Exactly What Is A Low Calorie Diet?

By Jim F

The latest issue of New York Magazine has a large cover feature called “the diet to end all diets”. The author spends time living the Calorie Restriction (CR) lifestyle. The idea behind the CR movement is to prolong life by obtaining the optimum amount of nutrients while consuming the lowest amount of calories.

New York Magazine, Oct 2006

The rather lengthy NY magazine piece provides an inside look at the lifestyles of a number of proponents – who seem to continually gush about the wonders of living a life obsessed with food.

A number of biologists have discredited the idea – and in my view the whole idea seems like a bad case of orthorexia.

Michael’s regimen of 1,913 calories a day is exactly that: 1,913 calories every single day, 30 percent of them derived from fat, 30 percent from protein, and 40 percent from carbohydrates.

Which brings me to the question: Exactly what is a low-calorie diet?

The article author bemoans the fact that he has been surviving on just 1,800 calories – and that this is “well short of the minimum 2,500 recommended for adult males”. I tend to think that daily calorie intake is closely linked with energy output – but even then – it is hardly an exact science.

Is 2500 Calories Too Much?
As for 2,500 daily calories – you may be interested to know that Scotland have just “officially” lowered their daily recommendations. The new allowances are 1600 for women and 2000 for men.

Has our fear of “starvation response” and yo-yo dieting caused us to overestimate just how many calories we actually need?

It’s Not Just About Calories
I personally feel that resistance and strength training play a significant role in preventing muscle wastage and metabolic sluggishness during lower calories. I also believe that calorie needs are linked to body composition rather than body weight. Those with more muscle mass need more energy to maintain that tissue.

Food and nutrient quality also play a significant role – 1800 calories of white bread each day will leave you feeling like a constipated whale.

What do you think?
Are daily calorie recommendations redundant? At what point are calories “too low”?
(thanks to Randee)


  1. Dr. J

    Consider stabilizing for a couple of months at your new weight. You have lost a significant amount, and sometimes giving yourself a chance to stay at this lower weight will be helpful. Then after you have done this, work with your diet and exercise program to step down to the next level. I hope this is helpful.

  2. bill

    Got weighed this morning after 3 weeks of not weighing myself and not one oz lost. I have been on this diet since August 30th, 2008 and have lost 40 pounds up till 3 weeks ago and have lost nothing since and I am taking at least 4-5 long walks per week, hoping to help but it didn’t. Am I being unreasonable with myself expecting more out of this 2000 calorie diet this little bit into the diet or is this about usual? Thank you.

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  4. D

    It’s called a BMR (basal metabolic Rate). It’s pretty scientific and will give you your base calories burned a day just to have your brain, lungs, heart, ect work. It is based on things that affect your metabolism (age, height and weight).

  5. sherry rhymes

    what is the long term affect of using the low calorie diet and the very low calorie diet?

  6. Rhys

    Im about 161cm and weiged 56kg about a month ago, i wasnt overweight but wanted to lose some weight to make myself feel better, in order to lose a kilo a week i needed to restrict my calorie intake to about 1205 a day, rather then do this i burned 800 calories a day and restricted my calorie intake to 2005 a day which was much easier to sustain, i currently weigh 52 kg after 4 weeks of my program with my goal of 50kg not far away, its true what they say. . .the key to weight loss is good eating and excersise combined!!

  7. Allison

    I think people should see a nutritionist and see what is right for them. Everyone’s bodies function differently. If you’re not losing weight and you’d like to, you need to either eat less than your BMR or exercise more to lose calories. Plain and simple. There is no number that fits everyone. Just to SURVIVE, not move, just lay in bed and breathe, however, the average 100 lb female needs 1200 calories. So is 1800 too low for him?? it depends. how much does he do? how tall is he? how much does he weigh? etc.

  8. Robert

    I’ve had a lot of success by varying my caloric consumption. On the weekends I eat about 3,000 per day and during the week I eat between 500 and 1500 per day. Of course, I do a full body workout at least twice per week plus 30 minutes or more of cardio at least twice per week. So far I’ve gone from 235 to 217 in less than a month and have never felt better in my life.

  9. On the road to my PhD


  10. Spectra

    Road to my PhD….I’m with you on this one. I love to eat too, so that’s why I run. I agree with you; it’s time consuming, but hey, if I weren’t running, I’d have more time to watch TV or some other timewasting activity.

  11. Jan

    For me, the “numbers” kind of work if I ate the typical diet. But I’ve found out that the calories are strictly related to *what* I eat. When I was losing weight and eating a typical low-fat diet, I had to eat 1,500 calories with lots of daily exercise, at 180lb, to lose about 3lb a month. When I cleaned up my diet and added more protein and fat, reducing carb (still nowhere near low-carb values, I eat around 45-50% of my diet in carb), I was eating 2,200 calories a day and the weight was dropping off so fast, I was trying to force more food down so I wouldn’t lose more than 2lb a week. So that is the flaw in following the numbers. While numbers work, they’ll depend also on what you eat.

  12. On the road to my PhD

    I know they aren’t totally accurate, but I have found that sticky to my numbers has proven to work wonders. But I always make sure to pay attention to my body’s needs. For example, if I ever feel any kind of weakness, I grab an apple or something substantial to increase my blood sugar. But I have known people to follow their calorie consumption very strictly who complain of dizzy spells or passing out in some cases. That’s when you can tell the system is flawed. However, 99% of the time, I’m on top of my game.

  13. Jan

    The tests for my metabolic rate + my exercise calories say that I maintain at around 1,600. But in reality, I know I maintain on 2,500. So I don’t really trust these tests.

  14. On the road to my PhD

    It’s not fun. Haha, I’m very jealous of my brother who can easily eat up to 3000 calories a day and be fine since he’s big into weight training and stuff. I’m not really into building muscle so I stick to distance cardio. It’s a tough life, but as long as I can maintain what I’ve got going, I’m happy.

  15. Ryan

    On the road to my PhD said:
    When I calculated my resting metabolic rate a while back, my results were that I should only eat 1250 calories per day (of course that does not include any exercise at all). But I mean that just SUCKS! And I think that’s what is so hard for people, the fact that our body really doesn’t need as much food as we typically feed it.[…]

    My resting metabolic rate is 2200 calories per day. I couldn’t imagine having a much lower metabolism.

  16. On the road to my PhD

    Calorie counting is such an annoying thing to have to deal with, yet I do think it helps people put portion size into perspective. When I calculated my resting metabolic rate a while back, my results were that I should only eat 1250 calories per day (of course that does not include any exercise at all). But I mean that just SUCKS! And I think that’s what is so hard for people, the fact that our body really doesn’t need as much food as we typically feed it. But in my opinion, calorie counting can work very well, and depending on how much you would like to eat, you exercise to make that happen. I like eating a lot, so I now run 7 miles a day, but i love running so it’s not so bad (other than the fact that it’s kind of time-consuming). I estimate that I burn about 550 calories running, so i can add to my total calories. So basically, i think calorie counting is an effective way to maintain weight because you have control from day to day. Also, if you eat too much one day, you can cut back a little the next day. But i like dealing with numbers too, it’s like a game- very hit or miss. Not a fun game to lose though. 🙂