Myth: You have to cut calories to lose weight


You can lose weight without cutting calories.  

Cutting Calories
Cutting Calories

This statement is partially true, but if you fail to lose weight or have some stubborn pounds you can lose, you should stop and reevaluate your caloric intake.  Your body needs a certain baseline level of calories.  I cannot count the number of people that think that weight loss is just a simple mathematical equation.  I am not saying that calories do not matter and I am not saying that you do not need to create a negative calorie balance to lose weight, but weight loss is not as simple as burn more than you eat and eat less food to lose weight.

Caloric Requirement Calculator:

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Male Female
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Basal Metabolic Rate
Basal Metabolic Rate

The number of calories your body needs changes over time.  The majority of the calories you burn change very little from day to day.  Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR (see image to the right) is the number of calories you need to maintain your body in its current state without activity.  Your total requirement for calories depends on your daily activity and your BMR.  As we age, we lose muscle, and our BMR drops.  If we become more active, we will gain more muscle and slow the age-related loss of muscle.  If you do not get enough, your body will go into a starvation mode of catabolism.  Catabolism occurs when you burn sugar, fat, and muscle to produce energy.  If you do not get enough calories, you will burn muscle at a higher rate, and your metabolic rate will drop.  Because BMR does change, you should reassess your caloric requirement whenever your weight loss or maintenance stagnates.    

Why is BMR important?   It is true that if you take in fewer calories than you eat, you should lose weight for a while but then you will stagnate.  BMR is basically the level required for maintenance.  The calculated BMR calorie count is an estimate of this level.  If you go too far below your BMR, you will have to use your own muscle for maintenance and energy.    If you take in too few calories, your caloric intake will be too low to

Lifting Weights
Lifting Weights

perform the maintenance on your body as required.  If you are losing too slowly, maybe the level is too high.  Since this level changes with weight loss, reestimation might be warranted periodically.  If you stick to 1-2 pounds lost per week, you will be less likely to stagnate or lose more muscle mass.  

Should I calculate my BMR?  I do not find BMR to be a helpful number when I am dieting.  I find that it is more helpful for me to measure my total calorie estimate.  You can use the calculator above to get that number.  If you stagnate, stop by and use the calculator again.  

Can I increase my metabolic rate?  Yes.  Exercise will increase your caloric burn during exercise and rest.  I recommend a mixture of resistance training and aerobic exercise.  It will help you burn calories and build muscle.  More muscle will lead to more calories burned and a higher metabolic rate.  

The bottom line: You can lose weight without cutting calories, but it is difficult.  It is a good idea to use a mixture of diet and exercise to lose weight.  

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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