It Is Possible to Eat Too Little When Trying to Lose Weight…

RMR Assessment

Taking the RMR Assessment... Not actually Hannibal Lector, nor your friendly neighborhood blogger...

Lesson learned… You can’t starve yourself and expect to lose weight effectively or efficiently.

Okay, okay… I’ve never been accused of starving myself, but it could be said that I wasn’t eating enough to sustain my fitness goals during the month of October. How did I come to this epiphany? Because I track everything.

Data has, in many ways, been the not-so-secret secret of my success. As I wrote last month, I’ve had a pretty good run in reshaping my body and shedding pants sizes over the past two years. Throughout the process, I’ve maintained the theory that “if I can’t track it, I can’t change it.” As such, I’ve gotten into the habits of tracking my intake and expenditure of calories on a more or less daily basis.

I’ve also gotten into the (perhaps not advisable) habit of weighing myself every morning when I get out of bed. This little habit is what helped me come to the conclusion alluded to in the title of this post. Using my LiveStrong app and associated webpage, I noted that over the course of October, I fluctuated between 310 and 304 pounds.

Specifically, I weighed 310 pounds on October 1, and weighed 309 pounds on November 1.

You can imagine how I felt about this development.

What really steamed my clams wasn’t that I didn’t lose any weight, to speak of. In truth, I don’t care about weight. I care about how I look, how my clothes fit, and that I’m literally reshaping the composition of my body. As such, I know I’ve made gains (well, losses,) because I had to buy new blue jeans this month.

So why wasn’t I making progress in terms of the relevant data?

I’ll admit, the best measure of my body composition goals is a trip to see my friends at Baseline Fitness to climb in the “BodPod.” I haven’t done that in a while, and it is very high on my list of fitness priorities.

To help me get through what I thought was a completely irrational “plateau,” I decided to measure my Resting Metabolic Rate. I have measured my bodies ability to burn calories during physical exertion before, finding a metric known as the VO2. I’ve had this assessment done several times over the past two years, to be sure I’m both accurately tracking my caloric expenditures, and as importantly, to be sure I am burning as much fat as possible.

The Resting Metabolic Rate assessment, however, was new to me. I’ve toyed with the idea of how many calories I might burn at rest – in other words, the number of calories it takes to keep my body functioning if I were in bed 24 hours at a stretch – but only had basic estimates of that fairly important figure.

Think of it this way: the nutritional information you read on the back of food packaging is based on the presumption of a 2,000 calorie diet. Where do we get that presumption? Basically, the figure is a rough average/estimation of the caloric needs of the “average” American. How average are, we though, really?

I’ve used a couple of other tools to guesstimate my own resting metabolic rate. First was the aforementioned LiveStrong.com. When first developing my online profile, I used their basic calculator by inputting my height, age, weight, activity level and weight loss goal. With a goal of losing 2 lbs. per week, they estimated I could consume 2,742 calories per day. At 3 lbs per week, the figure was 2,242 calories.

The standard equation for calculating one’s “Basil Metabolic Rate,” or BMR, is the Harris-Benedict formula. It essentially looks like this:

  • Adult male: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
  • Adult female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)

Doing that math, I should consume 2,751.2 calories per day, more or less. I was convinced, however, that given my own weight loss goals (more than 2 or 3 pounds per week, if I’m being truthful), given my relatively high level of activity through the month of October (I started dance class one night a week, joined a squash league, and started working with a personal trainer twice a week), that the 500-600 calorie range in these BMR/RMR assessments wasn’t good enough.

Hence my decision to actually have my resting metabolic rate professionally assessed.

Much like the VO2 testing I had done previously, the test is performed essentially by measuring the intake of oxygen into the body, and the output of CO2, etc., from the body. The technician puts a mask over your nose and mouth, plugs it into a machine attached to a computer, and tells you to lean back and relax for 15 minutes.

The results were both interesting, and (I hope) fairly useful. I learned that my resting metabolic rate is roughly 2,565 calories per day. According to the report, that means that I should never “eat fewer calories than the RMR amount: doing this might signal your body that it’s in trouble and react by getting rid of lean muscle instead of fat.”

In other words, it is possible to eat too little when trying to lose weight.

I’m guessing I am not the only one alone in making this fairly significant “diet” mistake. I was consuming no more than 2,000 or 2,100 calories for several weeks under the foolish impression that I simply needed to create a calorie deficit, rather than thinking strategically about making that deficit come from the expense side of the ledger than from the income side.

Put another way, you can’t cut your way to prosperity in this sense.

Based on the calculations provided with the RMR report, I’m considering a calorie equation that looks like this:

RMR calories (2,565) + “Lifestyle Calories” (they estimate 770 calories for a desk-bound lifestyle like mine) – Desired Weight Loss or Gain (1,000 calories based on losing 2 pounds per week) + Calories Expended Working Out (600 is the max they use in their equation, though I typically burn 900+ in an hour long session).

So, 2,565 + 770 – 1,000 + 600 = 2,935 calories per day. Any way you slice it, the results are much different from the range of guesstimates I was working from earlier.

How has this information changed my strategy? Basically I’ve set 2,565 as my daily calorie “goal.” If my body thinks that’s the amount of fuel necessary to get me through the day, I’ll feed it to that level. Some days I’ll consume more toward the 2,935 mark, but probably not consistently because I want to keep the trendline of my waistline as a downward-sloping function.

Here’s the bottom line for those of us who are not quite as fixated on data as am I: don’t starve yourself. Aside from being miserable, it doesn’t work. Cut back on the carbs, load up on the protein, and quite freaking out about fat – it is largely overrated as the reason for our expanding midsections, in my research.

Understand what your choices and activities mean for your body composition goals, and your body’s metabolic needs. Getting testing like the VO2 and the RMR done are not prohibitively expensive, but don’t spend the money on testing if you don’t plan to actually use the information to help you train and eat more effectively.

I’m not doing everything 100 percent “correct,” of course. After all, I had chips and guacamole and a pint or two of Dos Equis last night with some of my dearest friends. But hey, life is first and foremost about living. Do the right things most of the time and enjoy the times you let your hair down a little. Just don’t go hog wild ;)

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

3 Responses to “It Is Possible to Eat Too Little When Trying to Lose Weight…”

  1. Great analysis. I especially like the line in your last paragraph: “Life is first and foremost about living.”

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow. That’s a lot of data. I’m tracking things now through points but am betting I’ll never get as deatiled as you are though the one month comparison would have been such a killer for me with those efforts that I would have to have learned more too.

  3. Janice, that’s the bottom line for most folks: we stay so focused on weight, which I’m quasi-ambivalent about (namely because I care more about bodyfat percentage and the size of my blue jeans) that they miss the bigger picture of what’s happening with their bodies.

    If I hadn’t dropped another pant size in October, I would have been completely depressed that the scale didn’t budge any more than it did. The other point to remember in my case is that because I obsess about the data, I have really high highs and really low lows if the weight tracking doesn’t follow what I think should be happening based on my calorie tracking, etc. I can fluctuate as many as seven or eight pounds in just a couple of days… One week I weighed in as high as 312 and as low as 304, and I was going nuts.

    So, data isn’t for everyone. BUT, if you don’t do the research to understand how your actions affect your progress, you’ll have a much harder time getting where you want to go. Of course, that’s the other thing: most folks don’t have a clear, realistic, definable goal in mind. Mine is very specific: I want to hit somewhere between 215 and 220 pounds of lean mass, and be no more than 15% bodyfat. That is radically different from the goal I set when I started my Half Man Challenge, and I thought my goal should be to hit the 215 lbs total weight I measured when I played high school football.