If you have been advised to go on a low-calorie diet, you may be scratching your head trying to understand exactly what it entails. Since there is no true definition of the term “low-calorie diet,” you are likely, and understandably, looking for a little more guidance on how many calories you should eat and how you should accomplish this goal.
While no two low-calorie diets will look exactly the same for everyone, there are some common denominators when embracing this way of eating. It’s important to consult your physician, a registered dietitian, and/or nutritionist prior to starting to make sure it’s right for you. Once you’re ready to begin a low-calorie meal plan, keep reading to learn all about how to follow this method that is popular for weight loss.
What can you eat on a low-calorie diet?
Commonly recommended for weight loss, a low-calorie diet is one that is lower in calories than what you may typically consume. The goal of a low-calorie diet is to create a calorie deficit so your body starts using its energy stores as fuel. A low-calorie diet commonly involves a 1,000-1,500 calorie limit per day, but this range can vary. If this diet is being followed for weight loss, a deficit of 500–750 calories per day has been recommended by many obesity societies and guidelines—but, again, this is something you should discuss with your healthcare provider before considering. So, if you typically follow a 2,000-calorie diet, your low-calorie diet will range from 1,250-1,500 calories per day to support weight loss.
When following a low-calorie diet, you can technically live off of low-nutrient-density foods as long as you don’t consume too many calories. However, this strategy is not advised for those looking to support their overall health, and not just weight loss. Instead, eating foods that provide vitamins, minerals, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and fiber is recommended to help you feel energized and nourished while on your weight loss journey.
There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding what you can and cannot eat on a low-calorie diet. Generally, sticking to low-calorie foods will allow you to limit your calorie consumption while still enjoying full meals and snacks.
Low-calorie diet meal plan example
Here is an example of a low-calorie menu for a person who is following a 1,500-calorie-per-day diet:
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tbsp almond butter
- 1 peach, sliced
- Sprinkle of cinnamon
- Drink: Cup of coffee (black)
- 3 oz tuna, 1 tbsp light mayonnaise, 2 tomato slices between 2 slices of whole grain bread
- Carrot and celery sticks
- Drink: Water
- 1 cheese stick
- 1 cup strawberries
- 3 oz grilled tofu
- 1 cup cooked brown rice
- 1/2 cup cooked vegetables
- Drink: Sparkling water
- 1 serving cooked edamame
- Drink: Cup of tea
Generally, a low-calorie diet focuses on low-calorie foods. Some low-calorie foods include:
As far as beverages are concerned, no-calorie options such as water, black coffee, or tea over sugary drinks are generally recommended.
Pros of a low-calorie diet
There is no single best strategy for weight management. And among the many dietary choices that are available to support weight management goals, a low-calorie diet has been shown to offer success for some people (again, not all).
A low-calorie diet is easy to follow as long as you know exactly how many calories you can eat every day. No food is technically “off limits,” and so as long as you account for these consumed calories, you can still enjoy your favorite treats when following this way of eating. And for some, reducing caloric intake may reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Cons of a low-calorie diet
Following a low-calorie diet may help people on their weight loss journey. But this diet does not come without risks—and it is definitely not for everyone.
Since a low-calorie diet restricts how much food you eat, a downside of following this diet is that you may not eat enough food to meet the recommended intake of some vitamins and minerals. Because of this, you should discuss whether taking a multivitamin to fill any nutritional gaps with your healthcare provider is right for you.
People following a low-calorie diet may experience fatigue or lethargy, especially if they restrict their calories too much. This can happen because calories are a unit of energy. So, if you are not consuming enough calories, your body will not be as energized as it needs to be.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlights that there are other concerning potential downsides to following a low-calorie diet, including that you run the risk of slowing your metabolism, losing your mental edge, and developing gallstones.
And unfortunately, some data suggests that although following a weight-loss diet, like a low-calorie diet, may cause short-term weight loss, it may be associated with weight gain in the long term.
Those with a history of disordered eating should avoid a low-calorie diet as well, as calorie counting can be triggering for some.
Is a low-calorie diet healthy?
A low-calorie diet can be healthy, as long as it is followed appropriately and safely. To ensure that the proper amount of calories is consumed, meeting with a registered dietitian can help you determine the calorie level that is right for your needs without running the risk of underfeeding your body. A registered dietitian can also help you ensure that you are including the right balance of macro and micronutrients to fuel your body appropriately and avoid nutrient gaps.
If a low-calorie diet is followed safely and under the guidance of a healthcare provider, it can be a healthy option to adopt, and doing so may result in weight loss. Just be sure to avoid reducing your caloric intake to a level that is too low for your needs, that you are eating a balanced diet, and that you aren’t feeling any negative effects of following this diet when you embark on your weight loss journey like fatigue or brain fog. If you are following a low-calorie diet appropriately, doing so may be a positive addition to your healthcare journey that may help you reach the goals you want to see.
Lauren Manaker M.S., R.D.N., L.D., is an award-winning registered dietitian, three-time book author, and freelance writer who specializes in women’s health, wellness, and lifestyle trends. Along with being a regular contributor to various health-focused outlets like EatThis.com, VeryWell Health, and Eating Well, she manages her Instagram account @LaurenLovesNutrition, where she shares evidence-based nutrition information in an approachable way.