Can You Achieve Healthy Weight Loss by Cutting Calories?

Originally published: 02-09-14

To Lose Weight, You Must Cut Calories, Right?

It makes sense: the more calories you cut, the more weight you lose. Everybody knows that, just like ‘everybody knows’ that ‘15 minutes can save you 15 percent or more on your car insurance.’ What about reality TV shows? They’re real, right? We hear and see certain messages and images so often that we get sucked in and believe them to be true, even logical. But, just because we are told something repetitively, does that make it true?

For many, many years, experts have told us that to lose weight, we must cut our caloric intake. Most commercial weight loss diets are based on this principle, and millions of Americans have been or currently are on these plans. But what’s the long-term result of all this low calorie dieting? Well, looking at the weight statistics in this country over the past several decades, I would say the result is weight gain! Every year, Americans get heavier and heavier, even with all this calorie cutting.

So, what’s really going on? Caloric restriction, as a primary method for healthy weight loss, generally produces less than desirable results, followed by complete weight regain. There are three main reasons for this: slowing of the metabolism, food misconceptions and hunger.

The Metabolism Hits the Brakes!

When we cut our caloric intake, our bodies become afraid, biologically speaking, that a famine is on its way. This triggers our metabolism to slow down in the interest of holding onto our body fat, which, during famine, will be our only source of energy. Without this body fat, we would starve to death. This is an ancient survival mechanism built into our genetic code, which has enabled our species to withstand the frequent food shortages that have plagued us throughout history. More about Body Fat

The only way to lose significant weight by simply cutting calories is to cut them to very low levels, such as around 500 calories per day, which essentially mimics a famine. At this point, our bodies must utilize our stored fat for energy to prevent death by starvation. Of course, this type of dieting is impossible to sustain because it causes tremendous nutritional deficiencies, which result in intense hunger and bodily deterioration.

In the end, we return to our usual way of eating, or perhaps worse, meaning we eat more fattening foods than we did before the diet to compensate for the physical and psychological deprivation we experienced during the diet. And, since our bodies interpret the very low calorie diet as a famine, our metabolism may be permanently set to a lower level, helping us store fat even more readily to better prepare us for a future famine.

Low calorie dieting, especially very low calorie dieting, actually contributes to permanent obesity!

Low Fat Food = Low Fat Body?

Low calorie dieting has traditionally been associated with the use of low fat foods. Back in the early 1980’s, when I was in medical school, the medical profession told us that dietary fats were major contributors to our nation’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease. The food industry responded to this recommendation by manufacturing a wide variety of low fat and fat free products that were composed almost entirely of starches and/or sugars.

Today, there are thousands of such items on the market, all labeled with their low fat or fat free status, and some with additional enticements, such as “100 calorie,” “no high fructose corn syrup” and “no trans fats.” Low calorie dieters often choose these products, believing they are going to promote healthy weight loss.

The truth is the exact opposite: these products are full of high glycemic carbohydrates, which cause a spike in blood sugar levels that leads to body fat production and weight gain. This blood sugar effect also makes these products potentially habit-forming, which leads us to inadvertently eat multiple servings at once, adding insult to injury.

These low fat foods actually contribute to a high fat body!

I’m So Hungry I Could Eat A…

Good old-fashioned hunger is probably the biggest reason traditional low calorie dieting fails to produce desirable and lasting weight loss. Hunger is one of our most primitive and powerful survival mechanisms. It ensures we seek food and eat it, in the interest of providing our bodies all the nutrients we need to be healthy. When we significantly reduce our caloric intake, we threaten our bodies’ quest for essential nutrients, leading to hunger. When we consume most of our day’s calories in the form of high glycemic carbohydrate foods, we become hungrier, because of the addictive potential and nutritional paucity of these foods.

To make matters worse, modern America is a food orgy. We are surrounded and hounded by food products and food imagery, day and night. And, most of us feel compelled to eat in response to emotional situations and/or social pressure. Ultimately, even the most dedicated low calorie dieters will succumb to the temptations of this environment as their hunger overcomes their resolve.

The traditional low calorie diet is doomed.

Healthy Weight Loss Solutions!

In my healthy weight loss practice, I employ a method of eating that supports the metabolism and prevents hunger, allowing caloric intake to match physiologic need automatically. Rather than restrict calories to an arbitrary, unhealthy and impractical level, my patients enjoy nourishing foods that naturally promote satiety, so their calories “take care of themselves.”

I recommend starting the day with a cup of low sugar cereal or oatmeal or a couple of slices of low carb bread with a spread. Add a cup of fresh fruit, and drink as much water, coffee or tea, as you’d like. For lunch and dinner, eat as large a quantity and variety of vegetables as you can, either raw, as in a salad, or cooked, or both.

Add lean protein, such as:

filet mignon
pork, veal or lamb chop
low fat cottage cheese
fat free, plain Greek yogurt

Be generous with your portion of protein, but eat it slowly and mindfully, and stop when you start to feel full or just tired of it. You may add a cup of fresh fruit and a slice of low carb bread or a low carb wrap or pita at lunch. At dinner, avoid fruit, corn, bread, potatoes, pasta and rice (this includes whole grain bread, dark bread, sweet potatoes, whole wheat pasta and brown rice). Throughout the day, sip water or any other beverage that does not contain real sugar. In my previous breakfast post and lunch/dinner post, I give a more detailed list of appropriate foods.

Here’s my secret weapon: whenever your meals are more than four hours apart and when dinner and bedtime are more than four hours apart, eat a protein snack! These snacks are critical to the maintenance of the metabolism and the prevention of hunger. They may be any of the protein foods listed above, eaten only until you start to feel full, or you may have ¼ cup of nuts or edamame (soybeans).

Instead of a protein food, you may use a protein product, such as a bar or drink. However, be certain that the product you chose contains at least 10 grams of protein, less than 10 grams of total fat and less than 10 grams of “net” carbohydrates (computed by taking total carbs and subtracting dietary fiber and sugar alcohol). We retail more than three dozen protein products in our office, all of which combine this critical nutrient profile with amazingly great taste.

This style of eating is more than just effective at promoting healthy weight loss; it is sustainable forever, so that the weight loss is permanent. After all, what good is weight loss if it is only temporary?

Dean Sloan, MD

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