Food is fuel—for life.
And, unfortunately, many of us are NOT eating enough.
Despite living in a country where food is readily available, and a culture that is OBSESSED with telling us we’re eating “too much”—it’s an epidemic I see as I talk to clients on a daily basis, or they share 3-day food logs with me before an initial intake session:
(As in, not eating ENOUGH food for a thriving, healthy, vibrant body).
Unfortunately, many of us have been jaded by messages from personal trainers and Orange Theory coaches, Women’s Health weight loss articles, Halo top calorie labels, and doctor recommendations, telling us, that, “In order to ‘be healthy,’ we need to watch our calories, count our macros and burn more than we consume.”
Others of us don’t care so much about counting calories or measuring our food. We’re health conscious—into “real food” and “clean eating,” a fit and active lifestyle, and occasionally sipping bone broth or green juice—taking care of our bodies.
However, often times, BOTH of us run into the same issues—under-fueling.
Consequently, we then experience some of the common signs and symptoms of under-eating and call them “normal:”
- Slower performance times (runs, WODs); Slow progress or “gains” in the gym
- General fatigue or weakness
- Lower energy
- Dizziness upon standing
- Afternoon yawning
- A slow metabolism or “always having difficulty with my weight”
- Infrequent bowel movements or constipation
- Lack of appetite
- Dependence on caffeine to function
- Sugar cravings
- Dark circles under eyes
- White spots on fingernails
- Slow starter in the morning
- High fruit, carbohydrate, fat-free dairy and/or grain (low-fat intake)
- Avoidance of added fats
- Low protein intake
- Low water intake
- Thinking or obsessing over food
Listen up: These are not normal. (Or at least they don’t have to be).
You don’t know how good you can feel until you feel good.
In other words: You may have been feeling this way for A LONG TIME (under-fed) and thought that is just your “norm.”
So the BIG QUESTION: How do you actually know if you’re eating enough?
Is there a certain calorie amount, macros or perfect-prescription for your body?
Does what you eat depend on how hard you workout?
What happens if you eat more but you’re body actually doesn’t need more?!
Aye aye aye! I know it’s confusing.
Take a deeeeeep breath and simply consider this ONE question:
Am I fully nourishing my body to thrive?
Here are 3 Steps to Figure Out if You’re Eating Enough
STEP 1: TAKE INVENTORY
First things first—big picture here—let’s do some sleuthing.
Log what you eat in a given day—on paper. Not on my Fitness Pal or another app. Old school here. Complete this log for 2-3 days to see a little more insight. Log in approximate portion sizes or amounts (size of my fist, 1/2 cup, etc.), and ALSO log how you feel throughout the day—especially before and after meals. Hungry? No appetite? Low energy? Bloated? Distracted? Write this all down. I also want you to log when you poop (if at all), how much water you drink and any movement or workouts you do—with feelings there as well (i.e. sluggish, powerful, couldn’t wait for it to be done, etc.).
That is all. Take inventory.
STEP 2: CHECK IN
At the end of your 2-3 days, go back and look at this log, and notice patterns you see—if any.
Look for the Signs and Symptoms we noted above, such as:
- Feelings of low energy or Fatigue
- Slow speeds (on your runs or movement sessions)
- Obsessive thoughts about food at certain times
- Poor elimination (pooping is not regular)
- Low water intake (less than half your bodyweight in ounces of water)
- Loss of appetite between meals
- Eating 1-2 times per day because you forget to eat (and then eat a lot in one sitting because you’re starving)
- Thinking or obsessing over food
- Dark circles under eyes
- Drinking 2-3 cups of coffee or caffeine every day (and feeling off if you don’t)
- Afternoon yawning or blood sugar crashes
- Easily irritated/annoyed
- Bumps on your arms, white spots on your fingernails, brittle hair, poor eyesight
- Avoidance of complete food groups
- Or, shakiness before meals
Assess Digestion, Energy & Metabolism
These 3 symptoms deserve extra attention as they can be red flags to “not eating enough.”
Often times if you’re subsisting off of infrequent eating, your body goes into “reserve” mode—meaning it’s on “hold” to preserve what energy you DO get it (because it doesn’t know when or how much it will get next).
Your basic metabolic processes SLOW does because nutrients you do eat have to be dispersed throughout your body everywhere else, and consequently, both your energy levels and digestive function.
Low energy is a given, but often times this low energy has become your “norm” so you are really unaware of it—until you take a moment to stop and think: How do I really feel? (AND the moment that you actually feel more NATURAL energy when you do eat more).
Digestion is also slowed because your body is not getting enough to enliven your, nor is it expected to digest appropriately (i.e. Your stomach acid or digestive enzymes are not called upon as frequently; Or you’re not eating enough fat to help carry nutrients throughout your digestive tract; Or you’re over-fueling on low-micronutrients and difficult-to-digest, dry Quest bars or raw veggies and fruits—without a balance of enough proteins, fats and veggies). Like a car running off fumes, smoke and low gas intake, your body (your car) WANTS to run off premium fuel, but when it doesn’t get it, it tries to make due, the best it can.
Get Mathematical. (JUST for the purpose of this one food log), you can add things up—calorically and/or macronutrient wise. If you don’t know numbers off the top of your head, you do have permission to use Google JUST for this one (counting is not advised nor necessary on a regular basis, lest you go crazy over it, but assessing your overall energy intake is a piece of the puzzle). Baseline measures, for most women, would consider:
- Are you eating less than 1800-2200 (baseline energy needs for a woman)?
- Are you eating a balance of protein, fats and veggies three times per day?
- Are you consuming 75-150 grams of carbohydrates? (P
- Are you eating a fat intake of at least 30-50 grams of added fats?
- Are you eating protein intake at least at .05-1 gram/per pound for your body?
- How’s your blood-work: Vitamin D levels, Iodine levels, Thyroid, White Cell Blood Count?
- Do you have zinc deficiency? (try the Zinc taste test)
Zinc Taste Test (box)
Taste a tablespoon of Zinc Assay and swish it in your mouth. You will find that you experience varying tastes based on your body’s current needs. If your are deficient in zinc, the liquid will taste like water, while if you have adequate levels it will taste bitter. You can assess your levels more specifically using the guide below.
Note: Again, these are baseline numbers without any special diets (such as a weight gain protocol, or a high-training volume considered —which may require MORE energy from your food). In addition, if you are on a Ketogenic or special digestive protocol (such as GAPS, FODMAPS, AIP), then you are potentially even more at risk for “not eating enough”—as you have eliminated a number of foods; so ensuring you are adequately fueling with enough ENERGY is particularly pertinent for you).
The last part of your check-in Are you eating out of fear (i.e. living by food rules, restricting yourself or “saving up” your calories) or are you eating out of love (eating to nourish your body and give it what it needs? Fear could be holding you back from feeling even more amazing.
STEP 3: TEST IT OUT
If you suspect under-eating may be at play, there is really no better way to decide how you feel, perform and if symptoms improve then by adding in some more fuel to the fire. (And by adding fuel to the fire, you may just find you have more energy, boost your metabolism, improve your digestion and don’t realize how good you can feel until you feel good).
Here are some thoughts for adding some more fuel to your fire if you have been under-eating:
Eat 3 balanced meals each day, including:
- Protein (about the size of 1-2 hands; 3 slices of deli turkey or 1 hardboiled egg for breakfast is pretty low)
- Veggies (1/2 your plate, different colors; a mix of raw leafy greens and cooked/steamed with some healthy fat on them)
- Fat Source ( 1-2 serving at each meal)
- Starchy Carbs or Fruit ( 2-3/day with meals or snacks)
Add in 1-2 snacks with a protein or fat as the base of the snack
If you do prefer smaller meals or need a little more energy, here are some ideas:
- Turkey or Ham wrapped around Bell Pepper
- Apple or Celery + 1-2 Tbsp. Sun-Butter
- Coconut Butter Packet
- Beef/Turkey Jerky + Handful Macadamia Nuts
- Beef Isolate Protein Powder, shake up in water, coconut water or almond/coconut milk
- Leftover Protein (turkey meatballs, chicken thigh, etc.)
- Plantain Chips + Guacamole
- Bulletproof Collagen Bars
Make sure you’re getting enough fat.
A REAL serving or two with EACH meal (*add an extra serving if you are getting only one and vary it up). Fat makes everything taste better.
- 1/2 Avocado
- 1-2 Tbsp. Coconut Oil, Ghee, Butter, Nutbutter, Lard, Tallow
- Closed Fist of Nuts/Seeds
- 1-2 Tbsp. Coconut Butter
- 1/4 cup Coconut Flakes, unsweet
Add in some carbs—especially starches. Oh the dreaded 4-letter word: CARB.
A sweet potato a day and then some greens is pretty low carb, and your body may just need a little booster. We are told to “watch our carbs,” but for some under-eaters, the avoidance of this lean-muscle-building and energy-revving macro nutrient can be a game changer, simply by adding in another serving of starch and even a fruit! (On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are eating a high amount of “safe” low fat foods—like carrots and fruits and whole grains—but neglecting fats or proteins, you run in to the same obstacle).
- Sweet potatoes
- Squashes (butternut, spaghetti squash, acorn)
- White Jasmine Rice
- Fresh fruits
- Of course, veggies (leafy greens and other greens)
Don’t go it alone: If this is HARD to do, working with a nutritionist, a coach or functional medicine practitioner could be beneficial
Don’t believe me?
Neither did Sarah.
Until she tried it out.
Sarah was used to eating “just enough”—getting by on just the bare minimum.
Most days looked something like:
Breakfast: 3-4 scrambled eggs whites with veggies and some steel cut oats.
Lunch: A salad with chicken + veggies + fat-free dressing.
Snack: Apple or Fat Free Greek Yogurt
Dinner: Salmon + Broccoli with olive oil.
Most days, she did something active—either in the gym or on the trail. She loved competing in 5Ks and hopping in to a group fitness class.
She reported having energy “most days,” but had recently wondered if she was eating enough as she was thinking of running her first big half-marathon and wanted to improve her running time, while also building some muscle in the gym.
The consensus? Not enough fuel.
The slight edge change?
Upping her servings of the foods she already loved, along with a couple more servings of carbs and healthy fats, and she was a different person.
Her nutrition makeover looked something like this:
Breakfast: 3 Scrambled eggs (the real deal) in ghee with veggies + Steel cut gluten-free oats with cinnamon + sun-butter
Lunch: Leafy greens with a little more chicken + Roasted Beets or Butternut Squash+ Oil & Vinegar + 1/2 Avocado
Snack: Protein shake in coconut milk or Full-Fat Greek Yogurt with Berries
Dinner: Salmon + Japanese sweet potato with grass-fed butter + Broccoli
Nothing “too” dramatic, but simply more mindfulness with fueling her body with adequate nutrition.
She shaved off a full-minute off her mile time, increased her concentration and brain power at work, no longer needed coffee mid-day, lost some extra “mid-section” she was holding on to and reported feeling more bubbly and “alive.”
Food is fuel, not fear or fat.
What would it look like to trust your body and give it what it needs?