At B3 Gym, we partner with Healthy Steps Nutrition, and we believe something as fundamental as nutrition shouldn’t be complicated. There’s so much information out there, it can be really overwhelming to figure out what’s right for you. Our goal is to empower you to make better choices and build better habits around your nutrition. We want to help you build a strong foundation with your nutrition so that you can meet your short- and long-term goals and feel and look the way you deserve.
A new client of mine shared with me their frustrating experience with weight loss. They had been battling their weight since their early twenties and they had tried all different kinds of diets including fad diets, restrictive eating, counting calories, shakes, and anything else you can think of. Over the years their weight bounced up and down but overall, they saw insignificant weight loss results. They admitted that they hadn’t been feeling great recently. They’ve been eating less and doing everything they’d been told to do to lose weight, but they’re still not seeing results.
This frustration people experience on their weight loss journey happens all the time. Diet culture tells us to eat less to lose weight, often recommending diet plans for less than 1,000 calories per day! So today I want to walk you through a few signs that you might not be eating enough AND share with you the reason why eating less is not always the best path.
I’d like to start off by explaining a few basic concepts when it comes to our metabolism to help you understand why so many people struggle to lose weight and keep it off when eating less.
We’ve all heard the saying, “calories in calories out.” This is a general rule that if we take in more calories than we expend, we will gain weight. The opposite is also true in that, if we take in less calories than we expend, we will lose weight. So, if this rule is true then why did my client struggle to see results when they were counting calories and eating less? It’s a little more complicated than just that simple equation, so let’s talk about some of the other factors that influence that.
Let’s start with some of the factors that may alter your calories in. First is your appetite. As obvious as it may seem, your appetite is affected by hormones. Ghrelin, which is our hunger hormone, is released in the stomach to tell us when we’re hungry. When we drastically decrease our calorie intake, it affects our body’s hormones. Ghrelin will increase which makes us feel hungry all the time! Think about the last time you were feeling really hungry. How hard was it to stick to healthy eating and stay away from fast food or treats?
While hormones play a big role in influencing our intake, there are many other factors to consider, including your environment. Studies show that people consume more when eating with friends and family than when alone. In addition, palatability, reward of the foods we are eating, as well as our mindset can influence our intake.
Next, let’s go over a few factors that may influence your energy output. First, you have your BMR or basal metabolic rate. This is the estimated number of calories your body burns at rest to continue the basic needs of living. If you were to just lay around all day, this would be the calories burned to keep your body functioning. We also need to consider your daily activity, such as grocery shopping, chasing your kids, or vacuuming the house, as well as intentional physical activity, like running or doing a workout. Lastly, we also need to consider the thermic effect of food or how much energy our body needs to break down or metabolize the foods we consume.
So now we know why the calories in calories out statement isn’t as simple as it sounds. Let’s go over the 3 signs that you’re under eating and then we’ll talk about why it might not be helping you reach your goals.
Sign #1: you’re constantly hungry.
You start eating less and now all you can think about is the next time you’ll get to eat again. This circles us back to those hormones we briefly discussed. When you eat less, your body signals for an increased release of ghrelin, which makes you feel super hungry. When we feel hungrier, it can lead to increased portion sizes, more frequent snacking, and over-consuming sweets when we finally give into those cravings.
We should be eating an amount where we are feeling satisfied, not too full but also not hungry. While a decrease in calories may initially sound like you’ll always be feeling hungry, choosing more whole food options (which provide more volume in your meals) and balancing your meals and snacks is a great way to combat that. When you eat more nutrient dense foods, like veggies, you can actually eat a ton of food for not a ton of calories.
Sign #2: you’re moody. You know what comes with being hungry all the time: that hangry feeling.
Hangry is defined as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” So, you started to eat significantly less food, your body starts protesting by increasing the production of ghrelin, and now you may or may not be starting unnecessary fights with friends and family or you may feel a bit more irritable in general. This mood shift is a classic sign that you aren’t eating the right amount to reach your goals.
Sign #3: sleep and stress issues.
Let’s start with sleep! You’ve likely heard a lot about how sleep deprivation has been found to lead to insulin resistance and weight gain, but did you know that under-eating while following strict dietary patterns can also interrupt your quality of sleep? One small study followed 10 young women dieting for 4 weeks. They found these participants had difficulty falling asleep and less overall deep sleep. Another study found that the starvation-level calorie restriction led to a reduction in slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep. This can also alter our stress levels. A large study of more than 2500 Australian teens found that “extreme dieting” was not only associated with decreased sleep quality but also high levels of depression and anxiety which will affect another important hormone in our health and wellness journey.
Let’s talk about cortisol. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because it’s released in response to stress. Most of us have heard a lot about cortisol when it comes to inhibiting weight loss goals. If you’re constantly limiting your intake which leads to increased stress and lack of sleep, your body’s cortisol is likely elevated. Elevated cortisol levels will not only alter our metabolism, but it will also cause water retention which may mask any fat loss occurring.
If you’re experiencing mood shifts, constant feelings of hunger, or sleep and stress issues, you might be eating too little. Now let’s talk about why eating less to lose weight isn’t always the answer.
What happens when we under eat, and your body doesn’t get the energy it needs? Initially the body will use fat stores for energy and that’s how people begin to lose weight. But over time, the body will adjust to this chronic calorie deficit and metabolism will slow. The body isn’t burning energy as efficiently. Weight loss eventually stops because the metabolism has slowed down. Then it becomes extremely hard to maintain your weight eating anything more than the set number of calories your body has adjusted to. Additionally, it also becomes very, very difficult to lose weight – despite hard efforts at “eating clean” and exercising regularly.
After hearing this you may feel like losing weight is a hopeless cause, but that is far from the truth! I encourage you to try thinking about it this way: rather than focusing on the result of weight loss, focus on the journey of building healthy habits with your nutrition. Rather than focusing on eating less calories, focus on eating more whole food options that provide less calories than processed foods. Yes, processed foods are more convenient but those whole foods provide way more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and volume! If you think about a day of eating fast food, one meal can be upwards of 1000 or more calories! If you stick with more whole foods, you could eat multiple meals and snacks for that amount. Who doesn’t want to eat more food?!
Rather than getting sucked into fad diets and the seemingly endless cycle of under-eating, find a professional who can help you build a plan and keep you accountable for reaching your goals!
Are you looking to break the cycle of eating too little and start building healthy habits for reaching your goals? Here are some simple tips that can help: eat ½ a plate of non-starchy veggies at lunch and dinner, drink at least 60 oz of water each day, get 7 or more hours of sleep every night, and schedule a free intro to chat with me about your health and wellness goals, and learn how we can build a customized plan for you!