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How a Very Low-Calorie Diet Can Make You Gain Weight

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How a Very Low-Calorie Diet Can Make You Gain Weight

It’s easy to fall into the fad diet mentality, but a very low-calorie diet can make you gain weight! Here’s why calorie intake matters.

Even with all the advances women have made, the superficial message of beauty and weight inundate us in the media every day. 

The Weight Loss Industry Makes Billions

The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry filled with meal plans that target low or very-low-calorie levels. This is the magic bullet because for many people who follow these meal plans closely, they will lose weight. They’re happy, and the company can say they gave the consumer what they promised. Physiologically we know that very-low-calorie diets work for short term weight loss, but the question is, what are we doing to ourselves in the long run?

What do very-low-calorie diets do for weight loss?

The fact is very-low-calorie diets (~1,000 to 1,200 calories or less) are contributing to weight gain more than they are helping people to find lasting weight loss. Many people feel they have to go on a very low-calorie diet because this is the only way their weight will budge. Well, they’re right, and this is why.

When a person goes on a very low-calorie diet for an extended period of time, their body goes into a type of  “starvation mode.” If they lose more than two pounds per week, they can end up losing muscle mass in addition tot he fat, which will negatively affect their metabolism. The body also sees this decrease in energy as a time to hold onto what it does have, increasing the metabolism even more. This is a topic that is worth spending a minute on. Let’s look at what happened to Sally when she lost more than 2 pounds per week. It may be all too familiar to you!

Sally’s Weight Loss Story

Sally’s calorie needs are 2,500 calories per day. This means she was consuming around 2,500 calories each day to maintain her weight where it was. She decided to lose weight by going on a diet. The diet program estimated her calories at 1,000-1,200. She lost 10 pounds in two weeks. She was, of course, very happy about this weight loss. What success! What she didn’t know is that part of that rapid weight loss was not all fat and included muscle loss. Sally then had a hard time staying on the strict routine after the first month, which is very typical for this type of regimen, and she went back to her old eating habits.

What happened to Sally’s body during this diet? She lost lean body mass along with body fat. Muscle is one of the most important factors in keeping your metabolic rate high since it burns more energy than fat. During her weight loss in the last month, Sally lost approximately 5 pounds of muscle mass (lean body mass).

Weight Gain Occurs after Weight Loss

Sally’s metabolic rate used to be 2,500 calories for her weight to stay stable, and now it has decreased to approximately 2,100 calories. Now when she goes back to her old eating habits, which were landing her on an average intake of 2,500 calories per day, she will gain her old weight back plus more.

What do you think will happen when she goes on the next low-calorie diet? What will happen after 4-5 weight-loss diets? You guessed it! She will continue to decrease her metabolic rate. This is why so many people feel that they don’t eat that much but still gain weight. It’s true! To add insult to injury, some studies suggest when people go back to their original eating habits, they gain fat tissue rapidly instead of lean body mass.


How to Increase Metabolism

Don’t despair dieters! There are steps you can take to get your metabolism fired up again, but the first step is to stop low-calorie diets. Many popular diet programs will estimate your calories using a calculation. This often sets you up for a lower-calorie level than you may need. Instead, find ways to add physical activity into your routine, and work with a dietitian to make healthy lifestyle changes over time. They can keep you healthy while you lose weight slowly and build muscle mass for long term weight loss success. This new weight may not be what society deems fit, but it will be sustainable and the right weight for your body type!

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About the Author

Picture of Meri Raffetto, RD, LDN

Meri Raffetto, RD, LDN

Meri is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and specializes in weight management and heart disease. With more than 10 years experience in nutrition counseling has helped people make positive lifestyle changes to improve their health. Since becoming a dietitian, she has been involved with nutrition research studies and has worked in many specialized areas of nutrition such as weight management, heart disease, alcohol recovery, and eating disorders. She has provided nutrition counseling for professional athletes training at Titan Sports Performance Center in Santa Barbara, CA and has developed nutrition programs and education manuals for hospitals, private businesses, and corporate wellness. Additionally, Meri publishes a monthly newsletter for and has contributed articles to Santa Barbara Fitness Magazine and Santa Barbara News Press' Woman Magazine. She has been interviewed by multiple radio shows and featured in Healthy Living Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. She lives with her husband in Temecula, CA where she enjoys hiking, reading, writing, occasional rock climbing, and, of course, cooking!

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