April 03, 2019 5 min read

Why Eating too Few Calories Hurts Your Efforts at Weight Loss…and What To Do About It Part Three

By: Kyle Kamp, RDN, LD of Valley to Peak Nutrition

Instagram: @v2pnutrition

The first two articles in this series looked at how eating too few calories can hurt a person’s efforts at weight loss.  There’s hardly anything more frustrating than feeling like you’re giving 100% effort to obtain a goal, but constantly hitting barriers on the road to success. 

The first article looked at how aiming to eat a low-calorie diet can completely sabotage someone’s efforts by actually making them want to eat more.  The second article reviewed how low calories diets over a period of time can lead to fewer calories burned at rest and throw off how the body perceives hunger, fullness, and stress. 

As great as it is to have this knowledge in our arsenal, it still doesn’t give us the remedy.  Let’s take a look at what the best approach to increasing calories in an effort to promote weight loss is.

What The Heck Is A Reverse Diet?

A lot of people have coined the phrase “reverse dieting” to describe the process of increasing a person’s calorie intake to promote weight loss.  This sounds incredibly mystical, but it’s not in practice.  It’s a two-step process focused on helping that individual lose weight.  It Includes:

  1. Slowly increasing calories.
  2. Reducing calories to a point that allows someone to eat enough to be compliant on a calorie-deficit while still promoting weight loss.

A Slow and Steady Increase

It seems counter-intuitive to increase calories in an effort to lose weight, but that’s exactly what needs to happen to burn more calories at rest after a person has been eating on a very low-calorie diet (think 500-1000kcal per day) for a number of weeks, months, or years.  The slow and steady increase will help increase basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is simply the number of calories the body uses at rest.  It may not raise allthe way to where it should be, but it will increase.  This is key in the weight loss equation.

The one caveat to the increase is understanding this isn’t an unlimitedincrease.  There should be an endpoint in mind and that endpoint should be close to a number that actually causes a person to stop losing weight.  It doesn’t cause this individual to gainweight necessarily, but it’s also a point where they’re no longer losing weight either. We call this calorie-range a person’s “maintenance needs”.  Really fancy; right? 

Once at this level, you can implement step two, which is scaling back calorie intake to a healthier deficit.  The difference between this deficit and the very low-calorie diet (consuming less than 1,000kcal per day) a person had been following is this deficit is actually sustainable. It also helps continue to burn more calories at rest (through increased BMR) and provides more “wiggle room” for people to enjoy foods they actually like. 

Wiggle room is an important thing when trying to lose weight as we pointed out in part one of our series.  It’s this wiggle room that helps folks be more compliant when reducing their calories.  The more flexibility they feel they have, the more likely they are to be compliant.  The more compliant a person is, the more consistent they’re likely to be.  The more consistent they are, the more they’re likely to see success. 

Take It Slow

It’s important to understand up front this won’t be an overnight ordeal and will require a commitment from anyone wanting to take this on.  I know it’s not as appealing as the guy selling his lose 30lbs in 30 days! package, but I can promise it will last much longer than what ol Slick Steve is trying to sell on his midnight infomercials.   

It’s tempting to immediately increase calories by a lot, but the goal is more along the lines of a 50-100kcal increase rather than a 500-1000kcal one.  For example, if a person had been eating 1100 kcal per day for a period of time, the next step may be an increase to 1200kcal dispersed appropriately among carbohydrate, protein, and fat.  The incremental increase would continue every couple of weeks until the goal is reached. 

Get Off the Scale

It’s tempting for folks to want to weigh themselves daily during this process, but doing that could prompt manic-mode 1000.  Weight can fluctuate a great deal in normal (non-dieting) circumstances, but may fluctuate even more during this process.  That’s normal, expected, and doesn’t mean the increase is a gain in fat. It couldbe fat, but weight gain can be due to a number of factors that include fluctuations in water, menstrual cycles for women, and muscles being refilled with good nutrition (google glycogen if interested).  Because of this fact, it’s vitally important that a person tackling this trusts the process, remembers the bigger picture and their long-term goals.  It will take time, but be worth the patience it takes to see it through.  

Moving Forward

“Eat more to lose weight!” is incredibly misleading and can cause a great deal of confusion.  In reality, it’s far less Lord of the Rings-ish and really just an approach to increase the metabolism of someone who has been following a very low-calorie diet for a long period of time.  It’s very basic concepts that will help a person reach a calorie intake that is both sustainable and helps them meet their goals.  Once there, they can begin to focus on the basics.  There are four common attributes I’ve seen the most successful people have in losing weight over the years:

  1. They all plan. They don’t just wing it and casually eat as they go about their day.  They develop and more importantly, they stick to it. 
  2. They all track via one method or another (app-based, utilizing excel, notebook, etc..).
  3. They all measure. It doesn’t matter if everything is recorded and tracked if it’s recorded and tracked in the wrong amounts.  How can we be sure “1 cup of rice” is actually one cup if we don’t use something to measure the rice with? 
  4. They’re all consistent. This is huge!  It doesn’t matter if they plan, track, and measure if they’re not doing it day in and day out.  This may be the biggest of the four.

Don’t take the bait and believe there is some untold mystery behind “reverse dieting”.  Patience, trusting the process, and consistently doing the basics are the foundations to seeing this through to success.

Kyle Kamp, RDN, LDis a Registered Dietitian who runs Valley to Peak, a company aimed at helping you perform at your highest level in the mountains.  He offers coaching, accountability, and custom nutrition plans built to help you accomplish your goals.  The work is based in science, research, and has been proven to enhance the performance of everyone from mountain-based athletes to weekend warriors.


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