If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably believed the notion that cutting back on calories is one of the first things you need to do.
Yet what is so often not talked about is the damaging effects that this can potentially have on the body if taken too far, and the fact that under eating for a prolonged period of time can actually backfire and make weight loss even harder (not to mention all of the other negative things it can do to your body!).
All about metabolism and why a calorie deficit isn’t all that matters
Metabolism is the process by which our bodies burn and store energy. You’ve probably heard that it’s good to have a “fast metabolism” for weight management. In order to function properly, the metabolism needs to be consistently fed so that it has energy to use for various bodily processes. I like to think of the metabolism as a campfire: the logs must be continually fed a source of fuel in order to keep on burning and if the fuel source is stopped, the fire will burn out. Though this analogy may be overly simplified, our metabolisms generally function similarly.
When we eat below what our bodies need to function, we may limit fuel source which can make the metabolism not work as well. In fact, one of the biggest ways to make your body feel unsafe is by chronically under-eating (and this thereby stunts metabolism too). While we never recommend counting calories, we believe that about 1200 calories a day is the absolute minimum that any woman should ever consume, (and this number may be a lot higher depending on unique needs).
How under eating harms your body
Our bodies need adequate nutrition in order for body systems like our hormones, metabolism, reproductive system, etc to work properly. Each of these systems play a role in helping us feel and function at our best. When there’s is a lack of adequate fuel, however, a number of negative reactions can occur. Some of these include (there are more but these to start!):
- Slowed metabolism. Prolonged calorie restriction is associated with a decrease in metabolism as well as a lower resting metabolic rate. You may have heard the terms “starvation mode” or “fight or flight” which refer to when the body starts reserving energy to use for later as a survival mechanism. This can backfire on weight loss attempts since it means your body would be burning less calories and storing more as fat.
- Increase in stress hormones. Under eating is stressful on the body, and stress impacts the adrenal glands which are responsible for producing cortisol. Frequently restricting food intake increases cortisol levels, which can also cause the body to burn less energy and store more as fat.
- Altering the reproductive system. The body views reproduction as a “non essential” task, so when there is a lack of proper fuel, sex hormone production will be halted and things like having a period and being able to conceive may not be possible. Basically, when your brain detects that caloric intake is below basic needs, it will tell your body that it’s unsafe to reproduce.
Signs you may be under eating
It is possible to not even know or realize that you are under eating due to things like stress, illness, busy schedules, or just engaging in under eating for so long that your body adapts *note these can be due to other things too – but when people under eat these can be part of the equation.
Here are some signs to watch out for:
- Chronic poor energy
- Difficulty concentrating (sometimes called “brain fog”)
- Hair loss or brittle nails
- Frequently feeling cold
- Losing your period
- Irritable mood
So what do you do if you want to lose weight?
Now that you understand that severe calorie restriction is not the way to go, you might be wondering how DO you lose weight? This is a complex topic, but here are some basic pointers to keep in mind:
- You have to believe that it’s possible. Telling yourself that weight loss will never happen is surely to make sure that it doesn’t. You must believe that every effort you make counts and believe in your ability to create long term behavior changes that will support your weight.
- Focus on your diet. The composition of your diet plays a huge role! Focus on getting consistent with eating at least 3 meals a day (1-2 snacks as needed) that contain plenty of protein and lots of veggies.
- Move your body. The importance of physical activity will never be underestimated. Remember that this doesn’t have to be strict or intense workouts. It can be as simple as going on daily walks, sitting less, doing yoga, simple strengthening exercises, or whatever feels good to you.
- Work with someone who can help you. Working with a professional can provide you with the insight, guidance, and support you need and come up with a plan that is unique to you. Plus, the accountability they provide can make all the difference when it comes to your success. We’d love to support you on this effort so feel free to reach out!
What about diet pills and appetite suppressants?
If severe calorie restriction isn’t a good option, you may be wondering about other options to help you lose weight. Yet the truth is that things like diet pills and appetite suppressants can be dangerous and they interfere with your body’s normal functioning. We do not recommend them on any occasions. Instead, some natural ways to help suppress appetite and possibly boost metabolism include drinking plenty of water (try drinking a full glass before meals), drinking green tea, building muscle through strength exercises, and eating balanced meals throughout the day.
Your body was designed to do so many amazing things, yet chronically under eating can disrupt many of these and wreak havoc on proper bodily functions. In addition, it can backfire on weight loss attempts and even make it harder to lose weight later on. Rather than follow a strict low calorie diet, the best thing you can do is nourish your body with balanced meals at regular intervals throughout the day, while being mindful along the way.