Nothing good comes from extremes, and that includes dieting. Extreme weight loss diets can lead to myriad health problems and should be done only under medical supervision. But you can still lose a significant, but safe, amount of weight with a low-calorie, nutrient-packed meal plan and exercise.
Extreme Weight Loss Diet Dangers
Extreme weight loss is for overly dramatic reality TV shows like "The Biggest Loser." If you follow entertainment media, you probably heard what a fiasco that turned out to be. Many contestants reported gaining the weight back — and then some — despite their best efforts to maintain their results.
According to a study of "The Biggest Loser" contestants six years post-competition, results of which were published in the journal Obesity in May 2016, such rapid weight loss caused long-term metabolic changes that slowed resting metabolic rate — the speed at which the body burns calories at rest — which made it difficult for the contestants to keep the weight off.
Also, quick weight loss doesn't necessarily mean fat loss. Especially in the beginning of a diet, your body sheds water, burns up stored carbohydrates and taps into lean muscle mass stores for energy. Fat is burned to a lesser extent, according to a research review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in June 2014. According to MedlinePlus, rapid weight loss can also cause you to lose bone density.
Furthermore, severely restricting calories can result in health problems, including fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, gout and gallstones. The only time meal plans for extreme weight loss diets should be followed is when they are medically necessary and supervised by a doctor. Very low calorie diets providing 800 calories or less are sometimes necessary in cases of obesity in which the excess weight poses more severe health risks than extreme weight loss.
Setting a Safe Goal
Weight loss at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week is generally considered safe and effective for the long-term. However, Mayo Clinic states that in the beginning of a weight loss program, it's OK to kickstart weight loss at a faster rate of 3 to 5 pounds per week for the first two weeks. Anything above 5 pounds a week is too much. After the first two weeks, you should transition back to losing weight at a rate of no more than 2 pounds per week.
Therefore, you can set different calorie goals for different phases. Calorie needs are highly individual and have a lot to do with genetic factors related to metabolism. They also take into account gender, age and activity level. Rather than try to determine your exact calorie needs, focus instead on setting a daily calorie reduction goal.
Generally, reducing your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories each day results in 1 to 2 pounds of weight loss per week, according to Mayo Clinic. Depending on your current calorie intake, that's often achievable through diet alone.
However, if you want to aim a little higher in the beginning, creating that kind of calorie deficit just through calorie-cutting could prove difficult if you're not currently eating an extra 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day. Therefore, you will have to combine a reduced-calorie diet with exercise to reach your goals.
It's Not Just About Calories
Simply cutting calories is one thing, but if you're eating an unhealthy diet, it will be very difficult to feel satiated and satisfied on fewer calories. It's also not going to benefit your overall health.
When significantly reducing calories, maximize the calories you do eat by making sure they are nutrient-packed. This will ensure you get all the nutrition you need while losing weight. Cutting out foods and drinks that are high in calories but low in nutrients is key. Some examples include:
- Candy, cookies, doughnuts, pastries, cakes and other desserts
- Soda and other sweetened beverages
- Fried foods
- Snack foods like potato chips
You should also watch out for some foods that are often considered healthy but can be surprisingly high in sugar, fat and calories, such as:
- Flavored yogurt
- Granola and protein bars
- Salad dressings and sauces
Cutting out these foods can make a significant dent in your daily calorie intake. Instead, get your calories from fresh, whole, nutrient dense foods that fill up on fewer calories, including:
- Fresh vegetables
- Low-sugar fruits such as raspberries and blueberries
- Lean protein from chicken, fish, eggs and beans
- Whole grains
- Nuts, seeds and olive or avocado oils
Certain foods should feature prominently in your diet. Both protein and fiber have been shown to aid weight loss in various ways.
The body processes both slowly, which means they stay in your stomach longer. Food in the stomach promotes gastric distension. According to a research review published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in January 2019, gastric distension sends signals to the brain via the vagus nerve that create feelings of fullness and satiety. Additionally, gastric distension delays the release of a hormone called ghrelin that stimulates hunger.
The longer the food remains in the stomach, the longer the duration of gastric distension. This can help you control your calorie intake by eating less at meals and avoiding hunger between meals.
Weight Loss Meal Planning
Meal planning for weight loss doesn't need to be complicated. However, it does take forward-thinking so that you're not caught without a healthy meal when you're hungry. A successful strategy for a diet to lose a lot of weight is to spend some time each week shopping for and prepping your meals for the following week.
At each meal, plan to have a serving of protein, a serving of fresh fruits, vegetables and/or whole grains for complex carbohydrates and fiber, and a small amount of healthy fats.
Satiating, low-calorie breakfast options include:
- Low-fat Greek yogurt with raspberries and crushed almonds
- Omelet with spinach, tomatoes and feta cheese
- Overnight oats with low-fat milk, chia seeds and blueberries
Salads are go-to lunch options, and there are endless variations, such as:
- Spinach with sliced boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes and feta
- Mixed greens with sliced grilled chicken breast, apples and walnuts
- Kale with baked tofu, pumpkin seeds, carrots and ginger
Skip the store-bought dressings and make your own with fresh ingredients using a small amount of oil and adding a burst of fresh flavor with red wine or balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, lemon juice and herbs and spices. You can also use low-fat yogurt as a base.
At dinner, fill half your plate with fresh vegetables that have been steamed, roasted or sauteed in a small amount of olive or avocado oil. Prepare a serving of protein, such as grilled salmon or chicken breast. You can also have a small serving of whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa. Get used to the flavor of clean foods without a lot of heavy sauces, replacing them with fresh herbs and spices that add flavor but no calories.
Read more: How to Meal Prep for Weight Loss Like a Pro
Exercise Is Key
Here's the truth: If you really want to lose a lot of weight quickly, you have to combine a nutritious, reduced-calorie diet with regular exercise. Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging and cycling burns calories to help you deepen your daily calorie deficit.
Resistance exercise, such as weight lifting or body weight exercises, helps build lean muscle mass. Building muscle while dieting is critical. Lean muscle is more metabolically active than fat; the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolism, and the more calories you burn round the clock. Additionally, because fast weight loss often results in muscle loss, it's important to combat that by working to build new muscle.
Plan to meet the minimum exercise guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week, along with two total-body strength training sessions. For even greater benefits, shoot for 300 minutes or more of moderate-intensity cardio exercise or 150 minutes or more of vigorous exercise along with strength training.
Keep in mind that, just as with extreme diets, extreme exercise regimens are also risky. Moderation is key to long-term success.
- Obesity: "Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years After 'The Biggest Loser' Competition"
- MedlinePlus: "Diet for Rapid Weight Loss"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why Do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong With Fast Weight Loss?"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss With Dieting"
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: "Why Do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong With Fast Weight Loss?"
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults"