How to safely cut down on calories

How to safely cut down on calories

Understanding calories

The bottom line is that we all require the intake of food in order to function. This means that a minimum number of calories per day is a requirement. The minimum is what is often referred to as a BMR (basal metabolic rate). A minimum is necessary in order for the body’s organs to be able to function normally, especially when at rest.

Calories are closely associated with weight, but as already mentioned, they’re not the only factor. If you’re going to use the CICO diet method, it is important to consider what types of foods the calories you consume come from. So, do you really understand what a calorie is?

What is a calorie?

In a nutshell, a calorie is a scientific means to measure energy (i.e. it is a unit of energy). Thus, you can think of calories as an energy source – energy in (calories in), energy out (calories out) = basic overall principle of the CICO diet method.

This unit of measurement (like an inch or a teaspoon) is what is used to quantify the energy content in food that we consume. Once consumed, food is broken down (digested and absorbed) and energy is released. Our bodies require energy in order to function. Thus, in a sense, food becomes the fuel (energy source) for our 'engines' (bodies).

We use energy all. the. time. Calories (energy) are used just to breathe. They are also used in varying proportions to perform daily tasks or actions, and even to digest the food we eat. Cutting calories can be a good thing, too little or no calorie intake is not.

The more calories consumed, the more energy can be provided for the body’s use. Excess will mostly be stored as fat, contributing to weight problems. Your goal is to consume a number of calories that can provide enough energy for the body and effectively be burned off for weight loss.

The best sources of calories within any diet are proteins, fats and carbohydrates. So, perhaps a carb-free or fat-free approach isn’t the best strategy if you wish to implement CICO.

To maintain our body’s overall nutritional needs, we require a healthy balance between:

  • Proteins
  • Carbohydrates
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Water
  • Fats (not saturated or trans-fat varieties)

Healthy choices, including a combination of balanced nutrition (sampling from all food groups) and regular exercise will help to ensure that some of these calories are not stored in the body as harmful fat. Many of them will be if no physical activity is being done to burn them off.

So, how many calories do we require on a daily basis?

For weight loss, the idea is to use more calories than we put in over time, but how much is enough to be taking in, in the first place? Knowing the basic requirement in relation to the end goal will help to determine what a deficit should be in order to lose weight in a healthy manner. The key is finding a healthy balance and it’s not entirely the same for everyone. Factors like age and gender can influence the estimated requirement. So too can activity level.

How are activity levels defined?

  • Sedentary: Little to no activity. A person leads a lifestyle that only involves activity associated with day-to-day movements. Such movement are low-intensity (i.e. you do not break a sweat by moving in this manner). Easy walking or stretching can be categorised as sedentary.
  • Moderately active: Some physical activity / exercise (moderate aerobic activity) forms part of a person’s lifestyle, over and above normal day-to-day movements. Light physical activity such as walking for at least 2 to 5 kilometres a day may qualify as moderately active. A brisk walk or jog for at least 4 to 6 kilometres several times a week (or a total of at least 2 and half hours per week) can also fit into this category. Moderate exercise can also include biking, playing tennis or even mowing the lawn.
  • Active: Regular daily activity over and above normal day-to-day movements. A minimum of 5 kilometres worth of walking a day, swimming, biking, running and high-intensity aerobics classes can fall into this category. A very active person engages in regular exercise that is vigorous and gets the heartrate going.

Here is a guide (13) which can help you to determine what your estimated starting point could be…


Moderately active
2 1 000 1 000 1 000
3 1 000 1 400 1 400
4 - 5 1 200 1 400 1 600
6 - 7 1 400 1 600 1 800
8 1 400 1 600 2 000
9 1 600 1 800 2 000
10 1 600 1 800 2 200
11 1 800 2 000 2 200
12 1 800 2 200 2 400
13 2 000 2 200 2 600
14 2 000 2 400 2 800
15 2 200 2 600 3 000
16 - 18 2 400 2 800 3 200
19 - 20 2 600 2 800 3 000
21 - 25 2 400 2 800 3 000
26 - 35 2 400 2 600 3 000
36 - 40 2 400 2 600 2 800
41 - 45 2 200 2 600 2 800
46 - 55 2 200 2 400 2 800
56 - 60 2 200 2 400 2 600
61 - 65 2 000 2 200 2 600
76 onwards 2 000 2 200 2 400



Moderately active
2 1 000 1 000 1 000
3 1 000 1 200 1 400
4 1 200 1 400 1 400
5 - 6 1 200 1 400 1 600
7 1 200 1 600 1 800
8 - 9 1 400 1 600 1 800
10 1 400 1 800 2 000
11 1 600 1 800 2 000
12 - 13 1 600 2 000 2 200
14 - 18 1 800 2 000 2 400
19 - 25 2 000 2 200 2 400
26 - 35 1 800 2 000 2 400
36 - 50 1 800 2 000 2 200
51 - 60 1 600 1 800 2 200
61 - 75 1 600 1 800 2 000
76 onwards 1 600 1 800 2 000

**Note: This table is not applicable to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. It is advisable to consult a medical professional for specific guidance on managing weight during pregnancy stages and periods of nursing (breastfeeding).

You may have noted from the tables that calorie ranges differ at various ages. Children and teenagers require more than older adults, for example. Males also generally require a higher calorie intake than females. As we age, our basal metabolic rate (BMR) declines which means that a basic calorie intake need is lower. A more active lifestyle requires a higher number of calories per day.

Tips for implementing a CICO diet method strategy

Following the basic principle and implementing a balanced strategy will require some careful consideration if you’re truly serious about losing weight. In order to cut calories, you have to make a concerted effort to implement change, and one you can commit to. This process doesn’t have to be drastic, but it does need to be realistic. As you lose weight, you will need to remember that it’s not just fat content that you're shedding – you may lose a little muscle and water too. If you’re feeding your body in a balanced way, you should be able to stabilise this and replenish yourself with what you need for optimum health.

Some things to keep in mind before implementing your calorie cutting strategy (some of which may be a bit of a recap) include:

1. Take a good look at your current dietary habits and see if you can spot the high-calorie indulgences.

How often do you indulge in a high-calorie latte or soda beverage? Can you swop this out for a lower-calorie option? This type of substitution method can help you to make healthier choices if a total ‘cutting out’ is not something you’re comfortable with. Completely removing something from your diet can lean into restrictive ways of eating and if that is too drastic for you, substitution can still be effective. It can also help to minimise any cravings which may occur.

The trick is in the picking, if you’re going to substitute – there’s little benefit in choosing something that is equally as low when it comes to nutrient content. So, if you can’t do without a morning coffee, skip the latte and start a new black coffee habit. Or simply swop out whole milk for skim milk – which can virtually halve your calorie intake in this instance. Satisfy a sweet tooth with a portion of berries instead of an ice-cream treat or swop out a salty bag of crisps for air-popped popcorn (just go easy on the salt or sugary stuff if flavouring it). You get the idea… and you’ll be surprised at how the number of calories you’re not consuming tally up. A handful of small changes can easily cut your daily calorie intake by several hundred a day.

2. Now, have a look at your usual portion sizes – is this contributing to your weight woes?

Portion sizes do correlate with the number of calories being consumed. If your portions are excessive with each meal, so too are the number of calories you’re actually consuming – and it’s surprisingly easy to underestimate.

Exercising healthier portion control will make a considerable difference too. Easy ways to get a better handle on your meal portions is to serve smaller helpings (and top up with more veggies or fruit if you’re not quite satisfied after a meal), eat from plates instead of packages, and check the labels of food for serving sizes and calorie quantity per serving.

You’ll need to learn the lingo of nutrition and food labels too. Many foods are packaged in such a way that attract dieters. 'Calorie-free', 'low calorie' or 'reduced calorie' – some may even just be labelled as ‘lite” or ‘light’. This is one area where exact numbers can get a little confusing. In general, this is how you can gauge their meanings:

  • Calorie-free: A serving contains less than 5 calories.
  • Low calorie: A serving contains less than 40 calories.
  • Reduced calories: A serving contains 25% fewer calories than a regular product but don’t be fooled, this can still be calorie heavy.
  • Light or lite: A serving contains one third fewer calories than the regular product or 50% less fat content.

If there is no label that provides nutritional information, as is often the case when dining out, focus on managing your portion size.

For extra assistance, use your calorie counter to help you keep track of your daily consumption as best you can. You may not be able to count your calorie intake precisely for everything you consume – let’s be honest, it might not be realistic to expect to be able to do so every single day and it’s not something you should obsess over either. As you learn about food, as well as portion and serving sizes, you’ll get a better idea about how to gauge what and how much you’re eating as accurately as possible. In this regard, you may need to be a little flexible and smart about how you manage balancing your nutritional needs.

3. Now get active...

Once you know what your base requirement is and the number of calories you’re consuming or should aim to consume, you will have a better idea of what you need to burn off to create a deficit and achieve healthy weight loss. You can choose a running routine or combine this cardio activity with core exercises to help achieve that flat belly. The choice of exercise activity is all yours – just make sure you’re doing something effectively and safely in order to reap the weight loss benefits and avoid injury.

If you fall into the ‘little to no additional activity’ category, take care not to try and leap into intense exercise. You need to build your stamina and strength first. Start working with your calories at the level you truly are at, then gradually increase from there and build your ability to sustain exercise. Remember, every runner started by walking a little first. If you’re not particularly active, you will struggle to run for 5 consecutive minutes, never mind 5 kilometres. You’ll soon find your flaws in this regard if you power ahead before you’re physically able to cope. This will turn things belly up before you’ve even lost it in the first place!

The key is to start and gradually increase as your body becomes stronger. You’ll also avoid needing long recovery times or injuring yourself this way, both of which will slow you down and dampen your spirits. You don’t need such obstacles in the way of your goals.

Activity requirements as recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for overall fitness and health for different age groups are as follows:

  • Children (6 – 17 years of age): 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily – including aerobic activity (running or brisk walking), muscle exercise (like gymnastics) and bone strengthening activity (running or rope jumping). (14)
  • Adults (18 – 64 years of age and older if general state of health allows): At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week (such as brisk walking, water aerobics or biking), and muscle strengthening exercise at least twice a week which work all of the main muscle groups in the body. (15) As a person gets stronger and fitter, this can be adapted accordingly. For older adults (seniors), regular walking can do a whole lot of good too. Pregnant females can benefit from exercise as well. Brisk walking is recommended and can help with maintaining a healthy weight gain during pregnancy. Watching caloric intake during pregnancy combined with exercise will help to make losing the ‘baby weight’ after birth a whole lot less troublesome. If in doubt about what exercise is suitable, chat to a medical professional for the best, most personalised advice.

As with starting anything new, it takes a little time to find a rhythm and get into a comfortable stride. At some point your new eating habits and exercise regimen will fall into sync and it’ll start to feel more like a lifestyle. If you can persevere and achieve that, you have a better chance of not only achieving your weight loss goals but keeping your new and improved body shape too.

The most difficult part is making a start, then finding ‘your new normal’. It’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes – at first, they won’t fit every curve of your feet perfectly. It takes a little wear to soften the edges and get comfortable. Once you’re over that hump, don’t get lazy – persevere and keep moving in achievable stages. You’ll probably find that as you start to eat better, exercise more often and lose weight, you will feel better, look better, sleep better and function a whole lot more comfortably too. Life will begin to feel less and less like a chore as the body adapts and your overall quality of life will improve.


13. Dietary Guidelines 2015 - 2020. Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 2015. How much physical activity do children need?: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 2015. How much physical activity do adults need?: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

PREVIOUS Does the CICO diet work for losing weight?