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The Fallacy of the Underfed Metabolism
Have you heard that eating too little would put your body into “starvation mode” and cause it to start storing fat? Or if you consume less than 1,200 calories a day, does your metabolism stall?
These ideas are common in the dieting world. But are they true? Believe it or not, the answer is no.
Every single person who cuts calories to lose weight sees a decrease in resting metabolic rate (RMR), the amount of energy used daily at rest. RMR should not be confused with total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). RMR is part of TDEE – about 70% to be exact. Seventy percent of the calories you burn in a day don’t involve moving a muscle. So what about the other 30 percent?
Twenty percent of your TDEE comes from movement, including everyday activities and exercise. The remaining 10 percent comes from the energy it takes to digest the food and drink you consume.
A real-life customer case study
One of my clients, Jane, is in her mid-50s, 5’6, 160 pounds. She had lost 10 pounds in seven weeks, but had stalled in the past two weeks.
After cutting calories to lose weight, her RMR dropped: This is normal, natural and expected. It brakes to save fat, fuel and resources. The body doesn’t know if it’s running out of available food, so it slows down to protect what it considers precious fat reserves. Some people see a five percent drop in RMR when they lose body fat, while others will see a 25 percent drop, depending on genetics, previous diet attempts, food quality, and the source and level of calorie deficit.
Jane ate 1,100 calories a day while losing weight. When her weight stalled, she reduced her calories to 800 a day. After two weeks of staying steady on about 800 calories a day, she asked for my help when her weight hadn’t budged.
She said, “Maybe I should eat more to boost my metabolism and lose weight.”
I asked her to get her RMR checked at a local university which was measured at 1.083. That means she needs 1,083 calories a day without moving or eating.
A quick calculation on the ShapeUp.org website says her RMR should be around 1,291 calories/day. Some quick math (1291-1083 = 208: 208/1291 =.16) says her RMR dropped about 16 percent from the expected base. First, it is well within the normal range for RMR decline with calorie restriction. And secondly, her metabolism wasn’t broken.
So why isn’t her weight moving?
Most often, the problem with weight loss is too little attention to nutrition, plus sweets, bites, tastes and sips that are not counted (food creep). However, Jane was eating a REAL 800-calorie plan, give or take 10 percent.
SHOULD Jane lose weight by eating 800 calories a day? Yes.
Besides being a star eater and record holder, Jane also exercised 280 minutes a week (40 minutes a day). It is ideal for the everyday person who wants to be healthier and slimmer.
Because we know her actual RMR and how much she exercises, we can do the math to see what she needs to maintain her weight and how much she needs to lose if she eats 800 calories a day.
RMR + (value of exercise in calories/day) + (at least 10% addition to RMR for daily movement) + (10% addition to RMR to digest food) = TDEE must be MAINTAINED.
1,083 + (40×6 = 240) + (1,083/10 = 108) + (1,083/10 = 108) = 1,539 calories/day to maintain.
Strictly speaking, what would she have lost on the numbers?
1,539-800=739. By eating 800 calories a day, she created what should have been a 739 calorie deficit. That multiplied by seven days in a week corresponds to a deficit of 5,173 calories in a week. This loosely equates to 1.5 pounds of body fat loss per week. For every 3,500 calories in deficit (about calories in a pound of fat), we lose about a pound of body fat. 5,173/3,500 = 1.5
If Jane was involved in any other diet or weight loss program, she would have been told she was stupid for eating below her RMR and/or that she was stalling her metabolism. She would have been prescribed a 750-1,500 calorie increase to “restore her metabolism” so she could later try to lose weight with a more “sensible” calorie deficit. And that would have been the very wrong thing to do.
If she bumped her calories to 1,000/day, her RMR would have to increase to 1,283 to stay status quo. Why? If she ate an extra 200 calories, her RMR would have to jump 200 calories a day just to break even. If she increased her calories to the dietary gold standard of 1,200/day, her RMR should increase to 1,483/day. Worried about a too slow metabolism? Do you want to eat more to “restore” it? For every additional calorie you consume, your RMR must increase by an equal amount or you will gain weight instead of losing it.
If you’re not losing weight eating 800 calories a day and exercising 280 minutes a week, the problem isn’t RMR or the numbers on paper – but the actual numbers being eaten, the actual minutes and effort of exercise OR the fact that for many people considers a five- to seven-day stagnation on the scale as a weight stop. I don’t think a true stall occurs unless 10-14 days have passed with no changes. Over two weeks? SOMETHING has to change.
Strictly by the numbers, it makes no sense that any overweight person who eats 800 calories a day and exercises 280 minutes should be in maintenance mode.
But Jane was stuck. It could have been a number of things unrelated to a broken metabolism and undereating. I discovered the answer during a short phone call.
Jane mentioned that she had had a urinary tract infection and had been on antibiotics. When she felt healthy again, with proper bowel function (her prescription caused constipation) and energy, she increased her calories to 1,100 a day. This coincided with becoming aware of the effects of the infection and antibiotics. At first, she thought her weight was starting to move because she was increasing her calories. But it was just a coincidence.
The reason her weight stalled was because she had an infection. Additionally, she was put on an antibiotic that causes fluid retention AND constipation, which was not a problem in her early weight loss success.
Once her body was ready, the problems causing fluid retention and constipation were alleviated and the scale could once again show the true results of her efforts.
To add items:
- I’m not a fan of undereating, but it has nothing to do with breaking the metabolism. It has to do with the potential for inadequate nutrients when calories are too low, unnecessary loss of precious muscle, and how my clients feel mentally, physically and emotionally if they eat too little.
- I’m a fan of eating the maximum calories and nutrients you can eat to reach your desired goals. If someone can eat 2,000 calories a day and lose the body fat they want and achieve their ultimate vision, I’m thrilled.
- If 600, 700, or 800 calories a day were a true “metabolism killer,” we wouldn’t have the University of California and hundreds of other bariatric centers promoting 300-600 calorie days for months after surgery. According to the University of Michigan Adult Bariatric Surgery Program “The average weight loss after gastric bypass surgery is approximately 5-15 pounds per week for the first 2 or 3 months with a gradual tapering to about 1-2 pounds per week after the first 6 months or around there.” While I’m against bariatric surgery except as a last resort, you can’t argue against the results. They are largely due to the incredibly small amount of food consumed by successful patients. Is their metabolism slower? Yup. And they lose a ton of weight anyway – as we expected them to.
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