Dietitians explain why, when it comes to calories, less isn't always more.

By Julia Malacoff
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Photo: Hannes Eichinger / EyeEm / Getty Images

So you want to lose a few pounds. The first thing you might do? Reduce the amount you're eating-especially cutting back on processed junk food. We're looking at you, pizza, fries, wings, and loaded nachos.

It's common knowledge that it's a good idea to keep an eye on how much you're eating when the goal is weight loss. But it's also possible to take it too far. In some cases, not eating enough can seriously mess with weight-loss efforts, especially if you've already lost some weight and have hit a plateau. (FYI, science found the best workout to overcome your weight-loss plateau.)

Here's when, why, and how eating more might actually help you lose weight, according to nutrition pros.

Eating too little can sabotage your weight-loss efforts.

Let's say you're seriously undereating. At first, you might lose weight. But after a while? Your body starts to panic.

"When you are not supporting your body with enough calories or fuel, your metabolism actually drops, and you burn fewer calories," explains Libby Parker, a registered dietitian. "This is an adaptive response to the body believing it is in famine and wanting to conserve energy (aka hold on to those calories)."

"I have had clients who were eating way too few calories and could not lose weight," says Parker. "Once they allowed all foods in their diet (they had been cutting out foods like bread), and got their calorie intake up to the appropriate amount for them, they actually started to lose weight." In other words, it's not always as simple as "calories in, calories out." That idea only applies when you're providing enough fuel for your body. (Here's why you seriously need to stop thinking of foods as "good" or "bad.")

"Your body needs to be supported with not only enough calories to feel safe, and support energy needs, but also the right proportions of nutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) and vitamins and minerals," says Parker. (Not sure where to start? This is exactly how to cut calories to lose weight safely.)

The type of food matters.

On a similar note, another time when eating more can work in your favor is when you're prioritizing high-quality whole foods over processed foods.

"It may seem crazy to say 'eating more can sometimes be the key to losing weight,' but when you are talking about the type of food you eat, then this might not be as insane as you think," says Isabel Butler, a nutritionist for Spoon Guru.

"Often people forget that it is not always about the physical amount of food you are eating, but also the type of food." For example, living on protein bars isn't exactly the same as eating a well-balanced diet of voluminous fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. It might look like you're eating more food in the second situation, but you're actually giving your body more to work with that can be turned into fuel. (Related: Is It Bad to Eat a Protein Bar Every Day?)

You should consider eating more complex carbs and high-fiber foods, says Butler. Compared to simple carbohydrates and highly refined and processed foods, complex carbohydrates and fibrous foods take longer to digest so your body uses more energy (or calories) to break them down. "So, try increasing the amount of fruit, beans, grains, and vegetables in your diet," she says.

You're burning calories without even knowing it.

There are several ways your body burns energy. One is through your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories your body burns each day at rest. You can also burn energy through activity (such as sports and working out) and also through digesting your food.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is the energy that you burn while doing everything that is not digesting, breathing, eating, or doing any sports-like activity, according to Jordan Mazur, a registered dietitian. "Some examples of NEAT activities include cooking, cleaning, fidgeting, yard work, or manual labor. It's all of the small activities that you do outside of the gym that can help you burn more calories in the long run," he explains. Even gesticulating counts as NEAT, so people who talk with their hands might have that one-up on more reserved speakers. (P.S. Apparently fidgeting also has heart-health benefits.)

In fact, people with more NEAT in their daily lives tend to be leaner. "When you look at people who are 'naturally lean,' it might not be that they have a 'fast metabolism'; it might just be that they are just more active individuals," Mazur points out.

So what does that have to do with eating more? Science says that people who eat more likely move more, and therefore burn more calories. "Research suggests that when subjects were provided too few calories, their NEAT scores dropped," says Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian. "This is in contrast to subjects who were deliberately overfed calories, who saw a resulting increase in NEAT." The mechanism behind NEAT isn't known, but it's thought to be a combination of conscious efforts to move more because you have more energy (e.g., choosing to take the stairs) and moving more in unconscious ways, like fidgeting and gesticulating.

Now, before you get *too* excited, whether that increased activity nets out to increased weight loss is highly individual. Some people may experience weight gain when they increase their calories and NEAT if that extra NEAT doesn't quite compensate for the calorie increase, especially if they're already eating plenty. But if you're feeling super lethargic and you're eating a very low amount of calories, it might be worth considering increasing your calories and prioritizing movement.

Regardless, trying to incorporate more NEAT into your day can promote weight loss-provided you have an adequate calorie intake to fuel it. "NEAT itself can be beneficial for an individual who is overweight and sedentary," says Mazur. "Increasing daily activities, like parking at the back of the parking lot, choosing the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing yard work instead of hiring a landscaper can help someone be more active, increase NEAT, and burn more calories."

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