If you’ve been following a strict, extremely low-calorie diet for the past few weeks, there’s one important question you need to ask yourself: Are you really losing weight?

For some, the answer might still be a “no.” Or if you are indeed losing weight, maybe the weight loss has been accompanied by increased levels of stress, agitation, and anxiety.

The truth is that an extremely low-calorie diet isn’t going to help you lose weight efficiently and permanently. Instead, you risk gaining all the weight you have lost so far, and more besides. Why? Because going on a low-calorie diet increases cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol makes you put on the pounds instead of shedding them off.

Cortisol is not called ‘the stress hormone’ for nothing

Surely you’ve faced a tough situation at some point in your life. Maybe you pulled an all-nighter to study for a test. Maybe your baby kept you up all night with her crying and you couldn’t soothe her tears away. Maybe you’ve had a pile of deadlines at work and you didn’t know where to start.

These tough situations create stress in the body. Stress is part of the body’s hard-wired fight-or-flight response, a remnant from the days when our prehistoric ancestors literally had to fight off or escape from predators to survive. When your body experiences stress, the adrenal glands secrete more of a hormone called cortisol so you could cope with the stress.

When your cortisol levels are up, your heart gets to pump blood more rapidly. Your breathing becomes quicker and shallower as well. This is so your individual cells would get more oxygen, nutrients, and energy. They would be burning through a good part of your oxygen and energy supply while you’re stressed out.

Have you ever wondered why you feel intensely hungry after a highly stressful situation? And not just hungry – more like craving for something sweet or carby. You can blame the elevated levels of cortisol in your system.

You see, when your cortisol levels are through the roof, you use up a good part of your stored energy. As a result, cortisol triggers near-irresistible cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. You need to replenish the energy you burned out while you’re stressed out, and carbohydrates are sources of energy that your body can burn up quickly.

Low-calorie diets put your body in a stressful situation

A 2010 study found that when you put yourself through a low-calorie diet, you actually expose yourself to a lot of stress. Furthermore, the study says the stress is not just physical but psychological. The subjects of the study displayed higher levels of cortisol in their saliva samples after three weeks of restricting and monitoring their calorie intake.

The calorie restriction triggers an increased production of cortisol in their system, while calorie intake monitoring adds to the stress. Because increased cortisol triggers food cravings, the study concluded that low-calorie diets are actually ineffective for losing weight.

Researcher and author Dr. Shawn Talbott explained the metabolic connection between cortisol and weight gain in The Cortisol Connection Diet.

In his book, Dr. Talbott wrote that the body’s elevated cortisol levels force the body to hold on to as much fat as it can.

Cortisol also slows down the production of metabolic hormones like insulin, serotonin, and the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. That’s the reason why you’re prone to eat more than you should when you’re stressed out.

Low insulin levels means your blood sugar is always down, so you need to eat more to keep your blood sugar up.Meanwhile, lack of serotonin swimming in your system brings in fatigue and depression. Having your sex hormones suppressed because of stress means you’re not likely to be in the mood for intimacy.

In short, science says your low-calorie diet isn’t doing your body any good. You’re not going to lose any significant weight with your low-calorie diet. Instead, you’re making yourself miserable. The misery is likely to break you into eating back the weight you lost when you restricted your calorie intake.

Lose weight by sticking to your daily calorie needs

It’s not hard to understand why people would fall into the low-calorie eating mindset when trying to lose weight.

According to the A Healthier You dietary guide released by the US Department of Health and Human Services, you need to burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound, and you need to consume 3,500 calories to gain a pound. Many people interpret this to mean you have to cut back your calorie intake drastically to facilitate weight loss.

But getting the body to let go of its stored fat isn’t as simple as that. The body needs calories to use for energy and to carry out its vital metabolic functions. This means you have to eat a certain amount of calories per day to keep your body working at optimum levels and lose weight at the same time.

How many calories do you need to eat daily to keep your metabolism running efficiently? It was commonly thought that women should eat anywhere between 1200 to 2000 calories a day. Men, on the other hand, need 1800 to 2500 calories daily.

But since we’re all unique, we can’t just rely on these neat numbers to figure out how much we really need to consume. It’s best to refer to tools such as the US Department of Agriculture’s Body Weight Planner.

Such tools will help you calculate your specific daily calorie requirement based on your current weight, your weight loss goal, and the amount of exercise and activity you intend to do to burn off your excess pounds.

Couple your calorie counting with smart eating

Of course, it’s not enough that you know the specific amount of calories that you need to eat in a day and that you stick to it. You need to make every calorie that passes through your mouth to count towards your weight loss. Here are a few tips to help you do that.

  1. Cut junk and overly processed foods from your diet. This one’s a no-brainer. Junk food and overly processed foods can take up a good portion of your daily calorie allowance without providing you any significant nutritional content. You’ll feel more satisfied and enjoy your diet more if you stick to eating healthy and flavorful food.
  1. Plan your calorie intake carefully. The point of counting calories is not to deprive you of the food you love to eat but to find smart ways to eat around it. For example, it can be hard to resist the call of a double cheeseburger with fries even though such a meal can set you back at least 800 calories in one sitting. One way to get around this without messing your calorie intake for the day is to cut the cheeseburger in half. Eat one half for lunch and the other half for dinner.
  1. Look for healthier substitutes. You may be confident that you’re already eating healthily. But you may be surprised to find out that the foods you believe are healthy actually contain ingredients that unnecessarily add to your daily calorie intake. In that case, you should look for healthier substitutes that will satisfy you without making you eat calories you don’t need. For instance, in the example above, you can make your cheeseburger meal healthier by, say, substituting the ground beef used in the patties with ground chicken. Chicken contains fewer calories than beef but will still give you a protein fix.

Speed up your weight loss by managing your stress

Sticking to your recommended daily calorie intake and making every calorie count towards your weight loss will certainly help you get rid of your unwanted weight. So you can see your desired results sooner, you can speed up your weight loss by making the effort to bring down your stress levels. In that way, you will not have elevated cortisol working against you.

Managing your stress can be simple if you allow it. Here are a few ways to get it done.

  1. Move your body. You may not feel like exercising if you feel tired or stressed out, but it is at such times that you must move your body. Exercising stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain, and serotonin is important in curbing your cortisol levels.
  1. Get enough sleep. The body carries out most of its metabolic functions, including your cortisol production, during sleep. You must have at least seven hours of quality sleep every night.
  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Life may deal you with a few challenges here and there. But that doesn’t mean you have to worry about all of them. In fact, stop worrying about anything. Worry only elevates your cortisol levels and blocks you from coming up with creative solutions to your life’s challenges.

Following a strict, low-calorie diet is not going to help you lose weight. Instead, it will only stress you out, raise your cortisol levels, and make you gain weight.

Instead of drastically cutting down your calorie intake, find smart ways to nourish yourself and manage your stress. You’ll see positive results in your weight and your overall well-being in no time.