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Calorie-Restricted Diets, Healthy Eating, and Lupus

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Diet can have a major impact on how we feel and is a crucial factor in maintaining a healthy weight. Calorie-restricted diets, including fasting, may offer support to Lupus Warriors — but do they work?

A calorie-restricted diet is more than just dieting to lose weight. They are diets that reduce the daily caloric intake below what is typical without malnutrition or lack of essential nutrients. These diets are not temporary weight loss plans. Instead, they are long-term eating strategies that aim to improve health and even reduce the impact of aging.

Before considering any major diet changes, speak with your lupus treatment team and a dietician.

The National Institutes of Health says: “Scientists also don’t know whether these eating patterns are safe or even doable in the long run. …There’s not enough evidence to recommend any such eating regimen to the public.

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What is a calorie-restricted diet?

A calorie-restricted diet is a diet that focuses on restricting energy to the body. It ensures that there is very little for the body to turn into fat. Calories are a measure of how much energy a food item provides. These diets consist of counting and limiting the amount of calories that you eat. Calorie counts on menus and calorie-counting apps on your phone are two methods to keep track of calories.

More accurately, calorie-restricted diets mean both limiting the amount of food that you eat throughout the day, and avoiding high-carbohydrate & high-fat foods.

A diet like this is not right for all Lupus Warriors – most medical professionals recommend that lupus-related diets be tailored to each individual patient according to their nutritional needs. Restricting calories can hurt some individuals, particularly if they are already having a problem with energy levels.

However, if weight is the primary issue, keeping calories in check has great potential to help manage weight. Obesity can be an issue for people with lupus and has been shown to be increase fatigue, pain, and depression. 

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Potential benefits of calorie-restricted diets

Much of the research on these diets comes from case studies where individuals have attempted extreme calorie-deprivation. These individuals often take nutritional supplements as well. It is very difficult to generalize from these cases.

However, the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy (CALERIE) was a clinical trial assessing the value. 218 middle-aged, normal or moderately overweight people participated. Participants in the experimental group were told to reduce their calorie intake by 25% for 2 years. The control group continued eating the usual diet.

On average, the experimental group was unable to reach the 25% mark — but they did reduce their caloric intake by 12% and “maintained a 10% loss in body weight over two years.” Those on the restricted diet also experienced:

  • reduced risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower cholesterol
  • decreases in some inflammatory factors
  • no adverse effects on sexual function, sleep, quality of life, or mood

While these results are positive, it’s important to consider the limitations of the study. First of all, this is a relatively small participant base. Also, people with lupus were not the study participants. This means that the impacts of diet on lupus would not be represented here. Finally, food studies often rely on self-reports of calories consumed. These can add a level of error to the study. Additional large studies of this type are needed to truly assess the potential value of calorie-restricted diets.


How do these diets provide benefit?

Some research that says that calorie-restricted diets can reduce inflammation and fatigue. While some of this is due to weight loss, which reduces inflammation and is linked to lowered symptoms of lupus, it could also be due to the microbiome. Low carbohydrate and low-fat diets are linked to healthier gut bacteria.

Because the microbiome is heavily connected to weight gain and autoimmune disease, changing it through food has the potential to help prevent flares. You can read more about the gut microbiome here.

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Strategies for restricting calories

Some foods to avoid:

  • Cream or butter
    • These are high-fat products that can hide in many foods. Products like ranch dressing and soups such as clam (or corn) chowder are very thick and rich. Be sure to check labels.
  • Processed grains such as white flour and white rice
    • These carbohydrate sources are stripped of their fiber and most of their nutrients. The body processes them very efficiently. This means more energy for the body, but also more energy that can be turned into fat.
  • Sugar – especially sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juice

Instead, eat whole fruits, grains, and lean meats with lots of fiber.

Limiting food intake

Okay, you’ve spoken with your lupus treatment team and decided to try this type of diet. How can you be more successful? Check out these tips can help you achieve that goal without major changes to your eating pattern.

  • Eat slowly and stop before you feel ‘full.’ If you end your meal early and wait a short amount of time, you may find that your body will feel satiated.
  • Portion out your food carefully. Measure out your food with measuring tools and don’t eat more than those amounts. Small plates or bowls can help, too.
  • Eat many small meals through the day. This can help you feel better and give you more energy than two or three larger meals at the normal intervals.
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Are calorie-restricted diets right for you?

Calorie-restricted diets can be powerful tools for managing weight. But, they aren’t suitable for all people with lupus. Although fat deposits, especially in the abdomen, are linked to many different problems associated with lupus (such as heart disease risks and inflammation), you may already be on a very limited diet.

Additionally, much of the research remains uncertain. Much of the research has been conducted on animals models which do not always generalize go humans. Other studies have been short, so determining long term value is challenging. When there have been studies, they ofter recruit adults over 60 years old who may benefit differently from these diets. Finally, humans are different from one another and what works for one person may not work for another.

Always prioritize nutrition over calories, and talk to your doctor and your team before making any drastic changes to your diet.

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