Are you eating enough? [7 Signs You May Not Be]

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Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Happen Copy 1 | Are You Eating Enough? [7 Signs You May Not Be]

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 Ever wonder, “Am I eating enough?” Check out some simple signs that reveal you may not be. Plus, an updated protocol in a more recent post to determining your body’s needs. 

In our society today, we hear a lot about the obesity and overweight epidemic but not very much on under-eating or not eating enough. And we are constantly bombarded with tips and tricks on how to lose weight and feel great, or get a bikini body in 30 days. In fact, just the other day, a “breaking news” story hit the airwaves claiming new research revealing the “truth” behind the age-old debate: Low Carb Diets vs. Low-fat Diets: Which is better? To answer that question, researchers recruited 19 obese volunteers (average weight 230 lbs.+) to participate in a rigorous study. Over the course of two separate 2-week test periods, they were kept in a lab around the clock, where scientists fed them a precise diet. During the first 2-weeks, people ate fewer carbs — 800 calories worth — with no cuts to their protein and fat intake. Then after a few weeks of a break in between, they came back for a second trial—this time being prescribed a low-fat diet and the same caloric restriction in overall intake— 800 calories worth — with no cuts to their carb and protein intake. Additionally, the participants also exercised for an hour each day during both stays. What they found? Both groups lost weight on both diets, but the low-fat diet in this study trumped the low-carbers by a hair.

A disclaimer however? The findings do not necessarily reflect the effects of a long term low fat or low carb diet on the body—which is ‘better’ over the course of time. As ‘breaking-news’ as this study is, it seems like same old song, different tune, right? We know the obesity “epidemic” is a problem (hence the various new stories and research studies with a slightly different angle on how to ‘beat it’ or raising awareness about the epidemic’s detrimental effects). However, what if I told you, we have another crisis on our hands when it comes to our eating habits? Something I, as a practitioner within the health and wellness field, see far more often walk through my office than the chronic obesity epidemic we see in bright and shiny lights on the news?

The issue is: Chronic Under-eating.

Yup. That’s right. Not talking about stuffing your face with too many Cheetohs and midnight Taco Bell runs; Or the overconsumption of sugar and how that’s causing Diabetes; Or the stress your body is under with all that processed food in our Standard American Diet… I am not even talking about deliberate under-eating (such as anorexia). Nope. Chronic under-eating: As in, you are not eating enough on a daily basis for your body to THRIVE. Little do many know, that under-eating can wreak havoc on your health, just like over-eating can: Adrenal fatigue. Stubborn weight gain. Fatigue. Lack of appetite. Inhibited performance in the gym. Stress. Anxiety. Hormonal imbalances. Low thyroid function. Feeling like you are spinning your wheels trying to…lose weight, gain weight, get more energy…and on and on. And little do people experiencing these symptoms correlate them with the amount of food they are (and are not) consuming. I’ve talked with people who come to me, throwing their hands in the air: “I just don’t understand why I’ve struggled with holding onto this weight”…or “My anxiety has been getting the best of me”…or “My hormones have been really off—irregular periods, and low estrogen”… Only to take a peak at a food log to see a low energy intake. And yet, they don’t feel like they are depriving themselves, or at least depriving themselves all the time. One client recently showed me this from a day in the life of her: Breakfast: Fat-free yogurt cup, berries Lunch: Spinach salad with raw veggies and Green Goddess dressing, Diet Coke  Snack: Quest Bar Dinner: Lean Cuisine chicken meal, Side salad Snack: Sugar-free Jell-O. Tired. Sugar cravings. More irritable. Easily stressed. Higher anxiety. And…feeling defeated. She was tired of fighting food, thinking about sugar—and at times, succumbing to binge/over-eating episodes…Tired of being more tired, energy drained…And just wanting to get to the bottom of it all. After all: She was ‘eating healthy.’ Or another example: A woman who had struggled with her weight for most of her life; and yet, if anyone tried hard to be diligent about keeping to a ‘clean’ diet—it was her. Breakfast: 6 eggs whites, spinach, mushrooms Lunch: Salad with tuna, cucumbers and tomatoes with Balsamic vinegar Snack: Fruit smoothie  Dinner: Chicken, broccoli Salads. Chicken. Egg whites. Fruit. Everything she was “supposed to eat” right? Or one more: This gal was wanting to put on some healthy weight to feel stronger and more confident in her own skin. She felt like she was always eating to support her goals and busy lifestyle, but this is what it looked like: Breakfast: 2 Eggs, 2 slices bacon, greens Snack: Apple Lunch: Chicken breast, green beans, ½ sweet potato Snack: 1 scoop protein powder in water Dinner: Ground turkey patties, broccoli with extra virgin olive oil   Looks pretty healthy on paper right? However, given the amount of physical activity she was doing (she enjoyed being active), plus her busy on-the-go lifestyle, and lack of sleep (5-6 hours most nights), her daily habits was not conducive to her bigger goals. While all these clients had different goals and objectives:

  • More energy and hormone balance
  • Stubborn weight loss
  • Weight gain

The same underlying, lingering problem prevented them from attaining those goals: Chronic under-eating. The sneaky thing about chronic undereating?

Are you eating enough?

Often times when not eating enough has become a baseline for meeting your daily energy needs, you actually don’t realize you are not eating enough at all. Here are a 7 signs and symptoms of this silent epidemic that may be impeding on your overall health and progress towards your goals: 1. Weight Plateaus. When we eat a calorically restricted diet, our body goes into what is known as ‘fight or flight’ mode—and not knowing when or if it’s going to get enough energy to sustain it for all the demands it is being asked to do (workout, work, perform daily activities, etc.), then it begins to hold onto its reserves best it can. Forever, we’ve heard the conventional wisdom that a 1200 calorie diet is the ‘key to weight loss success’—when in actuality, this is furthest from the truth. Couple that 1200 calorie diet with often times an increase in exercise intensity or a committed exercise regime, and your metabolism goes into ‘baseline’ function. In order to keep your body as homeostatic as possible, your body (and weight) fights to hold on to what you have—and will work against you when it comes to losing any weight or body fat you desire. The same, of course, can be said for weight gain goals. When you are underfed, the last thing your body can even begin to do is add some healthy weight. Clients are often astounded when I tell them that an 1800 calorie intake is a baseline for the body to even begin to make shifts in body composition changes—this being from quality fuel sources that enhance your metabolic function, and get your body’s fat burning capabilities, and/or muscle-building capabilities properly working. 2. Hormone Imbalances. Irregular cycles, heightened emotions, decreased mood, haywire thyroid function, low libido—are just some of the side effects from ‘off hormones’ via undereating. In addition, when our bodies aren’t getting enough fuel in general, they get stressed! This stress is not just psychological stress either—but physiological, as our cortisol (stress hormone) is elevated and leads to a host of issues, including insulin resistance, impaired sleep, chronic fatigue, and heightened anxiety. Man that sounds like an infomercial for some pharmaceutical with all those side effects. Why is cortisol elevated? Because, like the point above, your body is not in balance! Cortisol fights then to restore balance—but it comes at a cost (symptoms galore!)   3. Infertility. Piggybacking off your hormonal imbalances, when your body is not getting enough energy (particularly fats), then the LAST thing it wants to do is focus on baby-making. Afer all, if it can barely support YOU, then how can it support another? If you’ve been struggling to get pregnant and you have a history of dieting, watching what you eat, or keeping a highly active lifestyle, it’s possible that your low-energy intake may be preventing you from getting pregnant. Even if pregnancy is not on your radar, irregular menstrual cycles (or lack thereof) are also good indicators that your body is not getting the energy it needs, and its ability to support future fertility is not at the forefront (even if you are not wanting to get pregnant now).   4. Depressed Appetite Our bodies are creatures of habit, and if you haven’t figured it out already, they desire homeostasis (i.e. balance). So when they are underfed, and come to terms with the fact that ‘this is the way things are’, then they will try their best to work with you. That being said, they learn how to deal with the lack of nourishment, and learn to survive off the lower caloric intake you consume. So while you may not feel hungry, your body actually could be very hungry—your hunger has just been blunted.   5. Cravings. Often times clients can’t wrap their heads around why their cravings for sugar, or chips and queso, or even Margaritas are so strong. They may not succumb to these cravings…but the cravings are still there. They fight them with all their might, sticking to their sugar-free substitutes, egg whites, fat free dressing, fat-free yogurts, meal replacement bars, thin-which sandwiches…but then they have moments of ‘weakness’ where they just want the Five Guys burger and fries, the double scoop of gelato, or almond butter—by the jar. These cravings are real because…YOUR BODY IS NOT GETTING WHAT IT NEEDS. I particularly see these cravings emerge with those who try their darned hardest to adhere to a low fat diet. When our bodies are deprived, they are going to let us know—and those messages are often interpreted by thoughts, cravings and ‘pulls and tugs’ by food. When we are properly and adequately nourished however, we are able to yes, still enjoy the tastes of a variety of foods—but we are able to have a ‘voice’ as to what it is we put in our bodies, and not feel controlled (in our minds or actions) by our food choices. One more note on this point: Cravings are often an indicator of Blood Sugar Imbalances. Headaches and shakiness before meals, followed by moments of fullness and satiety, followed by ‘crashes’ and enhanced cravings (i.e. that 3 p.m. wall or 10 p.m.-midnight snack attack). Technically, these symptoms are known as Hypo- and Hyper-glycemic episodes. Hypoglycemia is defined as blood sugar below 70 mg/dL (although some experience symptoms at higher blood sugar levels) and common symptoms include these episodes of hunger, shakiness, anxiety, dizziness, sweating, weakness, and/or changes in mood. Hyperglycemia is the opposite end of the spectrum—blood sugar levels spike with an excess of glucose in the system and symptoms may include: headaches, foggy brain, blurred vision, fatigue, increased thirst, and frequent urination. You are more apt to these extremes when you are undernourished because your body is more sensitive to changes in food intake throughout the day.   6. Constipation (Frequent). It’s not fun to feel like you’ve got something stuck in your gut. And undereating can distill those hunger signals with this very feeling of constipation. This is, in great part, due to the effects of undereating on thyroid hormone. Constipation is a common symptom of hypothyroidism, as active thyroid hormone stimulates peristalsis in the gut, keeping digestion functioning smoothly. When your T3 hormone levels (active thyroid hormone) drops, gut motility slows, and this can lead to chronic constipation. If you’re bowel movements are difficult to pass or occurring every couple days, check in with how much you are eating (AND drinking—water!).   7. Your Mood & Energy is Off. You just don’t feel alive. Whatever that means to you. You aren’t depressed necessarily, but you are more apathetic, or distilled in your mood. In addition, you just don’t have the gusto to do all the things in life that you’d like to do. You may be able to be there, be present, but your ability to actually be ‘there’ is a different story. When we aren’t eating enough, energy and mood are affected since your brain isn’t receiving all the optimal nutrition it needs to help regulate and enliven these two things. Food is medicine. Ok, ok. You get it…food is good—not an enemy or something to be at war with. It brings you to life, provides you with an array of health—and may even be the key to the goals you can’t seem to achieve…but how much should you really be eating? Bottom line: Every BODY is different, so in order to determine your best needs or where you may be missing the boat, it’s always best to consult with a nutrition therapist or other holistic professional who ‘gets it’ and can help you problem solve if and how much you are undereating. Additionally, a variety of factors come into play to determine the best needs for your body: Sleep quality, physical activity, history and/or current diseases, stress levels—to name a few. But, as a general rule of thumb, many
professionals agree that the BASELINE caloric target for a homeostatic human body (the lowest amount of calories you should ever eat) is to multiply your ideal body weight by 10. A woman who is 5’ 4” has an “ideal” body weight of around 120 pounds, so she should not eat less than 1200 calories per day. Again, that’s like survival mode, or sedentary-level, energy (as in lying in bed all day). That being said, with the stressors you encounter daily, exercise demands, and metabolic demands from life factored in there, roughly anywhere between 500 or 800 more calories above that baseline function—and that is just for supporting your body to thriving where it was meant to thrive (and if body fat loss or weight loss is part of that equation, it will actually begin to work in your favor…and the same goes for weight gain, or just weight maintenance). Your body desires to be healthy and wants to work WITH you (not against you). Feed the machine, and watch you roar. If you need help problem solving or figuring out what that looks like for YOU, I work with people from all walks of life to empower them to best care for their bodies today (and beyond). Schedule a free 30-minute phone consult to chat about what you’re looking for, or shoot me an e-mail, and we’ll figure out a nutrition template that’s completely designed for your individual needs.

Let’s just chat.

Also, check out this recent post on How to Heal Your Metabolism from Chronic Under-eating     Are You Eating Enough?


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