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Just Say No To Low Calorie Diets

by Travis Illian, MA, Specialist in Performance Nutrition, CSCS, USAW, SCCC, University of Alabama

Travis can be reached at TIllian@ia.ua.edu

So you’ve heard it said, over and over again, “If you want to lose weight, then you have to burn more calories than you consume.”  Before you decide to eat just a salad today because you want to lose weight, understand that losing weight is not always a good thing.  If you lose water or muscle, you lose your ability to burn calories – making it a whole heck of a lot easier to get fat or fatter again!  Never let yourself talk about “losing weight,” only talk about “losing FAT”.  It’s the FAT we don’t like.  Fat causes us to have a great deal of health problems and most of us would agree that fat doesn’t look too pretty either.  Today, we are talking about one thing – Just Say No to Low Calorie Diets! 

Low calorie diets do not work!  The quicker you learn this, the better the rest of your life will be.  It’s like eating a bag of chocolate for comfort and emotional reasons – at first it tastes great and it makes you feel good (for a split second) but in the end it always leaves you feeling full and disgusting.  And then you get mad because you know it just made you fatter.  As addicting as stuffing yourself with unhealthy food is, it will never satisfy you and neither will low calorie diets. 

Here’s why.  When you go on low calorie diets you slow down your metabolism with the loss of muscle, you cause a cascade of hormonal changes, and your body becomes more efficient at putting on fat (“starvation response”).  When you hit the dieting plateau you get frustrated and start eating normal again and you start to put on fat easily.  You start to think you have bad genetics and that there is no way out.  Yep, this is a vicious cycle.

What’s happening in the body?  When you go on low calorie diets your body starts to use muscle as energy.  When muscle is used for energy it is easy to lose water weight as well.  Muscle breakdown causes nitrogen release and your body has to wash nitrogen out of the body so you will lose an obvious amount of weight on the scale.  Losing muscle and water weight is a very bad thing because muscle burns FAT!  Yep, muscle is metabolically active (meaning it uses energy, i.e. FAT).  One pound of muscle burns FAT just to maintain itself – that’s whether you are sleeping or watching television! 

If a dieter has lost 10 lbs. of muscle, they have lost their ability to burn the amount of calories that those 10lbs of muscle burned each day!  So, this dieter would have to eat less calories each day to maintain their weight loss.  That doesn’t sound too bad, but since the low calorie dieter has been on such a low calorie diet for an extended amount of time, when they start eating normal again, the body has a rebound effect where it has revved up its fat storing enzymes so that any calories above the low-calorie diet will be stored as fat!  This is where the inevitable weight gain comes back – anyone who has ever tried a low calorie diet knows exactly what I am talking about!  What stinks about this weight gain is that it is FAT gain, not muscle gain.  So, now you may weigh the same as you did before dieting, but with less muscle mass – making it harder to keep the weight off and this is why most people put on more weight than they lost. 

Solution?  Change your mindset and change your lifestyle.  Start trying to build muscle – remember muscle burns FAT even if you are sitting on your butt (which most of us do too much of anyways). And ladies, don’t worry you will not look like a muscle bound freak (I’ll cover this in another article).  Stay away from fad and low calorie diets!  I repeat – Stay away from fad and low calorie diets!

Remember – fat loss is slow and steady.  Eat lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  Make a plan to eat 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day.  A healthy diet is one that is permanent!  It’s a lifestyle, not a diet that you go on and off.  With that being said, no food should be “off limits.”  Unhealthy foods (and you know what those are) should be eaten rarely.      

Make positive changes in your life.  The power to choose is only as good as the choices we make!  Make powerful choices! 

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