Mission Weight Loss: Houston, We Have A Problem

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By Heather Reichert, RD, CDE
Registered Dietitian & Team Beachbody Coach


Do you remember the space flight of Apollo 13? If not first-hand, then certainly you have seen the movie. The climax of the movie (and the mission) is when one of the oxygen tanks blow, destroying much of the critical electrical system. As a result, the crew had to abandon their dreams of landing on the moon and focus on returning to earth in one piece. In order to do so, they needed to “power down” many of the systems that kept them comfortable and operating efficiently, such as heat to the cabin, drinking water, lighting, etc. It was a very risky attempt to return to earth and caused much stress on the astronauts and ground control.

So, why in the world is a story from Apollo 13 in a nutrition article? Here is why.

When attempting to lose weight, we sometimes operate by the philosophy that “if less is good, then a lot less must be better,” in regards to calories. However, when we start to “power down” our bodies by decreasing the amount of energy (calories) that we are consuming, we are actually setting ourselves up for a frustrating plateau. When our systems receive the proper amount of calories (not an abundance), we are able to operate efficiently and “all systems are go for launch.” But restricting calories too much can cause certain systems to “shut down” a bit and metabolism slows. Essentially, your body abandons its mission to lose weight and focuses on survival.

Severe calorie restriction, such as 500-1000 calories per day, may give you some weight loss at the beginning, but soon your metabolism slows to match the minimal energy intake. This may initially not seem like much, but remember that Apollo 13 mission? Your “power down” may show itself as feeling tired all day, inability to remember things, foggy thinking, lack of energy, muscle weakness, etc. Your body is smart, and it does what is needed to survive, so it conserves energy because it doesn’t know when it is going to be fed again. So, instead of burning fat, it saves it; hence, the plateau. This plateau usually leads to frustration, and the frustration often results in a return to overeating.

So, what is a reasonable calorie level to promote weight loss but avoid the dreaded plateau? For most women wanting to lose weight, it is around 1500 calories. For men, a calorie level of 1800-2200 is more appropriate. More specific calorie calculations accounting for height, weight, age and activity level can easily be found on-line.

Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight requires hard work and planning. Even in this age of weight loss surgery, diet pills and programs, the true mission of obtaining optimal health cannot be acquired with quick-fixes. Though the Apollo 13 astronauts landed safely back on earth to end their mission, the road to a healthy weight does not end at a destination – it is a life-long journey.

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