If you are here, clearly you are wondering can eating too few calories cause weight gain ?
There is this notion amongst the fitness space that eating too few calories is going to absolutely wreck your metabolism.
Thus leading to either weight gain or no weight loss.
You and I are here today to learn everything about this topic and the validity of it.
I am going to break down all you need to know about this topic, piece by piece.
Please do me a favor though, read the entire article.
If you are going to read one thing in it’s entirety today, make it this why don’t ya?
You are already here, you might as well stay and educate yourself to the fullest.
We have a deal? You aren’t lying to me right?
Cool, if that is the case, let’s do this.
Can Eating Too Few Calories Cause Weight Gain?
How You Lose or Gain Weight
To start us off with the question of can eating too few calories cause weight gain, let’s first briefly touch on how you either lose or gain weight.
I have talked about this profusely in all of my other articles, so I won’t belabor the point too much.
Yet if you are new here, I really need you to understand this before diving into the rest of the article. Therefore if you are a returning reader, bare with me as I introduce the new members to wonderful science.
Losing, gaining, or maintaining your weight comes down to one thing, which is an overall energy balance equation.
Our bodies run off of energy, this energy comes in the form of calories. Therefore it comes down to a calorie balance equation.
There are three scenarios that can be playing out in this equation at any moment in time.
This means you are eating more calories than your body is burning on a daily basis. This will have you gain weight.
This means you are eating less calories your body is burning on a daily basis. This will have you maintain weight.
This means you are eating the same amount of calories your body is burning. This means you will maintain your weight.
How Do You Know How Many Calories Your Body Burns
Here is the scoop.
There are 4 main ways your body burns calories throughout the day, this is called your TDEE, or total daily energy expenditure.
The first is your BMR, or your basal metabolic rate.
This essentially brings up all of the functions your body has to do to keep you alive. This is what your body would burn at rest if you laid in bed all day and did nothing.
This is different for everyone, but if you want a pro tip, building lean muscle mass increases your BMR.
This is why resistance training is so important for your overall energy expenditure.
The second is your NEAT, or your non exercise activity thermogenesis.
This basically means all of the extraneous movement you do during that day that isn’t direct exercise.
Think me typing this article right now, you walking to the grocery store, flipping some guy off who cut you off on the highway.
All of these are NEAT!
The third if your TEF, or thermic effect of food.
This means how many calories your body has to burn in order to digest and break down your food.
Another pro tip, protein has the highest TEF . Therefore if you eat more protein essentially you will increase your metabolism.
Last but not least comes EAT, or exercise activity thermogenesis.
This is your dedicated exercise you do during the day. Yea, it’s only 5%. Wild huh?
Therefore no, you don’t have to go on the treadmill and burn 1000’s of calories to lose weight because your body burns way more calories in a given day outside of just exercise.
This TDEE is what makes up your maintenance calories.
Maintenance calories can be calculated by a TDEE calculator or by using this totally free calculator HERE .
Just remember though, they are all a rough estimate, and nothing is 100% perfect. You will have to put it into action to find out for yourself.
Can Eating Too Few Calories Cause Weight Gain? Diving In
I needed you to have that base knowledge of understanding because what we are going to talk about here will mean nothing if you don’t understand that information first.
Now that we have established that, we can dive into the real question here.
I can answer this rather quickly as well.
No, Eating Too Few Calories Does Not Cause Weight Gain
Though I can answer it quickly, I am going to explain why, because what’s the point if I don’t explain why?
I first want you to recall what we just learned.
The only way to lose weight is to eat less calories than what your body burns.
Therefore logically speaking, how in the world would eating “too few calories” lead to weight gain?
That doesn’t even make sense.
Now some people are going to tell you that eating too few calories causes your metabolism to slow down and go into “Starvation mode”.
Essentially stating that you will store body fat because you aren’t eating enough calories.
In fact if you do a quick google search of “eating too few calories” that is the 1st thing that comes up.
Which, is why I am writing this article in hopes of educating the masses of the utter BS that is.
There is so much wrong with that idk where to begin, but I will start with talking about your metabolism.
Eating “Too Few Calories” & Your Metabolism
First off, most people don’t even know what their metabolism is.
It is not this magical thing that is waiting to burn fat at your wish.
It controls your entire body. Your reproductive system, your internal organs, your digestion of food, your sleep.
It’s not just sitting there waiting to burn fat, in fact, burning fat is the last thing your metabolism wants to do.
Your body likes homeostasis, it likes staying the same. Therefore losing or gaining weight is not what your body wants to do because that means more work for your body.
Changing processes for your internal organs, using different energy stores, changing your BMR, etc.
Therefore please don’t say “my metabolism is broken”. If you are alive and reading this, your metabolism is just fine, I promise.
Some people are going to try to scare you into thinking that eating “too few calories” is going to slow down your metabolism to the point where your body stops burning fat and you go into starvation mode.
First things first, here is a news flash for you.
Your metabolism has to slow down in order to lose weight. It is a necessary requirement of losing weight.
There is nothing wrong with that, that is okay. Someone who is 300lbs is generally going to have a higher metabolism than someone who is 150lbs. That doesn’t mean it is better to be 300lbs.
You can do things like
- eat high protein
- Strength train and build muscle
- Not go super low in calories
To mitigate this process and keep your metabolism as high as can be, but don’t be scared of slowing down your metabolism, because it has to happen.
This is also not to say you can’t increase your metabolism. When you go from eating in a calorie deficit to eating in a calorie maintenance or surplus for example, your metabolism is going to adapt just like it did when you went into a deficit.
When you eat less calories your metabolism slows down a bit, when you eat more calories your metabolism speeds up a bit.
You are never “damaging” your metabolism because your metabolism adapts both ways.
Now when it comes to can eating too few calories cause weight gain and starvation mode, here is where it really grinds my gears.
I want to first start by saying I use to think starvation mode was a real thing.
I once told one of my clients Alison this, straight to her face.
Alison is a beast, but when I first started working with Alison I told her straight to her face that her body was in starvation mode.
I told her that she was holding onto body fat because she was eating too few calories and we had to increase her calories in order to get her to start burning fat.
Boy, do I feel stupid now. A week or so later I realized it was a total scam and I now needed to inform her that it was a lie.
Increasing her calories actually did work, but not for the reason you may think. We will talk about that later in this article.
Now, I am going to link a study here below called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
They had men voluntary partake in a starvation diet for research.
As you can see, they lost a significant amount of weight. In fact, they are skin and bones, they were literally starving.
None of them gained weight or held onto body fat during this diet. They lost weight to the point of literally starving, unlike what you and I have on a daily basis.
If those people were “eating too few calories” and they didn’t hold onto body fat or gain weight, why would you?
Now, let me be very, very clear. I am in no way, shape, or form condoning starving yourself.
That is the farthest thing from what I mean, and we will talk about that later here in this article.
This is just simply to prove a point that when it comes to the question of can eating too few calories cause weight gain, the answer is a resounding no.
800 Calorie Liquid Diet
I want to briefly show another study that looks at eating too few calories.
They had participants partake in a 800 calorie liquid diet while resistance training.
This would certainly be eating too few calories, would you agree?
The results were they lost 32 lbs in 12 weeks and actually increased their BMR along the way, more than likely due to the newly added strength training programs they started up.
Once again, I do not condone or promote this is anyway, shape, or form. In fact, I highly advise against it as you will see later in this article.
Yet point being, these people were eating “too few calories” and not only did they not gain weight, they lost weight, a significant amount of it.
Last but not least, I want you to think about victims of the Holocaust or people in third world countries much less well off than you and I.
When you see those people, are any of them massively overweight?
Because those people were actually starving, again, unlike you and I. None of them are overweight, they are skin and bones.
Therefore “eating too few calories” and not losing weight, or gaining weight is not a real thing.
If you are in a calorie deficit, you will lose weight.
Can Eating Too Few Calories Cause Weight Gain? What’s Really Going On
Now that we answered the question of can eating too few calories cause weight gain as a resounding no, what is really going on then?
Well, there are 3 main things that are going on if you believe you are eating too few calories and gaining or not losing weight.
I touched on them extensively in my article “In a calorie deficit but not losing weight” so I won’t go too in depth on them right now.
Yet I would like to point them out and offer some extra thoughts related to this article.
#1 Not Tracking Calories Accurately
There was a study done that had took people who were supposedly eating 1200 calories and not losing weight .
They had them self report their calorie intake for 14 days straight.
At the end of the 14 days, they concluded that the group had under reported their calorie intake by an average of 47%, so let’s round to 50%.
If they thought they were eating 1200 calories, they were actually eating 2400 calories.
The conclusion came to be, and I quote,
“The failure of some obese subjects to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories is due to an energy intake substantially higher than reported and an overestimation of physical activity, not to an abnormality in thermogenesis.”
Essentially meaning the reason they were not losing weight was not because something was wrong with their metabolism, it was because they were eating too many calories.
I would say 8/10 people who come to me telling me they are tracking calories, are doing so incorrectly, which leads to no results and frustration.
Lucky for you, I did an entire video teaching you exactly how to count calories in depth. You can watch that HERE .
I promise if you follow what I say in that video, you will start to see progress.
#2 Only Using The Scale
The second point to touch on here is the fact that the scale is not the end all be all when it comes to progress.
Especially for example if you are strength training.
You very well could be body recouping, which is just essentially losing fat and building muscle at the same time.
If you lose 5lbs of fat but gain 5lbs of muscle, the scale isn’t going to move at all because 1lb of fat weighs the same as 1lb of muscle.
Yet the composition is different. Muscle is more dense than fat, therefore you will look different and see changes in your body.
Yet the scale wouldn’t move!
Therefore do not rely on the scale as your only form of fat loss progress. Make sure to accurately track progress, like I outline in this video HERE .
On top of that, you need to be sure you have realistic expectations.
Most people think they need or should lose 5lbs a week or 10lbs in a month.
That is simply inaccurate. A healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss would be .5-1lb per week on average.
So if you lost 2-4 lbs per month, that is considered amazing progress, not even mentioning the other forms of progress talked about in that video I liked above.
#3 Binge – Restrict Cycle
This right here is an important one when talking about can eating too few calories cause weight gain.
This happens to a lot of people, so listen closely.
Let’s say you are trying to eat 1200 calories. You very well could be eating 1200 calories… Monday – Thursday.
Then, when Fri, Sat, Sunday roll around, you are starving, you have over restricted yourself the entire week on food, and you are ready for an all out binge.
You go out Friday night with your friends, eat all of the chips and guac on the table, now you feel like you f*cked up.
So then you keep going and eat everything the entire weekend.
Then, on Monday morning, you try to “get back on track” with your 1200 calorie diet.
This cycle happens in perpetuity.
Therefore you are eating 1200 calories 4 days out of the week, but eating 3000+ calories 3 days out of the week, leading to either no weight loss or weight gain.
Which that is the reason you would be seeing those results, not because “your metabolism” or “eating too few calories”.
It would be too few calories because it would be too restrictive and cause you to be inconsistent.
What makes it even worse is you are THINKING about your 1200 calorie diet the whole time.
All the time you are thinking about restricting foods, about eating 1200 calories, about losing weight.
So even when you are eating more than 1200 calories which is why you’d not be losing weight, your head is thinking about it.
It is all you think about, so you swear up and down you are eating too little and that’s why you can’t lose weight.
Yet the reality is somewhere along the line you are eating many more calories than you think, the thought of eating so little calories is taking over your brain.
Therefore stepping back and being able to honestly and accurately assess your consistency over the past 31 days can be incredibly helpful.
If in the past 31 days you have hit your calories any less than 26 days, that would be less than 80% consistent.
If you are less than 80% consistent, then that is why you would not be seeing progress with your weight loss journey. Not because of “starvation mode” or eating too few calories.
How To Be More Consistent?
I showed you studies above about how these people ate insanely low calorie diets. I don’t want you to do that.
That was purely for the purpose of showing you “eating too few calories” and not losing or gaining weight is not a real thing.
That is the exact opposite of what I want.
This is not a game of how little calories can you eat to lose weight. Rather, this is a game of how many calories can you eat and still lose weight.
This will help you be more consistent with your nutrition. Instead of trying to eat 1200 calories, and ending up binging for 3 days.
If you would just eat say 1700 calories instead and do that with 85% consistency over the course of the month, you would see more results by “eating more calories” because you were able to be consistent.
This is what happened to my client Alison above who I told you about. I increased her calories because I thought she was in “starvation mode”.
Later to find out starvation mode isn’t real, but increasing her calories “worked” because she was able to be more consistent with her calorie intake.
Thus, leading her to see better results. Consistency is the most important part when it comes to your nutrition, therefore eating a bit more calories consistently will always beat eating fewer calories with less consistency.
You Don’t Want To Lose Weight Fast
We talked earlier about those studies of people losing weight very rapidly eating very few calories.
We also talked about a healthy rate of weight loss would be anywhere from .5-1lb per week on average.
Let’s talk about why you don’t want to lose weight very rapidly.
First and foremost, as mentioned above, it is going to be incredibly restrictive and unsustainable.
If what you do to get the results are unsustainable, the results will be unsustainable as well.
And losing more than maybe 1.5 lb per week max is going to lead you to be doing incredibly unsustainable things.
Therefore the results you see will be short lived, this is how the yo yo dieting cycle emerges.
Idk abut you, but I have 0 interest taking my clients through their weight loss journey just so they can gain it right back. That’s just me personally.
Second, you are going to lose lean muscle mass.
Losing lean muscle mass is going to slow down your metabolism even more as we mentioned above.
It is also going to get you that “skinny fat” look. You may lose weight, but you won’t look the way you want to look.
You won’t be defined, lean, toned, etc.
Third, you are going to just hate your life for lack of better terms.
Again what you are going to have to do to lose weight very rapidly is going to be incredibly restrictive.
You will always be hungry, tired, cranky, low energy, moody, poor workouts, to name a few things.
It is gonna suck, and if it sucks, you won’t be able to stick with it and be consistent.
If you can’t be consistent, guess what, you won’t see ever lasting results.
Therefore, slow and steady always wins the race.
If you want some help on how many calories to eat to lose weight, feel free to head HERE to check out my totally free calorie calculator.
Can Eating Too Few Calories Cause Weight Gain? Final Word
Phew, first off, if you made it through that entire article, you gotta leave a comment below and let me know.
You are the real MVP.
Second, I know there was a ton of information here, so the main take away is.
No, eating too few calories will not cause you to gain weight or not lose weight.
If you are in a calorie deficit, you will lose weight.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop below.
I know this stuff can be super confusing at times as well, so if you want some help in your journey, feel free to head HERE To see if we might be a good fit for coaching.
I also have a video on this if you are a visual learner, feel free to check it out below.
Hope you enjoyed the article, hope you learned something, and look to chat soon.