 calories per gram, so 150g (1g/lb. of bodyweight) would put her at 600 calories coming from protein.

We derive 9 calories per gram of fat.  To solve for fats we simply subtract the 2200 calorie goal she’s using as a cautious strategy (you’ll recall that we’re going off of a TDEE of 2440-10% which equals 2200 calories), trying to work towards eventually eating to the level her body demands.  We take the calorie sum of carbs and add that to the sum of the protein (600 calories from carbs + 600 calories from protein) and then subtract those two numbers from her calorie estimate of 2200 which puts us at 1000 calories left to come from fat.  We then divide by 9 (1000 divided by 9 equals 111 grams of fat).  This may seem like a lot of fat but when you cut the carbs, the energy has to come from somewhere.  In a perfect world, you’d derive your fat calories from endogenous body fat, but that just doesn’t happen.  Exogenous dietary fat is a requirement and most low carb dieters are not eating even close to these amounts.  That is yet another reason they are struggling to reach their body composition goals.  Anyway, drum roll please!

Final total:

Carbohydrates 600 calories (150g)

Protein 600 calories (150g)

Fats 1000 calories (111g)

Solving for Carbs

Now let’s look at a day where our hypothetical woman is taking a slightly more aggressive approach to her carbohydrate consumption, to really get that metabolism functioning optimally.  For this example I am going to set protein at LBM levels.

Carbohydrates 800 calories (200g)

Protein 450 calories (112.5g)

Fats 950 calories (105.5g)

If you are looking at a way to add some more carbs into your pre and post workout regimen obviously whole foods work but the best and quickest absorbing carb is Vitargo.  It’s also a great way to take advantage of some favorable body conditions when your cells are most receptive to taking in carbohydrate (similar to what we wrote in our book on Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss specific to people that lift weights intensely).  The goal of carbohydrate consumption is to get what you need and to get back into “fat burning” mode.

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“But a Calorie Isn’t a Calorie”

This is a popular argument and it might surprise people to know that I mostly agree.  The problem is that it’s one of the only quantitative measurements we have available to go on.  Besides, what I am suggesting isn’t a standard recommendation; it’s merely a starting point.  I will write more on why calories might equate to the values I mention above, but this is the hand grenade approach (not the horseshoes approach).  Right now, I am trying to get you to take a thousand-foot look at your diet and determine whether or not you’re really eating enough, or if you’re putting a damper on your progress simply because you’re not eating enough.  In practice, I don’t count calories; I have a basic understanding of how this all works, and as I add pieces (food) to the puzzle (my body), I simply check how they fit in and I know not to force things if they’re just not budging.  Until you’ve developed a similar approach and learned how your body reacts to certain foods and energy balances, some level of gross management may be necessary.


  • Prolonged periods of low carb dieting can equate to underfeeding, and this can lead to all kinds of metabolic derangement.
  • Eating to perform means eating enough food to sustain and improve your work capacity, strength, agility, and sport specific skills.
  • Form follows function; by putting performance first, you can achieve an optimal body composition.  That may not mean you walk around at 5% body fat, but you’ll be lean and muscular without eating in a restrictive fashion.
  • Start by getting a ballpark figure of how many calories you need to eat every day (TDEE).  Although it may seem like a lot of food at first, most of the time you will create a calorie deficit through your training and eating more (not less) will promote positive body composition changes.
  • If fat loss is your primary goal or you’re coming from a period of calorie restriction, subtract 10% from your TDEE calculation to give yourself some room to eat a little bit less.
  • Men should start at 200g of carbs on training days and dial it in as they go.  Women should start at 150g of carbs. 
  • Eat 1g of protein for every lb. of bodyweight.  If you know your body fat percentage, you can eat 1g for every lb. of lean body mass.
  • Counting calories may be necessary for a short period of time while you get a handle on how much you need to eat, but you should ultimately try to eat more by how you feel, look, and perform than any number.

More articles you’ll find interesting:

War on the Bikini Body Ideal

Are you accidentally eating too little? Eat To Perform Calculator

Tracking Changes in Body Composition


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