6 Reasons drastically cutting calories may backfire

by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND
Cutting calories drastically may seem like the quickest path to weight loss —but there are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn’t cut your calories too much.
You may lose muscle mass if you cut too many calories.

Given the choice between losing weight quickly or losing weight slowly, most people would probably opt for a quick fix. And that’s understandable. Once you’ve decided to get rid of excess fat, you simply want it gone —and the sooner, the better. But when quick weight loss results from a drastic cut in your calorie intake, it also comes at a price.

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Part of the problem with cutting calories too much is that it’s simply too difficult to do it for very long. Then, you give up and end up right back where you started. That leaves you frustrated, and even more convinced that you “just can’t lose weight!”

Are You Cutting Too Many Calories?

The rate at which you are losing weight is one of the best ways to gauge if you’re cutting your calories too much. In general, a safe rate of weight loss is in the range of 1-2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kg) per week. During the first week or two of dieting you may lose a bit more – that’s normal, and is usually due to the loss of extra fluid. But if you’re consistently losing a lot more than a couple of pounds per week, you may be cutting your calorie intake too far.

In order to lose at a safe rate, you need to create a deficit of 500 calories per day (to lose a pound per week) to 1000 calories per day (to lose two pounds). This is best done by a reduction in your calorie intake, coupled with an increase in the calories you burn through exercise. So, for example, if you were to cut 300 calories a day from your usual intake and burn an extra 200 calories by ramping up your activity, you’d create a 500 calorie per day deficit, and should expect to lose about a pound in a week’s time.

In order to have enough calories to work in all the nutritious foods your body needs, though, you shouldn’t drop your daily calorie intake below 1200 calories —otherwise, it’s just too hard to meet your nutrient needs. If you can’t cut many calories from your diet without dropping below a daily intake of 1200 calories, then you’ll want to step up your activity level —and also accept that it may take you a little longer to reach your goal.

6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Cut Calories Too Much

    • It can be hard to meet your nutrient needs. When you cut back on your calorie intake, every calorie needs to be nutrient-packed in order for you to meet your body’s needs. Your daily needs for vitamins, minerals, carbs, protein and healthy fats must be met, and that can be hard to do if you don’t have enough calories to work with.
    • You may get too hungry. You shouldn’t suffer unendurable hunger while you’re trying to lose weight – but that often happens if you don’t eat enough calories. And when you get overly hungry, everything looks tempting – and you’re more likely to cheat.
    • Your physical energy can suffer. It’s important that you provide your muscles with the fuel they need. When you cut your calories too much, you might not have the energy to work out —which is so important for your overall health and to help you meet your weight loss goal.
    • Your mental energy can suffer. When you don’t take in enough calories, your brain might not get the fuel it needs —leaving you feeling tired and unfocused. That can lead to sugar cravings and unwanted calories. Or, you might lean too heavily on caffeine to keep you going, which could disrupt your sleep at night.
    • You risk losing muscle mass. Your body needs the right amount of protein to support a number of important body functions—which includes building and maintaining your muscle mass. When you don’t take in enough calories, the protein you eat might get burned for fuel, rather than being used to perform more important functions in your body. As a result, you risk losing muscle mass.
    • You won’t establish long-term healthy eating habits. I’ve often said that the healthy eating and exercise habits that you establish while you’re losing weight are the very same habits that will help you maintain your healthy weight once you’ve reached your goal. Cutting calories drastically is difficult and restrictive —and it’s not an eating pattern you can (or should) continue for very long.

Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.


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