If You Want to Lose Weight, You Have to Start Eating!

One of the most common comments or concerns of those starting flexible dieting is about the amount of calories or macros they are expected to eat.

Here’s one such comment:

I’m 24, 175 cm (5″10), 224lbs. I am fairly active (I workout 4-5 times a week) and your calculator puts me at 2033 calories a day, 154c, 227p, and 56f. I just think 2033 calories is fairly excessive and I’ve been on diets all my life and have never passed the 1300 calorie range as I am considered overweight.

It can seem really strange to eat so many calories when you’ve been told all your life that the only way to lose weight is to follow a low calorie diet.

But, for many, eating more is actually the key to losing more. Here’s why.

Why You Must Eat More to Lose More

In the above example, this woman was accustomed to eating 1300 calories. She would probably burn about 400 calories at the gym, which would only leave her 900 calories to fuel her bodily processes and general movement on exercise days.

According to our calculator, her sedentary calories are 2218 just to maintain her current weight. Therefore on exercise days she is putting her body in a 1318 calorie deficit.

Our basic understanding of weight loss principles would say, “wow, she should be at her target weight in no time!” but, the body doesn’t quite work that way unfortunately.

Your body is a very complex machine and its goal is survival, even at the cellular level.

So what’s the body to do when it needs 2218 calories, but you are only giving it 900?

Starvation Mode

A few days of drastic calorie deficit are fine and cause no changes, but for those that consistently eat at dangerously low calorie amounts the body switches into a conservation state or what some people call starvation mode.1

Our bodies are very clever and we still don’t yet fully understand all of the ways it can survive when placed in stressful situations.

This explains why some people who have been stranded at sea can survive for months on practically nothing. The body begins to slow down the metabolism in an effort to maintain homeostasis in light of a drastic calorie deficit.

A similar thing happens for extreme dieters. The body slows things down, slows the burning of fat, and actually begins to breakdown muscle tissue for energy especially if the dieter is also engaged in weight training.


Muscle Cannibalization

Muscle Cannibalization is simply when your muscles are broken down by the body and used as fuel for other parts of your body.

Drastic calorie deficits can cause this as well as not eating enough protein. Your body can break down one muscle group to build and repair the group you just worked out and then vice-versa later in the week when you work out the other muscle group.

One study showed that instead of fat loss occurring and then muscle loss during starvation, they both can happen in parallel to each other.2,3

To prevent this from happening a dieter must eat enough calories and enough protein to prevent this from occurring.4 Dieters want extra energy to come from their fat reserves, not their muscles or they’re defeating the purose.

The Solution is To Eat!

Unless a dieter is morbidly obese and under the direct care of a physician, he/she should never have a calorie deficit of more than 400-500 calories or 20% less than their TDEE calories with the calories burned during exercise factored in.5

For those that are already pretty lean, but just have 5 pounds to lose, calorie deficits can be even smaller.

So, make sure you are eating enough to support your bodily processes and the growth and activity of your muscles, but not too much that your body won’t burn a small amount of its fat reserves each day to make up for the slight deficit you are in.

It can be really challenging for some dieters to eat more, especially if they have been doing low calorie diets for a large portion of their lives. It can also be challenging for people to eat the amount of carbs recommended with flexible dieting especially for those that have had “carbs are bad” drilled into their heads for so long.

It’s time to start eating again and come into a better relationship with food. Slow and steady weight loss is the goal with flexible dieting and this, unlike other diets, is sustainable over the long-term because you are able to eat and not feel deprived.

Here’s a comment from someone who started to eat again.

Thank You so much! I’ve been on it for a week. I meet my macros, but having a hard time getting all the calories in, I’m not eating under 1300 anymore but always end up around 1500 at most – it’s not much difference but my body feels great; I recover much better and I am eating more carbs than before but not yet the 205 recommended. I’m still at 60% this week but next week I’ll amp up to a 70%, my body has already started to change.

Manage Expectations

I also want to express the importance of managing expectations when doing the flexible diet or any diet.

There are many different body types and most people may never be able to achieve the body that has been Photoshopped on the cover of our fashion or fitness magazines.

For women, nature is actually working against the quest for a low body fat percentage. A woman’s hormones are constantly preparing the woman’s body for childbearing and this means a healthy layer of body fat.6 Just look at the body fat percentage differences among men and women.

body fat percentage

So, focus on getting healthier by eating nutritious food, eating enough food, and being more physically fit because usually only those that get paid to look like ultra-ripped athletes actually have the time and resources it takes to look that way.

In closing, I can’t express the importance of working to change your low calorie and low carb mindset and begin eating again. If you want to break free from a slow metabolism and break the weight loss plateau then you have to give your body enough fuel to leave the launch pad.

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    Scientific References:

  1. Schwartz, M. W., & Seeley, R. J. (1997). Neuroendocrine responses to starvation and weight loss. New England Journal of Medicine, 336(25), 1802-1811.
  2. Owen, O. E., Smalley, K. J., D’Alessio, D. A., Mozzoli, M. A., & Dawson, E. K. (1998). Protein, fat, and carbohydrate requirements during starvation: anaplerosis and cataplerosis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 68(1), 12-34.
  3. Chaston TB, Dixon JB, O’Brien PE. Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. International Journal of Obesity (2005). 2007;31(5):743–750.
  4. Tarnopolsky, M. A., MacDougall, J. D., & Atkinson, S. A. (1988). Influence of protein intake and training status on nitrogen balance and lean body mass. Journal of Applied Physiology, 64(1), 187-193.
  5. How to Set a Caloric Deficit for Fat Loss
  6. Price, T. M., O’Brien, S. N., Welter, B. H., George, R., Anandjiwala, J., & Kilgore, M. (1998). Estrogen regulation of adipose tissue lipoprotein lipase—possible mechanism of body fat distribution. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 178(1), 101-107.
  7. Lead image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alfon18/2366993667/
  8. Image 2: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gwendalcentrifugue/8577595400/


  1. Colorado Old Guy 2 weeks ago

    I’ve been trying the “low – fat don’t fret the carbs” diet for years, including while training 12 hours per week for triathlons (800 miles per week bike 10 miles per week running and 2k per week swimming). It doesn’t work.

    Low fat diets are a scam. If you eat white sugar, white flour and a lot of starches you’ll get fat.

    Yes starvation mode is real, yes caloric restriction will cause it.

    Try eating ~1 gram protein for every pound of lean body mass, just enough carbohydrates to meet your weight goals and enough fat to feel satisfied between meals. It works. Your carbs should come from green vegatables first, beans and whole grains next and a bit of pasta for variety and some sweets 2x per week just for fun.

    High carb diets are BS. Sure they “can” work if you want to feel hungry the rest of your life.

  2. Matt 2 months ago

    After reading the article I noticed that it says a person will go into starvation mode if he/she starts eating way too few calories. I was under the impression that this usually happened when a person is on a full-on fast, and starvation mode doesn’t usually happen until 2 to 3 days after staying on the fast. Its not good to fast and go to the gym, but it stands to reason that if one does cardio the metabolism isn’t given a chance to slow down. Hopefully people will NOT fast while going to the gym. Reducing calorie intake, such as with intermittent fasting, should not cause starvation mode as far as I know. I have to disagree that eating more can help a person lose weight.

    • Trish 2 months ago

      The more I eat the more I lose weight. I am a perimenopausal woman, and I can attest to the truth of what’s written in this article. Extreme calorie deficits over years put more than a hundred extra pounds on my body even when I was eating as low as 500-750 calories a day, I was rapidly gaining weight, and it wasn’t until I started eating significantly more calories that my body was able to start releasing the excess weight. When I first started eating more, it took nearly 4000 calories a day for the weight gain to stop and begin to reverse itself. I now eat about 2200 calories a day and steadily drop 3 pounds a week on average, without exercise beyond a daily walk.

      • olivia 4 weeks ago

        You are lying about how much you were eating. If you were eatting that little a day and working out you were not gaining weight. You’re only telling half truths. Also there is no way you were eating 4000 calories a day for the weight gain to stop. Unless you were just eating shit food. You’re not telling the honest truth

      • Woelfgang 3 weeks ago

        I bet you ate high calorie healthy foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, mango, bananas, etc

  3. Will 4 months ago

    This is really useful information and seems to be happening to me now. I’m a 6 ft 1″ male and was 288 pounds at the beginning of April last year. As of last week, I’d got down to 240, through a mixture of diets but mainly low carbs and alcohol, no sugar and calorie counting.

    Over Christmas I put on around six pounds but managed to lose most of it in the following week. Now, although I’m really proud that I feel in total control of my eating, as it’s a new year I wanted to go more extreme as I still have a way to go to reach my target weight.

    So, a week ago I restricted myself to under 800 calories a day to get into fast fat burning mode, I weighed myself today and I’ve only lost 2 pounds. I really don’t get it and it’s so frustrating but perhaps it is just my metabolism adapting. As of today I think I’ll slowly up my intake. Sorry for the long post, I just felt the urge to share.

    • Ted Kallmyer 4 months ago

      Slow and steady wins the race. It can be tempting to cut way back for faster results but in the long run 1-2 pounds per week is what you want. Great job on your progress so far.