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Diets go in and out of style all the time, but one weight-loss method that continues to be many people’s go-to is counting calories to ensure you’re in a calorie deficit. Cutting the number of calories you consume per day is nothing new—and one popular (albeit risky) way to do it is through following low-calorie diets.
At a basic level, these diets aim to restrict your calories to promote weight loss, says nutritionist Jessica Cording, RD, author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.
The exact number of calories you can have on a low-calorie diet varies, but it usually “involves eating 800 to 1,200 calories per day to lose weight,” adds Samantha Cassetty, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock. (FYI: While everyone’s calorie needs are different, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people get between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day.)
The way it works is pretty simple: You eat fewer calories, you lose weight. Two important notes upfront, though: Nutritionists are not into the idea of low-calorie diets, and these are not designed for long-term use. (More on all that in a bit.)
Meet the experts: Jessica Cording, RD, is a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. Samantha Cassetty, RD, is a nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock.
So, what’s the deal with low-calorie diets and should you try one? Nutritionists break it all down.
What can you eat on a low-calorie diet?
Technically, you can eat anything on a reduced-calorie diet, as long as your overall calorie intake is low. However, you should make healthy choices to try to get the most nutrition out of your calories, and to stay satiated. “I tend to emphasize protein, healthy fats, and fiber—those foods are very filling and all help stabilize your blood sugar,” Cording says. “When your blood sugar is more stable, it’s better for your energy and mood.”
You’ll want to include protein in each meal and snack “since it helps maintain muscle tissue that can decline on a low-calorie diet,” Cassetty says.
And always prioritize whole foods over heavily processed options. Cassetty recommends having at least two cups of non-starchy veggies at lunch and dinner. They’re “loaded with nutrients and help you feel full without adding many calories to your diet,” she says. “You’ll have a little room for nutritious carbs, like fruit and whole grains, and plant-based fats, like extra-virgin olive oil,” she adds.
In general, fill up on these foods:
Nuts and seeds
Non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and cucumbers
Foods with healthy fats, like avocado and fish
Limit these foods as much as you can:
“If you’re trying to eat a specific calorie level, it may be helpful to track your food using an app-based tracker like Cronometer, Lose It!, or MyFitnessPal,” Cassetty says. “These apps can also help you monitor your nutrient intake, such as how much fiber or protein you eat.”
What does eating on a low-calorie diet look like?
Again, experts don’t really recommend that you go too low on calories. If you want to lose weight, try to get a sense of what your current intake is.
“For someone who wants to make slow, gradual changes over time, making adjustments of about 250 calories a day—to equal about a half pound in weight change over the course of a week—is one approach,” Cording says. So, if you’ve been eating a 2,000-calorie diet, consider reducing it to 1,750 and seeing where that gets you. Note that experts do not recommend going below 1,200 calories per day, as WH previously reported.
Need some help getting started? These nutritionally balanced meals are filled with whole foods, lean protein, and heart-healthy fats and fall in the 1,600- to 1,800-calorie range.
Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs with chopped peppers, spinach, and two tablespoons of feta, cooked in one teaspoon avocado oil
Lunch: Salad of baby spinach, grape tomatoes, 3 oz. rotisserie chicken, 1/2 avocado, 1 oz. pistachios, and one tablespoon of store-bought vinaigrette, plus one cup of raspberries for dessert
Snacks: One quarter of a cantaloupe served with 1/2 cup cottage cheese dusted with cinnamon and topped with two teaspoons of roasted pumpkin seeds; hardboiled egg with one cup of berries
Dinner: Turkey burger on a toasted whole-grain English muffin with roasted sweet potato fries cooked in one teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Breakfast: One cup plain Greek yogurt with one cup of blueberries, one tablespoon of ground flax, and two tablespoons of roasted pumpkin seeds
Lunch: 3.5 oz. broiled salmon served over fresh spinach greens, dressed with lemon juice, two teaspoons of olive oil, a cup of roasted cauliflower, and a pinch of salt and served with 1/2 cup cooked bulgar on the side
Snacks: A hard boiled egg, cheese stick, and some cucumber slices, 1/4 cup walnuts
Dinner: 3 oz. boneless, skinless chicken served with one cup steamed broccoli over 3/4 cup of cooked brown rice dressed in one teaspoon olive oil
Breakfast: Two hard boiled eggs with 1.5 oz. cheese and one cup of mixed berries
Lunch: Whole-wheat wrap served with 3 oz. turkey breast, lettuce, tomato, and 1/2 avocado, dressed with one tablespoon of olive oil
Snack: Sliced apple with two tablespoons nut butter, 1/4 cup walnuts
Dinner: 3 oz. pork tenderloin with a side of broccoli, sautéed with garlic and dressed with one tablespoon olive oil, and served with a steamed sweet potato with a pat of butter
How effective are low-calorie diets for weight loss?
Research has consistently shown that restricting calories can lead to weight loss, but it’s difficult to know how it will impact someone in the long term.
“There’s evidence that a low-calorie diet can help with short-term weight loss, but 80 percent of people who lose weight will regain it due to metabolic changes that stall weight loss and promote weight regain,” Cassetty says. Your body can adapt to having fewer calories to work with and spend less for energy, so eventually you’ll hit a plateau.
And unless you continue to eat the same number of calories, you’ll gain the weight back if you stop following this diet. “This can lead to stress and feelings of shame and guilt. So, if you lost weight with a low-calorie diet and then gained it all back, I wouldn’t consider the diet effective,” says Cassetty.
Are low-calorie diets safe for weight loss?
Again, experts really don’t recommend trying this—and Cording says it can throw your body out of whack, making future weight loss and maintenance even harder.
“If someone is chronically under-consuming calories, that can cause metabolism to slow down,” she explains. “Your body thinks you’re starving and slows down your metabolism to try to preserve weight.”
Nutritionists stress the importance of making sustainable changes to your diet rather than cutting back on calories to lose weight. “Small changes tend to have more staying power than a restrictive diet,” Cording says. “Otherwise, your body has a tendency to regain the weight quickly, and maybe even some additional weight.”
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