Why you’re not losing weight on a low-calorie diet (and why eating MORE may be the answer).

For more information on the studies, be sure to click on the links below the video.

Further reading:

Danish study: http://www.bmj.com/content/311/7011/986

Second study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7594141

Dr. Joshua Kern’s blog post on the subject: http://gomaleo.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/metabolic-derangement-extreme-calorie-restriction-edition/


27 thoughts on “Why you’re not losing weight on a low-calorie diet (and why eating MORE may be the answer).

    • I’m assuming a fairly loose definition here, anything from a few thousand extra calories to tens of thousands in a sitting. If a person is regularly binging to that degree though, they might have BED and should seek professional diagnosis and treatment.

  1. Excellent post! Facts and figures are powerful tools. It is amazing what you learn when you track. I’ve been horribly under nourished at times which results in heightened anxiety, poor sleep, and depression.

    Side note: your makeup looks fabulous! Your eyes pop and I would love a YouTube video showing how you do it '?

    • Yes! Getting honest with myself about how much I was eating was one of the most important steps toward finally making real progress. That, and getting off the extreme-diet train.

      Youtube makeup video – check!

    • The non-depressing thing is that you usually *don’t* have to lose much weight to improve health outcomes. In fact, you can improve your health without losing a pound. It is just that the things you do to improve health (moving more, changing what you eat, not using eating as a coping mechanism for emotional issues…) sometimes cause you to lose weight.

  2. Awesome as always Amber. I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen mostly in the second group.

    I do have a question about the two studies. How was the actual (not reported) calorie intake of the participants determined? (I don’t understand double blind water blah). If person A reported eating 1500, how was it determined that their intake was actually, say 3000? I’m assuming they didn’t have someone tailing them doing the calculations.

    I ask because I want to know whether their ‘actual intake’ was determined by whether they lost weight or not. (Eg they reported 800 cal… they used 2300 cal… yet there was no shift in body weight so it was determined they must be eating at 2300 cal). In which case the study would obviously be circular.

    I’m sure it’s not, but that’s why I’m curious to know the methods used!


    • Actually hold your reply – I’m just checking out the detail now on Go Maleo. Still don’t understand it but I have my own personal Handsome Doctor Boy who will explain all I’m sure.

  3. Amber, am I missing something? I don’t see the link to the doctor’s blog or Eat the Food.

    Excellent video! Great info. I’m tracking what I eat via fooducate’s app on my phone and it’s working pretty well to track calories (not easy to see what they consider “sendentary” or “somewhat active” so I just go by the calories and my goal rather than theirs).

  4. EXCELLENT information, as always! Thank you. I think I did under-report, just because I want to fit into a calorie-restrictive number. Now I am on my way to healing my relationship with food and appreciate your viewpoints!

    PS: Your hair rocks. I love that haircut.

  5. Great video! I am currently doing Summer’s Rockstar Program and most of it is just learning to have a better relationship with food. I think I did a good job of eating within my means,but i just got burnt out fast and then after a few months would go crazy eating bad stuff. Anyway, I though it was interesting how Summer said that if you under eat, your body sometimes slows down it’s own metabolism because it thinks it is starving.

  6. I think your interpretation may be a little bit off for the doubly-labeled water studies. Doubly-labeled water measures energy expenditure, but does not measure intake. Intake can be inferred based on whether the person is gaining or losing weight, but is not directly measured via the test. At least this is how it was explained to me by a professor who is using the technique to compare energy expenditure in Hadza hunter-gatherers in Africa with westerners living in cities eating a western diet. (His results showed that energy expenditure scales with body mass regardless of activity level, interestingly. If you’re curious: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040503 ).

    But I’m right with you on the binging. From what I’ve seen in practice, if you deny your body sufficient calories on a regular basis, it will take over and enforce a binge. Which usually leads to more restricting, which leads to more binging, until the problem snowballs. I had a patient in an eating disorder clinic ask why we gave them so much food (sandwich, a dairy, and a piece of fruit) for lunch, when she sees overweight people around her eating salads for lunch. Surely if they can’t lose weight on salads.. I explained to her that in treating people in other clinical settings (ie. with patients without diagnosed eating disorders) most of those who were overweight were restricting in public, then going home and having huge meals, desserts, waking up in the middle of the night to eat, etc. In other words, they’re on a starvation/binge circuit and you’re only seeing the starvation side. So, yep, ignoring the pressure to eat light in public, and eating enough to fuel your body and quell your hunger actually helps you out in the long term. It keeps you in control of your intake and preserves your body’s ability to put out appropriate hunger and satiety signals.

    • Yeah, I kinda glossed over the methods they used to determine intake and burn, mostly because Joshua explains them in his blog posts and he’s better at conveying the technical details than I am. '?

      • Yeah she’s totally correct. I’ll have to look at how I word it in my blog post. From the study:

        “In the next step, energy actually ingested was estimated as TEE+energy storage as measured by hydrodensitometry (8). Energy intake estimated by the doubly labeled water technique was then compared with self-reported energy intake over the 14-day study period.”

  7. Thank you for the information!

    On a shallow note, your eye makeup is gorgeous! You may need to do a tutorial video! '?

  8. I wish someone like you (or you yourself!) had been out there, making these videos and writing these posts and generally sharing so much knowledge and such SENSE when I was in my teens. I hit puberty right around when social media started to flourish but Facebook wasn’t a thing for non-college students yet, and when Mary-Kate Olsen and Nicole Richie were suffering from anorexia, and before bloggers had the same reach and the same voice as they do now. I got my health & fitness information from magazines like Shape and LiveJournal ‘healthy eating’ groups that were really thinly-veiled pro-eating disorder groups. And I was SO CONFUSED! Probably between the ages of 11 and 20, I didn’t think it was possible to stay slim and healthy by *gasp* following my instinct – which led to years and years of frustrating restricting and binging.
    The media and the internet were telling me I simply needed to cut out this food or that food and that a solid amount of calories for me to eat was around 1,400 a day, and – by the way – that it was reasonable and healthy to strive to look like celebrities only barely healthier than Mary-Kate Olsen.
    There I was, cycling between restricting my calories to 1,400 and having massing, uncontrollable binges, entirely consumed with self-loathing and thoughts of food and anxiety. I was convinced I had an eating disorder and I wasn’t internet-savvy enough to find help for it online (to seek help from an actual doctor was far too shameful).
    It took me so many years to gain control over my body again, and now I’m eating probably double what I used to on a regular day, and I’m slimmer than I used to be. Not to mention infinitely happier.
    Not until I started reading through your archives did I come to realize that I didn’t in fact have an eating disorder … My body was simply ensuring my survival!
    Basically, this is a rambly way of thanking you for continuing to put out real, scientific information out there. I’ve been sending your blog to everyone I know – especially the ones I know who continue to struggle, the ones who feel that the only way to be ‘healthy’ is to resort to all sorts of unreachable extremes.

  9. Question- what about people who have had legitimate eating disorders? I had bulimia for 2.5 years and I’m recovered but still carrying the extra weight from the disorder. I was naturally slim before developing bulimia (I was also in my early 20s then, I’m 25 now). I completely agree with your video, but counting calories can be triggering for someone whose had an ED. What do you think of intuitive eating? I’m just kind of confused because I don’t want to trigger my ED but I refuse to believe I can’t lose weight in a healthy way. Thoughts?

    PS you are SO beautiful! '?

    • Yeah, people with ED/ED history would presumably be working with an ED professional as they work through this stuff. I make recommendations for the ‘general population’, and people with medical conditions would of course need to consider what I say in the context of their own treatment/individual needs. Are you working with a therapist?

      Thank you! '?

      • No, I’m not. I guess since I’m recovered I didn’t feel like I needed to see a therapist? But I completely understand that your site is geared toward people who do not have ED history.

        • I have lots of readers and clients with ED history, so it’s not so much that it’s not geared to people with ED history, as it is that general recommendations are geared to the general population, and each individual must evealuate those recommendations in the context of their own needs and experience.

          Have you ever counted calories not as a means to restrict, but as a means to ensure you’re getting *enough*? That makes all the difference for many people.

          • Yep, I counted calories to make sure I’m getting enough. I just got tired of it because it’s hard to calculate how many calories are in home made dishes. And I just don’t really like counting every bite I eat. Do you count every single thing you eat? It just seems tedious.

            • No, I counted long enough to make new habits, learn to estimate portion sizes accurately, learned to put balanced meals together. Now I just rely on those habits. I only count when I’m actively trying to change my weight, which I haven’t done for quite some time.

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