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Low daily calories + exercise = bad idea?

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Old 07-16-2011, 10:05 AM   #1
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Default Low daily calories + exercise = bad idea?

This is my first time posting a thread for advice here, but I've asked my husband and various other people who don't seem to know what to tell me.

Every time I've ever gotten on the healthy bandwagon I've done it with exercise and calorie counting. I don't entirely cut out the bad foods I love (like pizza!), but I don't eat them as frequently and I really cut my portions down. My goal for calories is 1,200 daily.

I was doing fine with this my first week. In fact, I noticed it was a little hard to ever be right at or under 1,200. I was usually somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600. I was exercising most days and dropped 6 pounds in a week. (I know it was probably 80% water weight, but it really motivated me!)

But the last time I grocery shopped, I decided to buy sandwich stuffs. (My husband and I are in college, and the closest either of us get to "cooking" is throwing a pizza in the oven. I am trying to change this, but it's a slow process.) Anyway, sandwiches - especially of the turkey variety - are very low in calories. Every meal ends up being in the 200-300 calorie range, which adds up to less than 900 calories each day, and that includes the occasional Jell-O chocolate pudding (my treat to keep me from binging on my husband's not-so-secret stash of fudge rounds).

I know people say the magic number for women is 1,200 calories a day, so I've been hung up on the fact that I'm getting 300 fewer calories than I'm supposed to every day. But I haven't felt hungry. I'm satisfied at the end of my meals, and rarely ever even want a snack, which is a change for me. I'm also confused by the fact that, to lose 2 pounds a week, you have to create a 1,000 calorie deficit daily. I'd need a little over 1,900 calories to maintain my weight, so 900 seems like it should be a good number.

But... If I continue eating so few calories each day, I'm afraid to go back to the gym. I burn ~250 calories on the elliptical and hundreds more during weight training. I don't want to starve my body by only feeding it 900 calories a day and burning 500 or more working out.

This is a real dilemma for me, as I enjoy the effect that working out has on my body. (Though it may not necessarily contribute much to weight loss, it sure does tone you up, and I love noticing that kind of difference in my body!)

Finally, my question - is it okay to work out while consuming ~900 calories a day or will that hurt my weight loss efforts? Should I up my calories in order to work out? Any help/advice is greatly appreciated!
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Old 07-16-2011, 10:22 AM   #2
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From what I have read on this site in the past, I will try to sum up here because you ask some very good questions. 1200 calories is not a magical number. It absolutely cannot be since there is no way that this number could work for all people in the world. Eat very low calories can be ok for a limited time, but eventually, it will catch up with you. It's harmful in that it's very difficult to give your body proper nutrients that way and it doesn't seem like your eating is very clean (whole foods) so you're probably not getting proper nutrition. One way to lose weight is to increase muscle mass, so you want to do a good deal of resistance training (weights, etc.) and to consume enough protein so that your body can actually build that muscle.

I think it's great that you're counting calories and working out. If I were you, I'd find healthy alternatives to your current meals. It's possible to make pizza, for example, by using ingredients that are much lower in calories, provide more fiber and adding lots of salads in such ways that you're eating a lot more food and boosting your metabolism. One way to give you that pizza meal is to use a whole wheat pita that is opened up (open the pocket until you have two sides), top with some marinara, low fat shredded cheese, add your favorite veggies and voila, it's a healthy meal.

I always keep hard boiled eggs in the fridge to grab and go for a quick protein boost.

I'm sure you'll get some other great advice. Congrats on your loss, by the way!
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Old 07-16-2011, 10:41 AM   #3
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Well, there is a simple solution to this. If you're having turkey, eat more of it! It's an excellent source of protein without a lot of fat. The same goes for other high-protein foods that don't contain a lot of fat, like tuna, other fish, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and so on.

There is nothing wrong with eating more of these foods in order to get the calorie level you want.

Another thought would be to stay away from sugar (like in Jell-O pudding) and refined, processed foods (like pizza crust). I know, I know, you like those foods. But filling in "missing" calories with carbs is not a good strategy.

I used to believe the no-lower-than-1200 point of view, but I no longer do, as long as your diet is balanced and you take vitamin supplements. Medifast, for example, which is a medically crafted food-delivery program, has people eating 800-1000 cals per day--but they are supplemented foods.

And by the way, you don't subtract your exercise calories from what you eat to get your net calories. What you eat and how much you burn with exercise are two different worlds.

Remember that trying to exercise to burn off calories is pointless. It takes me 30 minutes to burn 100 calories on a treadmill, and about 5 minutes to eat 100 calories with a good-sized apple.

If you notice that your energy is really low, you could be exercising too much, or you could be not getting enough protein or calories overall.

Just some random thoughts...

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Old 07-16-2011, 11:29 AM   #4
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Not sure how you'll feel about this one...the other tips were great! Maybe before hitting the gym you can have a protein loaded shake/drink to help with energy boost, calories and something in your tummy while working out. I have to eat before working out, but if I eat just a little too much, I feel ill.
Good luck
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Old 07-16-2011, 12:46 PM   #5
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I don't know if there's any real science behind this, but here's my strategy FWIW: I don't like eating too low for an extended period of time because I'm afraid my body will adapt to that lower calorie range and that I will not be able to add all of the calories that should be my maintenance range when I finally get to goal weight. In fact, I don't even like staying at the same calorie level every day because of that reason. It just seems that our bodies tend to adapt to things---exercise for instance (i.e., when we do the same exercise over and over, we become more efficient at it and burn fewer calories). I guess I just have the idea that the same applies for food. That's why I calorie cycle.

So, while I do not believe that some low calorie days here and there will hurt you, I wouldn't advise a 900-calorie diet longterm.
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Old 07-16-2011, 12:50 PM   #6
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I really think that you should exercise and increase your calories. If you're going to be exercising for 30 minutes each day, you should be able to lose on 1500--or at least, it's worth a try. More protein, as Jayell said and also more veggies with a little bit of fat. A handful of nuts would be MUCH better than those pudding thingys.

(It might be time to learn how to cook some basic veggie packed bean & chicken soups that you can cook one day and eat the rest of the week!)
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Old 07-16-2011, 01:11 PM   #7
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Like luckymommy said, there is no 'magical' calorie number that works for every person. Everybody is unique, so the number of calories that works for you is going to be a very personal determination. That being said, one thing that I have seen across the board is that going below 500 calories per day throws your body into starvation mode, which you DEFINITELY do not want. My advice is to seriously consider doing what some of the other posters have already suggested - add another slice of turkey to that sandwich, eat a handful of nuts or a hardboiled egg instead of that pudding cup, try making veggie-heavy whole wheat pizzas. While the number of calories you eat is certainly important, what matters more is the kinds of calories you're eating. Trying to fill a calorie gap by eating sugary or carby foods is a bad idea - that's not to say that you need to cut out all the good stuff (who doesn't love chocolate pudding?), but make sure you get all your bases covered as far as nutrients go before you reach for the Jell-O.

It's a great question to ask, so thanks for posting it! Congrats on your weight loss thus far, and keep up the good work!
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Old 07-16-2011, 07:09 PM   #8
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Wow! You all are so great! Thanks for all the great advice! I gotta say, I was a little nervous putting myself out there because I know some people are as critical about diets as they are about politics or personal finance! But you all were super constructive, so thank you for that.

I realized today that I really do enjoy working out, and if upping my calories allows me to do that, then I'm going to. Working out just gives me tons of energy, makes me feel good about my body, and will be great for my overall health. I found one calorie counter that said I can reach my goal weight (150) by my goal date (November 4) by consuming 1,649 calories a day. I think I'm going to shoot for 1,500 once I grocery shop this coming week. I'm also going to do my best to buy whole foods and cook some veggies with my meals. I'm trying to reprogram 9 years of bad eating habits, so it will take me a while before veggies and fruits are what I reach for instead of a pudding cup. But that's the ultimate goal.

@mamakat I am with ya there! I noticed the first time I hit the gym last week that I got stomach cramps early on in my workout and had to stop on the elliptical 9 minutes early. The same thing happened on Sunday. It was then that I realized I was working out on an empty stomach, and it was making me sick. I can't eat too soon before working out, so now I try to eat a light meal/protein bar/etc. about an hour or an hour and a half before hitting the gym. That usually keeps me feeling strong through my workout. Thanks!

@JayEll Thanks for the tips! I've done really well at staying away from pizza. I haven't had any since day 2 of my food logging. (I saw the calories in the pizza after eating it and wanted to scream.) ::back pat:: A lot of people on this board and others talk about "binging," and the only food I've ever binged on is chocolate. I am a choco-holic. So, while I'd love to be able to resist the pudding, it's my stand-in for fudge rounds right now, ha. It's not a perfect solution, but I'm trying to go easy on myself and not be unrealistic about the treats I crave. I have apples in the fridge for treats, for instance. But I have to be honest with myself and know that, if I don't have those 100 calorie puddings in the fridge, I'm not going to grab a dang apple. I'm going to steal a fudge round from my husband (300 calories - yikes!).

I'm the kind of dieter who, instead of going all out (as I would have in the past), tries to work foods that I'm going to be eating post-weight-loss into my weight loss plan. For me, there's no reason to completely cut chocolate out of my diet because I'm going to go right back to eating it (though hopefully less of it) later. I can't say the same for pizza right now since it's SO high calorie, but I'm going to look into some of the pizza tips y'all posted here.

Thanks again, everyone!
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Old 07-18-2011, 11:10 AM   #9
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I'm not saying this will necessarily work for everyone, but back when I was first losing weight I was eating about 900 calories a day and doing about four hours of fairly vigorous exercise a day, for about 10 months (after that I kept up the exercise but stopped watching what I ate, and to be honest, I ate a lot more). I lost weight fairly quickly, gained a ton of muscle mass, and I have kept that weight off ever since. I feel like severe dieting often causes my metabolism to slow down, but it really didn't when I was building all that muscle and expending all that energy. When I stopped, I didn't gain any weight back. So, you know, I think it can work, at least for some people.
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Old 07-18-2011, 11:41 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by ImpalaHoarder View Post
I'm not saying this will necessarily work for everyone, but back when I was first losing weight I was eating about 900 calories a day and doing about four hours of fairly vigorous exercise a day, for about 10 months (after that I kept up the exercise but stopped watching what I ate, and to be honest, I ate a lot more). I lost weight fairly quickly, gained a ton of muscle mass, and I have kept that weight off ever since. I feel like severe dieting often causes my metabolism to slow down, but it really didn't when I was building all that muscle and expending all that energy. When I stopped, I didn't gain any weight back. So, you know, I think it can work, at least for some people.
Thank you for offering a differing opinion! I will say that the very first time I tried dieting/exercise was when I was 21 and my office had a weight loss competition (up to that point, I didn't even know how much I weighed - I had avoided the scales since starting high school because I focused much too heavily on the number). All I knew was 1,200 calories = good and exercise = good. My mother was "coaching" me, so I didn't do much research beyond what she told me.

I exercised every day, doing 30 minutes of cardio and 45 minutes of weight training. I kept my calories at or below 1,200. I lost about 10 pounds (down to 162) before switching jobs (and thus, dropping out of the competition) and eating fast food for every meal, ballooning up to 196.

But... While I was doing it, it worked! My main concern this time around is being healthy and not setting myself up to gain everything back once I stop. (Though, really, I'd like to continue exercising most days of the week and tracking my calories post-weight-loss. I just expect to be more lenient than I am now.) It sounds like you made that happen. Good for you! And thanks again for posting. It helps to know it's not totally hopeless.
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Old 07-18-2011, 12:44 PM   #11
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You've gotten some super advice here and I can't really add to it. But I would like to say:

I think the main thing to keep in mind while trying to lose weight is that no matter what approach you use, you need to ask yourself "Is this going to be sustainable for me once I lose the weight?" because no matter WHAT METHOD(s) you use for weight loss, if it's not something you can do all time for the rest of your life, YOU WILL GAIN THE WEIGHT BACK. And who wants that, eh?

Therefore, I make sure that I eat what I like (make room in my diet for those treats & so forth that I am simply NOT WILLING to give up!!) exercise for fitness as opposed to calorie burn/weight loss, and come here OFTEN for support/ideas/recipes/etc.
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Old 07-18-2011, 01:02 PM   #12
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You've gotten some super advice here and I can't really add to it. But I would like to say:

I think the main thing to keep in mind while trying to lose weight is that no matter what approach you use, you need to ask yourself "Is this going to be sustainable for me once I lose the weight?" because no matter WHAT METHOD(s) you use for weight loss, if it's not something you can do all time for the rest of your life, YOU WILL GAIN THE WEIGHT BACK. And who wants that, eh?

Therefore, I make sure that I eat what I like (make room in my diet for those treats & so forth that I am simply NOT WILLING to give up!!) exercise for fitness as opposed to calorie burn/weight loss, and come here OFTEN for support/ideas/recipes/etc.
Thanks, Beach Patrol! I agree! That's why I've kept my Jell-O chocolate pudding (but gave up entire sleeves of Chips Ahoy! hehe). And not living off pizza (or eating it 2-3 times a week like before) has actually had a positive effect. Now when I want pizza, I make sure it's the delicious, non-crap kind.

Since writing this post, I've recommitted to the decision that I want regular exercise to be a part of my life permanently. It has so many positive effects besides weight loss, so I'm going to do it. And I'll let my body tell me what it needs. If I feel tired of lethargic, I'll adjust my calories accordingly. If I feel healthy and satisfied, I'll keep doing what I'm doing.
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Old 07-18-2011, 01:12 PM   #13
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One reason to exercise, especially weight training, is to retain muscle mass. The lower your calories go, the more likely you are to lose a higher percentage of muscle vs fat. My advice would be to increase your calories a bit and do some weight training if nothing else. Cardio is good for your heart (which is why it is called cardio) but weight training is what helps you keep the muscle.
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Old 07-18-2011, 01:47 PM   #14
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One reason to exercise, especially weight training, is to retain muscle mass. The lower your calories go, the more likely you are to lose a higher percentage of muscle vs fat. My advice would be to increase your calories a bit and do some weight training if nothing else. Cardio is good for your heart (which is why it is called cardio) but weight training is what helps you keep the muscle.
Thanks, nelie! That's the plan! 30 minutes of cardio, 40-50 minutes of weight training. Now I just have to figure out how many times I can do that through the week with summer school. (Bah humbug.) I've been visiting the exercise board here at 3FC for the last hour or so. It is a WEALTH of information! :-D
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Old 07-18-2011, 02:30 PM   #15
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You've gotten loads of good advice here. I am just going to share my own personal anecdote. We're about the same height (when I measure myself at home I get 5'3" and the Dr says 5'4" so I split the difference ) and similar weight and I found that I completely stalled out for 11 solid days when keeping my calories low and working out daily. When I upped my intake the weight started coming off again. I still don't understand why, it isn't logical to me, but it is my reality.

So based upon my personal experience I would say to keep the calories up to at least your BMR and even better is to subtract 20% off your TDEE http://www.sheerbalance.com/nutritio...n-calculators/

And find a fun activity that you know you can keep up after you shed the pounds you want to lose. I think that the machinery and programs can become a trap for many people and that finding an outdoor activity that you really like and will continue to do regularly will be helpful. I have become addicted to cycling and hiking and enjoy them far more than my cardio training programs on the treadmill! (of course if you really rock out to the gym equipment then ignore this)

Oh, and remember that overworking your body is bad for it too. Your joints and musculature need rest and repair time. Maybe try adding swimming or yoga to your rotation!
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