Is a very low calorie diet right for me?

Have you ever considered going on a very low calorie diet, aka VLCD, to lose weight? Maybe you don’t even know what it is – rest assured, you probably have heard of them just not by this term. Some of you remember (or at least heard about) when Oprah melted before her audience’s eyes in the 80s after following the Optifast plan. More recently, you or someone you know is probably following the HCG diet plan. Both of these are VCLD plans. So let’s review them.

There are several types in existence on the market today – some with fancy names like the ones mentioned, but they all have one thing in common – they involve consuming 800 calories per day or less. Their means to achieve this intake vary from consuming meal replacements to following strict meal plans and some include taking supplements, injections, and/or appetite suppressants. Their calorie ranges typically go from 500 to 800 per day. The goal is to create rapid weight loss in a short period of time. As you can imagine, these types of diets can be very effective.

I am very familiar with the concept as I personally worked with clients in group and individual settings following a VLCDs for seven years. Our chosen modality was Optifast meal replacements because it is a product that can only be purchased at a clinical facility and a diet like this really needs to be followed under medical supervision. On this program, dieters get a choice of high protein shakes, bars, and soups totaling 800 calories per day. Some required appetite suppressants, but that was determined on an individual basis.

I will mention the HCG diet here too because it is the most common VLCD that I hear about in recent days. Simply put, it’s a 500 calorie strict meal plan paired with injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), a natural hormone that the body produces during pregnancy. Yea, sounds weird to be used for a weight loss diet, huh? Well, according to the website, “HCG releases stored fat to ensure the growing fetus during pregnancy receives the nutrients it needs to grow and develop normally. When HCG is taken in non-pregnant women and men, the body still releases the stored fat. Because there is no fetus present, however, the body uses the stores for energy or eliminates the rest. This enables the body to release stored toxins and fat. Abnormal fat is lost, leaving normal or structural fat and muscle tissue. This means you lose weight in those stubborn areas–hips, thighs, buttocks and upper arms!” 

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true and there is zero scientific backing that it actually works. In fact, if you look at the fine print directly on the website, you will find this little gem of an FDA statement: 

“HCG has no known effects on fat mobilization, appetite or sense of hunger, or body fat distribution. HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy in the treatment of obesity. There is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie restricted diets.”

I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but I will tell the truth, even when it hurts. So why do people lose weight on this diet? Because it’s only 500 calories.

During my seven year tenure with the Optfast program, I had the privilege of being a part of some fantastic success stories. People losing 50-100 pounds or more in just twelve short weeks. It was amazing and a true honor to see such transformation in the lives of people who would start the program feeling totally defeated from a lifelong history of yo yo dieting and failed attempts at exercise programs, demoralized by what they saw in the mirror, the number they saw on the scale, and horrified by the clothes they had to wear. Some of them would come because it was their one last big try before considering anything permanent like weight loss surgery. And I would watch them literally melt away before my eyes and go out and do things they never thought they could do again – tandem skydiving, mule rides in the grand canyon, mountain hiking, cross their legs, and tie their shoes.

But after seven years, the program needed to be ended because more than 75% of the success stories became another yo yo story. Almost every single person regained all of their weight back and then often more. It wasn’t for a lack of guidance to a gradual transition back to real food. That was provided along with weekly support. But they had to choose to participate and most didn’t.

Why is this? Because while you are in the weight loss phase, it’s fun, exciting, and you feel on top of the world. The maintenance part is where the real work begins. On a VLCD there is no planning or thinking involved – “eat this/drink this, move on with life and watch the pounds melt off.” In maintenance, you have to deal with real food choices and decisions between fried and grilled chicken, an extra bite of birthday cake, running through the drive through on a busy day, pre-packing lunch for work, and the normal weight fluctuations that come along with it. Exercise is more important than ever, something that is restricted while on the plan. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends those maintaining significant weight loss exercise 45-60 minutes most days.

So in summary, do I recommend VLCD as viable method of weight loss? Yes and no. They are extremely effective when safely monitored by a trained health care professional for getting the weight off and doing it quickly. If someone requires this for a lifesaving surgical operation, say they need to lose weight to repair a life-threatening hernia, remove a cancerous tumor, or it is a precursor to weight loss surgery itself – then it is a fantastic option. Nevertheless, I’ve seen some people have massive success and maintain it off in the long term. But those are the exception and are the rare, dedicated types that follow all of the rules. They calorie count, rarely go off their meal plan, exercise the recommend 60 minutes daily, live an active lifestyle overall, and eat breakfast daily, drink plenty of water, and keep themselves accountable with the scale on a daily basis. They also see their health care providers regularly for outside accountability.

Lifelong weight management is just that – it’s lifelong. No matter how you get it off, it is something that will always have to be at the forefront of your mind. Unfortunately, VLCD plans are too much of a “on the diet, off the diet” approach to create those necessary habits for sustained success.

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle and lose weight, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.

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Jillian McMullen, CSOWM, RDN, LDN

One thought on “Is a very low calorie diet right for me?

  1. I once knew a girl in her early twenties who went on one of these plans. She was in tears one day, when she told me that she had “cheated” and eaten an apple. An apple! All I could think was: How helpful a diet could it be if it teaches you to fear your instincts for a perfectly healthy food? I told her I thought the program was teaching her to avoid food, rather than learning to deal with food. She stayed on the program for a while but eventually broke away. The last time I saw her, and this is absolutely the truth, I was driving down a street and saw her entering a donut shop. And yes, all of the weight was back on.

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