Eating too Little to Lose Weight
Everyone knows that eating too much is bad. Even if you're "bulking," eating excess calories leads the unnecessary fat gain. In order to bulk properly, you must consume extra calories within a limit. You need those extra calories in order to add mass to your frame and if you don't do this, it would be like trying to build a house without bricks (I explained this in my article, “The Secret to Building Muscle”).
... it's just not going to happen.
On the opposite side of the spectrum though, you have dieting or "cutting.”
Everyone wants to be carved up; if you say you don't then you're only lying to yourself. At some point, almost every health enthusiast will undertake some kind of diet and intense training regimen. From Atkins, ketosis, and the warrior diet to vegetarianism and the Paleo diet, at some point, everyone that’s health conscious will try their luck at one of these. There are a lot of diets out there and a lot of questions that people still ask, like:
What happens if you eat too few calories or you crash diet? Do you burn more body fat?
Not necessarily, here's why:
Loss of Muscle Mass and Strength
The whole idea behind a diet is to trick your body into using stored body fat as fuel. Dropping your calories just below what it needs to maintain itself means that the extra energy your depriving it of, will most likely come from fat.
Unfortunately, your body doesn't just use body fat as fuel. It actually prefers not to use fat for this because body fat is a defense mechanism the body uses in times of famine. I know what you're thinking and you're right, this is kind of pointless now for most of the civilized world since there's an Einstein Bros or Starbucks on every corner. Still, this is just something we're going to have to deal with.
See, when you drop your calories too low, in excess of 750 calories, your body will start tapping into the sugars stored in your muscles; this is called glycogen. After these energy stores are depleted, what do you think it will use next?
... You guessed it, the muscle itself!
This is very bad if you're trying to look the best you can. Muscle is hard earned and when you're dieting, you want to hold on to as much of it as humanly possible. When glycogen is first depleted, your muscles are starved of energy so if you are strength training and you should be, you'll notice that your overall strength will drop significantly. You just won't have any gas in the tank so-to-speak. This leads to weaker workouts and in the long run, a lot of muscle loss, and less fat loss.
You've heard the saying, probably by me if you’ve been following these articles, "if you don't use it, you'll lose it." Right? It couldn't be truer in this instance. Even if muscle loss doesn't exactly scare you, there's still the chance of you, “falling off the wagon" because of an insatiable appetite from crashing your calories and having that dreaded hormone ghrelin skyrocket. This is number one reason why diets fail.
Lack of Adherence
When you're dieting in a small to medium deficit (400-750cal), the cravings can normally be controlled pretty easily. It won’t kill you to say no to a cookie if you had just finished some rice, veggies, and lean steak. The problem arises when you crash your calories. The hunger gradually builds and the psychological instinct to eat becomes too hard to control for the vast majority of people.
Willpower will only get you so far here because your body is literally programmed to survive and it needs energy to survive. Once the cravings kick in and you give in, you will be much more prone to binging and destroying your whole weekly deficit in one sitting. This is because we are programmed to overeat in times of surplus, this is just human nature. Think about it, if you've eaten less than your 10lb Pomeranian all week then eating 3000-5000 calories in one sitting will become a lot easier than you'd think.
As you're reading this, you might be one of those few people telling yourself that muscle mass is irrelevant and that you have the willpower of Ghandi. If this is the case, then starving yourself isn't a problem, right?
The worst part of starvation has to do with your hormones not muscle or willpower.
The body is an amazing machine and our metabolism can adapt to whatever is thrown at it, so if you are one of those people who consistently under-eat, then here’s a large degree of compensation. Certain hormones will down-regulate (T3, T4, Leptin), you'll burn fewer calories, and your subconscious levels of NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) will decrease too.
Let's not forget that you’ll also feel tired, fatigued and irritable on a regular basis which is no way to live.
Essentially, your body is going to get used to eating less and become less efficient at burning calories to compensate. Now, this SUCKS because it’s a recipe for weight gain. Again, in the long run, these problems can persist and become permanent if something isn't changed.
We all know someone who is heavily overweight, eats a plain salad every day for lunch, and still never loses a pound. This is because over time, their body has adapted to a very low food intake and it now conserves all the energy it can. This is the principle of adaptation at its finest.
With all this being said, I'm sure we can both agree that crash dieting is a BAD idea. I suggest you stick to the 400-750 calorie deficit and do it the right way. After all, slow and steady wins the race, right?
So you can get it right, this is a more advanced equation for figuring out your calorie intake. An easier way would be to use one of the calorie calculators found by a simple google search but for information’s sake, here's the Harris-Benedict Formula:
BMR = 66 + ( 6.2 × weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 × height in inches ) – ( 6.76 × age in years )
BMR = 655.1 + ( 4.35 × weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 × height in inches ) - ( 4.7 × age in years )
Then you multiply your BMR by the numbers below depending on activity:
1.2 - little to no exercise
1.375 - light exercise (1-3 days/week)
1.5 - moderate exercise (3-5 days/week)
1.725 - heavy exercise (6-7 days/week)
1.9 - extra heavy workouts (two-a-days)