One of the most effective ways to meet our fitness goals is to think thoughtfully about what we eat. Whether it’s cutting back on sugars that make us stir-crazy, or dairy that makes us bloated or uncomfortable, everyone’s system needs the right mix to perform well.
In an effort to improve health, many people restrict the amount of calories they consume in a day, especially if they’re concerned that they’re overdoing it. Although there are some ways to shift how much you consume daily, too often people go to the extreme and end up cutting back too much.
In addition to being bad for your mood, your energy, and your sleep, Registered Dietitian Alysha Coughler says that eating too little can slow down our metabolism, and, thus, have the opposite effect that we’re hoping to create. “When you take in dramatically less energy than your body needs, your body can slow down how much fuel it uses, meaning you burn off far fewer calories than normal, which can sabotage your weight loss and slow your body down as a whole,” she continues. It doesn’t just stop there either, since Coughler adds that under-eating on a regular basis can lead to a number of mental, physical, and emotional health issues.
If you’re concerned about your daily tally, take heed of these warning signs that your body needs more noms ASAP.
You’re super-sore after all workouts.
But, shouldn’t you feel a little achy after you challenged your muscles? Sure, but there’s a difference between normal post-workout groans and ones that last a full week. As Coughler explains, some soreness is to be expected, but anything that lasts past a handful of days is worth your concern. “Calories not only give you energy but provide you with the building blocks for recovery. Remove those key ingredients and good-bye performance,” she explains. “Eating around training sessions and getting enough food [throughout] the day can aid how you feel better.” For best results, make sure to eat protein before and after your sweat session, and avoid working out if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or dehydrated to prevent possible injury.
You’re working out—but you feel weaker.
You know that feeling after you crushed an intense bootcamp that you didn’t think you could finish? And then when you did it twice a week for a month? You noticed your arms and legs gaining major strength—not to mention your core. One of the greatest ways to see improvement through fitness isn’t in how we look, but how we feel. So, what about when you’re working out a lot but you actually feel weaker?
Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Keith Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND says that your body may be craving a better balance. When we scale back calories too much, this could result in the loss of lean muscle, which also means less grit and endurance. “Most people get enough protein, but older people can lose muscle mass much more rapidly than younger folks, especially during even a short illness, or anytime they’re not active,” he explains. But, even if you aren’t shooting over the hill, any dramatic restriction will have the same result. The solution is to choose your calories carefully and make sure to have lean protein, like meats, yogurt, nuts, or even cottage cheese, Ayoob recommends.
Your menstrual cycle is off.
When women are in the danger zone of too-few calories, one of the first signs of body distress is found in menstrual cycles. Often times, our regular period indicates overall health and vitality, so when you are skipping a cycle, your flow is different than normal or you’re late without reason, Coughler says that it could mean that your body is having trouble maintaining a hormonal balance. For those who want to have a child, reproductive health must be prioritized. If you have any concerns in this sensitive area, book an appointment with your OBGYN as soon as possible, who can better diagnosis what’s happening.
You have little-to-no energy.
You wanted to work out this morning—but you couldn’t work up the courage. You really did want to meet your friend who is visiting from out of town, but you couldn’t be bothered. When you have little energy and you’re often on the edge of frustration or anger, Ayoob says that it could indicate that your body needs more grub. Or, that you aren’t scheduling your meals at the right time of day to prevent energy slumps. “Too few calories at breakfast can often mean a slump later in the morning and the four o’clock blahs, whether you’re losing weight or not,” he explains. “Breakfast of juice, a roll, and coffee are a perfect recipe for a blood glucose surge and then a drop later in the morning. Get protein in the morning and you’ll blunt that blood sugar rise and keep it more stable throughout the morning until lunch,” he adds. What about if you restructure your breakfast, lunch, and supper times, and you’re still grumpy? You probably need to up your calories.
Your hair and nails are brittle.
While it’s totally normal to lose several strands of your locks every day, if you’re seeing more and more hair accumulating in your hairbrush or drain, Coughter says that it could be a sign that you’re not eating enough. The same is true if your nails are brittle and chipping easily and consistently. “Many nutrients are needed to maintain normal, healthy hair, and nails growth. Inadequate intake of calories, protein, biotin, iron, and other nutrients is a common cause of hair loss,” she explains. “Basically, when you don’t take in enough calories and key nutrients, your body will prioritize the health of your heart, brain, and other organs over hair growth.” Though vitamins can help with this, it is recommended to derive nutrients from a balanced, healthy diet that supplies those goodies naturally.
You can’t concentrate at work.
Often referred to as ‘brain fog’, this feels like staring into the great abyss without being able to pinpoint colors, sounds, or feelings. Coughter says that when we are not getting enough fuel, our bodies will move and our brains will function—but nothing we do will be effective or productive. “Fix this by regulating your food intake—at least two solid meals a day, featuring plenty of clean protein, good fats, and healthy carbohydrates, and you should soon lose the brain fog. If you don’t, it’s time to look at thyroid issues and food sensitivities as possible causes,” she suggests.
You’re not sleeping well.
When your stomach is growling, it’s hard to keep up with how many sheep have hopped the fence. And, what if your head is pounding because you’re dehydrated? Rest won’t come easy. Coughler says that one of the first symptoms that change for most people when they’re undereating is quality of sleep and its duration. “Even if they weren’t necessarily waking up hungry, many of my clients find that an increased calorie intake—especially from carbohydrates—can lead them to fall asleep faster and stop waking up at night,” she continues. This could be due to regulation of chemicals in your brain or more regulation of blood sugars, she notes.
Bottom line? If you relate to any of these signs, it’s time to rethink your meal plan, and focus on getting healthier without sacrificing your performance, happiness, and mind.