Calorie Control or Crash Dieting for Lasting Weight Loss

standing on a scale

Moderate Calorie Control or Crash Dieting for Lasting Weight Loss?

It happens to all of us at some point; you see a recent picture of yourself and have the horrific realization that you've gained a lot more weight than you had thought.

Before you know it you're on the cabbage soup, grapefruit, boiled egg, etc. diet and combining a starvation level of food intake with hours of aerobic exercise to trim down as quickly as possible to your target weight.  But is this the best way to lose weight and keep it off?  Is extreme dieting even healthy?

Let's take a look at some facts about weight loss, the long and short-term effects of extreme diet and exercise, and the effectiveness of intelligent calorie control and lifestyle changes to discover: which is the best way to lose excess body fat?

What is Your Basal Metabolic Rate?

Your basal metabolic rate is simply the amount of energy (calories) that you burn by simply being alive.  It's the energy you use to maintain normal bodily functions without any physical activity.

It's common sense that eating fewer calories than you burn, will result in weight loss and it is also true that reducing the amount of food you eat will decrease your weight over time.  But is it as simple as that?

The USDA recommends that a typical adult male consumes between 2,000 and 2,800 calories per day depending on how active he is.  The estimate for a woman is somewhere between 1,600 and 2,400 calories daily.

Baylor College of Medicine has kindly made available this handy calorie calculator to determine both  your body mass index and approximately how many calories you personally need to eat just to maintain your current weight.

Did you use the calorie calculator?  If you haven't, go there now and come back with your maintenance calories information, I'll wait...

Great!  Now take that number and cut it down to 800 calories, because that's what most very low-calorie diets (VLC) are going to expect you to live on until you reach your target weight.

I'm willing to bet that 800 calories are between one-half to one-quarter of what you need to maintain your weight according to the Baylor College of Medicine calculator.  Yes, you'll lose weight fast, but what else will happen?

Health Effects of Extremely Low-Calorie Diets

  • You'll go into starvation mode. Drastically cutting calories will tell your body to slow down its metabolism to survive a period of starvation. This, of course, slows the weight loss process and makes you lethargic to boot.

  • Gallstones. Your liver will produce excess cholesterol on a VLC diet which can lead to developing (extremely painful) gallstones.

  • Muscle Loss. VLC diets will result in much higher muscle loss (including heart mass!( than moderate diets, and less muscle means a slower metabolism - which means you'll have to eat less (sometimes much less) to maintain your weight loss.

  • VLC diets will make you dumber.

Finally, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the risks associated with a VLC diet are too high for the average individual.  The JADA states that only people who aren't pregnant and don't have cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, sever psychological problems, or active heart problems and who have a body mass index (BMI) over 32 can consider going very low-calorie.

Finally, have you considered what happens afterward?  Do you think that it's possible to live the rest of your life on a low-calorie diet?

Very low-calorie diets inevitably result in yo-yo weight gain; you'll go back to old habits - only this time with a much lower metabolism from an extended period of starvation level eating - so you'll likely regain the weight plus a few more pounds.

man running on the side of the road

Can You Exercise Too Much?

Here is the other half of the weight loss equation; burning up all those excess calories by endless hours of aerobics.  Is this feasible?

We'll start with science: according to this research study, people who attempted to lose weight by exercising were sorely disappointed by the small to non-existent reduction in weight compared to the effort they expended.


But you're determined to go for it anyway!  Alright then, let's assume you start a routine that includes hours of aerobics and weight lifting every day - that has to make me look better, right?

These are the results you can expect from starting a truly heroic fitness regime (after being relatively sedentary):

  • Cardiac Problems. Hours of steady cardio workouts have been shown to cause heart damage.

  • Rhabdomyolysis. Your muscles can begin to break down, and you may experience kidney failure.

  • Injury. If you suddenly and drastically increase your activity level the odds are very good that you'll experience an activity ending injury.

It's painfully obvious neither extreme dieting nor extreme exercise is the healthy and long-term solution to your weight loss problem.

What is the best way to lose weight and keep it off?

Lose Weight with Math Instead

Remember that calculator from Baylor that we looked at earlier?  Let's look at the number of calories it takes to maintain your current weight again.

Research has shown that if you just cut 500 calories from that number every day you'll see a steady weight loss of about one to two pounds per week (depending on your activity levels) - that can be four to eight pounds per month!  If you divide that between three meals, it comes out to just 167 calories less per meal.  In other words: you'll barely miss it.

Add a moderate increase in physical activity (think long walks, relaxing bike rides) to the mix, and you can magnify the weight loss effect without the risk of injury.

The combination of moderately cutting back on calories and becoming more active is healthy, easily sustainable long-term, and once you've reached your target weight, you'll have a lifestyle that will ensure you stay there effortlessly.  It's just like the story of the tortoise and the hare - slow and steady wins the race!