You’ve probably heard that losing weight is basically a math problem. Simply burn more calories than you eat, and bingo. Success. It’s known as the CICO Diet, which stands for calories in, calories out. In short, the idea is that a pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories. To lose a pound in a week, all you have to do is cut 500 calories per day from your diet, burn 500 calories per day through exercise, or a combination of both.
It seems logical, but unfortunately, it isn’t always so simple. First off, it isn’t easy to count calories in and out. And, of course, nutrition quality also plays an important role. As well, some calories are more filling, provide longer-lasting energy, and help control appetite. Others, unfortunately, may provide a quick burst of energy, only to be followed just as quickly by a crash. (Looking at you, high-carb processed foods.) So, managing where those calories are coming from is just as important.
What’s more, calorie counting is not only time-consuming, but it’s often not all that accurate—and may be off by 20% or more.
That said, weight loss is the result of a calorie deficit, so calories do count. And eating fewer calories than you burn—while ensuring you get enough nutrients and calories to fuel your active lifestyle—will help you drop pounds. That’s why it’s the goal of virtually every weight-loss plan.
Fortunately, there are simple, almost effortless substitutions, changes, and tweaks you can make to decrease the number of calories coming in. These changes are even more appealing as they can lead to sustainable, long-term weight loss as they become habits.
16 Simple Ways to Cut 500 Calories a Day
1. Drink Less Calories
One of the easiest ways to cut 500 calories is to stop drinking them. Replace your usual soda or juice with water, calorie-free seltzers, or unsweetened tea or coffee (or sweetened with calorie-free, natural options like stevia). Alcohol can also come in high in calories—if you do choose to drink, opt for lower-calorie beer or cocktails made with low-cal mixers like soda water.
Even switching from your usual large latte (~200+ calories) to a cup of black coffee (2 calories) or cold brew can make a big difference throughout the week. If you want something sweet and creamy in your cup, consider adding a quality MCT oil to your coffee, which will still trim the calories in third.
It’s easy to suck down 500 calories quickly, and drinking calories is likely to leave you less satisfied and certainly won’t fill you up. Making this one switch is one of the easiest ways to slash excess calories.
2. Be Picky with Your Potato
You can consume a 7-ounce baked potato, 2.5 ounces of French fries, or 1.5 ounces of potato chips, all for 182 calories. The baked potato, however, will fill you up and keep you satisfied. The same can’t be said of the other two options.
If French fries or chips are your weakness, you can always slice and bake them at home. Whichever way you eat your spuds (or similar foods), if you choose to bake, steam, air fry, or microwave them, you’ll save hundreds of calories over frying them in oil.
3. Toss in More Veggies
Another simple way to cut calories while upping nutrition levels is to add vegetables, beans, or legumes to your favorite recipes. For example, add some sliced tomato to your ham and cheese sandwich. You can decrease the amount of ham and cheese and improve the flavor of your sandwich. You can add vegetables or mushrooms to meat dishes like meatloaf, burgers, and burritos or to carb-rich dishes like mac and cheese, pasta, and rice with little effort or change to the flavor, saving hundreds of calories while improving satiety.
You can also easily swap out your usual sandwich for a big salad. Skipping the bread and mayo can subtract up to 550 calories per meal. Just make sure you choose the right salad dressing, so you don’t undo your calorie-control efforts.
4. Decrease Portion Size
Serving sizes have gotten out of control—especially when you eat out—making it easy to eat more than you need, leading to bloating, sluggishness, and discomfort after meals. Choosing to measure out your personal serving (using your hand, for example), is one easy way to cut out the excess calories and eat the right amount of food for you.
Alternatively, you can choose to use a smaller plate, fill up more of your plate with a delicious veggie side dish, or start with a big side salad before your main meal.
Finally, because restaurant meals tend to be so high in calories, you can easily save half the cost, along with half the calories, by sharing your meal with a friend or just asking for a to-go box with your meal and packing half your dish up before you take your first bite. Then you’ll have another full meal ready to go the next time you’re hungry.
Whichever method you choose, it can easily add up to several hundred calories over a day.
5. Trade Milkshake for a Protein-Rich Smoothie
It’s perfectly okay to indulge in a milkshake or other dessert from time to time, but if it’s something you crave more regularly, you still have some great options. Many quality protein powders have a rich, creamy taste and texture, and when made with a dash of milk (cow or your favorite alternative), ice cubes, and perhaps a few additional ingredients, you can enjoy something that’s very similar in flavor to your favorite treat. Check out our top 5 protein shake recipes for weight loss for some ideas.
Not only will you cut 500 calories, but you’ll get tons of nutrients and protein to fill you up and keep you going.
6. Go for Savory, Rather than Sweet, Breakfasts
Carb-loaded breakfast foods are easy and convenient, which is why they’re so common. Yet cake-like muffins, syrup-loaded pancakes, and big bowls of granola are loaded with sugar and unnecessary calories. Plus, because they lack protein and much fiber, you’ll often be left feeling hungry long before lunchtime.
To keep energy levels high, reduce appetite, and decrease calories, instead, try a protein-rich breakfast like a high-protein smoothie, scrambled eggs or omelet, or Greek yogurt with berries. Hate giving up something sweet? Serve a small fiber-rich muffin with your eggs, or transform your pancakes with a protein-packed recipe instead. Not only will you cut your calories during breakfast, you’ll also depress appetite, so you’ll eat less during the day—a win-win in the CICO diet game.
7. Snack Smart
Snack foods are so easy to eat… and eat… and eat—chips and dip, crackers and cheese, buttered popcorn… You know where this leads, though. Before long, you won’t know how many calories you ate but it’s likely waaay more than you planned.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a snack for a quick pick-me-up when you’re truly hungry. It’s just a good idea to choose smarter options. If you like chips and dip, replace the chips with some crisp veggies like carrots, cucumber, peas, cauliflower, or broccoli (or a mix of all of the above). Serve it with a protein-rich hummus or another bean dip, a Greek yogurt dip, or a cottage cheese dip.
Want something sweet instead? Try some sliced apples or pears with a Greek yogurt and peanut butter dip. Or go with just a piece of fruit and a few nuts.
Not only will you be cutting out hundreds of calories, but you’ll enjoy a more satiating, nutrient-rich snack to power you through your day.
8. Say No to Whipped
Whether you’re ordering a latte or smoothie, you’ll probably be asked if you want whipped cream on top. To delete an easy 100 calories from your day, just say no to this empty-calorie, sugar-filled topping.
While you’re at it, watch out for condiments. You can either skip them altogether, cut down the serving, or switch to a lower-calorie option. For example, a tablespoon of mayo has 57 calories, but a tablespoon of yellow mustard has just 9 calories, and you likely don’t need as much. You could also swap out a creamy topping (e.g., mayo) for one that’s higher in protein and lower in calories. Hummus, for example, provides just 25 calories and a little over one gram of protein.
9. Slow Down
Simply chewing more slowly and eating more mindfully can help you notice that you’re filling up. This, in turn, can help you eat less and enjoy your food more. Over time, according to research, you’ll reduce your calories by as much as 120 calories per meal—yet you’ll also feel more satisfied. (Mindfully eating snacks has a similar effect.)
If you tend to eat in front of the TV, computer, or staring at your phone, moving into the dining area for meals without distractions can be a great way to shave calories and unplug for at least a little while each day. It could help you trim almost 400 calories from your day and improve your mental health as well.
10. Cook at Home
Simply preparing your own food—rather than relying on take-out or pre-made meals—has been found to help folks consume up to 140 calories less per meal. If you tend to eat out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you could save nearly 500 calories per day.
Not sure where to start? Coach Cristina is a fantastic resource. Her recipes are typically easy to make, don’t take a lot of time, and they’re so delicious. You can find hundreds of recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks right here on the BioTRUST blog. Some of our favorites include buffalo cauliflower, chopped summer salad, bruschetta chicken, and Thai crockpot shredded chicken.
11. Make it a Small
There are no good or bad foods, and sometimes, nothing quite satisfies like the real thing. Instead of choosing a “light” dessert, go ahead and order the real thing. Just order a small or serve yourself a single serving.
Consider a bowl of ice cream, for example. If you get a single 5-ounce serving rather than a large 12-ounce serving, you can save up to 550 calories. Remember to slow down and enjoy each creamy bite.
12. Saute with Stock
Does your recipe suggest you sauté your veggies or meat in oil or butter? Try using vegetable, chicken, or beef stock instead. You’ll add loads of extra flavor while saving around ~100 calories per tablespoon. It’s a simple tradeoff you’ll likely never even notice.
13. Feel Free to Fidget
Did a parent or teacher always get after you because you couldn’t sit still? Fidgeting is a habit we should encourage and facilitate—at home, at school, at work, and everywhere we go. You see, people who fidget burn around 350 extra calories over a day compared to the more “controlled” folks around them.
Go ahead and tap your toes, wiggle your ankles, play with your pen, shift and move throughout the day as you sit or stand. Add a daily walk to the menu for even more of a calorie burn (and many more benefits).
14. Swap Your Steak
If you’re trying to stay slim yet still want a juicy steak, have no fear. Skip the prime rib (1,400 calories for 16-ounces) and instead choose a sirloin steak (700 calories). It’s just as flavorful but comes at half the calorie cost. To go even lower, though, choose a filet mignon. Nine ounces provide 450 calories.
For even greater calorie savings, switch out red meat for mushrooms. In one study, folks who ate mushrooms rather than meat trimmed off 444 total calories. What’s more, they reported enjoying their meals just as much and feeling just as full.
15. Eat Whole Foods
One of the simplest, though not necessarily easiest, ways to cut 500 calories is to choose whole foods over processed foods. In one study, people went on either a whole food or a processed food diet for two weeks. Both diets provided meals with the same number of calories, fat, carbs, protein, sugar, and fiber.
After the meals, participants were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted. Interestingly, after eating the processed food meals, folks ate an average of 500 extra calories a day, gaining around two extra pounds over the study. They also ate faster, likely because processed foods are easier to consume.
On the other side, when the same participants switched to a whole-food diet, they cut those extra calories, dropping those two pounds. Yes, calories count, but nutrition quality is just as important!
16. Snuggle into Sweet Dreams
Want a diet tip that has nothing to do with eating? Here’s an easy one. Just make sure you practice good sleep hygiene to get around seven to eight hours of shuteye per night. By getting enough sleep, you’ll not only cut up to 300 calories from your diet, but you’ll also enjoy a higher metabolic rate and decreased cravings for sweets. What’s more, folks who get enough rest at night are also more likely to exercise during the day and enjoy greater levels of energy and focus.
Does the CICO Diet Work?
Again, calories do count, but it’s more complicated than just calories in vs. calories out. So, while you can use the tips above to cut 500 calories throughout the week, there are other considerations than just tracking calories.
For example, according to the satiation index, calories from potatoes are significantly (seven times) more filling than the same number of calories in a croissant. Fish is better at filling you up than either eggs or beef. Calorie per calorie, straight-up oatmeal will fill up your tummy better than bran cereal. Processed foods and sodas are some of the worst offenders—providing tons of calories while leaving you hungry for more.
So, instead of focusing just on the calories you can save or burn, tune into your body and how you feel after you eat. In the long run, this will help you better control appetite, improve energy levels and focus, and support gut health, all of which will help you better manage your weight.
Remember, as well, that body weight gain and loss can be different depending on the person. Other factors that can affect weight loss include age, sex, overall health, current weight, hormones, metabolic rate, activity levels, gut health and absorption, stress levels, mindset, access to healthy whole foods, habits, and genetics.
If you are using the CICO diet as a guideline to find ways to cut 500 calories—while reaching for nutrient-dense options (e.g., foods high in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals)—it can work well.
However, if you are using it to eat whatever you want and lose weight, you may find it a difficult path filled with potholes that slow your progress and leave you hungry for more, especially for folks who eat more processed foods or simple carbohydrates.
For the best results, don’t eat calories; eat food, preferably whole food, most of the time. If you still want to make it a math problem, change the equation to QUALITY calories in, calories out to lose weight, feel great, and build a stronger, healthier body.