Under-eating may seem like a surprising topic to cover, but I would say more often than not, especially with my female clients, under-eating is a HUGE issue when it comes to achieving optimal health. Diet culture has been so deeply ingrained in our psyches (and for many of us from an early age too!) that as women we tend to undereat. Especially if you have been a chronic dieter, or suffered from eating disorders in the past.
You may be thinking – “There’s no way I under eat, I’ve never been on a diet in my life!’’ or “I’m a guy, and I don’t watch my calories, in fact, my aim is to gain weight but I just can’t seem to do it even though I eat a lot!’’ Chances are, you still may be under-eating for your needs!
Why is Under-Eating So Common?
Here are a few reasons:
- If you have previously had a weight loss, and chronically restricted your diet
- You have certain allergies (like gluten)
- If you have an active job, play several sports or workout often and with high intensity
- Stress or anxiety
- Restricting certain foods or food groups (low carb, keto, vegetarian, vegan, etc)
- Living a busy/hectic lifestyle (always go go go)
- If you have a history of eating disorders or body dysmorphia
- Pregnancy/breastfeeding (This will increase your daily caloric need so it’s important to factor that in to eat adequately!)
Symptoms of Not Eating Enough
Many people do not under-eat on purpose! It can oftentimes happen accidentally as a by-product of their lifestyle or circumstance. If you are still unsure, check out the following symptoms and see how many apply to you:
- Fatigue – Constantly feeling tired is a sign of under-eating, especially if you get adequate sleep each night and still find you lack energy for simple daily tasks.
- Depression or anxiety – Feelings of sadness or despair can be a sign of under-eating, as your body is on high alert due to having insufficient fuel.
- Trouble Sleeping – Since under-eating raises your cortisol (stress hormone) level, this can affect your sleep. Examples of this may be racing thoughts before bed, trouble falling asleep, or waking up alert in the middle of the night.
Did you know?
As your blood sugar drops while you sleep, your liver releases a form of stored glucose (called glycogen) to keep your blood sugar at a healthy level. If you are chronically under-eating and you’re over-exercising as well, your liver won’t have the glycogen stores it needs to keep your blood sugar stable. In this case, your body will release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to promote gluconeogenesis, the process of creating new glucose. If these stress hormones elevate high enough, they can actually wake you up in the middle of the night. This is why it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough in general and prioritizing a balanced (carb, protein and fat) bedtime snack 1-2 hours before going to bed. This will ensure that your blood sugar stays stable overnight, resulting in a deeper sleep with no sudden waking!
- Hair loss – Hair loss is one of the first signs of nutrient deficiency. If you are losing hair by the handfuls, this could be a sign of undereating. Protein or vitamin deficiency can bring on hair loss, as well as change in color or structure of your hair. This is also a common symptom of hypothyroidism (which can be triggered by chronic under-eating!)
- Vitamin deficiencies: If you have recently gotten blood work done and your doctor alerted you about any vitamin or mineral deficiencies, this could have been caused by not eating enough! Focusing on nutrient-dense foods as your primary source of nourishment is a great way to combat this, and incorporate supplements if needed (under the supervision of your doctor).
- Constantly feeling cold – Caloric restriction has been shown to decrease thermogenesis (your body’s ability to create heat). Low insulin levels can also lead to low body temperature, so diets that restrict carbs may have this effect as well. If you’re always cold no matter the weather, it is likely you are not eating enough!
- Bloating & Constipation – Eating a low food volume will result in not much food waste moving through your bowels, leading to constipation. Another issue may be that if you are under-eating due to stress, your body may not be producing adequate stomach acid to break down whatever you do eat, resulting in slowed digestion and bloating! A great way to boost your digestion and increase the acidity level of your stomach would be to take 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar diluted with a bit of water before eating a meal.
- Catching colds more often – under-eating can lead to a depleted immune system. Fewer nutrients available to your body mean less of a fighting chance it has against a cold or illness, or that it can take longer to recover than the average person. This is why it’s so important to fuel your body with a diet rich in whole foods and nutrients.
- Your weight is plateauing – many people think ‘’calories in vs calories out’’ is the only way to lose weight, but sadly they do not consider the effects that extreme calorie restriction and overtraining can have on the body. Any drastic changes made to your eating and training routine place the body in a state of stress, and it responds by slowing down your metabolism in order to stay in a state of homeostasis. This is why many people see no change or even a gain in weight, after upping their exercise and reducing their food intake to extremes, which is why ‘’losing that last 10lbs’’ can seem almost impossible!
- Difficulty getting pregnant – Long term under – eating (or inadequate body fat levels) can lead to loss of a woman’s period (amenorrhea) or a period but no ovulation occurring (called anovulation), and the inability to get pregnant. So if you’ve been chronically dieting for most of your life, or over training in the gym, these could be the reasons you’re having trouble with fertility.
Steps You Can Take To Stop Under Eating
The first thing you’ll need to do is calculate your daily calorie goal based on your weight, height and activity level. So many factors go into how much one should eat per day, so it’s important to get as specific as possible with this for best results. You might be surprised at how much you actually need to eat to ensure your body is in optimal health!
- Calculate how many calories and macros you need daily
This MACRO CALCULATOR will help you figure out how many calories and macros you need per day based on your specific goal!
- Log all your drinks, meals and snacks.
Free apps such as MyPlate or Myfitnesspal are wonderful tools to help you keep track of your daily caloric intake. They make logging each ingredient in your meals easy, and even show you a macro pie chart as an easy visual! You can also manually log your meals using a pen and paper, but it may be more of a hassle tallying up all your calories and macros at the end of the day. You will not need to log your food forever, but it is important to do it at least for 1 – 2 weeks to gauge what your eating patterns are and if they need any tweaking. Logging will give you a specific and direct answer as to whether or not you’re eating enough! You can then use the data you’ve compiled from your food log, and compare it to the results you got using the macro calculator! If you see for example that you often lack enough protein, continue to log and make emphasis on eating more protein, and you’ll be able to see the difference in your log and make sure you’re hitting the adequate macros!
- Eat meals more frequently throughout the day, and focus on adding in protein, complex carbs and healthy fats. If you find it hard to eat more at each meal, try and include more meals or more snacks in between to ensure you’re eating enough. A good way to add in extra calories and protein is protein shakes & smoothies that you can pack with protein powder, nut butter or other calorie and nutrient-dense ingredients!
- Reduce high-intensity exercise (if you often overtrain or over-exercise). This can lower your daily caloric needs, and help lower your cortisol levels. If high-intensity training is a huge passion of yours, continue in moderation or at least ensure that you are eating enough to sustain your body through this intense style of exercise, and allow yourself adequate time in between to fully recover.
- If you suffer from an eating disorder, please seek out the help of your doctor or dietician! Serious health complications can arise from chronic under-eating so it’s important to get the help you need as soon as possible.
Under-eating can be just as detrimental to your health as overeating, so it’s important to find out what eating patterns work best for your goals, your schedule, and your specific body. Don’t be afraid to fuel your body adequately and give it the nutrients it needs to sustain optimal wellness! A proper, nutritious diet can completely transform the kind of results you see in and out of the gym!