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Too many or too little? The 411 on calorie intake.

Let’s Get Real.

As a Dietitian, I know it’s very tempting to just drastically reduce calories in an effort to lose weight fast in a simple manner. The problem is research has shown time and time again that this is not an effective approach to long-term weight loss. While it’s important that you control the number of calories you consume, too much restriction can halt your progress.

Too much calorie restriction affects overall health from your bone density to your ability to lose or regulate body weight. Lowering calorie intake reduces the amount of food you can eat and may prevent you from getting all the necessary nutrients. Research shows that calorie restriction reduces leptin, a hormone that helps to regulate your appetite. Low levels of leptin usually lead to hunger and overeating. Even more worrying than that, research also shows that low-calorie dieting increases stress and the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. As a result of this stress response, the body conserves energy and the Basal Metabolic rate slows to combat the risk of starvation. While you might think that drastically cutting calories is sure to result in weight loss, these changes in stress levels are actually associated with weight gain.

Then how many calories should I eat? Should I even change my diet?

The number of calories needed for weight loss is determined by several factors, and varies from person to person. This is why it is important to seek the help of an educated professional. Most people just take their height and weight to determine how much to eat but, it’s not that simple. Using the simple height and weight method leaves (+/-) 600 calories of error room. Dietitians and specialty medical professionals need information such as age, gender, muscle health, mental state, sleep rate and current activity level to determine a safe and effective number of calories to eat each day to reach your goals. So, obviously with that said, you can’t just wing it. As you decrease calories, it’s important not to drastically cut food intake. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a rule of thumb that women eat no fewer than 1,400 calories per day and that men eat no fewer than 1,800 calories per day. If you exercise you should add about 300 to 800 calories to that. These numbers can change based on the individual. Any intake lower than these recommended amounts should be closely monitored by your medical professional.

Then, what is the right way?

Losing weight at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week has been found to be the most effective method to keep it off for good. In order to lose weight at this rate, you will need to reduce calorie intake by 500 to 1000 calories per day. This reduction could put some people below the recommended 1,400  and 1,800 calorie minimum. This is one reason that exercise is an important tool for weight loss. The calories burned during exercise contribute to the calorie deficit you need for weight loss. By combining reduced food intake with regular exercise, you can still lose weight without severely limiting your calorie intake. This will prevent your metabolism from slowing and ensure your rate of weight loss remains steady.

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