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Diets and Weight Loss: Why Low-Calorie is Not the Answer

admin February 11, 2011

Image by mikebaird

**This post has been entered in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade**

Now that it’s the new year, are you thinking about weight loss?  A new, healthy diet?  There are many options out there aimed at helping people lose weight: South Beach, Atkins, low-fat, Eat Fat Lose Fat, and so on.  Most mainstream diet plans are very similar, though: low fat, moderate protein, moderate to low carb.  The low-fat theme is pretty common, though, as is low-calorie: portion control, consuming less than you use, etc. are the main features of any diet.

But is this really a good idea?  Is going low-calorie the best way to lose weight?  Is it really as simple as, eat fewer calories than you usually do and you’ll start dropping pounds?

First, let’s look at how the body uses calories:

Up to 75% of the calories that you take in on a daily basis are used to maintain your basic body functions, like maintaining your body temperature, breathing, heart rate, etc.  It is not safe to consume fewer calories than this, ever.  Many people require between 1200 and 1600 calories just for these basic body functions.  This is a link to a calculator for figuring out your basic metabolic needs.  Check it to see!  Mine is just over 1300 calories per day (height = 5’3″ and current pregnancy weight 132).  Ben’s basic need is 1869 per day (height = 6’2″ and weight = 180 lbs.).

Now, keep in mind that this is the absolute minimum that you can safely consume in a day.  But this doesn’t include the energy required to digest food, to have any energy, etc.  So, while it is possible to reduce your calories to this very low level, it is not a good idea.  You need an additional 10% of your calories to digest the food that you eat, so, for example, I’d need an additional 150 calories per day or so just to digest the food I do eat — taking me to a bit over 1450 calories per day.  Ben would need around 2000, maybe a bit more.

As you can see, just for your very basic functions, including food digestion, you need as much or more than most diets recommend!  And this does not include energy at all!  If you’re planning to exercise — or even just have appropriate energy to get you through the day, you will need to consume more calories than this.  Otherwise, you will become weak and tired, and begin to show signs of malnutrition (hair loss, brittle nails, joint pain, severe fatigue, anemia, etc.).  This is not the proper way to lose weight.  Your basic metabolic needs will fall as low as they can to conserve energy and your body will go into semi-starvation mode.

Semi-starvation was induced in men in a study right after WWII on around 1560 calories per day — an amount that is recommended by many diets (their pre-starvation diets were over 3000 calories but none of the men were overweight).  The study participants were much more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and even self-mutilation.  Participants were obsessed with food, socially and emotionally withdrawn, and had lowered sexual interest.  Many of these symptoms plague our society today, especially those on low-fat, low-calorie diets!  This is not safe or healthy!

Semi-starvation is a dangerous mode to live on, and can stall your weight loss.  When your body believes it will not get enough, it conserves all the calories it can and burns them as slowly as possible.  This occurs when you go below your basic metabolic needs (plus what is needed to digest the food).  So if you are on a regular diet of 1500 calories or below, you will eventually be unable to lose weight at all.

Instead of calorie-restricting diets, consider a moderate, healthy eating plan.  Do not restrict your calories or your fat intake.  Rather, eliminate processed foods, sugar, refined grains, and other “junk food.”  Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you want, even fatty ones like avocados.  Feel free to eat healthy meat and cheeses.  Eat lots of butter and coconut oil.  These foods will keep you healthy, ensure that you get the nutrition you need, yet will allow you to lose weight.  If you need to, lower your grain/carb intake (people who eat high-fat and high-carb may be unable to lose weight; people who are low in both areas will become dangerously malnourished over time).

Another day we’ll talk about why low-fat is not a good idea.  But today, hopefully we’ve dispelled the myth that if you want to lose weight you “just need to eat fewer calories.”

Have you ever been on a calorie-restricted diet?  Did you lose weight?  How did you feel, and did you experience any depression or other symptoms?

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19 Comments

  1. Like most things, I think you just have to do it right. I have never heard of a calorie-counting diet recommending that people go on a semi-starvation diet. People who do that aren't doing it right, period. I'm not arguing with that. Drinking diet "shakes" as meal replacements and eating low-fat/low-cal everything are what give actual calorie-counting diets a bad name. The general approach is for people to record what they eat, find a weekly average, and subtract 500 per day for a pound of weight loss per week (and no one says you HAVE to subtract that many! but for people who eat in excess of 3,000 calories per day, it probably wouldn't be too detrimental to their health). Most people who need to lose weight eat more than enough calories to spare a few and still leave them well above their required minimum (and carbs/grains are to blame for a lot of those extra calories).

    I charted my intake for two weeks–I ranged from 1400-2800 calories per day. Averaging out at 2,000, we cut back 250 calories per day for a goal weight loss of .5 lbs per week. It's worked and then some. I'm never hungry, I eat 3 meals a day plus snacks, I eat lots of protein (aim for 120 per day), moderate fat/carbs (around 100 per day each, though I eat a lot of chicken so sometimes I get less fat). Basically, I cut out the excessive snacking and fast food. If I were starving, miserable, depressed or anxious, I wouldn't have continued this diet. It's totally doable and totally healthy–I shed some extra pounds and I'm not worse for the wear.

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  2. Lindsey,

    There's a big difference between knowing your specific needs, then choosing to cut out things you don't need — like fast food — in order to lose weight; and going on a severely restricted-calorie diet. If you (and others) check out this link, you'll see that MOST major diet plans recommend 1500 calories per day or less: This is DANGEROUS. I don't care who you are, how long you are doing it, or what you are eating (I can practically guarantee it'll be full of low-fat, artificial sweeteners, and other fake foods), it is NOT health in the short- or long-term. Some of these diets recommend only 1200 calories per day, which is really less than the minimum any normal-sized adult needs! It's no wonder people can't stick to these types of diets and find themselves gaining more weight than they've lost! It's also not safe to try to lose 2 – 5 lbs. per week! Slow and steady wins the race, not crazy fast! I urge all people to be cautious and choose a moderate, reasonable plan, rather than one of these severely-restricted diet plans.

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  3. Hey, you're preaching to the choir. I'm just saying, if people do it RIGHT and actually figure out what they need, as an individual, it can and should work. The calculator you linked (which is flawed on its own, as all people have different metabolisms, but I digress…), for a 250lb woman, the minimum requirement is 1870ish. Chances are she wasn't eating that few calories per day to gain that much weight–imagine she's eating more like 2500/3000…cutting out 250 per day (or even 500) is not going to make her waste away and suffer ill consequences, assuming she is eating a healthy diet. But eating 3000 calories per day of healthy meats/dairy, fruits and veggies, and few grains isn't going to make her lose weight. It's still the same amount of calories–it just doesn't work that way. And eating 1500 calories worth of Weight Watchers garbage pre-packaged low-cal foods is going to make her hungry and miserable.

    Now, chances are if she cuts out the crap (grains/fast food), she won't be able to still eat 3000 calories per day of good foods, so cutting out the crap naturally lowers her caloric intake, which helps her lose weight. So, she's still cutting calories…she's just not counting them?

    She can still eat a filling, healthy diet in order to lose weight–cutting out grains helps to cut out sooo many calories anyway (I knooow eating a burger without a bun sucks, but it doesn't have to be every time, ya know?). I waste way more calories on my random snacks (like peanut butter or a protein bar) than on meat…it's amazing how much more meat I can eat and be fuller, longer, on fewer calories. But you can't eat the same number of calories and lose weight.

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  4. Thanks for posting this blog! I'm going to share the link on my facebook page. I used to be on Weight Watchers and I was miserable. At the time I'd tell people I felt so good losing weight but that was only half true. I did feel good to lose weight because I was more comfortable, but I was also tired, obsessed with food, craving sweets and generally not great emotionally with food.

    Now, I am eating full fat satisfying meals and while I still enjoy planning my next meal but I'm not obsessed with it. Sometimes I only eat twice a day and I'm not hungry (because of all the healthy fats I'm eating.) I'm losing weight at a slow rate (which I know I could go faster, but I'm not too concerned.) I also don't count anything anymore. I hated counting points on weight watchers and feeling deprived. Now I eat when I'm hungry and I know I'm filling my body with nutrient dense foods. I love drinking kombucha and knowing with every sip I'm doing something good for my body instead of drinking coke and knowing that I'm "rotting" my insides!

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  5. This post is timely as it ties in with a book I'm reading right now – The Hundred Year Diet. It talks about how our society has become so weight and food obsessed and chronicals all the different dieting fads and touches on how food has changed over time. It's a very interesting read and it really makes you think about how they have come up with things like what an ideal weight is and how you should go about losing weight and why people care in the first place.

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  6. I did read a study where the rats who consumed far less calories lived longer, looked better, and younger than their traditionally fed counterparts.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070502143834.htm
    In the end, we eat too much. We can subsist on much less that we do. We don't have to starve. We just need to be sensible. The stomach is a small pouch, not a giant cavern.

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  7. Yay. I hope you'll spend a few Fridays on this topic (hint, hint). I've read that it's difficult, if not impossible, to be fat while eating real food. I think that may be true for people that have always ate that way. But, I've been cooking about 90-95% real food for the past year and my husband still needs to lose a lot of weight. A big chunk of the problem is lack of exercise. He works a lot, but he sits at a computer all day.

    So, at first we just cut out late night snacks but he was still kind of stuck. So, we've stopped all grains in the past month and are drastically reducing carbs to help him, and I've got a few pounds to lose myself. Fortunately, we are still eating lots of veggies, more of them, lots of pastured eggs and grassfed beef.

    I look forward to all your suggestions in this area!

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  8. Have you seen anyone else writing about how calorie-restriction diets are below the level required for basic metabolic needs? Because that seems like a pretty big deal to me.

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  9. Sorry for this extra, I forgot to subscribe for the follow-ups by email. Feel free to delete this one.

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  10. Drew,

    I don't think I have. Most diets seem to just arbitrarily assign a low calorie level. And for SOME people they might be okay — a small woman (say 5'2" and starting at 150 lbs.) might do okay at 1500 calories temporarily (though still probably a bit too low), but a 6' 200 lb. man would not! Diets are not and cannot be one-size-fits-all. But modern diet plans, as many of us know, aren't exactly the smartest ideas in the world….

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  11. I am actually in the process of writing a 4 part series about my journey in eating a traditional diet. I embarked upon this new, better lifestyle about 9 months ago and can honestly say that I have NEVER been healthier. I LOVE eating fats again and not having to worry about this calorie or that calorie because the ones that I am eating are actually doing great things for me! My cravings are in check (no abolished but not out of control) and I really enjoy all the foods that I previously thought you needed to avoid. A lot of people are scared of fats and I do not think that we will see an end to the low-fat diet, calorie counting fads any time soon. I wish people would understand traditional eating more and that it was supported by our government much like all the other diets out there. Great post!

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  12. I just did the formula for figuring out how many calories I need in a day, and it's highly unlikely I don't make it most days. No wonder why my weight's been stagnant and fluctuating again. Guess it's time to figure out how to get some more good stuff into my diet without resorting to evening snacks of dark bread with butter. (i'm going to need to seriously cut grains soon before I start the body ecology diet.)

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  13. er, in my last comment I meant that I don't make the count, not that I go over as I implied. oops.

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  14. I would also like to hear more posts on this subject. I am a weight watchers convert, as well. I have only been eating real food for 2 months now, but really trying to make it count. I have about 50 lbs to lose and it is hard to move past the idea that the weight should come off quickly. The weight did come off fairly quickly when my husband and I were doing no grains for a month, but I'm worried now that we are eating grains again.
    What DO you suggest for real food and weight loss? I am exercising 3-4 x's per week/ and avoiding fast food and processed foods as part of my regular diet. I did like what you said in one of the comments about losing less per week is much healthier than expecting to lose 2-5 lbs/week. Maybe I just need to change my thinking?

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  15. Lindsey,

    “But eating 3000 calories per day of healthy meats/dairy, fruits and veggies, and few grains isn’t going to make her lose weight. It’s still the same amount of calories–it just doesn’t work that way.”

    I have to disagree with you. Not all calories are created equal. You can eat the same amount of calories of good food as you would bad food and lose weight. Your body processes the good calories differently and it will have a big affect on your body as far as weight loss, energy levels, muscle gain, etc. I do agree that once you cut out the junk food and start eating real food and good fats, you probably won’t need to consume as many calories because it won’t take as as many good calories to keep you full.

    It might take a little longer to do it this way but to say that a calorie is a calorie and they’re all the same is just not true.

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  16. Do you have any recommendations for someone who has been taking in too few calories for too long? I started out cutting down on calories about 5 or 6 years ago hoping to lose weight. I weighed 180 then. I weigh 200, 5’5″, female, and have not lost a pound in those five years, but gained 20. I recently purchased a Fitbit One, a movement tracking device with a health log app. I am moderately active – getting my 10,000 steps in per day. I found out my average daily calorie intake is below 1000. I know if I eat more I will gain even more weight.

    Reply

    • Eat a diet rich in whole foods. Avoid processed foods and sugar. Eat when you are hungry, but stop when you are full. Have you had your thyroid tested and/or been tested for food allergies? There may be an underlying cause to your weight gain, I would dig deeper!

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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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