Should I eat more?
February 8, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Am I doing damage to my body by eating below my estimated BMR? Is starvation mode a real thing?

I'm female. I lost 100+ lbs eating 1200 calories a day and working out. I gained almost all of it back over the course of 5 years (first due to a medical issue and then bad habits that resurfaced). Now I'm counting calories and working out again. I'm using LoseIt to log food, and they estimate that I eat about 1600 calories a day to lose two lbs a week without taking exercise into account. I usually eat between 1200 and 1400 calories a day (I measure or weigh my food), and do cardio (I've slowly built up to elliptical or treadmill for 45 minutes a day at a moderate (3mph) pace). Doing daily cardio also helps depression and anxiety issues I've been having. I've been doing it for 5 weeks, and my average weight loss is 2.5 lbs a week (but that includes a rapid drop in the first two weeks, water weight, probably). I would have to lose 110 lbs just to get me into "healthy" BMI territory.

I feel fine! I'm not hungry. My diet includes a lot of veggies and fruit, so I get a lot of fiber, and I eat small meals throughout the day, mostly vegetarian, but some chicken and fish. LoseIt says that last week, my calorie breakdown was 31.5% from fat, 46% from carbs, 22.5% from protein.

An online calculator estimates that my BMR is over 1800. I've been reading that it's really bad to eat under your BMR, and that if you do it for a long time, you can permanently lower your BMR. I'm just wondering if I damaged myself by eating too little the first time I lost weight, and if I should be eating more now.

Here's what I ate during a recent day:1 cup high protein cereal, 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk, coffee with 1 tsp coffee, a grilled chicken salad with some other veggies, an asparagus and goat cheese souffle (made at home), 1 cup mixed greens, 1 tsp vinaigrette, an apple, string cheese, light yogurt, and a dark chocolate vitamuffin. That's 1,263 calories.

I've had the occasional day when I've gotten close to 1600 calories (and one where I've gone over). I don't stress about getting close or going over.

TLDR: Am I eating too little? How would I know if I were?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"Starvation mode" is, from what I understand, not a real thing.

If I were you, I would make sure you get to 1600-1800 calories, not for avoiding "starvation mode" but to increase satiety and make your endeavors a little more sustainable.

I'd adjust your calorie breakdown towards 40% carbs/40% protein/20% fat, equally good for satiety and muscle development.

Speaking of which, you should probably be lifting weights, too.
posted by downing street memo at 1:37 PM on February 8, 2012

I don't count calories, only carbs, and I think "starvation mode" is a myth, for the average dieter. I would say, that if you want to up your metabolic rate, lifting heavy weights will build muscles which will burns more calories while you're not exercising. Cardio is great, but it's not the only way to exercise.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:39 PM on February 8, 2012

Clues that you're eating too little: tiredness, grumpiness, problems sleeping, bad workouts. It sounds like you aren't experiencing those problems.

I did a program through my Y where the focus was on lowering the bodyfat percentage, as measured with a electrical impedance scale adjusted for hydration. Almost all of us eight women found that after a few weeks of working out harder and trying to eat fewer calories, we were losing muscle and gaining fat. This was despite the nutritionist working with us on eating enough. We all ate a little more we switched back to losing fat and gaining muscle. I experienced some of those symptoms above, and tried to ad a little bit more of the fruits, veggies, and lean protein (and a little more milkfat instead of skim) - that did the trick.
posted by ldthomps at 1:40 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

No, it's not a real thing, though your metabolism does eventually downregulate. The more weight you lose the more your body goes into "stress mode" and incrementally slows things down a bit. The end result is once you're at your goal weight you'll need to eat less calories than someone of similar weight who hadn't lost a lot of weight. If you lose weight very fast this can also result in stall-outs. You prevent it by not cutting calories too crazy and aiming for a lower rate of weight loss.

Now, there is a phenomena like starvation mode that happens to physique competitors (think bodybuilders and figure models), where their body is under such intense stress from prolonged dieting at low body fat with a lot of working out that it goes into stress overload and terrible things happen--inexplicable weight gain, sleeping problems, chronic tiredness, etc etc etc. But that is a pretty special case and most limited to the very leanest, most overtrained people.
posted by schroedinger at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not a nutritionist, etc. etc. but if you feel good and you're not hungry, you're probably eating enough calories. One thing about those BMR calculators - most of them don't seem to account for the difference between your lean/muscle weight and your total weight. Fat burns fewer calories than muscle (even at rest), so a 250-pound person with 35% body fat is going to need fewer calories than a 250-pound person with 12% body fat.

One thing you probably do want to pay attention to is if you're getting enough protein - 22.5% of 1200 calories is 270 calories from protein, or about 67g, which is kind of low. Here's what the Harvard School of Public Health (one of my favorite sources of nutrition info) has to say about how much protein you need.
posted by mskyle at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel fine!

I saw a nutritionist for a while, and she only ever analyzed this: how did I feel? You know your body far better than any anonymous online calculator does; you have better access to your needs than does a mathematical equation.
posted by meese at 1:54 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Work with your doctor on this. I hope you already are, but if not, please do. One thing that happens to fat people is liver disease. Going on a VLCD (very low calorie diet) can send your liver enzymes way up. That's not a disaster, but it's worth monitoring. Your doctor might choose to monitor your vitamin D levels, and your calcium, magnesium and potassium. He or she might prescribe you some supplements if any of these levels is found to be low.

I'm doing a VLCD right now, and my doctor is doing lab work on me every 6 weeks or so. I have some underlying stuff (thyroid and whatnot) that warrants extra attention, so you might not need anything like that much.

See also what MoonOrb says. Lifting weights builds lean muscle mass, which aids your cause in burning fat. Resistance bands might also provide you with a muscle-building workout.

best of luck to you
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 2:26 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good answers above. Only one thing I'd like to reinforce: you can be comfortable running a calorie deficit because your body can burn its fat stores for that missing energy, but what it can't do is make up the difference in other nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc). You need to make sure that you are still getting a full complement of all that other good stuff while keeping the overall calories down. It sounds like you have that covered pretty well, but it's very important to keep an eye on it.

P.S.: I saw S'Tella's comment as I was writing this and I second having a doctor take a peek. ~2lbs/week is a pretty reasonable rate of weight loss but any kind of really restrictive diet really should be done with at least a little professional oversight. Nice to have someone around to catch those occasional little mistakes before they become big ones.
posted by vohk at 2:38 PM on February 8, 2012

Seconding the idea to watch your energy levels. I lose muscle mass instead of fat when I go too low calorie, sometimes by a factor of 1 lb muscle lost for every 1lb fat lost. The symptoms are: feeling dizzy, tired, and fatigued. It's a different feeling however than feeling listless from eating junk food. It's more lightheaded than sluggish.

I now measure my fat% instead of weight or BMI because of this exact problem.
posted by acheekymonkey at 2:49 PM on February 8, 2012

Thirding energy level. If you find you're wanting to bury yourself in a lot of blankets and not move except to eat your 1200 calories, then you're probably pushing too hard.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:10 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you get concerned about not getting the nutrition your body needs, due to not eating enough, you might try adding some fresh juice into your diet. Taking some fruits and vegetables through a juicer gives you a lot of vitamins without a ton of calories (as long as you make sure to use more vegetables than fruit), and since your body is burning fat for energy (which doesn't provide you with any vitamins and minerals), the extra you can get from juicing will more than help to supplement. There are a lot of recipes out there, but a combination of apple/beet/carrot/kale is a tasty combo with tons of good stuff.
posted by markblasco at 11:45 PM on February 8, 2012

The real issue might be that you are going catabolic more than you should, which is to say your muscle tissue is being depleted in order to sustain you. This doesn't seem terrible in the short run--you may be like "yay I'm losing weight"--but over time having underdeveloped muscle works against weight loss because muscle encourages efficient metabolism. It's about looking at things in the long term.

This was just posted the other day on the Blue by someone, and while an admittedly extreme illustration of why eating more (of the right things!) given you're actually using your muscles actually works in your favor in the long run, the general advice is pretty sound for anybody. This has a similar attitude (though NB I don't approve of that use of the Lizzy Miller Glamour photo as some sort of shaming thing, that's pretty gross).
posted by ifjuly at 5:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Possibly related: this New York Times article on calorie-restricted diets.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:16 AM on February 9, 2012

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