When looking to burn more calories, you want to make sure you’re doing it in the right way so that you’re losing fat (not muscle).
As such, when looking to burn more calories than you eat, you need to first understand how your body burns calories (at rest, daily life, and through exercise), and how your eating habits can place more or less emphasis on how much extra calories you need to burn off to lose weight.
There are 3 steps involved in this process, which we’ll explain in this article.
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What Does It Mean To Burn More Calories Than You Eat?
Burning more calories than you eat simply means that your calorie expenditure exceeds your calorie intake from your diet. When looking at how many calories you burn (caloric expenditure), we need to look at three main factors that influence it.
Basal Metabolic Rate
This is the total amount of calories your body needs to sustain its most basic physiological processes at rest (things like digestion, breathing, and keeping you awake). This can be increased by having more amounts of lean muscle tissue.
In other words, the more muscle mass your body has, the more calories your body burns naturally just to do basic functions.
Activities of Daily Life (Not Including Planned Exercise)
The more active you are in your daily life, the more your body will need to consume to sustain its performance and weight at that lifestyle.
This amount of calories doesn’t include calories from planned physical activity, like workouts. Things like daily step count, taking the stairs, walking to work, taking the dog or family for a walk, and any work activity are all accounted for here.
Lastly, planned exercise such as workouts, fitness classes, sports, or any other activity in which your sole purpose is to increase the heart rate to over 60% max, improve athletic, lift weights to get stronger and build muscle, or a combination of the three are accounted for here.
When you burn more calories than you eat, you can often achieve this either by (1) eating less, (2) increasing your activities of daily life, (3) increasing your planned exercise, or (4) a combination of the three.
Lastly, over time, if you focus on building more muscle and strength through resistance training workouts, you could also increase the amount of calories you burn at rest (basal metabolic rate).
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How To Know If You’re Burning More Calories Than You Eat?
If you are burning more calories than you eat, you will notice this because you will not be gaining weight, and most likely will be losing weight either slowly, steadily, or rapidly.
However, you’ll not just want to rely on what the scale says.
This is because, while losing weight, some people can also experience some muscle gain as well. Since muscle weighs more than fat mass, the scale number might not be totally accurate of whether you’re losing weight.
Therefore, in combination with using the scale weight, another metric can be how your clothes fit. If you’re losing inches, but the scale weight is staying the same, you’re still likely burning more calories than you eat.
Is It Safe If You Burn More Calories Than You Eat?
Yes, it’s safe to burn more calories than you eat. This is exactly how you lose weight or body fat. If you are eating more than you burn (combination of basil metabolic rate + daily activities + planned exercise), you will not lose fat. It really is as simple as that.
Now, if you severely under eat below your calorie needs, this can become extremely detrimental to your health.
First, you will start to lose muscle mass. Your body can only lose fat so quickly, and after you reach that pace, any extra weight loss on the scale comes from more and more muscle loss. The goal is to lose only fat weight, not muscle weight.
If you disregard that stage, you will actually start to have medical issues, which can range from hormonal imbalances, hair loss, and in extreme cases, organ shutdown. If you suspect you are at this stage, it is important to seek medical help immediately, as the effects of this can be long-lasting and harmful to your body.
So the question is then, how many more calories should you burn than you eat to lose fat weight, not lose muscle, and be healthy in the process?
Let’s dive into the answer to that below!
Results You Can Expect If You Burn More Calories Than You Eat
There are three main results you can expect from burning more calories than you eat.
Results #1 – Little to No Weight Loss
This is often the issue with people who are struggling to lose weight and are “eating less” and exercising, yet are not consistent in their efforts. This may mean they eat well during the week, but aren’t consistent enough on the weekends. It may also mean they are mostly consistent, but have a few meals a week that are really off the rails.
Bottom Line: If you are not losing weight, and are “eating less”, then you are clearly not eating less than you are burning (calorie balance is all numbers).
That said, there could be hormonal imbalances, medical issues, or drug interactions that could be responsible, so if you do suspect those to be the case you should seek your doctor.
But for the vast majority who do not have those issues yet still cannot lose weight, or are losing less than 2-4lbs in a month’s time, you need to eat less, exercise more, or a combination of the two.
Results #2 – Body Fat Loss With Little Muscle Loss
This is the most ideal result to expect, and is done by placing yourself in a slight to moderate calorie deficit that allows for 4-6lbs or weight loss per month. Any slower than that rate, and that suggest you are eating too much or not burning enough calories. If you are losing weight faster than that, you may be not eating enough to meet your calorie burning needs, and as a result you are losing fat AND MUSCLE (not good).
Bottom Line: To achieve this, you want to be in the sweet spot of losing .75-1.5lbs a week, maybe more if you are someone who has high amounts of weight to lose and is high in body fat.
You also need to make sure you are lifting weights 3-4 days a week, at least, to ensure you are not losing muscle tissue (cardio training does very little to preserve muscle, and in fact during a diet phase could contribute to muscle loss when done in excess).
Results #3 – Body Fat Loss with Equal or Even Greater Amounts of Muscle Loss
This is unfortunately why many dieters fall victim too. If you have ever known someone who loses a bunch of weight (on the scale), yet still seems to be the same relative body fat percentage, this is often a result of losing equal amounts of fat and muscle during a diet.
While you may think that is okay, the muscle loss can set you back months of hard work (it takes that long to build muscle).
In addition to losing the muscle that you worked so hard for in the first place, that muscle loss also negatively affects your basil metabolic rate, meaning if you didn’t lose that muscle you would have burned more calories at rest.
Bottom Line: This is often what happens when people place themselves in a too big of a calorie deficit, for too long. They often get locked on the weight on the scale going down, but don’t seem to realize that a rapid or prolonged period of weight loss is due to increased muscle loss and decreased metabolism (which again, often results in decreased physical performance the deeper into a diet, and regaining of the weight they lost).
For most people, any rate of weight loss (on the scale) of more than 8-10+lbs per month (2lbs per week on average) suggests that they are losing weight at a rapid pace, with higher proportions of muscle being lost (and not any more fat being lost than someone who takes a more moderately aggressive approach, such as in Result #2).
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3 Ways To Burn More Calories Than You Eat
The below three ways are the most effective ways to burn more calories than you eat.
This is a very easy way to achieve a negative calorie balance, which is often the only reason you should be aiming to eat less calories than you burn (weight / fat loss). Often, people fail to lose weight because they try to “out exercise” a high calorie diet, which can lead to a whole slew of eating disorders and issues.
If you are already exercising most days of the week, and training hard, adding more to your workout regimen could become an unsustainable means to an end. Focus on eating less calories, and find better balance in your training and eating behaviors.
Move Around and Exercise More
Increasing your activities of daily life and planned exercise are both two huge ways to burn more calories than you eat. Often, people who are inactive will find the best results simply increasing their activity levels and starting to work out (assuming they do not eat more to accommodate for more activity).
This will help them burn more calories than they eat, without having to change eating habits. This is a great way to start a weight loss program, as once you are moving around alot and exercising 4+ days a week, you will be building muscle that also burns more calories at rest. From there, simply making tweaks to your diet on top of keeping your exercise and daily life active will further enhance your results (see below).
Move More and Eat Less
This last one is a combination of the two approaches above. This is often the best solution as it allows for greater flexibility and has you focus on the benefits of eating healthier and the benefits of increasing your activities of daily living and exercise.
For example, if you are trying to decreasing your energy balance by 500 calories per day, you could eat 250 calories less per day (do half the work you would if you need to burn 500 calories per day in the above scenario) and eat 250 calories less per day (eat a little more than you would if you only changed your eating habits as in the first scenario).
This question “how to burn more calories than you eat” is one that deserves a follow up question, such as “why are you trying to do so?”.
For most people, this is because they want to lose weight or fat.
If this is the case, then you have three main ways to get there, which are to;
(1) eat less food than you are currently eating,
(2) increase your daily activity in life and exercise more than you currently are, or
(3) eat less and move around and exercise more than you currency are.
If you are focusing on other factors or ways to answer the question, you are focusing on the wrong things.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.