Doesn't seem right, but it's working
October 12, 2011 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I've found a successful routine for losing weight, but I'm confused about my calorie requirements seemingly being much lower than everyone else's.

I fear that this question will lead to trouble, but here goes. I'm 5'11" and 193 lbs (much of which is belly), so I'm not obese but certainly qualify as overweight. I exercise moderately-to-vigorously 3-4 times a week. According to online calculators, my daily caloric needs should be fairly significant; here's what one calculator shows for my stats:

Maintenance: 2564 calories/day
Fat Loss: 2051 calories/day
Extreme Fat Loss: 1544 calories/day

But the reality seems totally different. Including the deficit from exercise, and based on counting calories meticulously for the past 3 months: 1600-2000 calories, I start putting on weight. 1200-1600 gets me in a safe maintenance zone. The only way I'm reliably, consistently losing weight is when I go under 1200. For example, after 3 weeks of eating in the 1200-1500 range and maintaining, yesterday I got fed up and went with a 750 calorie day. This morning I weighed myself and had instantly dropped half a pound from my previous lowest figure.

I'd honestly be fine with consuming so few calories for a majority of any given week. I feel like I'm getting the nutrients I need (greens, veggies, protein) and I'm feeling full. But according to any calculator you find this seems like way too little. And every single person on every diet/exercise forum warns like crazy about dropping below 1200, putting your body into starvation mode where it will apparently cling to fat and destroy your metabolism.

My worry is that my metabolism is screwed already, and so any 'healthy' calorie consumption standard will simply not work for me. Any help?
posted by naju to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of calories are you eating? Are you tracking this through some program? I recommend looking at some additional nutrient qualities - like carbs, sugars, etc. Caloriecount on can do this, but there's many others as well. Get something like a FitBit to track your calories burned. It may be that you aren't working out as hard as you think.

Standard advice will be to see a doctor/nutritionist and have them run tests and develop a plan of action.
posted by quodlibet at 10:16 AM on October 12, 2011

Best answer: after 3 weeks of eating in the 1200-1500 range and maintaining, yesterday I got fed up and went with a 750 calorie day. This morning I weighed myself and had instantly dropped half a pound from my previous lowest figure.

If I did this, the difference in a 24 hour period would come from the amount of food matter in my digestive tract after a day of eating half as much food vs. normal ... as opposed to actual fat loss or bodyweight changes. Make sure you're not conflating things (hydration level, food consumption, bowel changes) when you look at really short term changes with small weight differences like this.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:17 AM on October 12, 2011 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: What kind of calories are you eating? Are you tracking this through some program? I recommend looking at some additional nutrient qualities - like carbs, sugars, etc.

I pretty much avoid sweets, aside from the occasional diet soda and sugar/cream in my coffee.

I eat some carbs but avoid whenever possible. Not enough to go into ketosis, I think, but still low.
posted by naju at 10:21 AM on October 12, 2011

No insight into your calorie requirements, but "weight loss" from day to day is not real.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 10:22 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Even by a week-to-week standard, though, the numbers I stated appear to be valid. Like I said, this is based on 3 months of tracking.
posted by naju at 10:24 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you weighing your food? A lot of people think they are keeping close track of their calorie intake, but over report significantly because of portion sizes.

And I'll third that you not take a single weigh-in as a result of the previous day's calorie intake.
posted by ODiV at 10:25 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you taken a cheat day since starting this? It sounds like your metabolism has down regulated itself (adapting to 'survive' on lower caloric intake). When I plateau like this, a pig-out day always kick starts the process again.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:30 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Good question, how are you determining your portion sizes?
posted by Miko at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2011

You are much more efficient metabolically. You get more joules per KG of food. Your ancestors thrived while others starved in drought times. Now, an abundance of food confonts you, along with the social demands of eating.

It is human variation. It is incorrect to assume that everyone burns calories at thesame rate. Hence, you must eat differently.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:40 AM on October 12, 2011

Response by poster: I'm watching my portion sizes pretty carefully. For example, if I get .67 lbs of chicken breast from my deli, I cut it exactly in half and then cook for my dinner. For quinoa it's a 1/4 cup dry. Salad greens I'm generous with, but that shouldn't be a concern. I know there's a tendency to overdo pasta, but I very rarely eat that. But yeah, I'm not weighing things on scales.

I've done cheat days probably once a week or every other week, and I can't tell if they help. Even my most extreme pig-out days rarely go over the 2500 that's supposedly maintenance, though.
posted by naju at 10:41 AM on October 12, 2011

I'll throw this out there: 1200-1600 for maintenance is fairly low. Might be time for a check-up and discuss this with your doctor. They may want to run some standard blood tests just to make sure everything is working right and that you don't have any metabolic issues.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:44 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My assumption would be to not worry about it. It sounds like your measurement is off, and that this is not a problem because (1) it is off in a reliable and consistent way. (2) You've already calibrated it. eg you noted that 1200 naju-calories is your weight-loss amount. (3) It doesn't sound like you're inadvertantly starving yourself. Especially when you're gaining weight.

It might be that those 1200 naju-calories contain more actual calories than 1200, or it might be that you are sterner than most when judging the vigorousness of your exercise, or it might be both, but it doesn't sound to me that the numbers you count aren't the same as the guideline numbers, you're still counting methodically and it's giving you the info you need.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:47 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will throw this out there - back when I had a borderline eating disorder and lost a bunch of weight over about eighteen months, I had to eat ~900 calories per day to lose weight - and I too tracked this obsessively and ate very few carbs. I had one cheat day every week during which I ate no more than 1800 calories. I exercised six days a week.

I think there's a certain percentage of the population for whom the "common sense" about calories burned just isn't true, whether that's some weird metabolic thing or a gut bacteria issue or whatever.
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on October 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

I know you've been weighing yourself a lot, but are you taking a running average of your weight? Any single point weight (daily or weekly) might not be valid, but the average is likely to show you what's really going on. You may well be losing weight when you think you're staying steady.
posted by OmieWise at 10:56 AM on October 12, 2011

My calorie requirements have always been lower than average, too, both to lose and maintain. People are just different. I don't think you're necessarily doing anything wrong.
posted by something something at 10:57 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Assuming that your measurements are accurate and that you don't have hypothyroidism or any other significant condition... well... welcome to the club.

I'm the same way: I will gain weight on 1700 kcal/day. I measure and account for my intake obsessively. I weigh and measure my portions precisely. I even count the calories in a cup of black coffee (2 kcal, approximately) and the calories in sugar-free gum! My T3, T4, and TSH are normal. I have no GI disorders of note. I just don't have a normal metabolism. It happens.

That said, others are correct: day-to-day weight is meaningless. I can vary by a couple pounds from wet/full weight to dry/empty. (Those terms refer to my hydration and... erm... bowel contents, respectively).

So yeah, assuming that you know you're of sound body, you may just be an outlier on the unfortunate side of the bell curve.

Look on the bright side: if an apocalypse occurs, we'll stick around longer!
posted by -1 at 11:01 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

In addition to people's caloric needs varying, the caloric content of real foods can vary. For example, a cup of spinach could be said to have 7 calories, but that's an averaged ballpark number, not exact. When you get into trying to count caloriess in meats, any number you use won't be exact because that chicken might have been a bit more or less fatty, etc. As long as you feel that you are not starving yourself and have sufficient energy for your lifestyle I wouldn't worry too much about it. If it is a concern you should see a doctor for a regular blood workup just to make sure there not more to it that simple variance amongst metabolisms and real food calorie contents.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2011

I had this same issue. Turned out to be hypothyroidism.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:06 AM on October 12, 2011

Remember that a pound of fat is 3500 calories. So for you to have Burned half a pound of fat yesterday, you would have had to have had a 1700 calorie deficit that day, which is unlikely. My experience, and that of all the other people in my recent successful program, was that we did better when we ate More vegetables and lean protein and fruit (and ate a bit more than that, even, on the days we exercised vigorously).

I would agree that you should talk to a medical professional. It could be something with thyroid or other endocrine issues, it could just be the way you are and you're fine, or it could be something else entirely.
posted by ldthomps at 11:09 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the same way: the notion that everyone needs exactly the same number of calories is horseshit. And your body will fight to re-stabilize your weight at the old, higher amount even if you are only eating 1500 calories a day.
posted by jrochest at 11:12 AM on October 12, 2011

My calorie requirements have also been much lower than what any of the charts say. I track my calories at The Daily Plate and find judgign by the most sedentary level possible and also doubling the time it "should" take for me to lose weight is the only thing that even comes close for me.

For instance, I'm 5'9" and have to stick to around 1344 calories a day just to lose one pound every two weeks.

Data points: I have hypothyroidism, take .75 Synthroid daily, and I am also on Adderall for ADD, which ought to have me running around and losing weight like crazy, since I often forget to eat, but even with the Synthroid just seems to get me up to a normal body temp and sleep cycle.

So, yes, YMMV, and my personal my experience is also that calorie charts are way too high.
posted by misha at 11:12 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing I think calorie counters don't take into account enough is that nutrition information can be up to 20% inaccurate by FDA standards, and most of the time it's underestimated rather than overestimated and averages out to 18% higher than the label (NY Times article on the topic). Not sure whether there's been comparative studies done in other countries.

Counting a 1200 calorie diet going purely by labels with a 20% inaccuracy can actually be 1440 calories.

Compound that with human error and the fact that non-packaged foods are always ballpark numbers, and calories burned in exercise is a very incomplete science unless it's measured in the doctor's office... it's easy to think you're getting too few calories when counting them yourself.

Even then, I think bodies are a lot more complicated than pure calorie counts. Calorie calculators are pretty inaccurate for me - their maintenance level would have me gaining weight. The only thing that's resulted in significant (2 lb/week) weight loss has been adding exercise - and I am definitely not burning enough calories account for that weight loss by the calories-in-calories-out standards.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:33 AM on October 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, that article is eye-opening:

Some of the disparities were startling. At Denny’s, a serving of grits, listed at 80 calories, tested at 258. The label on Lean Cuisine’s shrimp and angel-hair pasta says it has 220 calories, but the researchers measured it at 319. They found 344 calories in a Wendy’s grilled chicken wrap listed at 260.

Stuff like this could certainly account for 900 calories being more like 1200.
posted by naju at 11:48 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Absent portion measurement / calorie intake errors, or exercise overestimation error, I'd ask: how are you measuring your weight, and what do you mean by 'reliably' losing or putting on weight?

I'm lighter than you, and I can fluctuate +/- 3 lbs in a day (probably based on varying levels of water in my tissues). You should be looking at a long-term moving average for your weight. See the lovely section on quantifying weight in The Hacker's Diet.
posted by zippy at 12:16 PM on October 12, 2011

Best answer: Also, the 3500-calorie figure is being discredited. The reality is much more complex (and depressing) -- "If the 3,500-calorie rule applied consistently in real life, it would result in twice the weight loss that the new model predicts, the authors wrote. This helps to explain why even the most diligent dieters often fail to reach weight loss goals that were based on the old rule."
posted by katemonster at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I feel you-because I AM you.

The calculators tells me that I can eat 1,300 and still lose weight and something like 1,700 to maintain. At that intake-I gain, gain, gain.

I have tracked my calories, exercised, and tried all the tricks. I raised my calories intake one day, lowered it the next..etc..etc..etc.

What DOES work for me is counting carbs-if I stay near 85 then I lose. Seems easier said than done but it's really tough- I even have to count my sugarfree gum and splenda packets. I eat every 2 hours and I stop at about 7 pm (Stopping earlier doesn't help me lose weight but I since I eat so often during the day- I am not hungry at all after 7). Oddly-exercise doesn't affect me either way. When I do workout-I do not eat my “earned” calories.

I rarely eat over 1,000 calories. Everyone will say this is wrong-but I will just respond that I gain weight if I eat more. I've tried eating more for months and it didn't work.

Anyway-I gave up and realized that I'm just never going to be one of those people who can eat 1,700 a day and lose or maintain. BTw: I'm 5''3 and just shy of 154
posted by duddes02 at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

How much energy do you have on a daily basis? How much sleep are you getting? If you are consuming fewer calories than you need, your body can compensate by making you more tired. This effectively lowers your metabolism by reducing the amount of calories you burn moving around during the day (because you're too tired).
posted by knave at 2:24 PM on October 12, 2011

I don't think 3 months is enough time to know what you think you know. I'd give any particular calorie amount at least 4 weeks to know exactly what it's doing for me.

In other words, stick to 1500 calories per day religiously for 4 weeks, and only weigh yourself twice during that period -- once on Day 1 and once on Day 28. Those are the only days that matter, so additional weighing is only going to tempt you into messing with your calories even more.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:26 PM on October 12, 2011

In addition to all this, your scale may be extremely inaccurate. For years I was mystified by huge weight fluctuations over very short periods of time - 5-10 pounds in a couple days, sometimes. Then I started using one of those scales with the two sliding weights and all that variation went away. Unless there's actual, long term changes in my weight it doesn't vary by more than a pound or two day to day.

So your scale may be junk.
posted by The Lamplighter at 2:30 PM on October 12, 2011

subject_verb_remainder and katemonster have excellent points, as well as others. You have to account for error in nutrition information, error in your measurements, and the very MASSIVE error in those calorie calculators.

The calorie calculators are an extremely rough starting point and generally overestimate, and the more overweight you are the more they overestimate as they don't take into account the fact that fat doesn't burn calories. For example, they would have a 250lbs 5'2'' woman eating 3500 or more calories, and unless that 5'2'' woman is 15% body fat she is NOT going to do anything but get heavier on that caloric intake.

If you are losing weight at a healthy pace (ideally no more than 1% of your bodyweight per week), have good energy, and are not feeling starving or obsessive about food, then you are at a calorie deficit that is good for you, no matter what the number is.
posted by Anonymous at 9:51 PM on October 12, 2011

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