When it comes to the weight loss “game”, I see clients time and time again working to see just how low they can get their calorie intake.
Suzy Q comes in for assessment; we give a calorie goal of 1400-1500 calories per day. Suzy comes back in a week or so later and proudly exclaims that she managed to stay at 1300 calories or less per day AND workout for at least an hour 4 days a week!
What could be wrong with this? Fewer calories in = more weight loss, right? Unfortunately, not so much. While there may be an initial plummet in weight loss from this approach, it is not a sustainable method and will almost always lead to drastic regaining of the weight, often adding back additional pounds over what the client initially set out to lose. Studies and experience have shown time and time again that steady, 1-2 pounds per week weight loss is the healthiest, most sustainable, and successful approach to weight loss. Yes, I realize that can be frustrating; 2 pounds a week?! Maybe only one!? But, think of it this way – how long did it take you to gain the weight? Almost certainly it was not just a matter of weeks or months. Why would you think your body would be willing to part from the extra pounds its so carefully nurtured and clung to over the past years in just a matter of days, weeks, or months? A good rule of thumb? If it took you x number of years to put it on, shooting for the same amount of years to get it off is an absolutely perfect goal.
Where does this 1-2 pounds to week come from and why is it important to stick with the calorie recommendations we give to accomplish this? Well, one pound of fat = 3,500 calories. To lose 1 pound a week, that means a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. To lose 2 pounds per week, you need a calorie deficit of ONE THOUSAND (1,000) calories PER DAY. For many, that might mean cutting their typical intake by almost half. Not only is that difficult to do psychologically, as you’ll probably be hungry and wondering what you CAN eat, but your body is definitely not happy or receptive to such a drastic change. In fact, your body reacts as if you are perhaps in a time of famine. It was used to this lovely, regular intake of energy. Then, overnight, you slash that intake. Your body’s response? “Whoa! Supplies must be low! Everybody, quick, slow down; metabolism, you need to cut back and quick! We’re low on fuel and need to hold onto the reserves so we can last until fuel is available again!” It some sense, our bodies have not let go of the “flight or fight”/”hunt/gather” mentalities of old. Energy is conserved so that if there is an emergency, we are able to flee or fight. Energy is conserved so that when the need arises, we can hunt or gather the food needed. Our bodies don’t recognize that we already have plenty of stored reserves; they were used to a certain level of fuel influx and anything less than that seems inadequate.
When we slowly lower that intake, cutting just 500 or so calories a day, our body doesn’t feel as deprived. It worries less and is willing to go with the flow and see how things turn out if it keeps running at its normal levels, despite less fuel coming in. In this case, it uses some of its plentiful reserves. There is enough fuel still coming in every day that it’s not concerned about running out or getting too depleted. So, the calorie goal we provide you with is the amount we think your body can do without and still function at its normal level. When you try to go beyond that, you actually create the opposite effect, encouraging your body to hoard all of its stores and cling to them desperately. Additionally, this calorie deficit we tell you to aim for, the 500 or up to 1,000 calories less IN per day, it’s a combination of the food you eat AND the activity you do. So, if you go to the gym and burn 500 calories running or using the elliptical, and then you ALSO drop your food intake down by 500 calories, you’re at the 1,000 calorie deficit maximum we would recommend.
Let’s go back to Suzy Q. Suzy was supposed to aim for 1400-1500 calories per day. Instead, she was at 1300 AND worked out several days a week for an hour. So, on workout days, Suzy was actually burning additional calories so that her net intake was even LOWER than 1300.
1300 calories IN – 300 calories burned at the gym = 1,000 total calories IN
That’s a full 400-500 calories LESS than her goal. Perhaps a more meaningful way to look at it is over the scope of an entire week. At 1450 (the average of the 1400-1500 calorie range recommended), Suzy would have taken in 10,150 calories in one week. At her current 1,000/day calories “IN”, she’s only getting 7,000 calories per week. That’s an additional 3,150 calories on top of the already recommended 3,500 calorie deficit for the week (500 calories less per day x 7 days = 3,500 calories less, or 1 pound of weight loss). So, instead of being at a calorie deficit of 3,500 for the week, Suzy is actually closer to a deficit of 6,700 calories! That’s almost the same as her current intake and almost double the recommended for safe, effective, healthy weight loss. Not only will Suzy be hungry, headachey, potentially dizzy, and probably unhappy, but after a potential initial big drop in weight, she will soon find herself tapering and losing nothing, potentially even GAINING weight, despite her massive efforts.
Moral of the story: you came to us at CoreLife because you believed we, as health professionals, were best equipped to help you with your weight loss journey. Trust us! If you have questions, ask us! Work WITH us! You’re not competing to “beat” the goals we give you; just reach toward the goals we’ve set together and let us continue to be your partner in this journey.
To your health and happiness. Hope to see you soon!
Aubrey MS RDN