**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?