If I had a dime for every time a person explained how little Calories they were eating with little to no weight loss occurring… I’d have a lot of dimes.
No one can truly argue with the validity of energy balance being the driver of weight loss. If you consume less Calories (ie. Energy) than your body is burning over a period of time, your body will burn stored energy and, thus, weight loss will occur. I could get into the specifics of where that stored energy is coming from and how to persuade the body to favour fat loss over muscle loss, but that’s for another article. What I really want to dive into today is that eating less isn’t always the answer. Although eating less pretty reliably continues the weight loss momentum when progress is stalling, there are some situations in which eating less is not the most ideal intervention for long-term success.
Sustainability is key
If you can’t maintain a similar diet to the one you’re using to lose the weight long-term, the results you attain from said diet are not likely to last long-term. With that said, a Calorie deficit is not meant to be maintained long-term, but a moderate deficit withholding a reasonable number of daily Calories for your size (read: more than your calculated Basal Metabolic Rate in Calories per day) could easily be tweaked into a sustainable, weight-maintenance diet once the weight is off. On the flip side, some people may be tempted to slash Calories down to or below BMR (the Calories needed to keep the body functioning at complete rest over 24 hours) in order to see quick fat loss or to continue fat loss during a long weight-loss phase. The drastic differences between such diet and a healthy weight-maintenance diet are too much to consider the former even somewhat sustainable; therefore, the results are less likely to be sustained.
A good rule of thumb is that the lower you push Calories down, the more risks you must be willing to take and the closer you get to the danger zone. In the case of pursuing a short-term weight loss goal like a bodybuilding competition, important photoshoot or, in some cases, a wedding or vacation, the very low-calorie approach may be worth the risks to you. However, in such case, I’d recommend working with a professional who cares about your health and wellbeing in the long-term and can help you transition out of such a drastic, short-term period.
Is your body trying to tell you something?
Say you’ve been in weight-loss mode for some time. You’ve lost some weight but still aren’t where you want to be. However, your daily Calories have been cut down so much already that there isn’t much room to continue slashing Calories without entering the danger zone.
Sound familiar? This scenario is probably more common than you’d think. Especially for those who have been perpetually stuck in the diet cycle for years (in some cases, for most of their lives), it’s not uncommon to be stalled overweight while eating very little and exercising a lot.
I don’t want to throw up the term “metabolic damage” 1. Because it’s too often used as a scare tactic and 2. Because it doesn’t really exist. However, the metabolism is very adaptive and, therefore, can adapt to surviving on very little Calories per day while remaining overweight, especially for those who have yo-yo dieted for years and have rapidly lost weight and gained weight repeatedly.
In such a case, the unfortunate reality is that your body is telling you to stop dieting. Pushing Calories lower will only dig yourself deeper and deeper into the hole, making is even harder to come back healthy and happy in the long-term.
So, what should you do?
There’s only so far you can push your body and there’s only so far you should push your body. There is a definitive breaking point where the only solution is to step away from dieting and focus on restoring a healthy metabolism. This process can be very scary and daunting because weight gain is likely to occur. For someone who is already unhappy with their weight and wishes to continue losing, eating more and gaining weight doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction. It’s important to take a step back and analyze what’s best for the long-term. You’ll never lose the weight and keep it off if you’re resorting to drastic, completely unsustainable measures.
Restore your health first. Losing the weight and keeping it off will be a breeze from there.