THE BEST FOODS AND MEALS TO EAT (AND AVOID) IN A CALORIE DEFICIT

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Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.

Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.

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You can eat whatever you like and lose, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, but there are certain foods that will help you stick to your calorie target because they’re filling and satiating. These foods tend to fall into the categories of lean proteins, fruit, vegetables, starchy carbs and low-fat dairy. You’ll be much more likely to adhere to your deficit if you prioritize these types of foods over calorie-dense foods like butter, nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, and mayonnaise.

What is a Calorie Deficit?

Since you landed up here I’m guessing you already know what a calorie deficit is, but let’s recap anyway for those at the back.

A calorie is a unit of measurement related to energy, and every food has a calorie value, based on how much energy it provides.

Vegetables for example have very few calories and provide low amounts of energy. On the other hand, peanut butter has a LOT of calories and therefore provides lots of energy.

In order to lose weight, you need to make sure you’re taking in a little less energy (calories) than you’re using on a daily basis, consistently over a period of weeks and months.

When you’re in this state, it’s called a ‘calorie deficit’ because you’re getting less energy than you need, so your body uses any stored fat you have, to make up for the deficit, and that’s how you lose body fat (and weight).

Now, to clear things up early on, there are no official ‘calorie deficit foods’, you can technically eat whatever you like in a calorie defect and still lose weight.

Yep, you can eat ice cream, doughnuts, Pop Tarts and pizza (exclusively, if you want) and lose weight.

In practice, however, this is a terrible idea.

If you only ate those sorts of calorie-dense, processed foods, you’d use up your calorie budget really quickly (if one slice of Pizza is 250 calories, you’d only be able to eat 5 slices, if you were aiming to eat 1,250 calories per day). 

You wouldn’t be getting great nutrition, and you’d probably lack energy.

In short, while losing weight by eating in this way is possible, it’s very difficult, and not advisable in practice.

So, while there aren’t strictly ‘calorie deficit foods’, there are certainly specific foods that will help you stick to a calorie deficit while staying full, and healthy.

Are All Calories Made Equal?

Before we get into the exact foods you should eat in a calorie deficit we need to touch on the ‘is a calorie a calorie?’ debate.

You’ve probably heard tons of people saying that it really doesn’t matter what you eat in a calorie deficit, you can go ‘IIFYM’ and just lose fat eating ice cream, cookies and protein shakes.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure you’ve also heard people preaching the ‘eat clean’ mantra, i.e. that you should only be eating single ingredient, unprocessed foods to lose weight.

You may have even heard low carb zealots argue that you need to be careful about spiking your insulin

The fact is, both approaches are way too extreme and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

While it is true that the bottom line is that if you’re in a calorie deficit, you’ll lose weight, there is one thing that might help you along the way.

And that thing is protein.

Protein is found in;

  • Red meat (beef, pork, lamb)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Fish (cod, salmon, tuna)
  • Dairy (yoghurt, milk, cheese)
  • Eggs
  • Protein supplements (whey protein)

(Yes protein is found in other foods like Quinoa, Cous Cous and beans, but the above will be the best, complete sources)

And protein is so helpful when you’re dieting for a few reasons.

Protein helps keep you full

 Feeling full is a SUPERPOWER when dieting. You could have the perfect calorie target but if you can’t adhere to it, you won’t get results.

And the key to adhering to a calorie target long term is feeling full and satisfied. 

Protein can help keep you full as it takes longer to break down and digest than high carb or high fat foods, so eating more of it when dieting can help you feel full, and adhere to your targets.

Protein helps build and maintain muscle

The more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest, and the easier it’ll be to lose weight or maintain your weight.

Additionally, when you do lose weight, the more muscle you have, the better you’ll look. Losing fat and maintaining (or even gaining) muscle will give you a toned, defined look, and who doesn’t want that?!

Eating protein burns calories

This is the #1 coolest thing about protein.

You’ve probably heard the myth that eating Celery burns more calories than it actually contains, and while this isn’t true of protein, it is true that eating protein burns more calories than eating carbs or fat.

This means that the more protein you can get in your diet, the more calories you’ll burn without having to make any effort.

So, the takeaway point is that calories in vs calories out ultimately matters above all else, but you can increase your protein intake to make the process of dieting easier and more effective.

I personally recommend getting around 2g of protein per Kg of bodyweight

Foods to Eat On A Calorie Deficit

Ok, here we go I’m going to tell you what foods to eat.

Before I start this section I do want to reinforce the point that you absolutely CAN eat whatever you like and lose weight, providing you’re in a calorie deficit.

Eating the right foods (you could call them calorie deficit foods, if you wanted to) will make the process so much easier, more sustainable, and mean that you’ll be more likely to stick to your calorie target long-term.

As I mentioned above, the key to sticking to a calorie deficit is staying full and satisfied. The key to doing this is to practice ‘volume eating’, that is, sticking low to low-calorie density foods. These are foods that contain few calories per gram.

‘Calories per gram’ is an important factor to consider when dieting (most people overlook this) because it gives you a rough idea of not only how many calories are in what you’re eating, but how filling that food could be.

If you take something like Lettuce as an example; a typical ‘diet food’, and with good reason. Lettuce has just 0.15 calories per gram, this means that you could eat 500g of Lettuce and only take in 75 calories.

500g is a LOT of food, and would certainly fill you up to a degree because you’d be taking up so much room in your gut.

Let’s compare that to Peanuts for example. Now you’ll probably hear a lot of people recommending nuts as a good diet food; they’re rich in healthy fats, protein and fiber. Great. But I’ll tell you something else they’re rich in…

Calories.

In fact, peanuts contain around 6 calories per gram. If you were to eat the same 500g of peanuts, you be taking up less space in your gut (500g of peanuts have a lot less volume than 500g of lettuce), but crucially taking in 3000 calories! 

And THAT is why ‘calories per gram’ and food volume matters. On the chart below you can see the calories gram for some other common foods.

FOODCALORIE DENSITY (KCAL/G)
Lettuce0.15
Spinach0.23
Watermelon0.3
Strawberry0.32
Carrot0.4
Orange0.48
2% Fat Milk0.5
Apple0.52
Grapes0.69
Boiled Potato0.87
Banana0.89
Ketchup1
Chicken Breast (No Skin)1.1
Brown Rice1.1
White Fish (Tilapia)1.13
Tuna1.16
White Rice1.3
Pasta (Spaghetti)1.31
Pork Loin1.36
Quiona1.43
Salmon1.45
Egg1.48
Avocado1.6
Whole Wheat Bread2.48
Steak2.5
White Bread2.64
Burger Patty2.82
Mozarella3
Raisins3
Fries3.07
Black Beans3.41
Frosties3.67
Mayonaise3.86
Nutella5.41
Peanuts6
Butter7.21
Olive Oil8.85

Of course, we kind of know a lot of this already.

Yes, fruit and vegetables are great to eat when dieting, and we should be avoiding stuff like butter and Nutella, but there are a few surprises in there as well. Yes, Salmon and Olive Oil might be ‘healthy’ but should you eat a lot of either when dieting? Probably not.

Similarly, most people would class stuff like potatoes and Ketchup as not ideal diet or ‘calorie deficit’ foods, but potatoes stack up very well against other carbs, and Ketchup has a much lower ‘calorie per gram rating than Mayo and other cream-based sauces.

What I’m certainly not saying is only eat foods on the upper half of that list, indeed that list only contains a very small sample of foods. When you’re dieting, you still need a mix of protein, carbs and fats to allow for optimal health and good performance in the gym.

So what are my recommendations for the best foods to eat on a calorie deficit?

  1. Chicken Breast

Chicken breast is widely available, versatile and fairly affordable if you get it from the right place. It goes with almost anything, is great at lunch or dinner and there are tons of chicken breast recipes out there.

Make sure you get chicken breasts without skin, because skin drastically increases the fat and therefore, the calorie content.

When you cook your chicken, don’t deep fry it or cover it in cooking oil, since this will also drastically increase the calorie content, use Fry Light 1 calorie spray and grill it to get a nice char on the outside before putting in the oven to cook it through while keeping it moist.

  1. Broccoli

Broccoli is my go-to veg. Ok, it’s difficult to stake the claim that any green veg tastes ‘amazing’, but Broccoli definitely has a lot of potential.

My favourite way to prep is to buy Tenderstem and grill it (and, with Fry Light) in a pan with some good salt, chili and garlic.

  1. Potato

As I mentioned above, potato is a massively underrated diet food.

Potato is wrongly demonized, and this is probably because people generally consider chips (or fries for our US friends) to be ‘bad’ food, especially if you want to lose weight.

Chips certainly can be high in calories, especially if they’re deep-fried in oil and thinly cut (because they’ll absorb more oil), but this shouldn’t reflect badly on the potato itself.

Potato is highly satiating and a lot less calorie-dense than other carbs like rice, pasta and bread. If you want to incorporate them into your diet, then be sure not to add too much fat. Boiled or baked potatoes are the way to go – my personal favourite filling is sour cream, black pepper and chives

  1. Greek 0% Yogurt

This really is a powerhouse diet food and an absolute staple in my everyday diet.

Now there are lots of different brands of Greek Yogurt and they all have slightly different Macros and Calories, and I don’t know all of them off the top of my head, my favourite is Fage, hands down.

They make 0%, 2% and 5% Greek Yogurt but I’d always go for the 0%. It’s incredibly low in calories, high in protein and filling, and you can’t ask for much more than that. 

But the best thing about this stuff is that it’s so versatile. You can have it for breakfast with some berries and honey, and it works as a filling for wraps and baked potatoes.

  1. Egg Whites

Egg whites are the definition of a low-calorie, high protein food.

If you didn’t know, Yolks are made up almost entirely of fat, and whites are almost totally of protein, which is why the whites are lower in calories than Yolks (and therefore whole eggs).

Am I saying don’t eat whole eggs? No.

What I am saying is, if you normally use 4 eggs for an Omelette, maybe use one whole egg and 3 egg whites. It won’t taste that different and it’ll be significantly lower in calories.

Foods to Avoid On a Calorie Deficit

Knowing what not to eat is just as important as knowing what to eat on a calorie deficit. And to reiterate, you don’t need to totally avoid any of these foods, but you would do well to limit them.

  1. Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is what’s known as ‘hyper-palatable’’ food. It contains a mixture of salt, fat and sugar making it delicious, easy to eat, and addictive.

I don’t know about you, but I can eat this stuff right out the jar, and before you know it, you’ve made your way through hundreds of calories without even noticing.

What’s crazy is that a lot of people seem to think PB is ‘high in protein’ or great for dieting. It’s neither of those things. I’d say you’d be best off just not having this in the cupboard when you’re dieting.

  1. Oil

The number one tip I’ll give everyone that starts with me is to ditch the cooking oil. Cooking oil is essentially liquid fat and is incredibly calorie-dense.

While cooking oil can mean your food is less likely to stick to the pan, it doesn’t enhance the texture or flavour of your food, and it can add HUNDREDS of calories.

Just swap cooking oil for Fry Light. It’s a no-brainer.

  1. Butter

Butter is another food that’s basically pure fat, and wherever there’s fat, there are calories.

Yes, toast and butter is great, but you need to make some sacrifice when you’re dieting, and butter should probably be one of them.

Luckily there are some low fat and low-calorie alternatives like Margarine.

  1. Cheese

Cheese is another highly addictive, high-fat food.

If you’re dieting, I’d severely limit the amount of Cheddar, Brie and Gruyere you have, but the good news is that there are loads of lower-fat cheese out there like;

  • Edam
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Mozerella
  • Ricotta

This means you can still fuel your cheese addiction while you’re dieting. There are even low fat and low-calorie versions of Cheddar available now from a UK company called Eat Lean

  1. Chocolate

I saved the best until last didn’t I?

Who doesn’t love chocolate in some form? I certainly do but having vast quantities in the cupboard (or fridge – that debate won’t die will it?) is not going to help you if you’re dieting. No one with easy access to chocolate is going to have an easy time being a calorie deficit.

My advice? If you’re going to have chocolate in the house, buy dark chocolate (60% cocoa or over), this has an intense chocolate taste, so you’ll only need a small amount to satisfy your craving.

Even better, have no chocolate in the house, and have a rule that if you want chocolate, you need to go the nearest shop and buy it. This puts a barrier between you and the chocolate that will mean you eat at least eat a lot less than you would if it was waiting for you in the kitchen…

The 80/20 Rule

Although I’ve just told you to avoid all the foods above, you don’t need to totally avoid them, but you do need to limit them.

But how often can you have them?

Well, I like to live by the 80/20 rule, and in this context, that means 80% low calorie-dense, nutrient-dense foods, and 20% higher calorie density foods.

For me and my clients, this is a much better way to operate than the classic ‘eat clean for 5 days a week then have cheat days at the weekend’

If you do this, you deprive yourself for such a long period of time (yes, five days is a long time to go without food you love) that by the time you get to the weekend, you’ll binge so hard at you’ll go over your calorie target.

Nutrition pyramid
This is the muscle and strength nutrition pyramid by Eric Helms (it applies to weight loss, too). Notice the base of the pyramid is ‘behaviour and lifestyle’, i.e. the most important factor. If you can’t fit a calorie deficit around your lifetsytile, and practice daily behavioust to adhere to that deficit, it’ll never work.

For example, let’s say you’re aiming to eat 2,000 calories per day on average over the course of a week.

You stick to 1,800 calories per day from Mon-Fri which would leave you with an extra 1,000 calories to play with at the weekend.

This means you can have 3,000 calories on Saturday. But you overshoot and end up eating 3,600. You know you screwed up so you think f**k it, and overeat on Sunday as well.

MONTUEWEDTHUFRISATSUN
1,8001,8001,8001,8001,8003,6002,300

What is means is, rather than your average calorie intake for the week being 2,000 per day, it’s actually 2,129 per day.

Although this might seem insignificant, it could be just enough to stop you from losing weight, and make you think that ‘diets don’t work’, and force you to slip into a yo-yo dieting cycle.

The solution, utilize the 80/20 rule to ensure you’re eating at least some of what you love every day.

Let’s say for example that you love Chocolate and Full Sugar Coke. Rather than completely driving yourself of these things, you could have a little each day.

To illustrate the 8/20, I’ve come up with what a typical ‘full day of eating’ might look like for an average person. We’ve got yoghurt and granola for breakfast, soup with bread for lunch and a sweet and sour chicken stir fry for dinner, all of which is generally high volume, healthy whole food. We’ve also got a cheeky handful of gummi bears and a couple of spoons of PB in there which we might consider ‘calorie dense’.

FOODAMOUNTCALORIES
Greek Yogurt250g125
Banana1100
Granola50180
Soup1 can200
Bread2 x slices200
Apple1100
Chicken 200g330
Mixed Veg100g50
Noodles150g235
Sweet and Sour Sauce125g85
Gummi Bears20200
Peanut Butter50290
TOTAL2,095
N.B. These are all approximate numbers

Total calorie intake for the day is 2,095 calories, which is about right for a 100kg (220lb) person to lose weight. 490 of those calories are made up of ‘calorie-dense’, less healthy foods (the gummi bears and PB), which means that 23% of the calories have come from those types of foods, and 77% from more healthy, high volume foods, almost spot on!

Example Meals

It’s all very well knowing what individual foods to eat but in the real world, you’re not going eat a chicken breast with greek yogurt and a side of egg whites. 

So how do you incorporate these foods into actual meals that you’d eat every day? Of course, there are endless combinations of meals you can make with stuff like chicken, eggs and yoghurt, but I’ve given you a few examples below, along with ingredients.

All of these meals are high in protein, low calorie, healthy and super filling.

Sausage and Shrimp Skillet

Cajun Skillet Meal

Ingredients

packet low-fat chicken

sausages (eg Heck), sliced

into rounds

250g cooked, peeled

prawns

15ml olive oil

1 onion

500g zucchini, cut into

quarters

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tbsp tomato paste/puree

1 tbsp cajun seasoning

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper

(optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh parsley to garnish

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a deep skillet or pan on a medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook until brown.

2. Add the onion and saut  for a few minutes, until soft. Add the bell peppers and garlic to the pan, along with the tomato paste, salt, pepper, cajun seasoning, paprika and cayenne. Stir thoroughly.

3. Once the peppers have started to soften, add in the zucchini and cook for a further 2-3 minutes.

4. Lastly, add in the cooked prawns and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Serve with rice, potatoes or your choice of carbs.

Greek Chicken Bowl

Greek chicken Bowl Meal

Ingredients

500g boneless, skinless

chicken breast

15ml olive oil

15ml lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, finely minced

200g wholewheat couscous

300ml boiling water

1 red onion

1 cucumber, cut into quarters

100g cherry tomatoes, halved

80g light feta, cubed

80g kalamata olives, halved

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

For the tzatziki

250g low-fat, plain Greek

yoghurt

100g cucumber, grated

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp fresh mint, finely

chopped

5ml olive oil

Salt to taste

Method

  1. In a large bowl mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, minced garlic, thyme and oregano. Add in the chicken breast and coat well. Leave to marinate for at least 20 minutes.
  2. When ready to cook, heat a non-stick pan or griddle on a high heat. Place the chicken breast in the pan and cook for 8-10 minutes on each side, or until the chicken is cooked through completely.

3. For baked chicken breast, preheat the oven to180 C/ Gas mark 6 and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through.

4. In the meantime, place the couscous in a large bowl and pour over the boiling water. Cover and leave for 8-10 minutes then break up gently with a fork.

5. In another large bowl, mix together the cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onion, feta and olives. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

6. To make the tzatziki, mix together all the ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Once the chicken is done assemble the bowls with a portion of chicken, couscous and salad. Add a dollop of tzatziki and enjoy!

Chilli Con Carne

Ingredients

500g lean beef mince or

vegetarian mince

1 tin chickpeas, drained

1 tin kidney beans, drained

1 400g tin chopped

tomatoes

1 bell pepper

1 large onion, chopped

15ml oil of choice

2-3 chillies

6 garlic cloves, crushed

30ml tomato pur e/paste

3 tsp smoked paprika

4 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp oregano

1-2 tsp chilli powder

Salt to taste

Freshly chopped coriander

to garnish

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet and add in the onion, peppers and chillies. Saute for a few minutes until soft.

2. Turn the heat up to high and add in the garlic, spices and the mince. Allow the mince to brown, breaking it up as it cooks.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down, cover with a lid and leave to simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Add in the chickpeas and kidney beans and cook for a further 10-15 minutes.

5. Serve with rice or tortillas and top with cheese, sour cream, avocado and coriander.

Summary

Yes, you CAN eat whatever you want and lose weight as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, but the process will be SO much easier if you stick to some of the foods I’ve spoken about above.

No, you don’t need to ‘eat clean’, no you don’t need to go low carb, or keto, or paleo, but you probably do need to prioritize high volume, low calorie-dense nutritious food.

And prioritize doesn’t mean ‘only eat’ because adherence is a big factor, and if you can’t adhere to your diet, then it’ll never work anyway.

Leverage the 80/20 rule to make sure you’re eating mostly lean protein, starchy carbs, vegetables, fruit and low-fat dairy, and limit high fat, calorie-dense, processed foods.

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