Why Very Low Calorie Diets Are So Dangerous

CoachMel Weight Loss Tips 14 Comments

Frustratingly, meal replacement programs seem to have become more and more popular in recent years, coinciding with the desire many people have to try living on a very low calorie diet.

People are simply demanding everything to be achieved “fast”. Get fit fast. Get rich fast. Lose weight fast.

So, popping a pill and drinking our meals, seems like an acceptable way of achieving the desired result. It’s a low calorie diet, and thus promises to shed the pounds faster than you can say, ‘slim fast’.

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This worries me a great deal!

Very low calorie meals explained…

Meal replacement plans come in a range of options, including powders, drinks, soups, bars and biscuits.

Some products can be used to replace all your meals, while others replace one or two meals per day, with the third meal being something healthy you cook yourself.

Obviously, swapping your regular meals with these products can cut down the amount of calories and fat you take in, and they do help some people lose weight.

But, there are risks, and meal replacements are definitely not suited to everyone.

Let’s be clear from the outset, a healthy well-balanced diet and regular physical activity is still the best way to lose weight long term.

But, I must concede, for those who haven’t been able to achieve the results they need through diet and exercise alone, meal replacements can be a suitable option.

No such thing as easy…

There is no such thing as an easy low calorie diet.

Don’t be fooled by savvy marketing. Many people seem to think that simply shoving a shake down their neck will work wonders.

But, studies show that in the long run people generally cannot maintain this way of eating, nor can they keep the weight off years down the line.

So much for being the easy option.

Warning: An 800 calorie diet is dangerous…

Some of these very low calorie diet programs provide as little as 800 calories per day. Some are even advertised as 400 calorie diets.

Whether low (800-1200 calories) or very low (400-800), both could be potentially dangerously in my opinion.

And before you take the risk, researchers have found after several months, people on a 400 calorie per day diet lose no more weight than those on the 800 calorie diet.

So, even if you wanted to keep your calorie intake to the least possible amount, there would actually be no point in eating less than 800 calories per day.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that after placing obese women on a very low calorie diet for two months, then shifting them to a low calorie diet for four months, only 5 percent had managed to maintain their weight after one year.

Initial weight loss…

If you have followed a very low calorie diet in the past you may have experienced a considerable amount of weight loss in the first couple of weeks. This is due to increased fluid loss, not fat loss in the early stages.

And, it appears that in the end you won’t lose any more weight after several months than someone who followed a low calorie diet for the same amount of time.

So, why put yourself through the pain and suffering of such a potentially dangerous diet?

Let’s look at some of the uncomfortable side effects of very low calorie diets:

  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Cold intolerance
  • Dry skin and nails
  • Menstrual irregularities in women
  • Hair loss
  • Constipation/diarrhoea
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Muscle breakdown
  • Problems with nerve and muscle function due to an imbalance in minerals and electrolytes
  • Conditions such as osteoporosis, anaemia, gout, gallstones, clinical depression, heart problems, renal failure, and liver disease

And, it appears the lower your calorie intake, the greater the likelihood you will experience some of these side effects.

Isn’t that scary?

Before starting a meal replacement plan you should always get a medical assessment from your doctor and visit a registered dietitian for a suitable plan, which is tailored to your individual needs.

There are also certain groups of people who should not try meal replacement plans, these include:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Teenagers and children (unless supervised by their doctor)
  • People with liver or kidney problems

Further considerations…

Very low calorie plans such as meal replacement shakes worry me for a number of reasons:

  • It’s not real food so you don’t get the benefit of eating whole foods.
  • Risk of nutritional deficiencies – many don’t contain all the nutrients you need which could lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies if left unchecked.
  • They contain little or no fibre.
  • They don’t teach you how to make healthy food choices.
  • They can be expensive.

Given the information provided here, wouldn’t it be better to simply replace one unhealthy meal with something better? At least you’ll be benefiting from real food!

Here are a few healthier examples:

  • 1 cup of homemade soup
  • 1 small can of tuna with a green salad
  • 3 pieces of fruit
  • 1 serving of homemade vegetable juice
  • 1 piece of lean meat, poultry or fish with fresh vegetables

If you struggle with motivation to change your diet, don’t think a meal replacement plan is the answer to all your problems. It could in fact be more dangerous than you realize.

You need to change what’s going on in your head first, before you can begin to work on your diet.

Isn’t your health worth more than one of these risky programs?

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Comments 14

  1. Steve Parker, M.D.

    You make an awful lot of sense.

    However, pointing out that weight regain is a problem with these very low-cal diets is a little unfair without noting that major regain is a problem with nearly ALL diets.

    But many of your readers know that anyway.

    Regain is a huge problem.

    -Steve

    Steve Parker, M.D.’s last blog post..May is “Mediterranean Month”

  2. Melanie

    Hi Steve,
    Yes, you’re right – as you can see this post was quite long, so I was trying to keep it focused on very low cal diets only, I really could have said a lot more.

    Thanks for pointing that out anyway!

  3. John W. Zimmer

    Hi Melanie,

    While it would be nice to just take a pill (like some of the sci-fi films) and be satisfied for a meal, in reality the pills and diet meal replacement drinks have all of the effects you have mentioned.

    The part that worries me is if a person thinks they need to do something drastic – fasting or shakes always come up.

    The heart doctors are no better with their medifast type of liquid diets (I guess the rational is it is better to have the patient rapidly lose the weight than die from a heart attack).

    If you drastically reduce your caloric intake below you body’s ability to burn fat – muscle is then burned too (to my understanding). This will lead to a slowing metabolism that eventually tends to lose weight even slower as you stated.

    So I hate to even hear of low-calorie liquid diets and I really do not see how they are helpful.

    Great post!

    John W. Zimmer’s last blog post..Jumping Rope for Fitness and Weight Loss!

  4. Melanie

    Hi John,
    Thanks for your comment!

    I know what you mean, it really bugs me that people opt for these programs…what is wrong with just eating healthy and exercising?? I suppose it appears TOO difficult in the fast paced lives many people live in.

    Very frustrating, but we will just have to press on, waving the banner in favour of “healthy lifestyles!!” 🙂

  5. Sasuke

    Thanks Melanie! This was really a great post!!!
    It shows absolute truth!!! And was worth the reading!
    Gosh, I you gave me great thing to learn, I was going for that low-diet but not now!!!
    Like you said, exercise is the best way and so shall it be!!! Thanks a million!! You really are great!! 😀

  6. Jose

    ive been having the head ache plus dry mouth problem. im currently taking about 1400 as i was recommended by an app (sound dumb but i needed some guidence) but the problem i find is that the app wont take in consideration the fact that i play soccer and i work out 5 times a week. so just as an advice to everyone else, be careful haha this really sucks

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  8. littleKM

    Hello miss Melanie,
    I’m 12 years old and a girl. I’ve got a fine BMI and I’m quiet active. My problem? Lack of appetite and it’s been going on for 5-6 months now. With lack of appetite came 300-500 maximum daily calories intake, vitamin D deficiency, food allergies etc. On your list of effects, I check into 40% of them.
    What I’m saying is do you have a comment to make on my “number” or advice to give?
    Thanks a bunch either way!

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