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

One of the most common comments or concerns of those starting to count macros or 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), 224 lbs. 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.

starvation

Muscle Catabolism

Muscle Catabolism 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 purpose.

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/
Ted Kallmyer is an ISSA certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition and is our lead macro coach. If you need help reaching your weight loss/fitness goals see our personal coaching options.
Last Updated: November 5, 2019

196 Comments

  1. Marcelino 4 weeks ago

    My BMR is 1600 calories and I work 10 hours everyday with horse-standing, so I burn roughly 2000 calories by just standing for 10 hours. So does that means I have to consume 3600 calories everyday to shred fat? Let me know.

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 4 weeks ago

      Hi Marcelino, I don’t think you have things calculated right. Standing 10 hours wouldn’t burn 2000 calories especially if you are conditioned to that.

      Reply
  2. Mae 1 month ago

    I have perplexing issue I need to lose weight read about not starving yourself but the trouble is due to injuries all I can eat is soups I have no desire to eat at all I can’t chew food. With the vaccine that’s getting worked on for covid there are articles out saying it won’t work if you are over weight I have a lot of muscle but now all I care about is the numbers on the scale because that’s all that matter when it comes to the news. I’m 5’5 200 pounds former athletic I want to be 100 pounds or less so I won’t have to worry about not having a vacation work. I was going to go on a 130 calories Day regiment but your article changed my mind. What can I even do I can’t eat much of anything. Due to surgery’s in cast on my ankle and need more surgery on my mouth and jaw feel completely hopeless more then a bit worthless to my family. The news is also no help as it constantly says how horrible people like me are.

    Reply
  3. Maria 2 months ago

    I am a female and weight 180 at 5’3. I have been eating 1200-1300 calories a day and workout a very light exercise workout almost everyday. I do about 120 minutes of work out a week and give about 10000 to 13000 steps a day. Am I in the right direction?

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 2 months ago

      Hi Maria, Great job on your efforts to get healthier but no, you aren’t eating enough on days you get 10k steps and do your light workout. Do you need me to calculate things for you?

      Reply
      • Maria 2 months ago

        If you wouldn’t mind, yes please

        Reply
  4. Chanel Van Der Merwe 2 months ago

    Hi Ted, I am healthy, active and lean. I weigh around 57kg and my height is 170cm (18 year old female). I had 2x hip operations in the last 18 months and ever since my relationship with food has changed a bit and now I can’t manage to eat 3 big healthy nutritious meals a day without gaining weight. If I start eating more, how do I avoid gaining weight?

    Ps. I am happy with my weight, also happy to lose a few pounds here and there, especially after a holiday, I just don’t know how since I fear if I restrict my calorie intake anymore I will go into starvation mode!

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 2 months ago

      Hi Chanel, Have you calculated your TDEE and macros for maintenance?

      Reply
  5. Kayla 2 months ago

    Hello, I’ve been eating roughly 750-850 cal a day. I used to eat under 300 and have been working my way up. I’m skinny fat. Low body mass but absolutely no definition and all my stomach / thigh fat is still there. I exercise and eat healthy foods but always look bloated… Any advice…?

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 2 months ago

      Hi Kayla, Keep eating more and increase your consumption until you are in no more than a 20% calorie deficit. I’m glad you have increased to 850, but you have a little way to go. Calculate your needs minus 20% here: Flexible Dieting Macro Calculator

      Reply
  6. Maka G. 2 months ago

    Hi! So basically I have been trying to lose 5kgs for a good 2.5 weeks now but nothing is working. I have been stuck at a 55.4kg-55.9kg range. I started off at 59kg and my goal is to be 50kgs. I am 15 years old (a teenage girl) and 161cm tall. Ive been eating roughly around 1200 calories for a good 7 weeks now but I stopped losing the weight after 5 weeks. I don’t know if I should increase my calorie intake? Because I have also been exercising regularly, doing karate, hiking, jogging and strength training. I need advice, I would really appreciate it 🙂

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 2 months ago

      Hi Maka, Yes, please eat more. 1200 isn’t enough given your exercise and you’re still growing and developing. Have a look at my macro calculator to establish a safer deficit.

      Reply
  7. Biju Thomas 3 months ago

    I have been walking for the past 21 days clocking around 10-13 kms per day at a speed of over 4.5 kmph. I have reduced my weight from 90 to 83.5 during this time. My height is 168 cms. and I am 56 years old. My average calorie intake is 1500. For the past 2 days I am not losing weight but gaining a few gms. Please comment

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 3 months ago

      Hi Biju, Great job on your efforts so far. That sounds like a water weight fluctuation to me. A plateau would be a longer period of time (~2 weeks) without any results. Give this article a read: What Causes Water Retention and Weight Fluctuation?

      Reply
  8. Awat 3 months ago

    Hello. I’m 20 and weight around 136lbs. I’ve been consuming quite low calories and i wanna know if I reassess back my meal and adding some more calorie, will i gain back my weight? Or i’m just boosting my metabolism?

    Reply
  9. Phil

    Your body doesn’t have ‘modes’. It’s complete bro bull.

    Reply
  10. Susan

    This is very interesting. I used to try and eat 1200 calories and would binge eat like crazy because I could not maintain it. I’m amping up to 1800 calories now, I’m willing to learn and see where this goes!

    Reply
    • zali 5 months ago

      i’ve been eating way too little than what my body needs in hopes of losing weight for the past 6 months, and at the times i did eat it was typically unhealthy, and definitely has not helped lose weight. i’m scared that if i start to eat what’s recommended i’m going to gain weight, which will drive me to restrict calories again. how long will it take for me to lose weight after starting to eat more and will i gain weight?

      Reply
  11. Kimberly MCCracken

    HI my name is Kimberly, about a month ago I started working out at the gym 3-4 times a week. I am looking to lose the last 15 pounds and I am struggling. I am 5’1 135 pounds. I want to look lean and fit. I do know muscle weighs more then fat, but I feel like I am getting know where. I don’t eat a ton either during the day but when I do its probably not the best choices. I don’t eat breakfast , lunch I do which ranges from a salad to sandwich to whatever. Then I will eat supper. I try to eat healthy weekends are kinda hit or miss. Sometimes one meal. My question is with working out I thought I would see more results. Am I not eating enough to fuel my metabolism. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I need to lose 15 in 2 months. thanks

    Reply
    • Lily Johnston 10 months ago

      This is very late, I don’t know if you are still looking for advice here, but the sad truth is exercise does not impact weight loss in and significant way. When attempting to lose weight, diet is more than 70% responsible for the number on the scale. However, exercise has a number of benefits which includes better body composition, more energy, lower stress levels, etc. I’m 4’11” and 113 and I can tell you weight loss has been so tough, but hang in there! I know the article says carbs aren’t bad, but I lost 60 lbs cutting breads, wheats, rices, and grains and replacing them with black beans or more lettuce plus lean proteins. The sugar cravings were very hard but after I got over those I lost about 2 lbs a week which would put you at about 16 lbs in two months. I did not even count calories, just stuck with this and limited my dairy.

      Reply
  12. Emily

    Hi there, I’ve found this to be super interesting. I’m 5’3 and have always been an athlete and weighed more than I looked in my teenage years. At my most fit and lean, I weighed 125 lbs. Now, that I’m 23 years old and have noticed my activity level slowly decreasing, I weighed about 160 lbs a year ago. I’ve been scale shy ever since and just decided to count calories and workout again, I also waitress sometimes to jobs in one day and would count those steps. So, for 45 days straight I followed a 1,338 calorie diet and I would be a little under most days including my workouts and steps at work, and some days (8 of the 45) I was over by 400 or 500 calories from taking a rest day. But overall my net calories never went over 1,900. And I just got weighed, after 45 days I thought I would weigh less. But I weigh the most I ever have at 175. I’m hurt, confused, and depressed. I have no idea how to approach this to get to my goal of 140 lbs. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading.

    Reply
    • Ted the Macro Coach

      Hi Emily, Something seems amiss somewhere for sure. At those levels, you shouldn’t be gaining weight. Have you considered having blood work done? You should analyze your thyroid and hormone levels specifically.

      Reply
      • Emily

        Thank you for the response! It has crossed my mind on multiple occasions that the issue I’m having could very well have to do with my hormones or be relative to my thyroid. Could a thyroid or hormone issue be a serious problem?

        Reply
        • Ted the Macro Coach

          Yes, An underactive Thyroid can make it difficult to lose weight. It’s a pretty easy blood test to check thyroid function.

          Reply
  13. Ahron

    Ted Wrote: “The sedentary factor doesn’t just account for casual steps but also accounts for other movements you do during the day and digestion energy expenditure.”

    I understand that. My question is if I walk 8,000 steps in a day (and therefore burn 400 calories), how many can I count as added to my daily intake (as opposed to the 300 already accounted for in the formula)?

    My fear is that if I end up double counting calories (in the TDEE and exercise credit), I will end up eating more calories than I should and gain weight as opposed to eating a healthy amount and maintaining my goal weight. That is why I am looking for general guidance on what I can count and what is already counted elsewhere.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Ted the Macro Coach

      You could probably add an extra 100 calories. 8000 steps = 400 calories is an overestimation of the number of calories you’d burn unless the steps were done all at once during purposeful walking were your heart rate was elevated most of the time. That’s one of the big problems with step trackers, they always tend to overestimate calorie burn from steps.

      Reply
  14. Thalia

    This article is very interesting and enlightening. Thank you very much. Im 5″3 and weigh maybe around 128ish pounds. I developed a horrible eating pattern of just eating 1-2x a day. My stomach is definitely bloated but I’ve also gained some love handles. Its the worst part of my body. I’ve never had abs before but I am done with being flabby. I started working out about a month ago. the bloating is going down a bit but I think I’ll just have to eat more to lose more. I’ve never thought of it that way. I really hope it works. My body is so embarrassing and I havent worn a swimsuit in years. I work out for about an hour doing cardio and some ab exercises. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll look and feel much better. the problem is, Im a horrible eater. Im terribly picky, I forget to eat, and Im not too fond of meat, even though I understand I’ll need the protein. Cross your fingers for me!

    Reply
    • Jessie

      Thalia don’t be so hard on yourself! It’s great you’ve got the drive to get fit and healthy (and subsequently look good!) but I’m sure you already look great! I was exactly the same as you and sometimes I barely ate until 2pm and then I’d eat a big meal. I was stuck at around 150 pounds (I’m 5″6) and I knew I needed to start eating more too so I also have energy to move more. I just wanted to say that I am predominantly vegan and you DO NOT need to eat meat if you don’t want to to get protein!! I had a breakfast today of a smoothie made with GF oats, oat milk, banana, spirulina and maca and it’s around 40g of protein!! There are of course different kinds of proteins and amino acids and it is harder for non meat-eaters to get all 20 types of amino acids but it is not impossible because I do it! Get yourself on Pinterest and have a look at plant based proteins. You’ll be surprised how easy it is once you know which foods to eat. Good luck – and don’t work out too hard! I work out 30-45 mins per day with rest days when I need it and don’t forget to do yoga for your core and your sanity! After all you need something that will be sustainable for the rest of your life 🙂

      Reply
  15. Ahron

    Growing up I was always able to eat anything I wanted to and since I grew up in a city where car use was actively discouraged, I used to walk an average of 7 miles/day at a brisk pace. Then I moved in my 20s to a more suburban area where cars were essential. I ended up slowing down, not walking as much but maintaining my eating habits. In short over 21 years I put on 30lbs. I have now lost 35 lbs over the course of 4 months and I am now getting ready to shift into maintenance mode.

    So far the only exercise I do is walking (sometimes at a brisk pace) and average roughly 4,300 steps/day with some days exceeding 6,000. Since this is the only exercise I do, I selected sedentary within the calculator but I know that a certain amount of physical activity (including walking) is built into the TDEE for sedentary. My question is, since I do not want to double count calories burned from walking, is there a certain level or threshold that I should not count below?

    For example, if TDEE builds in 300 calories for activity/motion and you tend to burn 100 calories/2,000 steps, should I only count the steps I take over 6,000 instead of all 6,000 as the TDEE already assumed 6,000?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Ted the Macro Coach

      Great job on your weight loss. The sedentary factor doesn’t just account for casual steps but also accounts for other movements you do during the day and digestion energy expenditure.

      Reply
  16. Yordanka

    Hello
    I have a question but sadly I can’t find the answer long time. As I start working out a year and 3-4 months ago, I was in a calorie deficit for about 6 months. I am running, doing strength and abs workout. Then I lost my period and I stopped counting my calories for 1-2 weeks till period get back.
    At the moemnt I am eating 1900-2000 something 2100 calories a day. In some days I am eating nearly 3000 caloris but that’s once a week maximum.
    I am 26 years old female 53 kg and 155cm tall. I don’t want to lose weight as My goal is to build muscle. At the moment I have a good muscle mass head to toe and not a lot of fat %.
    My question is . Do I need to go from time to time in a calorie dificit if I don’t want to lose weight? Is the amount of calories too much for me if I burn between 500-1000 calories a day ? And one very important question (as everywhere I reed different theories) can you eat some extra calories from workout if the dificit is too big. As some days I run, doing strength and have a long wals so I burn 1000 extra calories and this is quite a lot for my body size .
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer

      If you don’t want to lose weight and you already have a low body fat percentage, there is no reason to be in a calorie deficit.

      Reply
  17. Jaden

    I REALLY REALLY NEED HELP DESPERATELY I’m 6 ft. 5 inch. And 163 LBS. And work-out at least 2 hours, atleast 4-5 days a week sometimes 6 but I always have 1 rest day for sure. I usually I work-out 3 hours a day, (2-2.5 hours weight lifting and 35 minutes on the elliptical machine not including the 30 minute walk there and back so technically 4 hours). In the end I usually burn an average of 1330 calories at the gym usually. I’m skinny fat, (I don’t know my body fat percentage, but I know it’s more than it’s supposed to be) my BMR is around 1800 (from the online calculators at least, it varies though) so I’ve been trying to eat 1300 calories a day for my deficit, and I usually do pretty well, tracking calories with lots of protein bars , or protein smoothies, and chicken and eggs. But when I get home from the gym I end up way over eating and losing count of all the calories and feeling really bad. I’m trying to get a flat stomach for the summer (3-4 months) I really need help with a stable answer on what to do, because all the online calculators tend to give me different answers so I don’t know what to do. Maybe I just have low will power or am impatient but it seems so inconsistent. And I feel like my stomach fat is growing but I can see outline of abs starting to form on my midchest but with those abs getting bigger my stomach and it’s fat come out more too along with my love handles. I think my work-out is good, I work out hard with heavy weights and a long time. But the deficit I struggle with. I really need help.

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer

      Hi Jaden, After reading the above article doesn’t it seem like this rings true for you? You are working out excessively and then in conjunction not eating enough. You need to eat a lot more and be in no more than a 20% calorie deficit.

      Reply