Any problem that has dozens of solutions never provides one good answer. In the dieting world that truism certainly applies.
Generally, the need for instant weight loss is prompted by some event – a class reunion, wedding or a beach vacation. It is a particular American attitude to believe the answer to years of dietary malfeasance can be solved with a week of crash dieting. While this can-do attitude is certainly admirable, a little dietary economics demonstrates obesity is a long-term problem that requires sustained effort to reverse.
What is a crash diet? It’s any diet that has severe calorie restriction intended for rapid short-term weight loss.
To effectively talk about dieting, we need a few numbers. Normally, women burn about 2,000 calories per day and men burn about 2,500 calories. A crash diet is extreme, a draconian restriction to 600-800 calories per day. That looks like a whopping 1,500-plus calorie deficit where you can almost watch the pounds fall off. However, it’s not that easy.
A painful crash diet will force your body into starvation mode. The fires are banked and your calorie burn is reduced by 40 percent. You will still lose weight, but only at 500 calories per day. That 1 pound of fat (3,500 calories) takes you a week to burn at this rate.
There are a lot of variations on crash dieting, and many that bet dietary boredom will help discourage overeating: the cabbage, chicken soup or cookie diets, and even “magic” drinks. If the monotony doesn’t kill you, the unbalance of monolithic eating just might.
Crash dieting is associated with a number of hazards. By its very nature you are malnourished, lacking many of the micronutrients that keep you healthy. Crash dieting is unsustainable and contributes to a yo-yo cycle of weight gain and loss. That is harder on your heart and circulatory system than simply being overweight.
The stress of crash dieting also carries some heart risk. That may be surprising, since weight loss is certainly good for your heart in the long run. But stress from extreme dietary changes is not in the short run. We see palpitations and occasionally a more concerning arrhythmia.
Crash dieting also makes your immune system temporarily less effective. Remember, your immune system does a lot more than just ward off colds. It also kills almost all of the genetically damaged cells that otherwise can become big trouble. Gallstones and kidney stones are increased by this dietary havoc.
But don’t get discouraged about dieting. There are better solutions than crash diets and cleansers, which don’t work. Any successful long-term strategy for weight management must involve exercise. This can increase your calorie burn by 500 per day. It also increases your muscle mass, which is what burns most of the calories. So exercise counts twice by burning extra calories and bumping up your metabolism.
Combining exercise with a moderate calorie restriction diet of 1,200-1500 calories per day can give you a sustainable 700-1,000 calorie deficit per day. That is 2 pounds of real fat burned off each week.
In dieting, it’s good to adopt the big-picture view. You did not get obese in a week, and you can’t fix it in a week. So take your time and diet the proper way.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.