Does Calorie Deficit Work With Unhealthy Food?

Everyone has those moments when they want to eat something unhealthy just for the pleasure of eating. But at the same time, this may impact your calorie deficit.

Does calorie deficit work with unhealthy food?

Calorie deficit does work even with unhealthy foods because as long as you deliver fewer calories than your daily energy expenditure, your body will use stored energy for fuel. However, unhealthy foods are usually high-calorie dense, which means a small amount can get you over your limit.

In other words, all you need is a couple of burgers with chips to be above your calorie deficit. The better way is to eat low-calorie dense foods so you can eat more of them, and they will keep you full for longer.

Can I Eat Unhealthy And Still Lose Weight?

You can eat unhealthly and still lose weight because weight loss is the effect of a calorie deficit and is creates regardless of the types of food you eat. Calorie deficit works even with unhealthy foods because as long as you’re in a negative energy balance, your body will lose weight.

The problem is when people eat unhealthly, food composition, the lack of nutrients, and the number of processed fats and sugars not only have a lot of calories, but they also trigger appetite and hunger pangs.

Unhealthy foods typically have:

  • Lack of fiber
  • Lack of water content
  • Processed sugar and fat
  • Low protein

Fiber-rich foods not only help with our gut microbial, improve digestion, help with gut motility but they also increase the satiety of food. You feel like you don’t wanna eat more because you’re full.

Water in fruits and veggies (even in cooked rice or pasta) minimize the calorie effect of the food. So the higher the water amount, not only we feel more satisfied but also improves our hydration.

Processed sugar and fats are extremely easy to digest, therefore, the body has no problems releasing them into the blood. But when you eat some complex carbs (potatoes, pasta) this glucose has to be extracted from the starch. Which, depending on the food, it can take from several minutes to several hours.

Proteins are the hardest to digest, therefore, they cost the most amount calories to digest. Also, they keep your lean body mass (muscle) high, which in itself, burns 70% of the daily calories.

Does It Matter What Food You Eat If You Are In A Calorie Deficit?

It doesn’t matter what food you eat if you’re in a calorie deficit. Calorie deficit creates metabolic adaptations where your body is switching from using external calorie sources (food) to using internal calorie sources (stored body fat), regardless of what food you eat.

However, just because you can eat unhealthy, it doesn’t mean you should. Because eating only unhealthy foods also comes with consequences (source).

  • Higher hunger

More hunger can lead to eating more than you need.

  • Constant appetite

Appetite and cravings for foods that you don’t want to eat will cause unnecessary stress.

  • Fluctuation is glucose levels

Fluctuations in glucose levels will lead to low energy during the day.

  • Lack of essential nutrients

Long-term unhealthy diet will cause lack of mandatory vitamins and minerals

  • Decrease in lean body mass

Low-quality foods that don’t have enough proteins will slow down muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle protein breakdown.

What Should I Eat For A Calorie Deficit?

For a calorie deficit, you should be eating foods that are high in protein and high in complex carbohydrates. Those foods will deliver enough fiber, water, and amino acids, which leads to higher satiety, lower appetite, lower food cravings, and high lean body mass.

There are a number of foods that can help you maintain satiety. Here is the list of protein you can eat for a calorie deficit:

  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Seafood

Here is the list of complex carbohydrates you can eat for calorie deficit with a high satiety score:

  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Brown pasta
  • Baked beans
  • Grapes
  • Whole grain bread

Should You Feel Hungry In A Calorie Deficit?

You can feel hungry on a calorie deficit. It is normal to feel physical hunger when you haven’t eaten a meal for several hours or you have eaten much less than usual. Physical hunger is a signal coming from your gut and it’s triggered by the hormone ghrelin.

But when you’re on calorie deficit it’s easy to confuse two different type of hunger:

  • Physical hunger

This one comes from your gut and is telling you is time to eat.

  • Psychological hunger

This one comes from your head and is telling you that you want to eat or you feel like eating something. It can be triggered by emotions, boredom, feelings, thoughts, or some uncomfortable situations.

Being able to distinguish between those two types of hunger will help you stay more consistent with your calorie deficit.

Does Calorie Deficit Mean Negative Calories?

A calorie deficit means that you’re in a negative energy balance, which is taking in fewer calories than your body is using. Over 70% of calories go for all the essential processes, and when you eat less than your body needs, it will start taking the rest of calories from the stored body fat.

Your body uses energy for multiple processes:

  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR)
  • Thermic effect of food (TEF)
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
  • Physical activity

Those calories are being used daily, regardless if you eat or not. So when you have a meal, the food is being broken down, absorbed, digested, and converted into energy to be used for those processes (source).

What Is Negative Energy Balance?

A negative energy balance is when you consume fewer calories than your body needs daily to perform the essential processes. Those metabolic processes happen involuntarily, so negative energy balance will create metabolic adaptation and start to utilize stored energy (body fat).

What Is Positive Energy Balance?

Positive energy balance is when you eat more energy (calories) than your body is using daily. All the processed (digestion, cognition, and nutrient transport) requires calories and anything that is been consumed above the requirements is gonna be stored as an energy source (body fat).

Eating Junk Food But Staying Under Calories

Eating junk food but staying under calories can be done on an infrequent basis as a way to relax from stress. Prolonged calorie deficit and dieting can create extra stress, so having a day or two where you eat junk, but stay under the calories can help you sustain the process.

Which Is The Healthiest Junk Food?

The healthiest junk food is the one that you can do yourself at home. Eating junk food doesn’t have to mean eating garbage or processed food. If you like convenient food, you can still eat them on a daily basis, and improve the nutrient density by cooking it yourself.

  • Homemade pizza
  • Sweet potato fries
  • Homemade tacos
  • Mixed ice cream (with nuts, chocolate, raisins, seeds)
  • Homemade popcorn

Can I Eat Chips On A Calorie Deficit?

You can eat chips on a calorie deficit. As long as you’re eating less food in total during the day and hit the calorie deficit, there is nothing wrong with eating chips. However, chips are low on fiber and high in processed fats that can lead to increased appetite and overeating.

Both fiber and fat content play a role in our appetite and satiety (source).

  • Oven-baked chips

Oven-baked chips has low amount of fat, therefore, they lower our “need” or “wanting” to eat more.

  • Deep-fried chips

Contain much more fat, which increases the sensitivity to sensory-specific satiety. This means the more fat you eat, the more appetite you will have.

Can I Eat Cake On A Calorie Deficit?

You can eat cake on a calorie deficit. As long as the total amount of calories is lower than your calorie expenditure, you can eat cakes and sweets. However, cakes and sweets are high in processed sugar, which can lead to faster glucose release into the blood and spike insulin levels.

  • Simple sugars

Are easily digested by amylase (digestive enzyme) because they already have been stripped down from any starch and fiber. Therefore, it will take no time to digest and elevate sugar levels, comparing to eating more starchy, harder-to-digest foods (pasta, rice, potatoes).

TIP Cakes has a 0.65 satiety score (comparing to 1.0 white bread) which means you will get hungry soon after you eat some.


Eating unhealthy while on a calorie deficit doesn’t have to means you need to eating garbage food.

With a little extra time and creativity, you can prepare delicious foods that are fun to do, taste amazing, and are much healthier than their processed versions.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is a personal trainer and writer at Millennial Hawk. He holds a MSc in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Central Lancashire. He is an exercise physiologist who enjoys learning about the latest trends in exercise and sports nutrition. Besides his passion for health and fitness, he loves cycling, exploring new hiking trails, and coaching youth soccer teams on weekends.

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