another weight loss question
February 8, 2013 9:36 AM   Subscribe

In which I ask questions about optimizing minor weight loss (and maintaining weight loss); Very low calorie diets and exercise; Set points and starvation; Am I doin it rong?

I am 5'2". Female. I have a fairly sturdy build and look/feel best around 115lbs. If I eat "normally", without thinking too much about it, my body seems to stick tenaciously to about 125. What with the holidays and some winter cocooning, I weigh 130 right now. I tend to eat very clean, mostly lean protein and colorful vegetables, with the occasional but not frequent meal that includes grain, legumes, or dairy. Paleo-ish, I guess. I mostly cook for myself.

I absolutely cannot lose weight without cutting to 800 calories a day. This is well below the "OMG NEVER GO BELOW" threshold, usually 1200, that people talk about. Is this a problem? At 800 calories a day, I see steady, slow loss right around two pounds a week, so that seems right. But am I hurting myself in the long run? I don't understand the science of metabolism and weight loss; it seems like it changes all the time. Can you explain to me why my caloric needs seem to be so low, and if it's a problem? If it's because my metabolism is slowed down, how do I speed it back up?

Other relevant info and questions:
  • 800 calories is easy and sustainable for me (lots of raw vegetable-heavy salads and brothy soups, though not as much beer as I would like, sadly). Yes, I weigh everything on a scale and count everything—everything—I put in my mouth. I'm not grouchy or tired or obsessing, so I figure it's enough for my body to run on...right?
  • If I'm not counting, I'd estimate that I "naturally" eat about 1500 calories a day. This is what keeps me around 125. If I want to maintain at 115, obviously I'd have to eat less...right?
  • I sit at a desk all day but am training for a May marathon (currently running about 25 miles per week, that will go up) and do at least three 90-minute bikram yoga classes each week. So far I haven't adjusted my intake for training, since I feel strong and am not having any bad workouts. I'm worried, though, about how I do this once I reach my goal weight and don't want to lose any more—last summer, when I was training for an olympic-distance triathlon and a half, I couldn't seem to find the right balance and would eat too much, then too little. It's especially hard because the weight falls as the training ramps up and your caloric needs seem to be pulled in two opposing directions. What is a sane approach to doing this?
  • I know this works for me, but I still feel like I'm doing it wrong. My friends express horror and concern at the numbers. Everyone else seems to be able to lose weight on several hundred more calories and several fewer hours of exercise than I seem to need. I guess I'm slightly bitter about it, but also, does this indicate that something really is wrong that should be fixed?
  • posted by peachfuzz to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
    I should mention, I know this works because this is how I've always handled it when I want to lose a few winter pounds. But last spring, I accidentally made it down to like 107 lbs (see above re: not understanding how to adjust calorie intake as my body/exertion changes). That was way, way too much weight loss for me to look or feel good, but I couldn't seem to find the magic number to stay 115-120ish.
    posted by peachfuzz at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2013

    Guidelines, like "never go below 1200 calories," are useful for the majority of people the majority of the time -- that's how they get to be guidelines, after all -- but they might not be right for you at this time. You know that disclaimer "Consult a doctor before beginning any diet or exercise program" that flashes for a tenth of a second in 6-point type at the end of a diet-pill or workout-machine infomercial? That's actually a good idea, especially when something that used to work doesn't anymore, or when something that should work for everyone doesn't work for you.

    So talk to your doctor. Tell your doctor your whole history with weight loss and calorie restriction. This does run the risk of your doctor "express[ing] horror and concern at the numbers", but that may be because you got lucky the times you did this before. Or it may be because you need a new doctor. But a physician will be able to give you significantly better advice pertaining to your particular metabolism than anyone here will.
    posted by Etrigan at 9:51 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

    All I can say is that I'm the same way (and so are my parents, yay genetics.) And I know other people also who just seem to need much less food than "they" say everyone needs. And as much as "they" freak out about it, if I ate what I was "supposed" to it would take 5 people to roll my ass down the street. I maintain my (too high but not technically "overweight" at the moment) weight with an average of ~1200 calories/day, and in the past have lost weight consistently at ~800-1000. I am not at all hungry or otherwise adversely affected when I eat the lower amount.

    My anecdote-fueled theory is that you and I and people like us know how many calories we're eating because we've dealt with losing weight on purpose, but there must be many, many people who do not diet or count/measure anything who naturally eat low-calorie diets and don't even know it. So their experiences never come into this debate. I've known a lot of (naturally) very thin people who honestly believe they eat a ton of food, but if you followed them around all day with a calculator and a scale you'd find they eat below 1000 cal's most days. So I don't think we're as abnormal as "they" would have us believe. If that helps.

    More anecdata: my mom saves everything, and she showed me a bunch of diet/health food/yoga pamphlets and articles from the 60s and 70s. (Not weird fad diets, if it matters, but "brown rice and vegetables" type diets.) They all recommend about 800-1000 calories for women watching their weight/health. Obviously science has advanced since then in many ways, but I'm not sure this was one of them. Americans were a lot thinner back then, and they weren't all starving.

    There was an AskMe question I stumbled across the other day with a lot of answers from people who also fell outside the norm in this way, but I can't find it now. Maybe someone else knows which thread it is and can find it.
    posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2013

    The only thing I would say is that especially for someone who is small to begin with and only wants to lose 10-15 lbs, 2 lbs a week is actually pretty fast weight loss. I don't know if it's too fast or if you're doing anything necessarily horrible to your metabolism. But if you're having to lose the same 15 lbs of winter weight each year, is it really "working for you"? That's actually quite a lot of "holiday/winter cocooning" weight gain (studies show that the average holiday weight gain is only a pound or two), and to me it it hints that something is not quite sustainable in your diet during the rest of the year.

    My suggestion would be to try sticking to a diet somewhere in the 1200 calorie range for a couple of months (with appropriate compensations for increases in exercise). You may find that you continue to lose weight, just more slowly at first, and that your weight loss slows down even further the closer you get to your target weight. The goal is to basically adopt a calorie level that is not much below what you are going to require long-term to sustain your target weight.

    A diet that really works for you won't have you yo-yoing back and forth between 1500 calories for most of the year and 800 calories when you're dieting, and 130 lbs in the winter and 115 lbs in the summer.
    posted by drlith at 10:23 AM on February 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

    It's not a problem if it works for you, since your metabolic rate isn't average. Some people can lose weight on more than 1200 calories, some on fewer, some on much fewer.

    I would say, though, that two pounds per week is generally considered the maximum benchmark amount of weight loss, so for for someone who is already relatively small and light, I think you should consider taking in something more like 1000 or 1100 calories and aiming for loss of about 1 pound per week instead of two.

    There are two reasons for this. First, you need to ensure you're getting the right amounts of nutrients, and if you're eating only 800 calories, it gets harder and harder to squeeze all the vitamins and minerals in. But the second, and more important reason, is that what you want to be losing is fat, not simply weight. In order to maximize your fat loss and preserve the amount of lean body mass that you retain, you need to make sure you're eating enough--especially enough protein--to sustain as much lean body mass as you can.

    Also, if you're training for a marathon you're going to need to make some changes as your runs get longer. I would basically look to replace all of the calories you lose on your runs by eating above and beyond your 800 (or whatever) calorie budget. I ran a few marathons at the same time I was really watching what I ate, and I still lost weight even when I was eating extra to make up for the fact that I was running so many miles each week.
    posted by MoonOrb at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

    I'm 4'11" and I have to eat about 700 or 800 calories a day to lose weight. I actually start gaining if I eat 1200 consistently, and to maintain I need only 900 or 1000. When you're a shortie, you just don't get as many calories to play with if you also want to be slim.

    That said, 2 pounds a week is a lot for someone who is our size. When I was eating 700 calories a day consistently, I was losing about a pound a week. You could probably eat a few more calories and just lose the weight slower.

    700 calories a day was dreadful and I hated it and I was hungry all the time and it was not sustainable. I was so happy when I was able to add a bit of food and maintain my new low weight.

    DestintationUnknown, this is probably the thread you were looking for. It's got a lot of tiny people talking about how many calories we eat. :)

    Good luck on your weightloss. I do also think that if you're regularly gaining 10-15 pounds during the holidays that what you're actually engaging in is something more like yo-yo dieting, and I would encourage you to eat more calories and lose weight in a slower, more sustainable way. If I eat a little bit extra on a few days during the holidays, I tend not to gain weight. It's only when I consistently change my eating habits for a month or two that I start to see weight gain or weight loss.
    posted by k8lin at 10:38 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

    When was the last time you had your thyroid checked? If you think your metabolism has slowed down from what it "should" be, that could indicate hypothyrodism, only numbers from your doctor can tell for sure.

    That being said, you're tiny, and you're close to your goal weight. The 1200 a day number is an average, that obviously won't work for someone 5'2" and 15lbs overweight the same way that it would work for someone who is 5'10 and 30lbs over.

    You say that you're staying active, and you're not bonking at all from poor nutrition/energy levels. I'm willing to bet that 800-1000 is really the right range for you. But visit your doctor for your thyroid stuff.
    posted by sparklemotion at 10:39 AM on February 8, 2013

    In a similar situation, I increased my weight training about six months ago, which turned some fat into some muscle and left me feeling good about my looks and athletic performance at the higher weight. Increasing my weight lifting had other ancillary benefits like being stronger and decreasing soreness after my soccer games, and I also benefited greatly from a few sessions with a personal trainer to identify my weaknesses. Now I eat 'normally' (ie, pretty well, but not counting calories or anything) and feel comfortable with the 'normal' weight. I wish I'd made the change years ago.

    Your mileage will vary, since I'm sitting at 215 lbs, so the amount of me in question was proportionally much less.
    posted by Kwine at 10:46 AM on February 8, 2013

    There is evidence that long-term calorie restriction increases longevity and wards off disease. It's something to show the naysayers in your life, anyway.
    posted by payoto at 10:46 AM on February 8, 2013

    Good thoughts so far! I should mention - I've basically been a steady 125 my whole adult life, last summer was the first time I'd weighed less than 120 pounds since high school and I realized that I felt awesome. I usually put on like 2-3 pounds over the winter, not really 10-15. This fall/winter I've really let myself go—I had a knee injury in October, moved and had to start commuting an hour each way by car rather than by bicycle, and started a new relationship, with all the cooking and going out and eating and drinking that that involves. 130 is really high for me and made me panic a little. I just weighed myself for real, not on my broken home scale, and I'm actually at 127 right now.
    posted by peachfuzz at 10:50 AM on February 8, 2013

    It makes a lot of sense to up to 1000 calories; I hadn't realized that two pounds per week was pretty fast (I thought it was actually really slow, and concluded that 800 was the max I could eat and still lose weight). I'll try it and see.

    Is it nutritionally sound to use those extra 200 calories on a pint of delicious IPA? (Joking..mostly).
    posted by peachfuzz at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

    A pound a week was my goal, based on what was recommended in a number of places when I started. What's "wrong" may be that you're really pushing your body past its set point, and that's just going to be hard. Not impossible at all, just hard.
    posted by gingerbeer at 11:15 AM on February 8, 2013

    Lift weights. Seriously. Adding lean muscle is key to long term weight management.
    posted by WinnipegDragon at 1:12 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

    I think you need to figure out exactly what your goal is. Do you want to be at a certain weight, or do you want to look the best you can, or do you want to be able to eat more? These are all very different things.

    It sounds like your weight isn't so much the concern, but you want to look a certain way, which for you right now is at 115lbs. With this in mind, there are a couple of different options for you:

    1 - Eat at 800-1000 calories and do what you know will work, but you'll have to stick with this.

    2 - Incorporate some heavy strength exercise into your routine, and build some muscle. You could gain 5 pounds of muscle and lose 5 pounds of fat, and you'd probably look leaner at the same weight. The benefit here is that with more muscle mass, you'll have a higher metabolism, and can eat more.

    3 - Don't worry about losing weight right now with your eating, and instead concentrate on fueling your running. Keep eating healthy and eating consistently, so as your training ramps up for the marathon, you should naturally start to lose weight, and at the same time you'll have plenty of energy for your marathon.

    Regardless of what you're doing, on 800-1000ish calories, you really want to make sure you're getting a lot of nutrients. It sounds like your diet is good, but with all of the running you're doing, make very sure not to slip up with that.

    I'll also suggest you get your thyroid checked out, since it sounds strange to me that you'd eat that little while doing so much exercise. It wouldn't hurt, and if you do have an issue going on there, getting it addressed might help you in all aspects of life.
    posted by markblasco at 1:30 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Hey there, I'm 4'11" and 95 lbs. I also really only need 800-1000 calories a day to maintain my weight and feel satisfied. It is really difficult for small people to get solid information about this - it's all "NEVER GO BELOW 1200 CALORIES OR YOU'LL DIE". As long as you feel okay, then eat what works.

    I agree that two lbs/week is probably too rapid for you, since you are at a healthy weight to begin with. Could you try 1100 calories daily for a month and see where that gets you?

    One big caveat: The 800-1000 calories thing only works when Im sedentary. Because you are running so much it's crucial that you replace those calories. I'm also training for a half-marathon and on running days I eat ~100 calories more for each mile I run. Like.. a cheeseburger, or a chocolate croissant, or some treat. And you should definitely be mindful of this. Even if you feel okay running 4+ miles a day on 800 calories, it's stressing out your body big time and you should conscientiously eat more.
    posted by pintapicasso at 4:07 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

    If you have the money, and you can find someplace near you that offers the service, you might want to have your resting metabolic rate (RMR) tested. That would give you a more accurate assessment of your caloric needs for daily life (usually it's RMR times a factor that depends on how active you are in everyday life). I agree with pintapicasso that you should factor in additional calories for cardio exercise. I'm running a 600-700 calorie deficit daily, in order to take off some excess weight, but when I do a cardio workout (usually cycling), I use a heart rate monitor (HRM) to estimate the calories I consume, and I add those to my daily diet. Otherwise, I'd be running a 1200-2000 calorie deficit on exercise days, which would be way too much.

    Note that a lot of HRMs (and exercise machines that estimate calories) give ludicrously inflated values for calories consumed. I find that many of them are most accurate if you input your lean body mass as your weight, rather than your actual weight. My Garmin Edge 800 bike computer produces reasonable results (that is, distressingly low ones) with my actual weight, but my Forerunner 410 will say that the same workout burned about 40% more calories.
    posted by brianogilvie at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2013

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