The many problems with an 800-calorie diet plan

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A few years back, the traditional approach to weight loss, which focused on calories in versus calories out was turned on its head with the arrival of intermittent fasting as a new, evidence-based weight loss option.

© Provided by 9Honey Coach Dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell lists her picks of foods that are nutrient-rich to add to your meal plans. © Getty

While fad, low-calorie diets had been shunned in the past, it suddenly became acceptable to eat as few as 500 calories, and support weight loss, while even promoting metabolic health. Indeed the 5:2 diet, has been shown to have a number of benefits, when prescribed for the right person.

Following on from this, we have then seen several versions of fasting regimes, and more recently the 800-calorie plan has entered the fold — a slightly more generous dietary model that claims that 800 calories is the magic number for fast, effective weight loss.

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Now, in the worlds of diets and nutrition, 800 calorie diets are not new, rather they have been used in conjunction with meal replacement programs that aim to induce ketosis for many years. However, this approach is very different to the kind of 800 calorie diet doing the rounds, and as a practising dietitian — working in the area of weight loss every day — I have some fundamental issues with this calorie prescription for weight loss, long-term metabolic health and even mental health when this degree of dietary restriction is suggested for weight loss.

It is not easy to eat 800 calories

An 800-calorie diet is an extremely restrictive diet, with fewer than half the calories an average female requires. While the 5:2 program too suggests an extremely low-calorie intake, it is only on two days each week, unlike the 800-calorie plan, which prescribes this as an ongoing recommendation. The 800-calorie diet is also fundamentally different from a very low calorie diet, which is formulated with the use of meal replacements to induce ketosis and as such works slightly differently to basic calorie restriction.

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On a typical 800 calorie day, followers can consume an egg on toast, a milk coffee, a salad with tuna and a small, 300 calorie dinner of 100g of protein and vegetables. This is generally far too little food for the average person, doing some moderate activity each day. It does not allow for treats, or alcohol or meals out.

In my experience very few people can stick to this calorie prescription for any period of time and as such there are much better dietary approaches, which may not result in weight loss as quickly, but are sustainable long term.

RELATED: 5:2 diet: Easy 500 calorie day meal ideas

It requires enormous focus, planning and monitoring

The average busy person finds it challenging enough to reduce calories slightly, let alone slash them by half or more. To achieve an 800-calorie meal plan, significant time and planning is required to have the low-calorie foods on hand to be able to stick to it every single day. Few people have this time and/or energy in the midst of busy lives.

For those who have a long history of restrictive eating, or even an eating disorder, restricting calories like this can result in too much focus, and even obsessive dieting, which is far from ideal for those who have a history of disordered and restrictive eating.

It lacks the evidence of fasting regimes

While there is some evidence for the effectiveness of fast regimes, especially in relation to metabolic health and inflammation, as well as moderate weight loss over time, the 800-calorie diet does not have this evidence to support its use as a proven diet that supports sustained weight loss over time.

It works initially then tends to stop

Any diet will work initially if it is followed. This means that for anyone who has a reasonable amount of weight to lose (not just a kilo or two) and who slashes their calorie intake to as little as 800 calories a day will initially burn through their stored carbs in the muscles, and the fluid it holds, seeing a quick drop on the scales. Then, they may even continue to drop several kilos as a result of this perceived starvation but then what inevitably happens after a period of time is that weight loss stops. The calorie imbalance between intake and requirements is too great and the metabolism slows to compensate for this.

Followers are no longer hungry regularly and as soon as they eat more, their body holds on to the extra carbs and fluid, giving a perception of weight regain, which causes psychological stress for many.

In my experience there are much more effective, more nutrient-rich and more psychologically sound ways to lose weight, and plans that allow people to eat freely and enjoy their food without having to constantly restrict their intake.

It can promote binge eating

Another observation of followers of low-calorie diets is that they are able to maintain the dietary restriction in the first half of the day when they are busy and distracted but once hunger sets in late afternoon, they end up snacking or evening binge eating throughout the afternoon and evening. Here a low calorie 800 calorie day becomes a typical 1600-2000 calorie day very quickly thanks to snacks, wine and treats, and results in the shame that dieters routinely feel. Once again, there are much better ways to promote calorie reduction and weight loss long term.

Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, co-host of The Nutrition Couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.