This week I met with a new patient who had been using a popular app to lose weight, yet she wasn’t losing weight. I continually have issues with this particular app, as it puts people on very low calorie levels. Sure enough, the app put her on 1,320 calories per day.
Yes, most of us need to reduce our calories to lose weight, but how low is too low? The risk of dropping your calories too low include:
- your metabolism will actually slow in response
- hormone levels change to actually make you hungrier
- you cannot maintain the low level long-term and thus you will eventually regain the lost weight (and possibly some extra)
Diets, cleanses and detoxes lower your calorie intake, often to 1,000-1,200 per day. They may not even use the word “calories” but by eliminating white carbs, sugar, fat, or processed food, calorie intake will drop.
Like many people who struggle with their weight, my patient has gone up and down the scale. From a high of the mid-200s, she is now around 200 pounds. Like many others, her metabolism is probably pretty low and pretty slow.
Let’s take a brief detour to discuss metabolism. People with a high metabolism and a lot of muscle are like a raging fire in a fireplace. You probably know someone who can eat anything they want and never gain an ounce. A teenage boy is a great example!
Now, think of someone who seems to gain weight just looking at food, cuts calories very low yet still can’t lose weight, and complains that their metabolism is slow as a snail. Many yo-yo dieters fit in this category, after years of restricting their calories far too low, and for too long. This low-and-slow metabolism is like a few smoldering embers in the bottom of the fireplace.
Wiry calorie-burning machine = raging fire
Hard to lose weight even with strict diet = poky smoldering embers
Before you start cutting calories, you need to understand your daily calorie requirements. In Marion Nestle’s excellent book Why Calories Count, she explains the components of total energy expenditure (how many total calories we need in a day):
- the basal metabolic rate (BMR) or the basics to run our organs and body functions
- the heat effects of food–the simple processing of what we eat
- the energy expended in physical activity–exercise
- the additional increments due to fidgeting or to longer-term effects of activity –fidgeting, pacing, tapping your toes
The average BMR for males aged 31-50 is 1,680 calories, with total energy expenditure (TEE) of around 3,000 calories. For females aged 31-50 it’s 1,320 for BMR and 2,410 for TEE, on average.
If a woman who needs 2,400 calories daily goes on a 1,200-calorie diet (or lower!), that’s beneath even the BMR needed to keep her organs working.
Our bodies prefer to stay as they are, and have built-in defenses against calorie restriction. Drop your calories too low and your metabolism will also drop. Successful weight loss is much more than decreasing your calories. For long-term success, you need to:
- Boost your metabolism by spiking your poky embers into a raging fire
- Reduce your calories in a sustainable way
- Focus on a realistic weight goal (this is a separate and contentious subject)
Here is my guide on how to find a “Sweet Spot” of calorie reduction.
1. To increase the amount of calories your body uses and become what exercise expert Covert Bailey calls a “Better Butter Burner” you must MOVE more! Do resistance training, fidget, walk, park far away, take the stairs, jog or do whatever you enjoy that does not involve sitting. Build muscle! Boot camps, bar class, Spinning—it’s all great. Muscle is that raging fire. Fat cells are the poky embers. Build more muscle and you’ll increase your metabolism.
2. Do not drop your calories too low. Most women should not go below 1,400 calories. Most men should not go below 1,800 calories. Eating 1,000-1,200 calories a day is mostly unsustainable, will increase your hunger, and result in weight regain.
3. Focus on dropping your calorie intake by about 200-300 per day, and try to focus on those night-time calories. Lowering carbohydrate intake at night does seem to help many people. However, if you are already eating well and you have already cut your calories to 1,400-1,600, don’t cut your calories any further. At this point it is time for body acceptance while you work to consistently be active.
4. Do not cleanse or detox the inside of your body. Your liver does this just fine. Fitness expert Kellie Blackburn adds, “Your liver does all the cleansing we need. These fad juice cleanses are so calorie restrictive that what people lose is only a trace amount of fat, lots of water and worst of all precious muscle, which really troubles me. So what they’ve actually done is damaged their metabolism and lost fuel burning muscle!”
5. Fidget, pace and stand instead of sit. In her book, Nestle describes trials of overfeeding people thousands of calories per day. Even when all the study subjects ate around the same amount of excess calories, their weight gain varied all over the map. One difference that researchers found was that subjects who gained less weight had more of what we call NEAT–non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT basically means fidgeting and can burn many extra calories. It may be possible to help your weight control by fidgeting, pacing, and standing instead of sitting.
6. Beth’s Rule of Dieting: The stricter the diet, the more likely you will regain the weight. The dieting industry continually sells products that are a failure, yet the consumers blame themselves for failing. One of my patients recently told me, “Each time I went on Lindora I lost 75 pounds.” He wanted to go on it again. He blames himself for failure instead of blaming the diet. I know it is hard to accept yourself at a weight you are not happy with. But doing the same crazy diet over and over again will never bring you happiness.
7. Eat lunch, please! As Kellie Blackburn likes to say, “You deserve a sandwich.” A bar is not lunch. Eating a real lunch will help you with cravings later in the day. A real lunch should have at least 400 calories, and have both protein and fiber.
8. More wisdom from Covert Bailey: “Crash dieting, over exercising and fasting will slow down your metabolism.”
9. To feel full when (slightly) reducing your calories, include protein and fiber three times a day. Here are some healthy snack favorites: an apple with peanut butter; hard-boiled eggs; lentils and/or beans added to foods; Triscuits or Trader Joe’s olive oil popcorn with nuts/string cheese/Babybel cheese.
10. Think Thin bars, Weight Watchers brownies, Skinny Cow ice cream and other such products with Skinny, Thin and Weight in the title are not my favorites. I would rather you eat a Kind bar. All the ingredients on the label of your food, you should be able to buy in the grocery store.