Can you gain weight from 500 calories?

This is going to really help you out, because I know youre frustrated.

Youre barely eating anything and every calculation suggests youre in a calorie deficit.

So why arent you losing weight?

I mean its calories in vs. calories out right?

Maybe youre in starvation mode?

Maybe there is more to it than just calories?

Maybe there is something else

Table of Contents

  • Youre in Starvation Mode
    • You Get Out What You Put In
    • Metabolic Adaptation
  • You Suck at Reporting Calories
    • Are you one of the main culprits?
    • Whats being misreported?
    • Maybe there are other reasons why youre misreporting?
    • How to get round this issue?
  • You Need to GetPissed
    • How to get round this issue?
  • Why youre Gaining Weight on 1000 Calories?
    • Youre not actually eating 1000 calories.
    • Youre holding onto water weight.
    • Case Study

Youre in Starvation Mode

The fact is youre eating less than you used to, and youve been doing it a long time. The body responds to what you give it, and by giving it very little your metabolism has crashed, its damaged and youve fallen into starvation mode. So your body is holding onto every last calorie and dropped your metabolic rate, so now youre not losing weight anymore. That may seem somewhat logical, and in parts it is true, but when we look into it, there is a lot more to it.

You Get Out What You Put In

Your metabolic rate is the sum of energy you burn per day, it is made up of yourbasal metabolic rate (BMR- energy used to stay alive), activity level (exercise), non-exercise activity expenditure (NEAT- fidgetingetc.), non-exercise physical activity(NEPA- walking the dog, cleaning the car etc.) and to a lesser degree the thermic effect of food (TEF- energy lost in digestion). Each of these contribute different amounts to our total metabolism, this can be clearly seen below.

[bctt tweet=Your metabolic rate is the sum of energy you burn per day]

Metabolic Pyramid MSMetabolic Pyramid MS

When you decrease the amount you eat several things happen; your TEF will reduce simply because there is less food to digest, youll have less energy and thus you will see reductions in your NEPA and NEAT and as you lose weight your BMR will reduce because theres less of you. Furthermore, we see changes in a few hormones which are summarised below, and the overall effect here is our energy burn reduces and our drive to eat increases.

[bctt tweet=Your body is fighting fat loss]

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 17.45.01Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 17.45.01

As you can see, when you change an input (the amount youre eating) you see changes in the outputs that make up your metabolism, or total calorie burn. Nothing is damaged, these are all logical adjustments made by the body, because your body doesnt want to change.

[bctt tweet=Your body has one goal in mind when it comes to energy use: efficiency.]

Thus, if you create a 500 calorie deficit using your original maintenance intake, you have not actually created a true 500 calorie deficit. Because you now burn less than before, the equation isnt as simple as it may first seem. There are many inputs and outputs and these change in relation to one another. So if you were maintaining on 2500 calories, and drop your calorie intake to 2000, there isnt an exact 500 calorie deficit, its lower because you changed an input, our bodies dont work by simple math.

[bctt tweet=When you provide less energy, you expend less energy.]

Therefore you can see your total metabolic burn or Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) is dynamic, it changes with your body, with the inputs and outputs. However, even when we take these changes into account it still doesnt explain why youre gaining weight does it? If youre eating less than 1000 calories it would mean your metabolic rate had reduced below that and that just doesnt really work out in practice.

Even when you calculate just your BMR (the largest component of your TEE), and dont take anything else into account it will be above 1000 calories, unless youre teeny weeny. A general calculation would be to multiply your bodyweight by around 10, so if you were anything over 100lbs your BMR would be above 1000. Wed expect our BMR to drop in proportion to the amount of bodyweight lost, so whats going on? Youre experiencing drops in your TEE that are not entirely explained by changes in body composition.

Metabolic damage! Surely?

Metabolic Adaptation

OK so lets look into what we think could be your problem, but first lets get the terminology correct, because you cant damage your metabolism, as you saw above it just adapts to what you give it. However, we do see a drop in our BMR that is out of proportion to the loss in body weight, this is called adaptive thermogenesis or metabolic adaption.

[bctt tweet=Metabolic Adaption is a drop in energy output not explained by predicted values from weight loss]

In one study 16 obese subjects went onto a diet for 30 weeks and lost nearly40% of their starting bodyweight [1]. Most of this weight was lost from fat and 17% came from fat free mass (FFM); FFMis more metabolically active than fat mass and despite it being relatively well preserved there was a drop in BMR by up to 18%. Their metabolism thus adapted downwards by 18% more than predicted, so if you were predicted to maintain at 2500 calories, you would actually maintain at 2050, close to a 500 calorie difference. Thats a pretty significant amount of calories, certainly enough to stop you losing weight.

However, bear in mind that this study was extreme, the subjects saw rapid and massive weight lossthrough a combination of diet restriction and vigorous physical activity. The size of the calorie deficitdetermined both the degree of weight loss as well as the metabolic response acting to counter weight loss. So the harder and longer you push the diet, the larger the metabolic adaption. Many people when they diet do push it to the extreme, and you may be one of those people, seeing great initial progress but then stalling out.

Furthermore, this study for me had some flawed components in addition to being rapid:

  • Insufficient Resistance Training (which as we learnt here is very important in preserving FFM)
  • Insufficient Protein(which as we learnt here is very important in preserving FFM)
  • No use ofperiods of eating at maintenance(which as we learnt here is very important)

These flaws are all to common with the average dieter, and if they sound familiar to you we may have found your problem.Alsoit appears that if youre lean and muscular you maybe at a higher risk of metabolic adaptation; in one study they stated: individuals who presented higher BMRand lower FFM at the beginning of the weight-loss programme were more at risk of falling below their predicted REE during an energy-restricted diet aimed at inducing weight loss [2].

[bctt tweet=Lean folks are at greater risk of metabolic adaption]

You might be one of those people, lean and doing everything right; fortunately there has been one study done where sufficient protein and resistance training were used in combination with a calorie deficit. The study looked at a professional natural bodybuilder in his contest prep and as you can see in the graph below he continued to lose weight over the course of his 6 month contest prep [4]. Energy intake didnt need to dramatically fall, and a predictable lowering of energy expenditure occurred. This down regulation was an adaption, and we also saw an up regulation after the competition asenergy intake dramatically increased.The curve for metabolic rate recovery is more or less the reverse of the dieting phase, the curve is right on track to be right back to 100% normal.

Although this study was done on only one person it does nicely show that when you do things right you dont stall out and stop dropping fat. It also clearly shows an adaption both down and up, which is expected and was predicted.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 19.51.49Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 19.51.49

Studies therefore have shown that metabolic adaption although real is relatively small, making up around 10 to 15% of the lower metabolic rate fore the most part. This in absolute terms is only 100 to 200 calories on average, obviously the larger you are the bigger the number of calories. For the vast majority it is quite insignificant andis unlikely to stop fat loss let alone cause weight gain.

See also The Primer Phase - the unsung hero of nutritional periodisation

So what this means is that say you went from 180lbs and your maintenance was 2700 calories, if you dieted down and lost 20lbs we might expect your maintenance intake to be 2400 calories (using general calculations), but due to metabolic adaption it is likely to be 10 to 15% below this, making it around 2100 calories. So if you started on a diet of 2000 calories you would expect to still be in a calorie deficit even until you reach 160lbs.

Thus metabolic damage or starvation mode doesnt really exist in a technical sense, if someone is suggesting it does they really mean adaption. So if your weight gain isnt down to a damaged metabolism, and metabolic adaptation is relatively small, what could the reason be? The body doesnt defy laws; energy cannot be lost, only transferred or altered as we learned in your tailor made diet.

[bctt tweet=The body doesnt defy laws; energy cannot be lost, only transferred]

Lets summarise this section:

  • Your body will adapt to what you give it.
  • Our bodies will fight to stay the same homeostasis.
  • The law of thermodynamics cannot be broken.
  • Starvation mode does not exist, but metabolic adaption will happen.

You Suck at Reporting Calories

The other day I was putting some salsa on my plate, didnt weight it, didnt log it. Later that day I also had input that I would have 300g of potato, but it actually came to 350g, I didnt adjust anything in my food diary however. Oh and because it is Christmas I have an advent calendar, which obviously means chocolate. I never bother putting these into my food diary. I am, we all are, awful at reporting our real calorie consumption.

[bctt tweet= there are no calorie freebies, they all count]

I get it, counting calories can be tedious, it can be a pain in the butt, however there are no calorie freebies, they all count. You may think youre not getting very many calories from these small non-counted items, but trust me they add up over time. Cream in your coffee, that extra slice of meat and even that dollop of ketchup, they all count.


Under reporting is a real issue and in the past it has caused researchers to conclude things that are simply not true. For example with obesity, for years it was thought that based on self-reported dietary intake data, those who were obese, on average, ate less than lean subjects. From that they assumed that obesity was down to a metabolic defect, rather than just excessive energy intake. Much like many seek metabolic damage as a way to explain their inability to lose weight, when in reality there is something else going on.

If youre anything like the rest of the world your ability to report calories is getting even worse asin 1982 39% of men and 33% of women were identified as suspected under-reporters; this has increased to 43 % and 34 % respectively in the second assessment in 1992 [3]. Why might this be the case? Surely with the rising obesity epidemic and push for healthier living people would be getting better at this? Well maybe this rise is associated with an increasingly more diet conscious society containing individuals less likely to admit their true intakes? Do you ever feel guilty for eating something not on your diet?

Are you one of the main culprits?

Honestly, everyone does it, Ive even heard Lyle McDonald quote how even nutritional researchers have been found to under-report what theyve eaten. However, it is more common with some than others; typically it is women and the overweight or obese doing the under-reporting.

If youre obese or female, I have no doubt you feel pressured to eat well. In a society where eatingsmall amounts has been associated with femininity and where women often feel under social pressure to conform to such images, it is not unexpected that there is more under-reporting among women.With these pressures women are more likely to report an intake that they perceive as socially acceptable.


The same goes for those who are obese, they are under constant attack to eat less, and so who can blame them for miss-reporting?In western societies obesity is highly stigmatized, making the obese an obvious group within the population to be the object of social pressure to reduce weight [3].

While under-reporting is more prevalent among overweight and obese individuals, it must not be assumed that it is confined to this section of the population. Men are now under more pressure to look lean and muscular. Whether it be in the news, on social media or at our local gym, were all feeling the pressure.

Lastly self-deception cannot be ignored and it may play a significant role in under-reporting, rather than a desire to deceive anyone.

Whats being misreported?

Studies have reported that protein, in contrast to carbohydrate and fat, is typically accurately reported or even over-reported [3].Under-reporters were found to record lower intakes of high fat sweet foods (e.g. cakes, biscuits, pastries, and other sweet foods), than accuratereporters and when intakes were adjusted for total energy, relative consumption of cakes, biscuits, pastries, sugar, confectionery, butter (women only) and fruit/nuts (men only) was lower, but meats, vegetables, salad, eggs, fried fish, white bread, refined cereals (women only) and rice, pasta (men only) were higher for under-reporters.

So basically those who are miss-reporting are claiming to have eaten more of the foods viewed as healthy and less of foods traditionally seen as junk. Thisprovides further evidence that under- and over-reporting is related to the health image of foods. Snack foods also tend to be associated with a negative image which leads to their omission from food records, and many diets promote the idea that snacking is associated with weight gain.

Maybe there are other reasons why youre misreporting?

Do you track manually using a food diary? Maybe youre writing down some of your nutritional information wrong and that is the key. Or maybe youre using a fitness app like myfitnesspal but the items youre entering are not accurate, making it appear as though youre misreporting. Potentially youre unsure of what nutritional information is most important to track, and so youre focussing on reporting the wrong things.

Are you weighing things out on a scale or using cups, tablespoons etc.? Do you eat out a lot and guesstimate your calorie intake? If you do use these you could easily misreport by hundreds of calories, for example most view a tablespoon of peanut butter as heaped, but Im sorry to inform you, it isnt, and youll be getting in almost double the serving you were going for. If youre guesstimating meals out at restaurants you really need to be careful, because the chefs dont care about your diet, they are only interested in creating a tasty meal. That often means copious amounts of butter, oil and these are calorie dense and mean you could easily under-estimate.


Or your inaccuracies could be because you simply cannotremember what or how much you ate at a meal. The evidence of food records have often surprised subjects about what they eat, described in statements such as . . . it proved that I nibble between meals [3].These individuals are less likely to record food intake accurately when it is largely dependent on memory (e.g. 24 h recall).

How to get round this issue?

  1. Be 100% honest with yourself remember why you are dieting, and every time youre about to deviate from the plan think back to that why. If you do overeat, account for it, because at least then you can look back and know where you went wrong.
  2. Make the process easier when people were asked why they under-reported many responded in saying it was a hassle, they looked foralternative meals and snacking patterns and substituted foods which were easier to weigh or simply not recording some foods which were a pain in the backside. So if this sounds familiar make life easier, maybe follow a relatively basic meal plan day to day, or maybe you need to find a different method of tracking, using something like portions sizes. The key is being accountable to everything you eat, find a way you can do that and be consistent.
  3. Take photos of everything you eat Ive had clients who have been in a similar situation, according to the number of calories they say theyre consuming they should be losing weight. The best solution I found was to get them to take pictures of everything they ate, that way I could see whether the pictures matched up with their reporting. Often foods were omitted from their food diaries; condiments, milk and sugar in their tea, butter they used to cook their meat.
See also Revive to Stage "SPECIAL" - Why social media kills your success

You Need to GetPissed

Youre honestly counting all your calories? Youre not sneaking in an extra biscuit? Or eating out a load? Well then, there is only one thing for you to do, go and get drunk. This will work, if you dont trust me, then trust Lyle McDonald who I can quote saying getting drunk and getting laid can help reignitefat loss. Still not convinced? I dont blame you, so lets look into why.

As we learned earlier we see our hormones shift when we diet, one of those hormones being cortisol. You probably already know that it is related with stress; the more stressed you are, the higher it rises. Dieting is a stress, training is a stress and thus cortisol increases. If you keep exercising hard, you keep giving your body insufficient nutrition (calorie deficit) and never have breaks problems can arise.

A photo posted by Steve Hall (@revivestronger) on Jul 22, 2015 at 8:32am PDT

Our body responds to stress and the hormone aldosterone is released. Aldosterone regulates the balance of the electrolytes sodium and potassium in the body, and so if it is over-stimulated, sodium and potassium can become unbalanced. This imbalance can lead to water retention, as the two electrolytes work together to regulate water balance [6].

[bctt tweet=When youre stressed a lot, you release cortisol, cortisol makes you hold water]

Youre killing it in the gym, youre on a low calorie (maybe low carb) diet, youre still going to work each day and trying to live your life, youre stressed as hell and this causes water to be retained. The solution? Decrease stress and you decrease water. Hence why you should go and get pissed and laid.

[bctt tweet=Go get pissed & laid and see the weight drop off]

How to get round this issue?

  1. Keep carbohydrates in your diet you shouldnt restrict any macronutrient needlessly, as we learned in your tailor made diet each has their own role. If were very low on carbohydrate we can end uptraining in a glycogen depleted state and this increases cortisol because the body must work harder to breakdown protein for fuel (which is also not wanted). Plus studies have shown that carbohydrates can help reduce stress and stimulate serotonin [4].
  2. Implement proper fatigue management that means you dont just go ham in the gym every session, Ive spoken about periodisation before and in weight training for fat loss I mentioned how you need to utilise lighter sessions and deloads. These will help bring stress levels down, allows you to recover and keep training and losing fat for longer.
  3. Get plenty of sleep this could be an extension to fatigue management but I wrote extensively about how sleep can make or break your fat loss efforts here.
  4. Take breaks calorie cycling or nutritional periodisation is becoming more and more well known, and it is in my opinion pivotal for long term fat loss success. By taking a break from dieting, eating at maintenance we can curtail all of the negative effects associated with dieting, learn more here.
  5. Use mild calorie deficits finally dont go ball to the wall with your calorie deficit, the harder you push your body the harder it will respond, so by taking slow gradual steps you will be more successful in your fat loss goals.

Why youre Gaining Weight on 1000 Calories?

  1. Youre not actually eating 1000 calories.

  2. Youre holding onto water weight.

Its as simple as that really, unless youre incredibly small and in active you should and will lose weight on 1000 calories unless of course youre chronically stressed or really suck at counting calories. You mayat first take this article badly, in that you feel like Im calling you out, or dont understand how hard youre trying to lose fat. But I assure you when you take onboard the advice above you will be in a much stronger and well-informed position to lose fat. Because there is no magic, there is no starvation mode, there are just predictable changes that our body goes through, and we can be pro-active and prevent them stalling our fat loss.

Ive had people come to me stating exactly what this article is about, they have been dieting for a long time, eating very little, and have even started to gain weight. Weve discussed the above and successfully found the solution, to allow them to again drop fat, and they couldnt be happier.

A photo posted by Steve Hall (@revivestronger) on Dec 9, 2015 at 2:52am PST

Case Study

Above is my client Ben, we did a mini-cut and from left to right he lost 10lbs in 5 weeks, his calories didnt change from week 1 to 5 and nor did his cardio. We put him on a roughly 30% calorie deficit and pushed his protein up appropriately and kept his fat and carbohydrate intake as high as possible whilst allowing Ben to drop fat. Ben also had a lot of experience in tracking his calories, and was happy using myfitnesspal to track his food using a flexible dieting approach.

In addition Ben was taking part in regular resistance training and making sure to get sufficient sleep and rest. By keeping the diet to 5 weeks we avoided any major metabolic adaption and Ben never stopped losing fat. After the diet we simply increased his calories to just below his predicted maintenance (to take into account any potential metabolic adaption) and from there slowly increased calories while monitoring his bodyweight. Ben is now eating the same number of calories as what he was previously maintaining on, but is 10lbs lighter with substantially less body fat.

If Ben wasnt accurate with his calorie counting, continued his diet for longer periods of time, didnt consume sufficient protein, never took rest days or do resistance training the result would not have been so favourable. So if you want to avoid gaining weight on 1000 calories, make sure to get these aspects in check.

If the content of this article has resonated you and you feel youd benefit from some personalised advice about how to get yourself out of this situation, consider clicking on the Coaching header above and applying for a consultation with one of our awesome coaches; myself, Pascal, Ryan, Jess and Harry.


  1. Darcy L. Johannsen,* Nicolas D. Knuth,* Robert Huizenga, Jennifer C. Rood, Eric Ravussin, and Kevin D. Hall.Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass.
    J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Jul; 97(7): 24892496.Published online 2012 Apr 24. doi: 10.1210/jc.2012-1444PMCID: PMC3387402
  2. EricDoucet1,2, SylvieSt-Pierre1, NatalieAlméras2, Jean-PierreDesprés2, ClaudeBouchard3 and AngeloTremblay1.Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss.British Journal of Nutrition / Volume 85 / Issue 06 / May 2001, pp 715-723
  3. Jennie Macdiarmid and John Blundell . Assessing dietary intake: Who, what and why of under-reporting.Nutrition Research Reviews (1998). 11, 231-253 23 1
  4. Lindy M. Rossow, David H. Fukuda, Christopher A.Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study.International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2013, 8, 582-592 © 2013 Human Kinetics, Inc.
  5. C. R. Markus* , G. Panhuysen, L. M. Jonkman and M. Bachman. Carbohydrate intake improves cognitive performance of stress-prone individuals under controllable laboratory stress.Department of Psychonomics Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  6. John Berardi & Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition 2013.
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