When it comes to calorie crunching to lose weight, health experts know that a 1,500-calorie diet is healthier than a 1,000-calorie diet. That's because, in the space of 1,000 calories, it's practically impossible to get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy unless you take supplements.
And at 1,000 calories a day, you're getting too close to depriving your body of the energy it needs for basic functioning, like getting out of bed in the morning and maintaining a heartbeat throughout the day.
But let's face it, if you really have a problem cutting back on the amount of food you eat, a 1,500-calorie diet plan can feel almost as restrictive as a 1,000-calorie diet, so it doesn't really matter which one you try to follow. The truth is, you're likely to cheat, and statistics say you're very likely to fall off the wagon altogether. In that case, I actually like 1,000-calorie diet plans better. There's a lot more wiggle room.
I have found that sometimes the best way to help someone follow a restrictive weight loss diet is to lower their calorie intake but also provide a cheat sheet. We work out a balanced 1,000- or 1,200-calorie diet based on foods the client likes to eat, and at the same time, I tell her it's okay to eat a few hundred extra calories throughout the day, whenever hunger strikes. Sneak-a-snack! Once you get up to 1,500 calories or more in your basic plan, however, you can't really do that anymore or your "cheat eating" will bring you up too close to 2,000 calories. At that level, you'll stop losing and start maintaining or continue gaining weight.
Obviously, this advice may not be appropriate for anyone who is eating for emotional reasons, binges, or suffers from a food addiction, but for the average dieter who is trying to lose those "last ten pounds" or something close to it, this could be a helpful strategy.
For most people, weight loss is 90% attitude. If you're angry about having to lose weight, feeling guilty every time you put food in your mouth, feeling deprived because you can't eat as much as you'd like, feeling hopeless and frustrated because the weight doesn't come off quickly enough, and you allow these feelings to take over, there's no way you're going to be successful.
It's very hard to stick to a calorie-controlled diet, especially initially, while you adjust to new eating habits. You can turn your feelings of deprivation and frustration into something a little closer to pleasure, however, by making the experience as easy and as much fun as possible. Easy is all about following balanced, calorie-controlled menus that include foods you like to eat, and having those foods available so that it's easier to stick to your plan. Cheating, or allowing yourself some small indulgences and planning them into your diet, can be the fun part.
You can't kid yourself. If you want to lose or maintain weight, there are limits to how much you can eat, but it makes more sense to find a way to incorporate reasonable amounts of snacks and treats into your diet plan than to avoid them altogether, especially if living without certain types of foods is going to drive you crazy. The secret is simply to plan your cheating, rather than letting it happen randomly or at times when you're feeling out of control. When you have a plan, you have something to look forward to and you're less likely to overdo it. There's no rebellion involved.
You have to stop saying, "Oh, I shouldn't eat this!" when you know you're going to eat it. Instead, whether it's chocolate, potato chips, or pepperoni pizza, figure out how to include small amounts of "cheat foods" in your diet plan and give yourself permission to eat and enjoy them as part of a meal or well planned snack. Even better, choose healthy versions of your favorite treats, and try to combine your cheat foods with healthier foods, as in dark chocolate-dipped strawberries or bananas, baked potato chips with yogurt-based dip, and pepperoni pie with a large salad on the side.
Susan McQuillan is the author of Low Calorie Dieting for Dummies.