Losing weight and keeping it off requires small, sustainable changes in nutrition and exercise habits that last the test of time. Instead of drastically slashing calories, which can harm your metabolism and slow down weight loss, most experts recommend a 300–500 calorie deficit each day. This, combined with regular movement, sets you on your way to successful weight loss you can maintain long-term.
To cut back on calories without feeling deprived, mix and match a few strategies from this list that work with your lifestyle, preferences and schedule, and you’ll save an extra 300–500 calories per day without feeling deprived.
SAVES UP TO 200 CALORIES
SWAP SOUR CREAM FOR PLAIN GREEK YOGURT
Trade a 2 tablespoon scoop of sour cream (57 calories) for 2 tablespoons of low-fat plain Greek yogurt in any recipe and save 35 calories.
SWAP A CANDY BAR FOR CHOCOLATE-COVERED NUTS
Saves 50 calories
Rather than getting your chocolate fix with a candy bar (containing 200 calories or more), try chocolate-covered nuts. One ounce of SkinnyDipped cocoa almonds, which are coated in a thin layer of chocolate contains 150 calories, saving you 50 calories. As a bonus, eating nuts can help prevent weight gain, per research in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.
SWAP NUT BUTTER FOR PEANUT BUTTER POWDER
Saves 70 calories
Instead of adding a tablespoon of nut butter to your oatmeal or a smoothie, add in the same amount of peanut butter powder to save 70 calories. Made from roasted peanuts pressed into powder form, it cuts back on calories from fat and still adds the same delicious peanut taste.
SWAP A LARGE FOR A MEDIUM
Saves 70 calories
“Calories and sugar can add up fast in gourmet coffee drinks,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RD. Luckily, there are several ways to prevent your coffee from being a calorie and sugar bomb. One is downsizing, she says. Shorten your order of a vanilla latte from a large to a medium and you’ll save 70 calories.
SWAP A LATTE FOR A MISTO
Saves 70 calories
You can also try swapping a regular latte for a misto or café au lait, which is different because it uses coffee (instead of espresso) and less milk, but you still get that creamy, satisfying drink.
SWAP PRETZELS FOR POPCORN
Saves 77 calories
One cup of pretzels is 154 calories. Instead, Retelny recommends 2 cups of air-popped popcorn sprinkled with 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast (for nutty flavor and added protein), which saves 77 calories.
SWAP DIET SODA FOR SPARKLING WATER
Saves 88+ calories
Yes, drinking diet soda saves calories compared to regular soda, but it’s still not great for your health — artificially sweetened drinks have been linked to Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Moreover, overweight adults who drink diet soda consume 88 more calories from food than those who drink sugary drinks, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. Try swapping diet soda for bubbly water with a slice of lemon or lime instead.
SWAP A CLASSIC SANDWICH FOR AN OPEN-FACED ONE
Saves 90 calories
Assemble a traditional sandwich, but leave off the top piece of bread to save 90 calories.
SWAP BACON FOR BERRIES
Saves 100 calories
Whether you’re ordering at a restaurant or making breakfast at home, substituting bacon for fruit saves calories and fat and ups your antioxidants. Three thick slices of bacon adds roughly 170 calories. Skip the bacon alongside your morning breakfast and go for a cup of fiber-rich fruit, like berries to save 100 calories.
DRINK WATER FIRST
Saves 100 calories
Having a glass of water before a meal fills you up a bit to cut down the number of calories you consume, research shows, and could save up to 100 calories.
SWAP EXTRA PASTA FOR MORE VEGGIES
Saves 100 calories
One cup of cooked pasta contains 220 calories. Instead, Heller recommends serving yourself a 1/2-cup serving and toss in another 1/2 cup of non-starchy veggies, like broccoli and peppers to save about 100 calories. You’ll also get extra fiber and micronutrients.
PRELOAD YOUR MEAL
Saves 134 calories
Past research suggests enjoying a green salad with vinaigrette or a cup of soup before your main meal can save up to 134 calories at that meal. What’s more, adding — rather than subtracting — food puts you in the mindset of abundance rather than scarcity, which can help you feel satisfied and prevent overeating later in the day, further saving extra calories.
Switch from a flavored latte to an unsweetened café misto and shake in extra cinnamon and nutmeg for flavor to save 140 calories. Or, drink your coffee black (zero calories) with a touch of cinnamon, which adds flavor and antioxidants.
CUT ALCOHOL IN HALF
Saves 60–150 calories
Don’t just mind the recommended alcohol limits (one drink per day for women and two for men), but cut your current intake in half. For instance, instead of one 5-ounce glass of white wine, pour a half glass and fill the rest with sparkling water for a spritzer to save about 60 calories. Stick to one beer at night instead of two to save about 150 calories. What’s more, minimizing alcohol consumption can help prevent overeating and interrupted sleep, both of which can save you even more calories.
SWAP CAULIFLOWER RICE FOR RICE
Saves 160 calories
Rather than scooping a stir-fry onto rice, which contains 204 calories per cup, try veggie rice, like cauliflower, to save about 160 calories. If you don’t love the taste, you can also mix 1/2 cup of regular rice with 1/2 cup of cauliflower rice to save more than 80 calories.
RETHINK PRE-DINNER SNACKS
Saves 180 calories
Are you someone who snacks through chips and salsa or cheese and crackers before dinner? Hedge your appetite by eating a little something, which can also help prevent overeating during dinner. Retelny recommends crunchy carrots and mini cucumbers dipped in hummus. Or, try a rice cake with 1 tablespoon of pesto and a thin slice of mozzarella. Compared to a serving or two of tortilla chips, you can save upwards of 180 calories.
SAVES 200—300 CALORIES
EAT MORE PLANT-BASED FOODS
Saves 200 calories
A good goal is to make more of your meals plant-based, says Heller. “These help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases,” she says. For example: Prep a grain or taco bowl sans meat but double up on veggies to save about 200 calories. If you can, make extra veggies so you have lots of leftovers to add to lunches during the week.
SWAP SALAD FOR SOUP
Saves 200+ calories
Salads are great — unless you’re adding handfuls of cheese or loading up on creamy calorie-rich dressings to make them palatable — something Heller often sees clients do, which really ups the calories. If you’re not a salad person, don’t force yourself to eat it. Instead, make homemade vegetable-based soup to have for lunch throughout the week, she recommends. Depending on your usual salad accouterments, this could save you 200 calories or more.
CLOSE THE KITCHEN
Saves 200+ calories
“I recommend closing the kitchen after dinner unless you’re getting a beverage like herbal tea,” says Heller. Make it a rule that you can’t enter after dinner. (If you are truly hungry, then of course eat, but often nighttime snacking is habitual, not driven by hunger.) Potential savings: At least a couple hundred calories, depending on what midnight snacks you choose.
“The goal is to make healthy choices as often as possible and manage other issues like blood sugar and cholesterol,” says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health. One change you can make: “Instead of a muffin, which will leave you really hungry in a couple hours, prioritize protein, like plain Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts,” she says. A store-bought muffin can be upwards of 450 calories; eating 1/2 cup Greek yogurt with 1/4 cup blueberries and 1/4 cup almonds clocks in at 220 calories, a savings of 230 calories.
SAVES 300—500 CALORIES
DOWNSIZE STARCHY CARBS
Saves 300 calories
“Think of the starchy carbs [like peas, potatoes, corn, rice or pasta] as a satellite, smaller part of the plate,” says Retelny. “Measure out starchy foods and try to keep it to a 1/2-cup cooked, if possible,” she recommends. Doing so saves about 100 calories, so if you do this at every meal, that’s 300 calories saved per day.
REDUCE RED MEAT
Saves 382 calories
Cutting back on the portion of red meat you consume, like steak, allows you to incorporate it into your diet without overdoing it — especially since restaurants and cuts from the grocery store are typically larger portions. An 8-ounce steak contains 568 calories. Trim it down to 4 ounces, cut around the fat, and you’ll save 382 calories.
Portion sizes at restaurants tend to be on the larger size and meals are often loaded with extra calories from oils and heavy sauces. Ask your waiter to box up half your meal when you order, or save half of takeout dishes and put them in the fridge for later. Doing so can easily save 500 calories or more, according to research.
Originally published November 2020, updated with additional reporting
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