I am a firm believer that I am my own best science experiment. If there is a new (or old) diet, a new workout program, new book, new learning method, anything – I believe that the best way for me to be able to talk about is to try it out. I will always subject myself to something for the sake of science.
So with that in mind, I decided to take my body through a low calorie diet to track my symptoms, mood, weight loss, etc so when I write about it, I can come from a first hand experience like I do everything else. Low calorie diet is one of the most common way people diet. They count and cut calories like it is nothing, hoping to shed pounds and pounds of weight. And sadly they are all in for a rude awaken if that is how they think they are going to get results.
First – let’s start with some definitions.
What is a low calorie diet?
A low calorie diet is exactly what it sounds like: focusing on intaking very low number of calories. There is a ton of different research showing what that number is, and it really depends on the person and the needs. WebMD states that most very low calorie diet (actually abbreviated VLCD – go figure) is around 800 calories per day. That was CRAZY when I read that. But other sites said anywhere from 1000 – 1500 calories a day.
Please please please – if you are thinking about trying this – go ask your doctor what is best for you. As you will see in the write up, this isn’t a great diet and if you do it wrong it may have ill effects. That being said – let’s push forward.
The general idea behind a very low calorie diet is simply based on the numbers. 1 pound = 3500 calories. So if you cut/burn 3500 calories you will lose a pound. If someone is use to eating 3000 calories a day and they drop to 1000, this is a 2k cut a day. So if my math is right and we strictly follow the numbers, that is a 4 pound weight loss each week without even burning calories with exercise. Sounds great huh?? Well hold on there pilgrim…
If it sounds to good to be true…
Before you get all excited and hit Google to find the best blogs on how to follow a very low calorie diet, let’s think about this for a second.
3500 calories is 1 pound in the body. But we need to remember that the single pound we are referring to is a mix of muscle, fat, water and a few other things. It isn’t a straight fat loss. In fact – it probably is quite the opposite. Your body is a well oiled machine – or at least it is suppose to be. It knows exactly what it needs to burn in order to maintain that beautiful equilibrium it strives for everyday. You take in your 3000 calories and it goes to work. It takes the fat to areas to store for later use, it takes carbs and other energy to use immediately, and it takes the nutrients and pushes them all over the body. Doesn’t matter how much you take it, you body will find a place for it. Whatever it doesn’t need, it pushes to waste. Pretty damn amazing when you think about it.
Now this machine is running as it always has, and here you come along and all of a sudden you drop those calories. Most people think that your body is just going to go along its business doing what it always does but since you don’t have enough calories coming in, you think it just won’t push to fat and actually take the fat out of the body to maintain. VOILA! Weight loss. That isn’t actually the case at all. Your body actually freaks out. It isn’t in the usual state that it is use to, so it goes into protective mode. It starts giving areas of your body what it thinks it needs. First it is fat, which why most people usually see some sort of fat loss early on with low calorie diets. But your body wants the fat. It NEEDS the fat. That’s why it is so stubborn to lose (and not horrible to have!). Fat is an energy store in case the body needs it (like when you cut calories!), it protects vital organs and is used in various ways through the body. So when you first cut calories, your body opens those stores and lets go of some fat. But then this comes to a screeching halt because your body doesn’t want to lose all of it’s fat. So it starts slowing your metabolism so you don’t burn fat and it can save it stores, and starts burning muscle in the body of its place. Your metabolism makes your weight loss. There are people who naturally have high metabolisms and they lose weight and won’t ever stop eating. People like me have slow metabolisms, where I look at a hamburger and gain 3 pounds. Dropping calories is a great way to bring your metabolism to a screeching halt and hinder any sort of weight loss. And this is exactly what happen to me when I cut my calories, but this was way worse than a slow metabolism.
My Low Calorie Diet
As I stated earlier. I always try out things for myself before I can accurately talk about them. I recently ended a 22 day low calorie diet. I was suppose to go for 30 days, but this diet was so horrible I decided to cut the diet short.
WHAT I DID: I usually take in between 2200-2400 daily pretty religiously. I don’t deviate from my normal diet. Some days I am over. Some days I am under. This is my average. For my diet program, I decided to cut down to 1200 calories daily. 1000 calorie cut per day. 7000 per week. If my math is right, that should be a 2 pound weight loss a week simply by virtue of my diet. 4 week trial I should be 8 pounds down from the end of it. Starting weight was 195 pounds. I did not really change WHAT I ate, just the amount. I used myfitnesspal iphone app to track my caloric intake (which was my first time using it and I must say – it is pretty slick!) so I can be sure at the amount of calories compared to my goal and then also compare that to calories burned. I normally don’t track calories burned, but rather 30-45 minutes of activity each day. For this trial, I used my Suunto Heart Rate monitor to get an accurate track on calories burn. Goal is to burn 500 calories in each bout of exercise, 4-5 times per week. Workouts ended up being about 35-40 minutes so I really did not deviate from my normal workout routine. 500 calories burned 5x a week is another 2500 calories gone that should add to my weight loss. I figured that if I can stay on point, I should be around 10 pounds down.
Week 1: This diet started off great! I actually lost 7 pounds the first week! Now, this was mostly water and easy fat like every other diet when you first get going (body finding equilibrium as above). I was actually thinking this maybe great. Sure, I was hungry all the time but it was only a matter of time before my body adjusted and it works itself out. My workouts were great – I had pop in my legs, cardio was not effected and I was rolling along. Diet was on point and my calories were exactly where they should be. Ending weight: 188 pounds.
Week 2: I started to struggle week 2. My body wasn’t adjusting like I thought to the calories and I was still hungry all the time. It was harder and harder to maintain the calories. I was on point 98% of the time, but I did have those weak moments where I had to take in 200 calories more before I go insane. I started to get headaches, but I thought those would subside as my body adjusted. My workouts started getting tougher. I am a cardio junkie and normally can crank through a workout no problem. Using my heart monitor, my heart rate was higher than normal. I was doing the same work but my body was working harder than normal. Still managed to get all diet and workouts in for the week. The worst part: I LOST NO WEIGHT. All that work, all that hunger, for nothing. Talk about a motivation killer. Thank god I was only doing this for 30 days. Ending Weight: 188.
Week 3: My breaking point. I was suppose to go about 4 weeks on this one, but I ended the day after week 3 ended. Fatigue started to set in. I was tired all the time. I had problems sleeping (getting and staying asleep). When I first woke up in the mornings, I experiences this weird vertigo sensation. My workouts were not there. I had such fatigue in the legs, the second I stepped on a machine my legs would tighten up. I had no cardio stamina and I struggled to get hit that 500 calorie threshold. Heart rate was still higher than it normally is when I work out. After a workout I would feel weak in the legs and couldn’t seem to get enough water in me to prevent instant cramping. My diet was still on point with the low calorie, and I was actually adjusting to the caloric intake and wasn’t that hungry as often as I was the first 2 weeks. But here is the kicker for me: I GAINED WEIGHT. I was dumbfounded when I stepped on the scale and say a 2 pound weight gain. 2 POUNDS!! I am suppose to be losing 2 pounds a week just off the diet and here I am on point, gaining weight. All the struggle, all the pain, all the fatigue, to gain weight. I was unmotivated to say the least. Ending weight: 190.
I woke up on Monday morning starting week 4 and was sick to my stomach. Not sure what it was related to, but it was at that point I decided to throw in the towel. I got what I needed – I tried it out and now can talk about low calories.
OVERVIEW: Your body needs calories to function. If you want to be a fat burning machine, you need to have the calories to get that machine running. If you don’t put gas in your car, it isn’t going to run. Your body is the same way. My tipping point on this diet was my weight GAIN. My body was in such a shock of low calories that it actually held on to every single I ate and instead of using it for energy that I need (causing fatigue) it held on to it making sure it had what it needed to function.
I in no way shape or form ever advocate a very low calorie diet.
Sure – if I stuck with it longer I may actually have seen results, but at what costs? Losing all my muscle? Passing out at the gym? It isn’t safe. I was “cheating” on my diet by eating an extra 200 calories?!?! Since when is that OK?
Sure – I may have done it a bit extreme and I could have eased into it having my body adjust to less and less calories, but at some point, my body would get smart at what I am doing and do the same exact thing it did on the speed version. I still would have been fatigued, but only 8 weeks into instead of 2.
Bottom line is you can’t cheat yourself thin. It takes work. It takes dedication. And it takes EATING. Don’t ever let some guru tell you differently. Your body needs calories to function. But it needs fresh and healthy calories. Thinking you can eat a big mac and use those calories, you are in for something else (another post for another day). Eat healthy. Eat clean. Get some physical activity and you will get those results. But better than results, you will be healthy. Your blood will be clean, your heart will function fine and you will feel better than ever. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go make a plan to get my own body feeling better than ever after wrecking it for 3 weeks.
To Your Success,