To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. (If you’ve not come across that term before it’s just a fancy way of saying burning more calories than you consume).
The idea being, the bigger your calorie deficit, the quicker you will lose weight.
Bit it’s not as simple as that.
Food is not just a pile of calories on a plate. We eat to maintain our energy levels, to access nutrients that support bodily functions, and sometimes (shock, horror) for pleasure. It is therefore important to consume enough of what we need to live and feel well.
In this post, we are going to look at the dangers of extreme calorie-cutting, as well as the safe limits of dieting.
Dangers of extreme calorie-cutting
As a general rule, the female body needs a minimum of 1200 calories in order for it to survive and the male body needs a minimum of 1500 calories.
If a person eats less than this, then their body will go into ‘starvation mode’ and will begin to shut down non-essential functions.
In the short term here’s what this will do:
- Low energy levels
- Brain fog
- Slowed digestion
- Stomach aches
- Difficulties sleeping
Over the long term, it can lead to fertility problems, brittle nails, thinning hair, mental health problems, and disruptions to heart function.
In addition to this, nutritional deficiencies are commonly seen in very-low-calorie diets because people struggle to get their daily macro-and micronutrient needs in under 1200/1500 calories.
For example, fat is necessary for hormone production, protein for muscle maintenance and growth, carbohydrates for brain function and energy levels, fibre for gut health, magnesium and potassium for heart function, calcium for healthy bones, iron for red blood cell production and energy levels…the list goes on!
The role of supplements in reducing calories
Some people think that they can avoid the problems listed above by taking supplements. However, proper nutrition it is not as simple as taking a pill. When we eat a balanced meal, we consume a range of different macro-and micronutrients.
This aids digestion and absorption because certain ones rely on the presence of others for the body to be able to metabolise them.
For example, the body needs vitamin B12 to be able to absorb iron. Similarly, it needs vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium. So, when supplementing, you need to be aware of any complementary nutrients that the body will need to absorb the one you are taking. In addition to this, vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble.
When consumed through food this is not an issue because the vitamins will be in foods that contain fat or water, but when supplemented extra attention is needed to ensure that the vitamins are absorbable. Otherwise, they will just pass through the body.
Extreme calorie-cutting and mental health
As already mentioned, extreme calorie cutting can negatively affect a person’s mood and, over time, lead to mental health problems. In addition to anxiety and depression, which may manifest as a result of the body being deprived of energy and nutritional deficiencies, extreme calorie cutting can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and the development of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are often only thought about in relation to extreme thinness, but the truth is that anyone – of any size – can develop a disordered relationship with food. The following are all examples of a disordered relationship with food:
- Having ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ foods
- Rigidly sticking to a calorie target and ignoring physical cues to eat more
- Being unable to break from a calorie target e.g. taking an evening off dieting to enjoy a meal out
- Feeling upset or panicked at the thought of going over on calories
- Not eating food if there is no available information on its caloric content
If you recognise any of these signs in yourself, it may be a good idea to have a word with your doctor or, at the very least, to switch to maintenance calories for a few weeks to break from such a rigid mindset.
The secret to safely cutting calories
So we’ve covered the basics of calorie cutting and why it’s not exactly the best idea. So how can you safely cut calories, stay healthy and have a positive impact on your physique?
How many calories can I cut safely?
The safest way to cut calories is not to aim for the minimum number you need to stay alive, it is to cut around 500 calories from your daily expenditure. For a moderately active woman and man, this will be around 1500 and 2000 calories. Through attention to your diet, this should be enough to ensure that you get all your nutrition from food.
It is also easier to supplement your diet at these levels because you will be eating more fats. Remember, you do not need to take a supplement every day. Perhaps you have a steak for dinner one evening, then take an iron supplement with your salmon dinner the next.
Eating this way will be more sustainable than depriving yourself. Extreme low-calorie diets are known for causing binge eating episodes and weight gain in the long run. If you cut 500 calories a day, you should lose a pound a week.
This may not seem like a lot, but over the course of a few months it will soon add up. Most importantly, however, this type of steady weight loss will be manageable and will protect your physical and mental health.