Can Eating Too Few Calories Make You Fat?

If you think back to your parent’s diet a few decades ago, do you remember that people in the process of losing weight mostly had in mind calorie restriction as the method of choice to lose the fat they wanted to shed? The mindset was, if you had a diet with super low-calorie intake (the lower the better!), you could shed those pounds fast (please-like yesterday!)! It was common to believe back then that dramatically reducing your caloric intake would surely put fat loss on a fast track.

But was that true?

Or could it be that taking in fewer calories than you actually need to every day could be completely sabotaging your efforts and making you ultimately gain weight in the long run? 

According to this article, Kimberly Lummus, MS, RD, Texas Dietetic Association media representative and public relations coordinator at the Austin Dietetic Association in Austin, says, "[Seems like] It would make sense to stop eating [when you are trying to lose weight], but it actually works in the opposite way.”

So, which is it?

The answer to the question in our title is, yes. Eating an extremely low-calorie diet on a long term basis COULD have a boomerang effect and keep you from losing the weight that you desire.

And here is why...

What is a Calorie and Why Do We Need a Certain Amount Daily?

Calories are necessary to your body’s basic functioning and not just for weight control. Here’s why (brace yourself, we’re getting nerdy):

A calorie is a measurement, really; a unit of measure of energy that your body gets from the food and drink that you ingest each day. Basically, your body requires a certain amount in calories (based on your height, weight, gender, and age) in order to sustain three important processes in your body:


  1. Digestion-a body needs calories to do what is known as the Thermic Effect of digestion. Calories are required to digest and metabolize your food.
  2. Physical Activity-calories give the fuel to perform all of your daily physical demands.
  3. Basal Metabolic Rate(BMR)-a certain number of calories are needed to keep all of the major organs and systems of your body running efficiently.


What is the Risk of Insufficient Calories on a Consistent Basis?

If you’re not eating enough calories every day, there are many health problems that can result, but for the sake of this article, we are focusing only on how it can affect fat loss. You can read more about other risks here.

Here are some of the things that make eating low-calorie diets on the regular counter-productive in achieving weight loss goals:


It lowers metabolism rate. 

Some studies show that metabolism, which is how effectively your body burns the calories it takes in as energy, is lowered by as much as 23%. And, ultimately, the effects of a lowered metabolism have been found to continue even after the calorie-impoverished diet has been stopped, causing as much as 80% of people to put weight back on - and then some. Muscle loss can be the culprit here. Especially if the calories that are consumed are not found in protein.

To prevent muscle loss and a lowered metabolism rate, make sure that you are taking in enough calories to cover the minimum needs for your own personal BMR. Find out what your personal BMR should be, here on our Macro Calculator. Make sure that the calories that you take in, are balanced, and you are calculating your macros properly. See MPOF’s macro calculator here. Throwing in some good resistance exercise for good measure can’t hurt either. (wink, wink)


Calorie-restricted diets can put your body into starvation mode. 

As your metabolism slows to a crawl, your body is trying to conserve it’s energy by burning calories as slowly as possible and storing them as fat. When you see that you are storing fat like crazy and see that all your dieting is not paying off at all, what do you (and most people in this same situation) typically do? You get discouraged and frustrated, which then leads to bingeing and overeating. It’s a vicious cycle that we’re trying to help you avoid!

"It is so hard to sustain cutting calories and eating too little. What typically happens is that the person will go in the opposite direction; they will just become too hungry and go into a bingeing mode," says Lummus. "Because you are getting frustrated by not seeing any weight loss, you just sort of throw in the towel."    


Making Peace With Calories

Calories are not your enemy. In fact, they are a requisite part of leading a healthy and energetic life. "Your body needs a certain amount of calories just to sustain proper function," says Lummus. Read more about this here.

Novelty diets that cut out too many calories will leave you ready to give up and feeling drowsy. You won’t have enough energy to make it through the day. Chances are, you’re probably feeling that way already. =( It’s time to take back control of your food choices.

Instead of opting for this old, tired, and “yo-yo” way of eating, think of it as a permanent lifestyle change with tasty food and adequate calories that allows you to lose fat slowly at a few pounds per week. There is more evidence that those who do not diet, but make a lifestyle change instead, have the best chance of keeping and maintaining their ideal weight. Lose consistently by making protein rich nutrition choices, by not overeating, and exercising. Make a plan to merge these healthful habits that you will be able to stick to indefinitely. And always, always, allow yourself a little wiggle room for special occasions. 



1 Comment

  1. Starvation mode is a made up term within the weight loss industry. Metabolic adaptation or adaptive thermogenesis is a temporary condition in which your basal metabolic rate is lowered for a period of time during calorie restriction. And this is usually only the case in EXTREME calorie deficits in which muscle mass starts to decline. Your body's natural response is to preserve lean muscle so it starts to slow down metabolic functions. If you are at a calorie deficit and have fat to burn, that is what your body is designed to do, and WILL do. Much of the research on "starvation mode" is tailored to fit an agenda in the weight loss industry.

    Zach Coen, RD, LN

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