A 500 calorie diet is a very low-calorie diet. For 5 days my family ate 500 calories a day. The three of us lost a combined total of 17 pounds in just 5 days. But this was not easy.
Editorial Update: We ate low-fat for the experiment but would change that in the future. While dietary fat has more calories, it also decreases hunger. Alternating between low and high-calorie days would have benefitted our metabolisms. Below is an account of our 5-day, 500 calorie diet experiment.
500 Calorie Diet -Our Plan of Action
- Focus on nutrient-dense foods.
- Make non-starchy vegetables a top food choice
- Avoid sugar and processed foods
- Limit our eating occasions during the day to pack in more volume per meal
- Have our plan ready and prepare our meals at the beginning of the week
Monday through Friday, we counted our calories, dug deep into our willpower reserves, and, at least, one of us licked our plates.
I’m a college health teacher and blogger. I tell people not to follow restrictive diets because they backfire.
So, why did I do this?
Maybe I wanted to prove a point. Maybe I was starting to waver in my convictions. Maybe I’m the coolest blogging health teacher ever.
Anyway, here’s our 500 calorie diet results including the blow-by-blow details that left us close to tears by Thursday night, and feeling fantastically slim by Saturday morning with 17 pounds lost in total.
Note: This is a judgement-free zone: If you’re reading this post because you waited too long to start your diet, and you need to lose weight before next weekend, you can skip ahead and get the plan we followed, GRAB THE FULL PLAN BELOW, but read my disclaimer first.
Here’s What’s Coming Up:
1. Why 500 Calories a Day?
2. How To Follow A 500 Calories A Day Diet
3. 500 Calories A Day Meal Plan
4. Food Prep Checklist
5. 500 Calorie Diet Results:
6. Breaking Your Diet
7. How To Follow Your Own 500 Calorie Diet
Why 500 Calories a Day?
Reason #1: Squeaking Out Nutrition
I wanted to squeeze in some nutrients, and 500 calories was as low as I could go.
I also thought there was a chance that one of the health gurus I respect,
like Dr. Hyman, or Dr. Thompson from Bright Line Eating might read this blog post, so I wanted to save a little face and not come off as a total loon.
Reason #2: Health Benefits?
As I researched the possible health benefits of low-calorie diets and intermittent fasting, I found some legitimate research.
Legitimate research = peer-reviewed medical research papers
Illegitimate research = Kim Kardashian tweeting that something works
There is a growing body of research that shows how fasting and the restriction of calories reduce inflammation, which is the secret killer that nibbles away at your joints, weakens your heart, and flairs up gut problems.
The most significant finding was the beneficial impact calorie restriction has on chronic conditions, like chronic pain, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and arthritis.
More than one research paper found that calorie restriction could help people with long-term heart conditions.
After concluding my research, I started to tingle all over. Note: If reading scientific papers makes you happy, you know you’ve spent too many years in college.
Reason #3: I Like To Challenge Myself
I can’t speak for Keith and Kelly (a.k.a. my fellow 500 calories a day guinea pigs), but I like a challenge, like when my students challenged me to create a healthy diet that cost less than a junk food diet, or when I put together my popular 7 Day Diet Challenge or Ultimate Guide on How to Lose 10 Pounds in a Month Naturally.
The bottom line for me was that I just wanted to see if I could meet this 500 calorie diet challenge without kicking the dog or displaying similar signs of moodiness.
Reason #4: Fast Weight Loss
I feel like I’ve strung you along like one of these drug commercials that tells you all the side-effect that will happen when you put this chemical in your body, and then casually mention that it might cause weight loss – Ding, Ding, Ding! I’ll take it! Who cares about the side-effects, I want a magic weight loss pill.
Believe me, eating only 500 calories a day for five days in a row does not meet the definition of a magic pill; but, yeah, it causes fast weight loss.
It could also cause side-effects that you don’t want, which brings me to my disclaimer.
(return to top of post)
Reading an article by a doctor (like this one) and following a medically supervised diet is not the same thing.
The research subjects that got those wonderful health benefits I described earlier were in medically supervised research studies. You are reading an article that follows three healthy individuals, none of which take any medication or have any health conditions. If you want to follow a restricted-calorie diet, tell your doctor first.
Here are the specifics to pass along to your doc…
How To Follow A 500 Calories A Day Diet
The name of the game is to pick foods with the most bang for the buck. You want every food to count, so here are the criteria your food choices need to meet:
- Low calorie (Thanks, Captain Obvious)
- Packed with vitamins and minerals
- Have some volume to them
- Take a long time to digest
Abiding by these rules ensures you’re getting some nutrients, and will also save some suffering on the hunger and cravings end.
When your body has what it needs, it turns off hunger and cravings.
The presence of vitamins and minerals in your digestive tract tells your brain things are going okay, and stops your brain from obsessively repeating, “Feed me,” like the big flower thing from Little Shop of Horrors.
High volume and slow-digesting foods keep your stomach busy, so it stays happy and doesn’t feel the need to call the brain and say, “send more food…NOW”
Strategy #1: Foods To Eat
The following foods meet the bullet points above, so they were eaten every day:
- Salad greens
- Non-starchy vegetables (think veggies that go on a salad, not corn & potatoes – Here’s a list)
- Lean protein (i.e. chicken, shrimp, tuna)
Proteins digest slower than carbs, and they don’t cause a strong insulin response, which means they help keep hunger away.
Salad greens and non-starchy vegetables are your friends when you follow a restricted-calorie diet. They are low-cal, yet add volume and nutrients, which keeps the hunger and craving switch in the off position.
You don’t want to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen this week. So, we relied on:
- Bags of pre-washed salad greens
- Bags of frozen non-starchy veggies
- Pre-cooked rotisserie chicken
- Pre-cooked shrimp
Salad, soup, and stir-fry are easy meals that work nicely on a 500 calorie diet. You’ll need to avoid high-calorie salad dressings, crackers, and oils.
In addition to the foods above, you could also eat limited amounts of oatmeal, berries, walnuts, beans, and plain popcorn. (Here’s the trick for making microwave popcorn without oil.)
Strategy #2: Foods To Avoid (a.k.a. The Things You’ll Miss)
- Sugar (The 3C’s: Cookies, Cakes, and Candies are way too high in calories.)
- Sugary soda and coffee drinks
- Juice (calories consumed in liquid form will pass through your system too fast)
- Processed Foods (pretty much anything in a box)
- Oil (you can saute’ veggies in water for stir fry)
- Dried fruit
- Alcohol…sniff, sniff.
Now, many of the above foods are omitted from any healthy diet. Some healthy foods also got nixed just because of their calorie count, including most nuts, seeds, and fruits. You can rearrange your food choices to include these if you wish.
If you’re a vegetarian, you can get protein from the vegetables (a surprising amount) and swap the meat for beans. Eggs are also a possible protein source if you eat them.
Strategy #4: Drink…A Lot
Something magical happens as you get into the groove of a 500 calorie day, you start to look forward to little treats, like a warm cup of tea.
It becomes a lifeline. Something to hold in your hands that provides comfort.
Drink a lot. I found myself thirsty quite often.
It doesn’t have to be tea. We decided that any non-calorie drink was going to be allowed, so water, coffee, and diet soda were fair game.
Strategy #5: Two Daily Meals, Instead of Three…No Snacks
This eating style is not my norm. I like breakfast. I like lunch. I like dinner. But, I knew three tiny meals weren’t going to cut it, so I chose to nix breakfast.
I wanted to save my calories so that I could eat a more substantial lunch and dinner. The hope was that this would add some volume to my stomach and reduce suffering, which brings me to my next point.
There will be suffering.
Suffering is unavoidable, so plan ahead and get as much food in your belly for the allowable calories, then prepare yourself mentally.
Another point worth mentioning is that the act of eating stimulates your appetite. I would rather deal with that stimulation twice a day rather than three times, so again…breakfast got the ax.
Strategy #6: Have Everything In Place By Day One
You do not want to find yourself inside a grocery store on day three because you ran out of lettuce. No one is that strong.
Have all of your food bought and prepared by Sunday. I spent four hours on Sunday preparing the soups, chicken, taco meat, and tuna salad.
BTW, I made up a complete 5-day meal plan for you; including all of the recipes, the grocery list, and calorie counts, go here to get it.
Here’s what we ate:
500 Calories A Day Meal Plan
You can download the complete meal plan we followed here, below I share the basic meal plan.
4 cups of salad greens, 1 chopped tomato, ¼ cup onion, ¼ cup chicken (135 calories)
2 Tbsp. of very low or no-calorie salad dressing, like this one.
Zesty Quinoa Soup (70 calories/cup)
Tomato Soup (70 calories/cup)
Classic Vegetable Soup (60 calories/cup)
(The soup recipes are included in the meal plan.)
Note: you can choose a canned soup; although it will be higher in sodium, which might cause bloating. There are many varieties, so you’ll need to read labels. Look for soups that under 100 calories/cup. Here’s how to pick canned soup.
8-oz bag of broccoli and cauliflower (65 calories)
2 Tbsp. of Healthy 10-Calorie “Cheese Sauce” (see recipes).
1/2 cup chicken (115 calories)
3.5 oz. shrimp, which is about 9 medium-size shrimp (115 calories)
4 oz. of tuna (140 calories)
Coffee, tea, water, and diet soda (0 calories)
Food Prep Checklist
It’s important that you buy all of your food for the 500 calorie diet before you begin.
(You can download the full grocery list here.)
- Buy at least one fully cooked rotisserie chicken and pull off the meat before the week starts.
- Buy a platter of cooked shrimp
- Buy a few bags of frozen vegetables. I choose broccoli and cauliflower because it was a low-calorie option. I also bought frozen vegetables for the soups.
- Make the “Cheese Sauce” for the veggies. If the thought of eating plain veggies makes you gag, this will save you. [recipe]
- Make all three of the soups [recipes]
Strategy #7: Clean Up Your Environment
Those cookies on the counter will become your kryptonite by Tuesday; get them out-of-sight, so they are out-of-mind.
Do not overestimate your willpower. Grab a sealable container, put any junk food inside, seal it up and move it out of the kitchen.
Strategy #8: Have Stoppers In Place
A Stopper is any activity, food or drink that stops your desire to eat.
This week I relied on brushing or flossing my teeth anytime I felt a really strong temptation to overeat. These stoppers leave my mouth feeling clean and fresh, so I’m reluctant to dirty it up with food.
Here are some other stoppers that you might want to use to get the best 500 calorie diet results.
Strategy #9: Have a Hobby Ready To Go
Mental distraction will be a good thing this week, particularly during the evening hours.
I had a jigsaw puzzle set up in the living room to keep my hands and mind occupied.
Whatever you pick, try to make it something that is different than your normal routine and requires your hands and your brain (i.e. painting, video games, sewing, reading).
Strategy #10: Minimize Exercise
I recommend against heavy exercise this week because the body demands food after intense calorie-depleting workouts.
And, as I point out in my post on how to lose 10 pounds in a month naturally, strenuous exercise stimulates your hunger, which we did not want.
Kelly and I did some walking, stretching or light exercise which was fine. Keith played roller hockey on Tuesday, which was a more intense workout. He was a bit worried about it spiking his hunger, but said he was fine.
Extra Points That Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else
Point #1 – Vitamins:
This 500 calorie diet is only five days, so you don’t need any special vitamin supplementation. I will be taking Omega-3 Fatty Acid and Vitamin D.
I’m hoping the Omega-3s help with vitamin absorption, and the only reason I’m taking Vitamin D is that it’s winter and I can’t rely on sunlight to help my body make Vitamin D naturally.
Point #2 – Don’t expect life to cooperate with you:
You are about to tackle a sizeable challenge, so expect that your car will breakdown, your friends will throw you a surprise party, and that annoying guy at the office will develop a new catchphrase that he repeats 27 times.
Meeting a challenge is easier when you anticipate bumps and hiccups, so expect the unexpected and your week will go smoothly.
What Happened During The 500 Calorie Diet?
The three guinea pigs:
Becky (me): 48-year-old female, cute as a button; starting at goal weight.
Keith: 55-year-old male, all-around great guy; some weight to lose.
Kelly: 20-year-old female, cute as a button and an all-around great gal; already thin, but would love to see her abs.
Below I provide a running journal of how we were feeling and what we thought as the week progressed. I decided to use this format after reading Nat Eliason’s epic water fasting results post.
500 Calorie Diet Results: Here’s The Week in a Snapshot:
Mental Clarity: None of us felt mentally foggy, probably because we weren’t eating junk foods that cause brain fog. Kelly felt a bit forgetful at work on Thursday, and I had a headache on Wednesday, which was unusual. Keith was steady all week.
Fatigue Level: We all felt some fatigue, but it was more of a feeling that we didn’t want to take on any heavy lifting projects. The diet didn’t seem to disrupt sleep or require us to sleep longer hours.
Hunger Level: Hunger was part of the deal. I designed our diet to include lots of volume, which did take the hunger away for a few hours after meals; however, hunger was present the other hours. 500 calories is not a lot, mentally preparing yourself for hunger helps.
Weight Loss: The weight loss was fast and impressive, especially considering that Kelly and I were already at goal weight.
In the five days:
- Keith lost 9.2 pounds
- Becky lost 5.4 pounds
- Kelly lost 2.4 pounds
DAY 1 was the easiest for all of us; probably because we ate a bit more than usual on Sunday and had some reserves in our system.
DAY 2 was rough on Kelly. She felt like she was getting sick and was low on energy. She rearranged her calories to have a very small amount of chocolate and peanut butter, which made her feel better. I hated to tell her that feeling better when you eat sugar is a classic sign of sugar addiction.
DAY 3 everyone felt fairly good. Kelly rebounded a bit, and Keith mentioned that he liked the feeling of not being so full. I felt better mentally and physically than I did on day two.
DAY 4 was the hardest day for each of us. We felt fine physically, but mentally we were ready to be done.
DAY 5 we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, which boosted our motivation. It was easier to stick with the plan knowing that it was over in less than 24 hours.
500 Calorie Diet Results Journal: Our Thoughts During The Week
Day One: Monday
6:30 AM: After weighing in, I started my day with a cup of coffee.
7:30 AM: I had my first thought of eating breakfast and felt a small twinge in my stomach. I’m not physically hungry, so this is likely a habitual response.
11:30 AM: I’m hungry, and a bit shaky. I think the shakiness is due to drinking caffeine on an empty stomach.
1:00 PM: Lunch was very filling and satisfying for all of us. It was a lot of food (see the slideshow above). Everyone is feeling optimistic.
4:00 PM: Heading outside for a walk, I’ve felt great ever since lunch.
7:00 PM: Dinner. I started getting some hunger signals around 5:00, but nothing unbearable.
10:00 PM: Bed. Our impression of day one was, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Day Two: Tuesday
6:30 AM: Woke up feeling good mentally with no hungry; had some coffee.
7:15 AM: First twinge of hunger.
9:00 AM: Kelly feels like she’s getting a cold. At the gym, she walked on the treadmill and felt low on energy.
10:00 AM: I’m feeling a bit snippy, not sure if it’s due to an aggravating school project I’m working on or the fact that I haven’t eaten in the past 14 hours, but I suspect it’s a combination of both.
11:45 AM: Lunch.
2:30 PM: Kelly has taken to snacking on a single raisin. She’s not feeling strong at this point.
4:45 PM: Kelly went off the script and had a small amount of chocolate and peanut butter, which made her feel better. She’s likely experiencing some sugar withdrawal symptoms. When eating sugar makes you feel better, it’s a classic sign of sugar addiction.
7:00 PM: Dinner. Yum!
10:30 PM: Bed. I’ve felt very satisfied since dinner. Keith felt a bit tired today, yet he went out to play roller hockey for an hour this evening. His energy held up fine.
Day Three: Wednesday
6:30 AM: Slept fine, no better or worse than usual.
8:15 AM: I had my first thought of eating, which is interesting because it was later than usual.
12:00 PM: Lunch.
4:30 PM: Keith feels good. He likes not having the “full feeling”. Kelly’s having a better day mentally and physically. I’ve found myself drinking more diet soda more than usual, and I’ve been fighting a small headache all day. I’m wondering if the two are related.
7:00 PM: Dinner. I drank water, instead of soda all afternoon and my headache went away. Keith and I sat out on our porch on this beautiful Spring-like day; we would have loved to have had a glass of wine or a cold beer. sigh.
10:30 PM: Bed. Keith and I have been pretty even from a mental standpoint, but Kelly mentioned that her happiness level has dropped each day.
Day Four: Thursday
6:45 AM: I slept fine again, but woke up feeling hungry and wishing the diet was over.
11:00 AM: I’m hungry, but not uncomfortably so. I’ve had very few stomach growls or gurgles this whole week, which seems odd. One possible thought is that I’m not eating foods that spike and then crash my blood sugar. If you’re going to follow a restricted-calorie diet, salad and vegetables are a must.
12:30 PM: Lunch.
1:30 PM: Kelly’s feeling low on energy and felt a bit forgetful at work this morning. Keith and I are weathering the diet fine, but it’s a bit painful watching Kelly go through this. She’s certainly free to quit at any time, so I have to hand it to her for sticking with it.
5:30 PM: I feel melancholy. There’s a rainstorm coming, which always lowers my mood, but I’m sure the low food intake isn’t helping.
7:00 PM: Dinner for Keith and me.
8:00 PM: Kelly had a work meeting that went late, so she just got dinner. She’s looking forward to the end of the diet.
10:00 PM: Bed. Keith mentioned that he feels good, but has found himself thinking about food quite often today. For me, this was the hardest mental strength day so far.
Day Five: Friday
6:45 AM: Woke up after a good night’s sleep, but I’m ready for this diet experiment to be over; had some coffee.
9:30 AM: Kelly told me she dreamt about deep frying chicken biscuit pancakes and eating them :).
1:00 PM: I finally had lunch. I kept thinking about eating but put it off. It almost seems easier not to eat.
2:00 PM: Kelly feels okay physically, but just WANTS something else to eat. She’s craving fruit, and is bummed that it’s too many calories; of course, ice cream and chocolate also sound good to her but have the same calorie problem.
3:45 PM: I’m much more productive today, and feel mentally clear.
4:30 PM: Keith commented, “I really haven’t found this week difficult at all.”
6:30 PM: Dinner. Kelly saved up some calories so that she could have a small dessert. Keith and I are done eating until tomorrow.
10:00 PM: Bed. Kelly was very happy this evening because the diet was ending. I’ve been hungrier tonight than the past evenings, yet I feel slim, and I’m curious to weigh in tomorrow morning. Keith is steady as always.
Breaking Your Diet
There are no hard and fast rules for breaking your diet, but there is common sense.
Common sense: Have a sensible breakfast, like oatmeal with blueberries.
Not Common sense, but a common approach: Eat five cream-filled donuts.
(Full disclosure: I had my sensible oatmeal as soon as I woke up, and then followed that up with a custard-filled donut a couple of hours later. We’re all human.)
After your 500 calorie days, the best thing to keep in mind is that you pushed your body hard, so be kind to it on day six.
You might have a big event planned for Day 6, which served as your motivation for taking on this 5-day 500 calorie challenge; you don’t want to spoil the event by going into a sugar coma or sprinting to the bathroom.
Diving into a bag of Oreos will provide about 15 minutes of ecstasy, but leave you feeling so sick and mentally foggy that you won’t be able to enjoy your day.
After that, you can feel free to fill your stomach; in fact, a day of overeating will restore the hormone leptin, which boosts your body’s ability to burn fat.
How To Follow Your Own 500 Calorie Diet
I laid out the good, the bad and the ugly in this post, and if you haven’t been scared off, then you’re probably ready to give it a try yourself.
I put together the diet plan that walks you through how to prepare, what foods to buy, calorie counts, recipes, and the full meal plan.
It’s all you need to do your own 5-day, 500 calories challenge. Go here to get it.
Leave a comment below to let me know your 500 calorie diet results.
About the Author
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.