Chronic calorie restriction can be just as unhealthy as overeating, but fortunately, our bodies have signals to let us know when something is off with our eating and something needs to change.
Everyone knows that overeating can be problematic. If we’re consistently eating more calories than we burn each day, our bodies will store the extra energy as fat and increase our risk of many health problems. To avoid the well-know health risks associated with overeating, it’s not uncommon for health-conscious people to overcompensate by eating too little. Although we hear much more about the dangers of overeating; not eating enough can also prevent us from reaching our health and fitness goals.
In fact, chronic calorie restriction can be just as unhealthy as overeating. Fortunately, our bodies have signals to let us know when something is wrong. Here are 9 signs you're not eating enough - even if you’re not losing weight!
1. Low energy levels
Are you struggling to find the motivation and energy to get through your basic daily routine, let alone getting your workouts in? Calories are energy, and your body needs this fuel from food to function properly.
More specifically, your cells require glucose, a key component in carbohydrates, to function. So even if you are eating enough calories, eating too few carbohydrates could have a similar impact on your energy levels, unless of course you are following a strict ketogenic diet.
Insufficient calories and carbs aren't the only reasons under-eating leaves you with no energy; micronutrients such as B vitamins and iron are also essential for energy production.
2. Difficulty losing weight
There isn't anything more frustrating than dropping your calories lower and lower, only to discover you're moving in the opposite direction of your body composition goals!
While losing a lot of weight in a short time is usually a pretty obvious sign that someone isn't eating enough; being unable to lose weight, or even gaining weight, can also indicate a chronic lack of high-quality health-promoting calories.
When we drop our calories, we'll usually lose a bit of weight at first. However, our bodies will quickly adapt to the reduced energy supply, so continuing to drop calories lower and lower isn't sustainable or effective.
Eating too little can result in muscle loss and fat storage, which reduces our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and results in a vicious cycle. In short, a very low-calorie diet may work for weight loss as a very short term strategy, but will likely lead to difficulty losing body fat and improving body composition in the long term.
3. Unhealthy hair, skin and nails
Let's say you'd like to lose a little weight. Is it worth destroying the health of your hair, skin and nails? When you under-eat, your body uses the few calories you are getting to keep your vital organs functioning, and since having healthy hair, glowing skin and strong nails isn't essential for your basic survival, these are some of the first areas a hungry body neglects.
This neglect is exacerbated by the hormonal changes that occur with chronic under-eating, including a drop in sex hormones like progesterone, testosterone, and oestrogen.
4. Mood swings and poor mental health
Getting hangry is one thing, but if your mood is all over the place and escalating to both extremes daily, then you might want to check your food intake before considering psychiatric hospitalisation.
Frequently experiencing heightened and poorly regulated emotional states is another telltale sign of under-eating. The brain needs fuel to regulate emotions, and eating too little can even exacerbate existing mental health conditions, such as Depression and Anxiety.
5. Problems with sleep
Do you wake up in the morning feeling rested and ready to kick off the day, or are you groggy and exhausted as if you didn't sleep at all?
The importance of quality sleep to our overall health and wellbeing can not be emphasised enough; so it's totally fair to feel frustrated when you know your sleep is off. We often hear that it's better to sleep on an empty stomach, but if you haven't eaten enough during the day, your body may not have enough energy to go through its repair processes.
Whether you're sleeping too much but never feeling rested, or you're barely managing to get to sleep at all; increasing your daily food intake may be the natural solution to an exhausting problem!
6. Always feeling cold
Are you the one rugged up in a scarf and beanie whenever the temperature drops below 25C? Feeling cold often, especially in controlled indoor environments, could be a sign that you're not eating enough.
A low body temperature is just one of the many uncomfortable repercussions of a very low calorie intake. This is because chronic calorie restriction leads to lower levels of T3 thyroid hormone, which is the hormone responsible for maintaining our body temperature. If your body doesn't have the energy to spend on keeping you warm, then it's time to start eating to fuel your internal fire!
7. Thyroid issues
Your thyroid plays a part in nearly every metabolic process in the body, so when the thyroid isn't working correctly, you certainly won't feel your best!
But did you know that it's possible to suffer the symptoms of hypothyroidism without necessarily showing any change in the typical thyroid function markers that most doctors check? Long-term calorie restriction causes a downregulation of T3, the active thyroid hormone, which can lead to a condition called euthyroid sick syndrome, where T3 is low, reverse T3 is high, and TSH and T4 are often normal.
8. Poor digestion
How's your digestion? Is everything humming along smoothly, or do you not remember because it's been a few days? T3 active thyroid hormone also helps stimulate peristalsis in the gut, so when this hormone drops too low from under-eating, your digestion can dramatically slow down.
Chronic constipation is also a very common symptom of hypothyroidism, which, as mention above, often occurs as a result of long-term under-eating.
9. Irregular menstrual cycle
Just as we don't need beautiful, shiny hair for basic survival, we don't need a period to stay alive either. Under-eating results in hormonal imbalances that affect every system in the body, including the reproductive system.
Eating too few high-quality calories triggers a starvation response in the hypothalamus that disrupts luteinising hormone (LH) and shuts down ovulation. This makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective; if there's a shortage of food, it's probably not a good time to bring more life into the world!
Malnourishment will eventually cause our reproductive processes to stop or pause, so if your cycle is absent or inconsistent, it's important to take a look at your diet. For men, low testosterone can occur, which also includes low fertility in its symptom profile.
How much should you be eating?
As there are so many factors that come in to play, there's no quick and easy way to find out exactly how many calories your body needs each day. It's not only your age, gender and weight that needs to be considered; there are many other variables, including your physical activity, stress levels, sleeping patterns, history of chronic disease, muscle mass and so many more!
However, there are ways to get a starting estimate of how much you should be eating for optimal health and your fitness goals. Once you have the estimated calorie requirement, it's crucial to track your daily intake and tweak it as needed.
Our hormonal profile does not respond well to dramatic changes in calories, which can lead to problems with cortisol, thyroid and muscle loss. Whatever your goals are, always remember that weight loss works best when we make slow, gradual changes and adjust as necessary.
If you think you're eating enough but you're still feeling really hungry all the time, you can trust your body to know that you need to eat more. It's really important to listen to your body's signals, rather than just decide you've had enough based on an arbitrary number of calories you've eaten, or how large you felt your meals were.
Satisfy your hunger with healthy whole foods, and don't be afraid to experiment with eating more than you're used to if your health and fitness aren't where you want them to be!
Supplementing with a natural and nutrient-dense protein is a great way to increase your intake and start reaching your goals. Check out the delicious Tropeaka range today!