Over the past few years I’ve noticed that a lot of people (especially women) are gradually eating less and less. We all know calories in vs. calories out is necessary for weight loss. The logical conclusion is if we eat less we’ll lose more weight faster. However, you can’t run on empty! Problems start when restriction becomes normal and you’re no longer fueling your body with enough food to be healthy. Under eating is an easy trap to fall into and it’s usually done with good intentions. You may not even realize your calorie intake has dropped that low because it’s been gradual. You might not even feel as hungry anymore.
If you can’t lose weight (or are gaining weight) despite a healthy diet, have trouble sleeping or always feel tired or cold, under eating could be messing with your body. Read on to learn about what under eating does to your body and what you can do about it.
What Is Under Eating?
Skipping a meal or eating at a caloric deficit for a short period of time isn’t usually a cause for concern. Our bodies are designed to be able to handle short fasts. The difference between that and chronic under eating comes down to duration.
Going without food for a few days or eating at a large deficit for weeks or months causes your body to change in an attempt to conserve energy. Because everyone’s caloric needs are different, there isn’t a strict definition regarding how many calories or how long it takes to be classified as under eating.
If you’re eating less food than your body requires for your age, sex and activity levels and you’re experiencing one or more symptoms of under eating, it’s time to make some changes.
Signs You’re Not Eating Enough
Some of the most common signs you’re not eating enough include:
You’re not losing weight (and may even be gaining) despite a healthy diet and exercise
This often what causes people to under eating and/or over-exercising. But, cutting calories further just makes the problem worse! When your body operates on a long-term, significant deficit, your metabolism and hormones change in order to reduce your caloric output. Your cortisol levels are also elevated, causing leptin and insulin resistance. This not only prevents weight loss but can actually encourage your body to store more fat.
You’re always hungry
It sounds obvious that if you’re always hungry, you probably need to eat more. However, the promise of ‘getting the body you’ve always wanted’ by restrictive dieting encourages us to ignore our natural hunger cues. If you’re eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day but you’re still always hungry, start listening to your body.
Your mind is always filled with FOOD!
Your body is way more clued up than you’d think. When your blood sugar is low, your brain automatically switches to food to entice you to eat. If you’ve been under eating for a while, you might not even feel hungry. But, constant thoughts about food might be your body’s way of telling you that it needs more nourishment.
You’re always cold
Calorie restriction and particularly low carbohydrate intake, causes your body temperate to drop. If you’ve been feeling the cold lately and find yourself rugging up when you usually wouldn’t, try including some more quality carbs in your diet.
You’re always tired
Food is energy so if you’re not eating enough you’ll be tired. It’s your body’s way of forcing you to slow down and preserve what little energy you have got.
You have trouble sleeping
Sleep problems are one of the most frequently named complaints associated with under eating. When you don’t eat enough, your blood sugar drops and your body releases more cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) to help create new glucose. These hormones also keep you awake at night and prevent you from sleeping deeply. If you’re also over-exercising the problem is intensified as you place even more stress on your body. Eating a large enough meal before bed time including some low-GI carbohydrates helps to reduce cortisol levels and stabilize blood sugar so you can fall into a deeper sleep faster.
You feel anxious or depressed
Your brain requires glucose (a type of carbohydrate) to function. When your blood sugar levels are low from not eating enough total calories or carbs, your brain and emotions are effected. Eating carbohydrates also boosts serotonin in your brain which makes you feel happier.
Your periods are irregular or non-existent
You can’t support a growing baby while you’re not eating adequate calories so your periods may become irregular or stop altogether. It’s called hypothalamic amenorrhea. It might seem convenient not to have to worry about period pain and tampons but you could be creating long-term loss of bone density. Luckily, with a bit of rest and nourishment, your natural fertility can return.
You’re not progressing in the gym
Your body can’t be expected to not only perform, but to improve if it’s not fueled to do so. If your progress stalls or you’re not performing as well as you used to, up your calories and see if that makes a difference.
Your hair is falling out, fast
One of the first signs of a nutritional deficiency is hair loss and it’s also made worse by the hormonal changes associated with long-term under eating. If you’ve been noticing that your hair is thinning or falling out more than usual, increase your total calories. Focus on eating more protein and nutrient rich foods to address the deficiency.
Long-term Effects of Under Eating
While your body is pretty good at managing short-term, long-term calorie restriction can lead to some serious health concerns. These include:
- Damage to your heart
- Poor circulation
- Digestive problems
- Dry skin and hair
- Lack of libido
- Anxiety disorders
- Obsessive behavior
- Eating disorders
What to Do About It
If you think under eating is messing with your body, the answer’s simple; EAT MORE! If you’re worried about going to the other extreme and over-eating, follow these steps:
1. Let go of any restrictive thoughts
1,200 calories isn’t a magic number! It’s also not enough fuel for most people, especially if you’re active. Let go of restrictive thoughts regarding what foods you can or can’t eat. Your body needs protein, fats AND carbohydrates to be healthy. You might need to put weight loss efforts on hold until your body gets used to eating the right amount.
2. Use a calculator to ESTIMATE your daily caloric needs
If you’ve got a fitness tracker, this is the most accurate way to measure how many calories your body needs every day. If not, use a TDEE calculator to estimate your total daily energy expenditure. This is a good basis from which to work out how much you should be eating every day.
3. Count your current calories TEMPORARILY
Counting calories on a regular basis can create an unhealthy mindset when it comes to food, exercise and health. However, TEMPORARILY adding up how many calories you’re eating can be useful to identify under eating. Use an app and compare your current food intake to the calorie target you calculated above.
4. Plan your meals to make sure you’re eating enough
Although this should be avoided on a long-term basis too, plan your meals to make sure you’re reaching your calorie target. Allow yourself a 300 calorie range either side of your target for healthy variation. Use this plan for 1-2 weeks as a way to teach yourself how much food your body really needs. Don’t get hung up if your calories aren’t exact.
5. Learn to listen to your body and eat intuitively
Calculating your calories in and calories out is never a healthy way to live long-term. Once you’re used to how much you should be eating, start listening to your body. Intuitive eating will help you to create a healthy relationship with food that’s not bound by restrictive thoughts or guilt.
If eating less hasn’t been working for you, stop cutting your calories and start eating more! When your body is properly fueled with the right amount of nutritious calories, you’ll look, feel and perform at your best.
If you’d like one-on-one help with any eating problems, find a nutritionist in your area and talk to them about what you’ve been experiencing.
Although the effects of under eating are serious, the solution is easy; EAT MORE FOOD! You can start today.