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600 Calories a Day–Some Weight Loss Clinics are Going Too Far

Photo courtesy of o5com, Flickr. (Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/o5com/4926092996/)

I met with some friends last night over frozen yogurt. As we sat down to talk, one of the girls who I haven’t seen in a long time asked me a nutrition question:

Have you heard of XXX weight loss clinic? (my point isn’t to directly attack anyone, so I’ll just leave the name out) I’m on a 600-calorie diet, what do you think of that?

I wanted to say:

Are you crazy????

But I smiled and started asking questions about how long she’s been doing it, how she feels physically and emotionally, what she eats, and whether she’s able to exercise or take care of her preschooler and infant.

Her day looked like that. I think she can have one serving of vegetables.

  • Breakfast: protein bar
  • Lunch: 4 oz of turkey or an egg
  • Dinner: not sure exactly, but because she wanted to go out for frozen yogurt, she ‘saved’ her meal and pretty much, frozen yogurt was dinner.

Wait, and she has to eat every 2 hours–I’m just not sure what. The person who’s helping her at the clinic (and by the way, my friend didn’t know what kind of training or knowledge they have and when I checked their website, there’s was nothing about who came up with the plan) says that she needs to go into ketosis to lose the weight, that this restriction is only until she gets to her goal weight (and no idea who decides what that is and no regards to how long it will take), and that she can cheat every now and then (and don’t get me started on how this is messed up, that we have to cheat so we can nourish our bodies).

To answer her question of what I think of 600-calorie weight loss diet, these are the points that I made:

  1. 600 calories are just not enough. Your body needs more than that for your organs to function, that’s called your basal metabolic rate. Eat much less, and you teach your body that food is scarce and it needs to be efficient at saving and storing every single calorie you eat.
  2. Our bodies are smart. When you eat much less energy than your basal metabolic rate, your metabolism drops. Do that long enough, and your body becomes an energy-saving machine, using as little energy as possible. And it’s hard to get it back up. If you measure BMR for two women who are the same age, weight and height, and body fat percent, the one who’d dieted and restricted calories will have a lower metabolism than the woman who hadn’t. (Get your metabolism measured as part of my wellness program)
  3. You can’t last on this diet forever, and when you’re done with it–whether you reached your goal weight or just got too tired–the weight will come back. And more. Yes, my friend and her husband lost weight, but she expressed how scared she is about re-gaining when they go back to normal eating.
  4. You’re fighting a battle that’s hard to win. You’re fighting natural instincts. She and her husband love to eat. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, they’ve deprived themselves from this perfectly normal pleasure to eat 4 ounces of turkey for lunch. They miss food. Real food. And there’s usually a feast when people throw a restrictive diet off the wall. And the feast usually lasts a long time.
  5. Long-term deprivation is mentally and psychologically detrimental. Read about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which would be unethical to reproduce these days. Men, ages 22-33, were on a starvation diet of 1500 calories a day for 6 months (1500 doesn’t sound starvation, but it’s low for young men who need at least 2200 to maintain weight). Results: social withdrawal, depression, obsession with food, and declined comprehension, concentration, and judgement.
  6. Eating every 2 hours doesn’t help with weight loss. We’re not meant to snack or graze all day.
  7. You haven’t learned how to cook healthy normal meals.
  8. Ketogenic diets (very low carbs, high protein, high fat): there’s room for them for preventing seizures, for people with epilepsy, and even weight loss. They need a blog post on their own, but you can be on a ketogenic diet, eat 4000 kcals, and not lose weight. You can be on a ketogenic diet and eat 1700 kcal and lose weight. You don’t have to restrict yourself to 600 kcal to be on a ketogenic diet.
  9. You’re not getting enough vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy oils, and fiber. We need these nutrients to prevent diseases, reduce inflammation, have strong muscles and bones, and improve gut health.
  10. You have no energy to exercise. Do I need to justify why we need to work out and be active?
  11. You’re losing your muscles. Anybody who loses weight loses some of their muscle tissue, and the only way to prevent that is to do resistance training coupled with good protein. I doubt you get enough protein in 600 calories. And wait, she has no energy to exercise. I’ll stop there.
  12. The ‘expert’ in the weight loss program didn’t ask my friend what she eats. She didn’t get to know her lifestyle. Her struggles. Her food preferences. She gave her a cookie-cutter diet. How creative! And my friend misses the food she used to cook for her family. She doesn’t cook anymore.
  13. You’re promoting negative emotions and unhealthy relationship with food. We have to cheat to eat. Didn’t we learn that cheating is bad, unethical, and there’s a consequence if we’re caught doing it? Why does eating have to be associated with that? Why can’t we just eat to nourish our bodies and be healthy? Why can’t we enjoy food? Just because you want to lose weight, it doesn’t mean you have be so restrictive that you need to cheat. You can eat, enjoy food, and lose weight. Be positive.
  14. You’re wasting your money. She and her husband are paying $300+ for an hour session with this so-called ‘expert.’
  15. One point I forgot to make: is that what you want to teach your kids???

Sometimes it’s impossible to change people’s minds when they’re so determined to do something, when they have a narrow goal, a number, they want to reach and won’t think beyond it. So after expressing my opinion about that 600-calorie diet, I gave her my card so she can talk to me when she eventually quiets this madness, and wished her good health.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Dixya @ Food, Pleasure and Health October 3, 2012, 3:12 pm

    I can relate to this situation Nour. Weight loss and drastic diet is such a talked subject among my friends and families especially when they know you are a dietitian. Like you mentioned, they get their information from unreliable sources or uncredited personnel and ask us for our opinion. Sometimes it frustrates me because they do not want to hear what we have to say because we (dietitians) often provide short time, realistic, goals for them and they want a easy fix. I usually just keep quiet to save myself some frustration. I am glad you handed her the card and offered her help.

    • Nour Zibdeh October 16, 2012, 9:48 pm

      Thanks Dixya for the comment … I don’t usually volunteer my opinion, but when asked, I can’t not speak my mind! I think people want something a little crazy–it’s more exciting than eating a simple healthy diet. I’d rather not deprive myself or my clients… food is good 🙂

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