Safe to go below BMR on diet?
June 17, 2014 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I've been cutting back on calories since late December, given the weight gain I've faced over the past year. I am still gaining weight. How low can I go?

I posted a couple of weeks ago about my injuries and weight woes. I'm doing core exercises and walking. I have a desk job. Since my last post, I've gained 2 lbs. My blood work has come back with no issues. So it's not my thyroid or whatever.

What do I do now? Should I go below my BMR? I'm now officially beyond being overweight. I am aware that 2 lbs can be a fluctuation, but I'm looking at the longer term trend here.

I don't think I am grossly underestimating calories. I am not sneaking extra bites, tasting what I'm cooking, eating off the kids' plates or eating Costco samples without writing it down. I swear. I'd have to be forgetting a lot to be gaining weight at this rate.

My doctor is away right now for vacation and I won't do anything drastic without consulting her. But should I be looking to eat below my BMR or something?

I am writing everything down. The math isn't working. I am under a huge amount of stress and I have a chronic health problem.

If you need my height, weight, info about my health problem or info about my dietary problems as a teen, feel free to private message me.

Please, if you're here to rant about how I must be overeating, go post somewhere else or find something more helpful to say.

posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am under a huge amount of stress and I have a chronic health problem.

Stress can do incredible, weird, unexplainable things to your metabolism and your body. The old "calories in, calories out" maxim is patently false.

Instead of further restricting your calories, your next change should be taking steps to reduce your stress. Some methods that have worked for me in the past are walking in the park, gentle yoga videos from YouTube, mindful meditation, acupuncture, and talk therapy. I would not be surprised if reducing and/or managing your stress has a side effect of jumpstarting your weight loss. Even if it doesn't, stress harms us in many insidious and real, measurable ways, and you deserve to take care of yourself and address it.
posted by telegraph at 3:31 PM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Don't take our word for it, but it's safe to titrate down calories until you find the results you want. As a rule (excluding exceptional health concerns) it is safe to lower your calorie count to the point where you are losing weight, assuming you are currently overweight.

To the previous commenter: The old "calories in, calories out" maxim is patently false.

That is not really true. Strictly speaking, calories in<calories out=weight loss. It is true that humans have variation on metabolostic efficiency. For example, two humans might eat 100 calories, but a more 'efficient' human might metabolize 95 calories, and the other 50 calories. In that respect calories in is a function of the individual, and the individual varies. With that said, what is happening is at its core an energy function, which means it does follow thermodynamic law. And the energy humans gain is 99.999% from food, so it's safe to trust the core model, even if it doesn't SEEM to be the true model.
posted by jjmoney at 3:32 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Types of calories are also relevant. Get most from proteins and fats, very little from carbs.

You could very easily have "gained" 2 pounds just from, I dunno, eating something salty. Don't sweat it. Worry about your five- or ten-day moving average, not what the scale says this moment.
posted by jsturgill at 3:35 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's really tough to say without knowing what kinds of foods you eat. For me, eating fewer carbs is the only way to get my body to actually drop pounds. My insulin resistance curses me such that I can eat low-calorie high-carb until the cows come home and still not lose an ounce. Maybe you're in a similar situation?

I would definitely try eating fewer carbs, even just for a week or so, before you start dropping calories below your BMR.
posted by dialetheia at 3:37 PM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Did you have any success with the warm water pool swimming suggestions in your last askme? I can't really think of anything else what will be gentle enough on recovering injuries while calorie burning at the same time, unfortunately.

I think, though, that the stress is getting you down and leading you to catastrophize more than you would normally. I have had my weight fluctuate by 5-6lbs during a month due to hormonal issues, and I really think that 2lbs is not a huge change in 17 days. I understand that it feels horrible and distressing though especially as you've been trying so hard.

Also it is possible that you might just be expecting results too quickly. How long have you been in physical therapy? How long has it been since the initial injuries? Believe me, I know how it feels when your body seems like it is betraying you and all your hard work, but rushing things can only lead to more badness.
posted by elizardbits at 3:37 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think I am grossly underestimating calories.

You don't need to underestimate calories very much before you are no longer in a caloric deficit. It is actually really hard to be accurate on calorie consumption, which you should not feel bad about. I can't do it.

This is something that's appropriate to ask your doctor about. If you feel there's a chance there's a metabolic issue (or something else) that's limiting your weight loss, then the doctor should figure it out and fix it. However, if you don't want to go to the doctor, then I think your next step is simply to eat less until you lose weight. Your body will make it very, very obvious if you are undereating to the point of bodily damage. I know your doctor is unavailable in the short term, but I can't imagine that in any reasonable timeframe that you can do any damage to your body by undereating - you'll likely just find that you either lose weight (an indication your calorie estimation is inaccurate) or that you are utterly starving to the point of breaking your resolve (an indication that there might be something else going on). However, if you are prone to eating disorders, you may not want to do this for fear of triggering a recurrence.

It's normal to be exhausted when dieting (lack of glycogen in muscles). It's normal to be hungry when dieting (I am never not hungry when losing weight). It's normal for weight loss to be hard (that's why most people, including myself, can't consistently do it).

A few thoughts, since I'm not really sure what your question is here:
  • You are looking for a long term trend. That's good. However, a long term trend takes a long time. I weigh myself every day and do a 10-day average of the weight to have any idea of what's going on with my weight. I find that's a good way to differentiate between fluctuations and actual weight change.
  • I am not going to justify this extensively, because it is a contentious topic. In my experience, and in my attempt at an unbiased review of medical materials (not being a doctor), I am pretty darn convinced that a caloric deficit of 3500 calories per week (or so) results in weight loss of 1 lb per week. This almost exactly tracks my past experience with my weight loss. Further, trying to be as unbiased as possible, it tracks other peoples' weight loss as well. People here will correctly point out exceptions, but from my understanding, those are exceptions. Exceptions should be handled under a doctor rather than thinking that the math is wrong.
  • You note that you are doing exercises. The sort of exercises you list (walking and core exercises) will not extensively burn calories. I know your question is about BMR, which is exercise-invariant, but I thought I'd point that out. Many people rely on radical over-estimates of calorie expenditure from exercise. From my experience measuring power measurement from cycling, my body uses fewer calories than estimates suggest.

posted by saeculorum at 3:39 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

And yes, as mentioned above, the first thing you should cut from your diet is carbs. Also do not drink any other liquids aside from plain water, and lots of it. If cutting caffeine will result in migraines or other awful withdrawal symptoms, make sure to drink your tea or coffee without any dairy or sweetener, even artificial ones.
posted by elizardbits at 3:39 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are gaining weight then it is definitionally okay for you to eat fewer calories. Just don't overdo it or you'll feel crappy.
posted by Justinian at 3:39 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mathematically speaking, if you're gaining weight over a long period, you are not eating below your BMR. You might well be eating below the mark that the internet says your BMR is, but excluding short-term things like water weight from sodium intake, it's impossible to gain weight while consuming fewer calories than your body expends. Types of calories are relevant in some ways: it's true that protein and fat will keep you full longer. But you can lose weight on an all-Twinkie diet (really, it's been done) as long as you stay below your calorie expenditure.

Are you actually weighing everything you eat? If you're going the calorie-counting route, that's really the best way to do it (keeping in mind that packaged/processed foods can contain up to 20% more calories than is listed).

It's also possible that your BMR is simply lower than the average for someone of your height and weight. When your doctor gets back from vacation, consider going in and asking to have your BMR tested. (This takes all day and may cost, but it's a good piece of information to have.)

If you do decide to go below your BMR, make sure to focus on getting vitamins and minerals (potassium is super important) from the foods you do eat - or take a multivitamin if necessary. Also, keep in mind: you are not a perpetual motion machine. (If you were, you'd be a miracle of science.) Even if your BMR is much lower than the average, there's still a point at which you cannot fail to lose weight.
posted by littlegreen at 3:41 PM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

IANAD or any sort of health care professional. I wouldn't go below about 1300 calories a day. If you're still gaining, and if you can reduce calories and still have energy, you can cut calories. Stress increases cortisol, which does screw up your metabolism, so maybe adding some meditation would help. Make sure you're getting adequate fiber and water, which are really helpful, easy, ways to manage weight. Also, get plenty of sleep, both for weight & stress.
posted by theora55 at 3:43 PM on June 17, 2014

How do you know what your BMR is? Finding BMR is pretty much a matter of trial and error; using models that estimate BMR based on age, sex, activity level, and other stuff are just a starting point.

It could be that your BMR is lower than what you believe it is. So, if you can find ways to lower your caloric intake while not feeling completely weak and miserable, go for it.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:50 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Memail me. I figured out a plan that's minimally intrusive, and doesn't require tons of time for exercise. I'll need your current weight, and goal weight, dietary restrictions, and what times of the day you can take your meals.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:05 PM on June 17, 2014

You could very easily have "gained" 2 pounds just from, I dunno, eating something salty.

Echoing this. I am in your position as well, having gone from Ironman athlete last year to knee injury and subsequent 25-pound gain this year. It sucks to feel what you're feeling (and I feel it too), but two pounds in three weeks is not an unusual gain. Your body is retaining fluids as you're healing; that's normal. You are already doing the work toward strengthening your core, which is good for the long term; unfortunately, weight loss in the immediate term may simply not be in the cards.
posted by psoas at 4:06 PM on June 17, 2014

I have a chronic health problem. Effectively dealing with that and how it interacts with diet was the key to losing weight for me. All other attempts got me nowhere. You can memail me if you wish to talk.
posted by Michele in California at 4:07 PM on June 17, 2014

I don't know whether you're at all interested, but I've been experimenting with intermittent fasting (basically a modified 5:2) over the last 6 weeks and it has worked out really well. I've tried other diets previously, but I much prefer this one: I love not calorie-counting or having to worry about food at all. On my "feast" days, I eat whatever I want (within reason), and I try to fast completely on my fast days as I think I have less hunger that way. It has really helped me not feel deprived and hungry all the time while on a diet/weight-loss plan. It might be a good way to kickstart weight loss if daily calorie restriction isn't working for you, and studies seem to indicate that it may have other benefits too (possibly: improved insulin regulation, improvement in metabolism, warding off dementia, etc.) - basically it seems to have an effect on the body like exercise. You can watch the "Eat, Fast, and Live Longer" documentary if you're interested in the research about its broader effects. Anyway, no idea whether you're at all interested, and obviously ignore this if you're not, but it has been working really well for me thus far.
posted by ClaireBear at 4:30 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, depending on your diet and the severity of the changes, the body can do some really weird things. Cutting calories can also cut the efficiency of your metabolism. Starve the engine and you don't gain efficiency, you just get a smaller engine - what you do intake, the body still refuses to use, and instead stores it. I'd recommend a trip to the doctor to just get some vitals, then dropping some cash and talking to a RD (or preferably a Trainer with an RD) to go over and work out a manageable meal plan. My personal guess is that you have too little portion, too little fat, and likely too much carb in what you are eating. The big thing though is - if your metabolism has slowed on a restrictive diet, you need to restart it carefully.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:27 PM on June 17, 2014

Still reading all these responses, but just wanted to pop in to say that I have been on a diet since Christmas and I have gained about 7 lbs in that time. I calculated BMR based on several sites and the app on my phone. I took the lowest number.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 6:19 PM on June 17, 2014

I'm not going to rant about how you must be overeating, but I will ask if you're measuring, since you didn't mention it specifically. If you aren't weighing and measuring, start. It's a pain in the ass, but once you get used to what a cup or a levelled-off tablespoon *really* looks like, you can guesstimate it better in the future and be a little less strict about it as time goes on. My dad occasionally returns to measuring to remind himself what a tablespoon of peanut butter really looks like if he notices that his pants are getting too tight.

I have an eating disorder, so in the past I've been pretty good at losing weight. (I've weighed anywhere from 82 to 180 lbs. depending on whether I was taking anti-psychotics or having thyroid cancer.) The effects of consistently eating at starvation rates have been somewhat disastrous for me. I have advanced osteoporosis at 38 years old, kidney malfunction, and broke my metabolism for a long time. I was eating about 800-1000 calories a day (and exercising, of course) for several years to earn these disorders.

The easiest way to lose weight, in my experience, is to eat often but not much. When I lost weight in a healthy, un-disordered way, I ate 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. I'm 5'3" and my goal weight was 120 lbs. I was starting at 180 thanks to the aforementioned thyroid cancer and anti-psychotics. I ate a different number of calories every day, but the same total number of calories every week. To figure out how roughly how many calories I should eat, I used a calculator to figure out how many calories I should eat to maintain my goal weight at a sedentary level of activity, then subtracted 100 calories per day from that total. I paid no attention whatsoever to my current BMR. These calculator things are never perfect, but they're a good starting point.

As for actual food, I focused on nutrient dense foods that mostly come from the outer edges of the grocery store. No snack packs, boxed dinners, or anything like that, though I did have some protein bars very occasionally. Breakfast was usually eggbeaters + 1 whole egg, one slice of canadian bacon, and a small fruit type thing. Snacks consisted of things like whole cut veggies and a hummus type dip, carefully measured amounts of nuts, or something like 1 tbsp. of organic peanut butter + an apple. Lunches were usually a whole small fruit, some veggies, and a half sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce, tomato, a serving of protein, and a measured condiment of some kind. Dinner varied wildly, but I mostly stuck to things like veggie soups, vegetarian chilis that used tofu instead of meat, big salads with chicken or some other protein on them, etc. I made absolutely sure that my diet contained fats. Not one low-fat or "diet" product entered my fridge with the exception of egg beaters--I used real butter, real mayo, real salad dressing, real oils, etc. Just in moderation. These fats are required for taste and satiation. I almost always had dessert after dinner--usually one half cup of plain greek yogurt with some fruit and vanilla extract folded into it. I tried to avoid sugar substitutes, but I did add half a packet of splenda to my dessert if I happened to get fruit that wasn't particularly sweet that week.

Because of your physical limitations, I can't offer too much advice about exercise. In general, it's advisable to do cardio at your target heart rate 3-5x a week for 20 minutes, with a 5 minute warmup and 5 minute cooldown. Weight bearing exercises to build muscle are also advisable. Pound for pound, muscle burns more calories than fat, so increasing your muscle mass is extremely helpful for weight loss. I tend to gain muscle rather easily because I have naturally low estrogen and naturally high testosterone (for a female), so I found strength training to be quite helpful for losing weight. I did this 3x a week with a long rest on the weekend. Naturally muscle weighs more than fat, so BMI calculators are imperfect as a result.

My nutritionist at the eating disorder clinic once told me that in order to lose weight one must eat enough food. The context of this conversation was my complaint that I *was* eating more calories as required by my program but I was continuing to lose weight, and I didn't want to be punished with a naso-gastric tube when I was doing what I supposed to be doing. In fact, my weight loss sped up for a few weeks once I started eating more, then levelled out and started to creep back up once I started eating at an appropriate maintenance level. The "starvation mode" metabolism thing is a real thing. You can do bad things to your metabolism if you do not eat enough.
posted by xyzzy at 6:27 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're gaining, then you're consuming too many calories. Not ranting, just stating the obvious.

You may want to try the Overeater's Anonymous method (one of their Dignity of Choice plans) of eating thee moderate meals a day, nothing in between, and no seconds. I have been doing this for a few weeks and I do not gain weight. I have eliminated junk food (fast food, candy, baked goods, deep fried food) and eat three meals that I prepare at home, or from my work cafeteria. (I'm not a member of OA but did some internet research because I'm tired of gaining and losing the same 20 lbs and want to stop my compulsive overeating).

If you use a food scale, measure your food, and eat three moderate meals (one plate of food -- not skimpy, not piled high) a day with nothing in between, and no seconds, you may get a better idea of your actual calorie intake.

Good luck and apologies in advance if you are already measuring and weighing your food.
posted by Fairchild at 6:33 PM on June 17, 2014

I don't think I am grossly underestimating calories.

You don't have to be grossly underestimating calories to have gained a pound a month for 6 months. That's like 100 calories a day. It is very easy to slightly undercount to the tune of 100 calories a day. In fact I would expect anyone counting calories would be off by 100 calories a day, it's just you would hope that half the time you are off low and half the time you are off high.

But your question indicates that there is some methodological reason why you are off low consistently. You can either improve your counting method so you get a more accurate count (which would result in eating a bit less) or you can keep counting the same way but restrict your calories by another 200 a day or so.
posted by Justinian at 6:40 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you getting enough sleep? When I don't, I gain weight.
posted by mareli at 7:01 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have insulin resistance. Carbs - especially refined carbs like sugary baked goods and pasta, which I love - make me gain weight like crazy. I've cut out the refined carbs and am eating a much more whole-foods, "primal" diet, and the weight is coming off. I also have more energy and am less hungry - I can eat a carb-heavy meal and still be hungry afterwards, whereas half a grilled chicken breast plus a salad with full-fat dressing will fill me up and leave me satisfied until the next meal. I hardly even have to snack anymore. Insulin resistance was what was making me fat, and cutting carbs is helping me lose.

Low-carb has made all the difference for me. You might not want to watch your carbs like a hawk, BUT cutting out refined carbs and eating more protein and whole foods can't hurt.

And, yes, quality sleep is important. I use a CPAP machine for my apnea and the quality of my sleep has improved 100%. I also take melatonin.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:08 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I came to say the same thing as Rosie M. Banks. Yes, I could lose weight on a calorie counting diet - I've tried doing 800-1000 calories daily and I can lose 0.5-1lb per weekish if I stick to that really strictly. However, if I cut carbs/sugar out of my diet but eat huge meals with a lot of calories and fat, I can lose more weight faster. Not that I'm saying losing more weight faster is the healthiest way, I'm just saying my body responds immediately and better to a diet like that. I did the Whole30 last month and lost 10 lbs in 30 days (and I wasn't doing it for weight loss, and I wasn't overweight. I barely exercised at all). Sample menu: vegetable omelet for breakfast with fruit on the side, lunch: shrimp curry with full fat coconut milk, dinner: sweet potato fries in coconut oil, chicken with homemade pesto and sun dried tomatoes, spoonful of almond butter with an apple for 'dessert'. No restrictions on serving size, no counting calories, just had to eat real food with a lot of healthy fats and vegetables and meat all day every day, which was probably just as hard, I suppose. However, I also have insulin resistance/PCOS and perhaps diets like this work better for people with these types of problems.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:05 PM on June 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I lost 80 pounds using a combination of calorie counting (roughly) and reducing simple carbohydrates. I basically eat a protein (egg, chicken, beef, pork, duck, etc.) with a non-starchy vegetable (anything green or cauliflower) at most meals. I say roughly for the calorie counting because I eyeball everything and I'm sure I'm somewhat inaccurate, but I still lost weight with this method.

If you do choose to go below your BMR, make sure that you are getting enough protein, eat whole foods (none of this nonfat milk nonsense), and make sure your micronutrients are sufficient. Cronometer is a great site for checking out the vitamin and mineral contents of your food. Eating enough protein while at a caloric deficit will help reduce any loss of muscle mass, and paying attention to the micronutrients in your food will help you avoid deficiencies. You can always take vitamin supplements, but getting those nutrients from food is best.
posted by bedhead at 10:04 PM on June 17, 2014

Here's a SLNYT article about sleep and weight.
posted by mareli at 6:07 AM on June 18, 2014

I came to agree with others that the single best thing I have ever done to help me lose weight (and just feel so so much better) was to cut out carbs. I actually have gone to a ketogenic diet and holy mother effing crap, I feel incredible. And my weight is dropping. And I'm not hungry. And the food I am eating is delicious. I eat a high fat, low carb, vegetable heavy diet and never have I ever felt better. So I really suggest cutting out the carbs.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:37 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is safe to go below BMR. Why do you think it would not be safe to go below that if you are overweight? BMR just means the amount of calories your body needs to maintain your current weight in rest. If you're not very active the difference between BMR and your actual energy needs to maintain weight (TDEE) are often only about 300 calories. I totally believe that you're not sneaking in extra calories, but calorie counting is not an exact science, BMR calculators are not exact, so it's often better to just look at the scale: if it's not going down and you're overweight, then it's safe to eat a little less.
posted by blub at 7:50 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another thing that I'm doing, on my doctor's advice, that is helping me a LOT with weight loss: I eat a big breakfast and lunch and a very light dinner. This ups my energy - because I'm taking in my calories when I need them most - and I sleep better, because I'm not digesting a big meal.

Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. And there's no law saying that you have to eat "breakfast" foods at breakfast, either. I eat chicken and salads for breakfast all the time now, and the Breakfast Police haven't come after me yet.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:43 AM on June 18, 2014

There's no danger to eating below BMR. However, if you can't do much strength training, consistently eating at a high calorie deficit will consume lean body mass as well as body fat. Since you're trying to recover from muscular injuries, that might not be the best outcome.

I've been counting calories for about 17 months now, and the difference between my count and my actual weight loss suggests that (a) my BMR is about 200 calories lower than the calculators estimate, (b) I am missing about 200 calories a day in my counting, or (c) some combination of the two. In any case, I just reduced the calorie count until I reached the point where I was losing weight at the rate I wanted. In this case, accuracy is less important than precision and using feedback.

How often do you weigh yourself? I recommend using an exponentially smoothed weighted average of your daily weights, as explained by John Walker's chapter on "Signal and Noise" in The Hacker's Diet. Daily fluctuations overwhelm actual fat and muscle gains or losses, so tracking the longer-term trend is the best way to figure out which way your weight is going.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:02 AM on June 18, 2014

Thanks. I do measure out my food. I previously lost large amounts of weight by cutting back and I don't think I'm doing anything differently, except that my activity level has been compromised recently.

I'm thinking I should try cutting back to 1200-1300 calories a day? Should I ignore what the calculators say about height and weight and just take 500 calories off the 1800 recommended by the government, since I'm not losing on just under 1500?

To be clear, I'm not completely inactive. But, with the recent destabilization of my core, I'm not doing as much as I was and even stuff like dancing or doing steps while watching TV is causing injury, so I'm focusing on the core exercises.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 1:58 PM on June 18, 2014

*1800 calories recommended as daily intake for women, not based on height/weight.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:05 PM on June 18, 2014

I would shoot for 1300 indeed. I wouldn't underestimate the impact of reduced activity. For me, just relaxed cycling to work used to burn around 300 calories per day and I noticed when I stopped doing that. I hope your physio is working well for you and that you can look forward to being able to move more soon.
posted by blub at 3:19 PM on June 18, 2014

1200-1300 will probably be fine (you may be interested in this case, in which a very overweight man survived solely on his fat stores). It's important to maximise the activity you can do (walking is awesome!) and aim to eat food high in protein, fat, and fibre to keep you full. Good luck!
posted by littlegreen at 3:24 PM on June 18, 2014

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