Our diet-obsessed, calorie-fearing culture has taught us to villainize food instead of teaching us about nutrition. I won’t get started on my soapbox about all that, but the reasons we, as a society, face so much obesity and other health issues, fat AND fit shaming, etc. are quite clear to me. Once you stop taking advice from the tabloids and marketing gurus and start learning the basics of nutrition, you can be empowered to EAT FOOD. It is fuel and you should eat it. I can’t tell you how many times I have chatted with women (and men)- clients or otherwise, who are baffled by some of the things they are experiencing, when it’s obvious to me that they are eating far too little, especially of real food. Unfortunately, MANY “coaches,” magazines, fitness idols, friends, and even automated calorie trackers give calorie numbers to people that are dangerously low. While calorie cutting can be the key to losing that fat, there IS such a thing as cutting too much. More is not always better, on a plethora of fronts. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the signs that you are NOT eating enough. Make sure to take an extra moment to read two personal testimonies (at the end of the post) from clients of mine who have experienced these lessons firsthand.
You are constantly HANGRY.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hanger is real, y’all. Cutting calories to an appropriate degree CAN make you feel hungry- you are at a deficit, after all (calories in<calories out). But you should not feel constantly hungry. The hormones involved in hunger and satiety are leptin, ghrelin, and cholecystokinin. If you’re not taking in enough food, these hormones will continue sending signals to your brain asking for more! When your blood sugar is too low, these hormones, along with epinepherine (adrenaline) can cause you to be on edge. Couple that hormonal effect on your attitude with the already psychologically-demanding task of cutting down on foods you enjoy, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Your hunger-induced mood swings can go from a laughably normal 5min window when you’re ready for your meal to a constant snappy aura that is no fun for anyone.
You are totally out of energy
Calories=energy. Literally. Your body is an amazing machine that always prioritizes survival. When it is not taking in enough energy (food) to sustain your typical activity, it will cut where it needs to so that those little things like heart, lungs, and brain can still function. Imagine that. So, if you’re finding yourself having difficulty falling or staying asleep, dragging through the day, unable to smile and be yourself at work or kill it in the gym like you usually do, this is a big signal that you’re not meeting your basic needs. You’re likely working hard in the gym to obtain and keep a certain physique. Recovery is just as important as the actual work put in at the gym. Many of my clients have personally seen how important it is to fuel your body with some carbohydrates pre-workout and protein/carbs post-workout. Whether you are trying to lose weight or not, this is a big lesson to learn. My client Ashley stated that since she upped her caloric intake, she now has “a ton of energy to push hard through workouts and I have really built up strength.” Read more about her experience at the end of this post!
You can’t seem to focus
Your body needs proteins and fats for basic cellular function and repair. Carbohydrates can help keep your blood sugar stable. Check in on my blog about macronutrients to learn more about what they each do for your body. When you don’t have enough fuel and especially as blood sugar levels drop, your cognitive ability to show self-control decreases. You can find yourself in a fog, unable to focus, and maybe even dizzy or shaky. Keeping a balance of proteins, carbs, and fats throughout the day can make all the difference in maintaining that bright brain power!
You’re not seeing progress
This is often the most confusing (but common) symptom. Clients come to me all the time eating too little and yet not seeing any change after a certain amount of time. They don’t understand why that calorie number worked for a while but now they aren’t dropping the pounds. Or, they assumed the less they ate the better, and yet they can’t shake those last stubborn pockets of fat that they dislike. While a moderate caloric deficit can be a sustainable approach to weight/fat loss, much larger deficits essentially cause the body to freak out. Back to that survival thing I mentioned before- your body’s metabolism will make changes to keep your body in a homeostatic balance. Drastic changes will induce modifications to your thyroid, adrenal and sex hormones to reduce your caloric output so it can better match your too-low caloric intake. It’s not about slow vs. fast metabolism (often misunderstood concept). Without getting too scientific, your hormones get out of whack and your body programs itself for body fat retention. Maybe your goal is not weight loss but rather (or also), muscle gain (“tone” as many like to call it). Simply put, if you’re not eating enough, it doesn’t matter how many bicep curls you do: those muscles don’t have the fuel they need to repair tissue and get the sexy shape you’re envisioning. You need more food- especially protein.
Your period is more irregular than usual or missing altogether.
I’ve talked about hormones being altered greatly by a lack of food, so it should be no surprise that your menstrual cycle can go crazy. I hear FAR too often that women on competition prep don’t have periods at all. This can be a big red flag that they are not eating enough.
You’re experiencing some not so fun stuff
If you’re constantly constipated, you may be lacking some essential nutrition. Not only are your fiber numbers likely low, but once again, your hormones get jacked up. Your thyroid hormones keeps digestion moving, and a change in these levels can really slow things down. If you’re experiencing hair loss or your skin seems to be drier or more saggy (bags under the eyes), these may also be signs that you’re not getting enough nourishment (and/or water). The beauty of your hair, skin, and nails is low priority to your body, so it’s going to be set aside to focus on survival when you aren’t providing plenty of fuel to work with. Here’s what my client Victoria said about her bikini competition preparation with proper caloric intake: “I had tons of energy all the way through the prep, my hair and skin looked better than ever, and I was actually enjoying it!” Read more about her experience at the end of this post!
You find yourself constantly “failing”
Sticking to the plan can come down to more than just willpower. If you’re constantly sneaking snacks or falling off the wagon, you may need to reassess your approach. We all want results fast, but your short term approach really shouldn’t look drastically different from what you will be able to do to maintain that success long-term. Empower yourself to learn about food as fuel so that you can see progress, EAT with some flexibility, and stick with an overall healthy plan from here on out!!
So…. now what? How much should you be eating?
Figuring out how many calories you should be consuming can be tricky. It is impossible to iron out the exact number, but even when you’re close, it’s important to also learn about balanced nutrition. No need to stress over it. There are lots of tools out there (like me) to help you in your journey, and it’s ok to experiment a bit with increasing and decreasing your calories as you change your goals, body composition, and activity levels. Many calculators (like myfitnesspal) or articles will simply direct you, as a woman, to consume 1200 calories. This is considered the starvation mark for the average woman. It should be obvious that we are all different sizes and have different levels of activity, so this number is certainly not the correct line for everyone. I personally could never go anywhere NEAR this number or I would surely experience many, if not all, of the symptoms listed above. I like this calculator pretty well for determining a basic daily caloric intake number. Of course, as a Personal Trainer and Nutritionist, I do offer Nutrition Counseling to cover all of this and more, but client or not, I hope that you will take some steps to ensure that you are getting the proper amount of fuel. Undereating can be just as bad as overeating, so please take care of YOU and give it some thought!
Personal Testimonies from Clients who have UPPED their calories!
“Before, I thought that to lose weight you had to eat less calories and basically starve yourself. I would do endless cardio and wonder why I couldn’t lose any body fat. It’s clear to me now that my body thought I was starving and was storing body fat. Since being with Kelley she has taught me so much. I’m now eating about 1700 calories and have lost body fat and gained muscle. I now have a ton of energy to push myself hard through my workouts and have built up my strength because I am eating properly. Starving yourself isn’t the answer. Eating the proper amounts of the right food is the key to your success.” –Ashley
“The first NPC bikini competition that I ever competed in, I was told to do a strict diet of 800-900 calories a day for 9 months. On my peak week, I would consume as little as 600 calories a day and drink as little as 8 oz of water the days of competition. I was tired, my hair was falling out, I was getting sick all of the time, and I had terrible mood swings. The reverse diet out of that competition was a complete disaster. Because of the lack of knowledge behind the advice that I took, I gained 35 pounds incredibly fast.
My second year competing I hired coach that provided me the correct nutritional information and workout routines to utilize. The difference in results was so dramatic. I gained so much more muscle mass while still eating! My caloric intake was almost more than doubled from my first competition and I could drink water as I became thirst on the days of peak week! I didn’t have any of the side effects. I had tons of energy all the way through the prep, my hair and skin looked better than ever, and I was actually enjoying it! I wanted to get up and compete the next weekend!
Having the correct nutrition and caloric intake specified for your body really makes a difference. Each person’s macro-nutrient and caloric intake will be unique to their body type and goal. With the correct balance, you can work wonders to see what it is that your body is capable of achieving in a sustainable and healthy way.” – Victoria
Ashley, myself, and Victoria at the Dallas Europa Games 2016
Go forth and eat FOOD AS FUEL!