What Counts as a Low-Calorie Diet?
A low-calorie diet doesn’t have to be complicated. “A low-calorie diet, in my opinion, is one that contains fewer calories than you generally consume,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, of New York City, the creator ofBetterThanDieting.com and the author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You From Label to Table.
For weight maintenance, theDietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 suggest a range of 1,600–2,400 calories for women and 2,200–3,000 for men — so you could consider anything below these numbers a low-calorie diet. But some popular diet plans take users to extremely low levels. (The HCG diet, for example, supplies as low as 500 calories per day, and the Master Cleanse offers a range of 600-1,200 calories.) Other low-cal eating plans, like the TLC diet and Jenny Craig diet hover higher, near the 1,200 to 1,600–calorie mark, or calculate a specific number based on your current weight and goal weight.
How a Low-Calorie Diet May Help or Harm Weight Loss
A low-calorie diet is a straightforward, research-confirmed path to weight loss, with plenty of journals, calculators, apps, and other resources available for calculating your progress. Plus, a standard lower-calorie eating plan doesn’t typically restrict any specific foods (or their timing), so it can be a flexible alternative to certain popular diets that tell you exactly what and when to eat.
That said, a slash-and-burn approach to calories may come with downsides. Meticulous tracking of numbers and portion sizes can be unhealthy territory for some people, ultimately creating disordered eating behavior. If you have a history of an eating disorder or a problematic relationship with food, it’s best to approach calorie counting with caution; enlist the help of a therapist or registered dietitian, if possible.
Regardless of your mental health history, a super-low-calorie diet may not be sustainable in the long term. “For most people, reducing calories alone is not going to be the answer to lifelong success at maintaining a desirable weight,” says Taub-Dix. "It also takes introspection, mindfulness, and some sort of physical activity to make this process successful.” Indeed, a study in the April 2018Obesity Science and Practice found that improvements in mental health over 12 months were associated with greater weight loss success. And plenty of research supports the notion that physical activity enhances weight loss by burning more calories.
Why Cutting Calories Too Much Can Be Harmful
We all need calories for survival. If your body senses it’s not getting enough, it will fight the process with a mechanism known as “starvation mode” — opposing your sought-after weight loss outcome. “Starvation mode is a defense mechanism that the body uses to prevent fat loss and starvation. The idea is, your body wants to use your fat to keep you alive, so you don’t burn as many calories,” explains Spiegel. “This lowers your metabolic rate, which means you’re using less calories. If you cut back your calories too much, it hinders weight loss.”
To prevent weight loss plateaus, Spiegel recommends a goal of 1 to 2 pounds lost per week. “If you lose more than that, you’re losing body fluid and muscle mass.”
In other words, if you want the weight loss to be permanent, don’t rush the process.
Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Calories
Though a svelte body may be desirable, signs of malnutrition aren’t attractive. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the following are signs that you’re not getting enough calories:
- Fatigue or low energy
- Constant hunger
- Brain fog or inattention
- Hair loss or brittle hair
- Anxiety, depression, or mood swings
- Inability to get warm
How to Follow a Low-Calorie Diet Safely
If you’re looking to trim down by shaving calories, it’s critical to do so safely. Before you start a low-cal diet, consider discussing your plan with a registered dietitian or other healthcare professional who specializes in weight loss. (Bariatric doctors and certified bariatric nurses are other helpful providers.) And before and during your journey, True says to keep a food journal to help you evaluate and reflect on your diet choices. (It can also help you determine whether you’re eating enough.) Tracking apps like Lose It or LifeSum are other useful resources for tallying exact numbers of calories per day.
True recommends paying attention to the contents of your plate, for example by following the USDA’s MyPlate guidance for healthy eating. “A balanced plate would consist of half fruits or nonstarchy vegetables, one quarter of the plate being a plant or animal protein source, one quarter being a carbohydrate source, and one or two tablespoons of fat per mealtime.” This way, you can meet your nutrient needs without going overboard on calories.
Finally, remember that slow and steady wins the race. “The healthiest approach is a moderate decrease in daily calories and a moderate increase in daily exercise,” says Spiegel. “Don’t try to lose too much weight at once. Even decreasing your caloric intake by 200 to 300 calories a day and increasing your exercise by 20 minutes a day can go a long way for your long-term success.”
The signs and symptoms of undereating
Undereating has many negative symptoms such as low energy levels, overactive thirst, hyper focus on food, a lack of hair and nail growth, anger and a lack of ability to sleep.
Difficulty losing weight
While losing a lot of weight in a short time is usually a pretty obvious sign that someone isn't eating enough; being unable to lose weight, or even gaining weight, can also indicate a chronic lack of high-quality health-promoting calories.
Calories and Your Health
But if your calorie intake dips too low, says Lummus, your body could go into starvation mode. "Your body will start to store fat because it thinks it is not going to get anything," says Lummus. "You will be at a point where your body is kind of at a standstill."
Although the total number of calories can vary from diet to diet, eating fewer than 1200 calories is risky. When you limit your diet and eat fewer than 1200 calories per day, you usually do not get enough nutrients. You are not getting enough carbohydrates, proteins or fats.Why 1200 calories is too low? ›
A 1,200-calorie diet is much too low for most people and can result in negative side effects like dizziness, extreme hunger, nausea, micronutrient deficiencies, fatigue, headaches, and gallstones ( 23 ). Furthermore, a 1,200-calorie diet can set you up for failure if long-term weight loss is your goal.