Dieting is theoretically easy: burn off more calories than you consume. Hectic lifestyles and unrealistic body images along with the “I-want-it-right-now” attitude today can all contribute to unhealthy dieting practices, however. One of the most common problems involves the number of calories taken in. For many, the problem is not too many calories but too few. When the scale suddenly stops moving downward, the path of least resistance seems to be cutting food. But that’s not always the best idea.
The National Institute of Health has a formula to help you figure out how many calories you should take in to lose weight. A calorie deficit of 500 per day leads to one pound of weight loss per week. This doesn’t only mean less food, though; the deficit can be caused by exercise in combination with dietary changes.
This reduction should be made from the recommendations based upon height, sex, activity level, age and health issues. A registered dietician can also give advice.
Doctor-supervised extreme diets may restrict calorie intake to as low as 500 per day. But for the general public, the recommended minimum is 1200 calories for women and 1500 for men daily. That is enough to allow the body to function properly.
Not taking in enough calories can cause a number of problems. The body typically needs to have a minimum of 1200 calories a day just for basic metabolic functions. That means you need that many just to breathe, digest food, keep your blood pumping, and so on. Without enough food, the body’s survival instinct kicks in, and it begins to attempt to keep you from starving to death.
The resulting slowed metabolism can cause a number of health problems. Weakness, dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, gallstones, depression, and anemia are common. While many of these problems may disappear once normal calorie intake is returned, others are more long-lasting, particularly muscle loss. Infertility may also be a side effect. Women, particularly young women, who drop calories too drastically may stop menstruating, and if the deficit goes on long enough, there may be long-lasting damage to reproductive organs.
A calorie intake under 1200 calories isn’t enough for adequate vitamin and mineral intake, either. This may lead to hair loss and dry skin.
It doesn’t work
The biggest problem with eating too few calories is that it won’t help you lose weight. Sure, the scale will show a difference for a few weeks, but after that, when the metabolism slows, your body will keep a tight grip on that weight, and further effective loss, especially that of fat, will be very difficult if not impossible.
If you have just a few pounds to lose and want to drop calories drastically for a couple of weeks, you probably will not cause much harm to your body, especially if you make healthy food choices and include a multivitamin. But not eating enough calories in the long term can have disastrous consequences. After all, is losing a few more pounds really worth it if you are bald; have itchy, sagging skin; can’t stay active because of the lethargy, anemia and diarrhea; and suffer from depression? Besides, those health issues are likely to lead to weight gain.
If you are concerned about your weight and the number of calories you take in daily, talk to your doctor.
“Dietary Guidance: DRI Tables.” Usda.gov.
“Tips for Losing Weight.” Medline Plus. Nih.gov.
Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, Med, RD, LD. “The minimal calories needed?” netwellness.uc.edu.