Not Eating Enough & Weight Gain: 10 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough

Written By

Rhea Dali

Expert Reviewed By

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.

Not Eating Enough - Healthy Food Theme, Hands Holding Knife And Fork On A Plate With Green Peas

Are you not eating enough? If you’ve gained weight you can’t lose or you’re holding onto body fat that won’t budge—no matter how clean or little you eat…you may not be eating enough. 

Read on to find out how not eating enough and weight gain go hand-in-hand, plus 10 signs you’re not eating enough and what to do about it!

And of course: if you’re looking for personal support, let’s optimize your metabolism, body confidence and help you take your health back into your own hands! Book a complimentary 20-minute Health Strategy Call today. 

Introduction: Not Eating Enough & Weight Gain IS a Thing!

Not Eating Enough - Frustrated Young Woman With Scale

You’re eating healthy, working out, drinking water, avoiding sugar, watching your cars or calories…BUT, you’ve gain weight…or can’t lose weight! You may even be holding onto some extra “pudge” (body fat) around the middle or on your thighs.  

And you’re frustrated! 

“What gives?!” You think, “I am doing all the things! Why is my body is working against me?!”

Answer: You may not be eating enough. Mic drop. 

Under-eating—not eating enough—and weight gain go hand-in-hand. 

That’s EXACTLY what happened to me, and for 100’s of patients I work with in my functional medicine practice. It may be happening for you too. The good news? It may sound crazy, but when you begin eating enough and learn how to optimize your metabolism (without starving), weight loss happens naturally and the body fat leans out. 

Under-eating & Weight Gain: My Story

Not Eating Enough - Fat Woman Measures Her Waist With Measuring Tape

For most of my life, I “struggled” with the opposite problem of weight gain — weight loss. After overcoming almost 20 years of anorexia, weight would easily fall off if I wasn’t conscious of keeping it on or if I was stressed.

Then: Hormones happened.

For context, I got my period back (regularly) for the first time when I was 35 years old. My body was finally officially recovered! However, along with the bliss of having a cycle, I quickly learned how our hormones and metabolism can affect our weight and body fat—specifically cortisol!

Enter: my weight gain and body fat from not eating enough

One month in particular, I literally gained 10 pounds OVERNIGHT. And it stuck around for an entire 4 weeks. Despite me living a very active lifestyle daily—lifting, HIIT training, yoga, walking, dance class. Despite me completely avoiding sugar, gluten, dairy, processed foods, seed oils. And despite me not eating enough or less than I ever had in a long time. 

In fact, at this point, I was probably eating approximately 1200 to 1400 calories every day—and not thinking twice about it. 

I finally understood what all my clients had been struggling with for years—excess weight that they’ve been told is caused by things like: “thyroid problems,” “estrogen dominance,” “SIBO,” “candida,” “parasites,” “low progesterone,” “aging,” “processed foods,” “a sedentary lifestyle.” 

Newsflash: Many of these “weight gain explanations” and “root cause” diagnoses are actually byproducts from not eating enough…

Why Weight Gain Happens When You’re Not Eating Enough: 6 Reasons

#1. Your Body is Stressed

You’ve probably heard of the term “survival mode” when it comes to not eating enough or overtraining. And this is true. 

Cortisol—your stress hormone— is VERY sensitive to EXCESS stress. 

And if your cortisol levels get overly stretched or stressed, then, Houston, we have a problem (including weight gain and holding onto excess body fat from under-eating). 

Even BEFORE we talk about hormone imbalances like estrogen dominance, low testosterone, low progesterone, hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s, we simply need to consider cortisol and how cortisol levels are the #1 hormone “mitigator” that alter all other hormones. 

And to be honest, you don’t even need to test it. For one, bloodwork is the LEAST reliable test for cortisol because it’s shifting all day long; and at the very least, you want a saliva and urine sample. That said, it’s no secret that human physiology today is stressed—regardless of the under-eating or not paradigm.

Modern Day Cortisol Stressor Examples

Not Eating Enough - Woman Yawning Near Laptop At Home Covering Mouth With Hand, Sleepy Student Tired Of Spending Too Much Time With Computer
  • Staring at blue screens all day (altered circadian rhythms)
  • Dehydration
  • Sedentary lifestyles or chronic cardio
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Drinking 2+ cups of coffee (caffeine) daily
  • Diet stress: Seed oils, gluten, conventional dairy
  • Constantly comparing yourself to others on social media
  • Toxic mold
  • Endocrine disruptors (birth control pills, meds, hygiene/makeup products
  • Long work days with few breaks
  • Feeling “purposeless” or aimless in your career/work
  • Loneliness 
  • Artificial “junk” light the majority of the day

Throw under-nourishment into the mix, and boom: it’s the perfect storm for elevated cortisol levels. 

An interesting thing to note about stress is that: the body IS resilient. It can handle stress—it will FIGHT to handle stress. So if it’s stressed with under-nourishment, your body will do its best to adapt and function at a lower capacity…and simply show up as “little symptoms” (such as weight gain) in other areas of your health that are less important than things like your heart rate, your breath rate and keeping your organs running. 

Not knowing when its next meal or nutrients are coming, it in turn “holds on” to what its got and tries to preserve what its got by putting your weight loss, body fat loss and lean muscle “tone it up” efforts into the “stall” zone. 

#2. Your Gut is “Leaky” or Dysbiotic (Imbalanced)

Simply put, if you have leaky gut or you don’t have enough healthy gut bacteria, weight gain can happen more easily.

Your body (and gut bugs) are unable to metabolize or “burn through” the food as efficiently as a healthy microbiome, and as a result, gut bacteria harvest and “hold on” to fewer calories.

Did you know that gut bacteria are actually totally different in lean people compared to heavy people?

Studies show when test subjects receive gut bacteria transplanted from overweight mice or humans, they gain more weight; however if they get gut bacteria from lean donors, they lose weight. In fact, another study found that can be changed by over 15 percent just by shifting their gut bacteria.

Translation: If you want to lose weight, gain weight, lose body fat, or boost metabolism, focus on a total gut reset for your microbiome. You will metabolize food differently and do not practice not eating enough. 

#3. Your Gut Motility is Sluggish

Slow digestion from low digestive enzymes, low stomach acid or a sluggish liver and gallbladder can also exacerbate weight gain from not eating enough. Similarly to having a dysbiotic or leaky gut, when you’re not breaking your food down or moving it through the digestive tract, then of course a “slower metabolism” is a byproduct (metabolism = how efficiently all processes of the body work). 

Digestive, stomach acid and proper motility (for elimination-daily bowel movements) helps you “burn through” your fuel more efficiently. 

#4. Your Mitochondria are Tired

Not Eating Enough - Girl With Measuring Tape Around Her Mouth And Junk Food And Vegetables Light Bulbs Above Head

Mitochondria, often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell, play a crucial role in digestion, metabolism, energy production and basically run the show of every process and organ in the body.

Not eating enough or missing out on certain nutrient makes your mitochondria tired. As a result, important metabolic cycles slow down , like the famous “Krebs cycle” that breaks down and uses carbs and fats for energy. 

Hello: weight gain when you look at a sweet potato or think about avocado toast. 

 To function optimally, mitochondria require various nutrients from food (often missing in not eating enough diet), including: 

1. B Vitamins: Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, dairy products.

2. Magnesium: Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale), nuts (almonds, cashews), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds), whole grains (brown rice, quinoa), legumes (black beans, lentils), avocado, bananas.

3. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Organ meats (liver, heart), fatty fish (salmon, sardines), beef, poultry, nuts (pistachios, peanuts), seeds (sesame seeds).

4. Carnitine: Red meat (beef, lamb), poultry (chicken, turkey), fish (cod, salmon), dairy products (milk, cheese), tempeh, avocados.

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, algae oil supplements.

6. Antioxidants: Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), dark leafy greens (kale, spinach), nuts (walnuts, pecans), seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds), dark chocolate, green tea.

7. Lipoic Acid: Organ meats (liver, kidney), spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes.

8. Creatine: Beef, pork, salmon, tuna, cod, herring, milk, eggs.

9. Polyphenols: Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), grapes, green tea, dark chocolate, nuts (pecans, walnuts), legumes (black beans, lentils), olive oil.

10. Protein: Lean meats (chicken, turkey, lean beef), fish (salmon, tuna), eggs, dairy products (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese), tofu, tempeh, legumes (beans, lentils).

Incorporating these foods into a balanced diet can help ensure an adequate intake of the nutrients necessary for supporting mitochondrial health.

#5. Your Brain Thinks You’re a “Beached Whale” (The Gut-Brain Connection is “Off”) 

Symptoms — like weight gain—are often “metaphors” for something “deeper” going on “under the hood.” Dis-ease (stress in our lives) can lead to disease (symptoms) in the body.

The body keeps the score. Pair mental or emotional stress with the “perfect storm” of not eating enough and BOOM—weight gain, body fat and the inability to drop the weight happens easily and effortlessly.

The metaphor for weight gain, body fat and water retention (even if you are eating healthy) is something known as the “beached whale syndrome” or “kidney collecting tubules conflict.” (Ironically, the kidneys sit on top of the adrenals—the stress hormone producers). 

In this syndrome, the individual who has gained weight may feel like a “beached whale” or “fish out of water” both literally and FIGURATIVELY in his or her life. The individual is stressed, maybe even feeling stuck or overwhelmed, and as a result the body physiology mirrors or mimics the internal experience—holding onto water, weight and body fat in order to keep the “fish out of water” alive. 

The most common stressors or conflicts associated with the “Beached Whale Syndrome” include something known as: AIRE. 

  • Abandonment
  • Isolation
  • Refugee
  • Existence (Purpose)

If you’ve recently experienced any (or many) of these in a recent season prior to your “beached whale” weight and water retention, then the body is primed for weight gain—no matter how clean or restrictively you eat. 

Abandonment may look like a recent breakup, a family conflict, loss of a parent or parting ways with a business partner or friend.

Isolation is exactly what it sounds like—feeling alone in something, literally or figuratively: Doctors can’t help you, no one “gets it”, the pandemic locked everyone down, you’re the “only one,” you’re postpartum and feel alone, you recently moved and have no friends or community yet, etc. 

Refugee conflicts are related to being unsettled or wandering—again literally or physically: moving, looking for your place in life or where you fit, in between jobs, toxic mold displacing you from your home, feeling like an “alien” in a “foreign” place (a new school, a new work place, etc.).

Lastly, Existence conflicts arise in the striving for purpose or meaning, or can even happen with a threat to your own “survival”—literally or figuratively, like a recent diagnosis, a job loss, an overwhelming case load at work or demands on the job, a financial setback, also losing a loved one, etc. 

The conflicts go deep and primarily come down to how you perceive certain stressors at play, and whether or not you feel stuck, overwhelmed or any other negative emotions (like fear, anxiety, sadness). 

And again, couple any of these also with not eating enough, and you have the perfect storm for “irreversible” weight gain to occur. 

#6 You’re Lacking Nutrients (& Eating, But Starving at a Cellular Level)

Not Eating Enough - Man Choosing Between Fruits, Smoothie And Organic Healthy Food Against Sweets, Sugar, Lots Of Candies And A Big Hamburger, Unhealthy Food

You can be eating, but starving, at a cellular and metabolic level.

This is true, especially considering that 70% of food sold in grocery stores today and approximately 99% of all restaurants are cooking food in seed oils!

One word: malnutrition.

Even if you’re not the “standard American”—eating Dorito’s, Cheerios and fast food French fries as staples in your diet, “healthy packaged foods” (from paleo and keto approved chips, chocolates, bars, shakes, popcorn, pizza crust, crackers, sugar-free sodas, etc.), as well as nutrient-less foods (think raw vegetables, raw salads, low fat diets, also can hijack our daily nutrient needs if we aren’t mindful to stick to the outer permitter of the grocery store and eating enough nutrient-dense in our daily diet. 

The big idea: calorically, it may seem like you’re eating “enough,” but if your diet is nutrient-less (void of the essentials—proteins, healthy fats and fiber; just like a plant that needs water, sun and rich soil to thrive), then your body thinks you are technically not eating enough and weight gain may be more likely. 

A good “gut check” for the nutrient density of your diet are the Weston A. Price “ancestral diet principles” which include:

1. **Eat whole, minimally processed foods:** Focus on consuming foods in their most natural state, avoiding highly processed and refined products.

2. **Consume nutrient-dense foods:** Prioritize foods that are rich in essential nutrients and avoin not eating enough vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.

3. **Include animal foods:** Incorporate a variety of animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products from pasture-raised or wild-caught sources.

4. **Choose organic and locally sourced foods when possible:** Opt for organic produce and locally sourced foods to minimize exposure to pesticides and support local agriculture.

5. **Include healthy fats:** Emphasize the consumption of natural fats from sources such as butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Not eating enough of these will affect your weight loss goals.

6. **Include bone broths and fermented foods:** Incorporate nutrient-rich bone broths and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and yogurt to support gut health and digestion.

7. **Soak, sprout, or ferment grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes:** Prioritize traditional preparation methods such as soaking, sprouting, or fermenting to reduce anti-nutrients and improve nutrient absorption.

8. **Limit refined sugars and processed carbohydrates:** Minimize consumption of refined sugars, grains, and processed carbohydrates, opting instead for whole, unrefined alternatives.

9. **Prepare foods in traditional ways:** Utilize traditional cooking methods such as steaming, stewing, roasting, and fermenting to preserve nutrients and enhance digestibility.

10. **Emphasize quality and variety:** Aim for a diverse and balanced diet that includes a wide range of foods from all food groups to ensure adequate nutrient intake.

11. **Listen to your body:** Pay attention to your body’s signals and individual nutritional needs, adjusting your diet accordingly to support overall health and well-being.

10 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough

Not Eating Enough - Balanced Diet Food, Meat, Vegetables, Fruits

Not eating enough looks differently for everyone —depending on your activity levels, your gut health, your metabolism and resting metabolic rate and age, but generally speaking, when your activity demands and stressors exceed your intake of fuel and nutrients.

That said, consider these 10 signs of under-eating to help you determine if you’re not eating enough and the root cause possibility of your weight gain.

1. You Can’t Lose Weight &/or You Hold on to Body Fat

Point noted. While it may sound counterintuitive, consider eating more, not less, (quality fuel—especially protein) to get the needle to budge. Not eating enough

    2. You’re Tired All the Time (Despite Sleeping)

    Under-fueling = low energy. End of story. 800 to 1500 to 1600 calories for most people—including women—is simply NOT ENOUGH fuel, and is the biggest “root cause” of low energy (even before you turn to that thyroid). Ideally, most moderately active women need a baseline between 1600-2000 calories daily, and men 2200-2600—as a baseline! Several of my male clients find they need 3000-4000 calories to keep up with their fitness demands; and women may need as much as 2400 calories if their metabolism, gut health and mitochondria are functioning like a well-oiled machine.

    3. You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night

    Three words: Blood sugar dip. As cortisol rises, blood sugar gets “zapped up.” If your cortisol is running higher day in and day out, it’s naturally tapping out glucose stores to keep up. By the time night falls, it strips more glucose from you and the blood sugar dip acts like an emergency break that wakes you up. Always avoid not eating enough.

    4. You Crave or Eat Fruit Often

    Fruit is a natural blood sugar booster and elevator. If your body is hungry and you’re not eating enough, it may crave or send you signals to eat a quick source of energy, like fruit, too. Bump it up! You may also eat raw veggies or just lots of veggies in general, subconsciously considering them “safe” or “free” foods that keep your belly fuller, but don’t supply many calories.

    5. You Don’t Have an Appetite

    Not Eating Enough - Man With No Appetite. He Has Tired, Bad Mood And Sleepy

    Not eating enough increases cortisol which blunts your appetite and metabolism.

    6. You Feel Bloated or Constipated

    Not eating enough slows digestion. As you feed your microbiome less, more and more gut bugs “die off” and under-eating also decreases enzyme and stomach acid production naturally.

    7. You Skip Breakfast & Eat More Later in the Day

    Many of those who do not eating enough wake up “not hungry” in the morning (a common hypoglycemia sign), only to be hungrier or even go into binge mode mid-afternoon and evening—especially if they are on an internal “reward” system to “earn their food” by extending a fast, working out before allowing themselves to eating anything, or only allowing themselves to eat in a certain window.

    8. You Chew Gum, Drink Sparkling Water & Diet Drinks

    All of these blunt hunger and slow down digestive juices, enzymes and stomach acid production. They may be used subconsciously to avoid eating enough.

    9. You Think About Food A lot …Maybe Even Track Macros or Calories

    A hungry brain cues you to think about food or focus on counting more than a nourished brain. This is a naturally built in survival mechanism.

    10. Your Workouts Are Lackluster (& You Can’t “Tone Up” or “Get Stronger”)

    You workout regularly, but your gains? Practically non-existent. Perhaps you’re maintaining your fitness, but muscle definition, power output and even vigor or stamina to “push it” or be fully present during your workout is lacking.

    How to “Eat Enough” 

    There is no one-size-fits-all approach to “eating enough” and it is best to consult with a clinician to customize a protocol for you. That said, here are some general principles to dial in for “eating enough”: 

    1. Aim for 0.8-1 gram of protein (complete: fish, beef, chicken, eggs, beef protein powder) per pound of healthy/ideal bodyweight daily
    2. Drink 8-10 cups of clean, purified water daily with minerals
    3. Eat 3 balanced meals per day—protein, healthy fat and fiber; or at the very least, 2 solid meals and 1 “generous” protein-based snack
    4. Cook your veggies the majority of the time (for better digestion and less bloating, constipation or “fullness” that prevents you from eating more)
    5. Aim for 1-2 servings of paleo-friendly starch/resistant starch per day
    6. Stick to no more than 12-14 hours of an intermittent fasting window
    7. Eat the whole food version of foods (ie. Whole eggs vs. egg whites; real grass-fed butter vs. fake spread; dark meat occasionally—not just white meats; skin on chicken or salmon; real grass-fed burger meat vs. plant-based burger patties. potatoes/rice/squashes for starches vs. avoiding carbs altogether)
    8. Add 1-2 healthy fats to each meal (ie. Almond/nut butter, ghee, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado, grass-fed butter, raw nuts/seeds, olives, avocado oil, skin on chicken or fattier cuts of meat)
    9. Think: “more calories and fuel actually revs my metabolism” and mitochondria (vs. thinking: “more fuel/calories makes me gain weight and get fat”)
    10. Get a baseline of what you are currently eating with a tracking tool like Cronometer then aim for a baseline of 1400-2000 calories per day (women) as a minimum and 2000-2600 calories per day (men) as a minimum (then stop tracking! You don’t have to do it all the time once you get a baseline understanding of what you need). Also consider tracking your blood sugar levels for 2-4 weeks to figure out your patterns here.
    11. Support your gut health and mitochondria!!! (Note: when I brought in quality probiotics, digestive enzymes, apple cider vinegar and mitochondria support, my hormones went OFF THE CHARTS!)

    Restore Your Metabolism, Gut Health, Hormones, Food Freedom AND Find Your Healthy Weight Today

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