October 26, 2014

Undereating, Dieting, and Weight Loss. A Recipe for Disaster!

Diet culture is impossible not to notice and that’s not by accident. The weight loss (diet) industry, is worth $72 billion dollars.  They have alot to gain, monetarily from those looking to loose weight. Unfortunately, the narrative we’re most familiar with is  that skinny is is the only way to be healthy and dieting is the only way to get there. Both of those assumptions are wrong! The diet industry spends billions of dollars, convincing us that the latest diet plan, supplement, exercise thing, or food, will be the one to rule them all.  It drives me nuts to continually hear patients, clients, friends, family etc, trying to do the “right” thing to lose weight, only to be disappointed by their results. and feeling as if they, personally, have failed themselves.  The problem is not the person, it’s the touted plan! I frequently see and hear, one of two scenarios:

  1. “I’m eating the same thing almost everyday. I am being really “good” and I am only eating my fiber cereal for breakfast with skim milk, a cheese stick for snack, yogurt, veggies and fruit for lunch, and chicken breast with veggies for dinner. Why am I not losing weight anymore!? I am doing the same thing as 5 months ago, but now it’s not working!”
  2. Same food scenario as above, but “I have no energy, I’m moody, I’m not sleeping well, and I’m hungry all the time. I think I’m gaining weight. I have dieted this way before, many times, but the weight always returns. Should I cut back further on my portions?

NOOOO! Actually, you may need to eat MORE and have some healthy fats. I know it’s against intuition, but our bodies are really good at compensating and conserving energy (calories/ fat) when not provided enough energy.


Diet food companies and “modern wisdom” would have you believe that losing weight is as easy as cutting calories. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t work that way. If it did, why aren’t we all skinny? Cutting calories really isn’t that hard, especially with all the fake food products on the market, designed for just this purpose (think 100 calorie Special K bars and shakes, Fiber One bars, diet yogurt, diet juice, diet desserts, Snackwells, etc). If weight loss really comes down to calories only, why can’t we just eat 1,200 calories worth of chocolate cake, vs 1,200 calories of unprocessed foods, and get the same results (in overall health markers and weight loss?). And why can’t we just eat pizza and a multivitamin, for the rest of our lives? The multivitamin says 100% of everything you need! It’s too bad things aren’t this black and white, but that’s the logic that calorie cutting and dieting, follows. Our bodies are so complex that they have compensatory mechanisms that slow down your metabolism, when it senses it’s being underfed. Finding a balance of enough food with enough micronutrients, is key for sustained weight loss. This article is only speaking to the nutritional impacts dieting has, but the other half to the equation is the mental and emotional toll, dieting can cause.

Calories are a piece to the puzzle, but are oversimplified. This article does a great job explaining the intricacies of the Calories In Calories Out, approach. The other pieces to the weight loss puzzle, include factors like macronutrient (fat, protein and carbohydrate) ratios, food quality, micronutrient (vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals) adequacy, stress management, sleep, exercise, and diseases or health conditions.

Here are a few negative impacts that chronic under eating can cause:

1.  Poor immune system (getting sick more often, and/or longer recuperation), brittle nails, coarse or falling out hair

  • This results from micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) and macronutrient (protein, fat and carbs) depletion, which supports all the functions of your body. In general (not accounting for specific individuals), if you are eating below 1,300 calories, you simply can’t pack in adequate micronutrients for your body to thrive and maintain all of its functions. That’s assuming you’re eating a whole foods based, high quality diet of 1,300 calories. Micronutrients support every single organ and process, that takes place in your body!

2.  Weight gain or weight plateau

  • It becomes a physical stressor, when your body doesn’t get what it needs. Stress (both physical and emotional) will cause your body to retain fat, due to the increased production of cortisol (a stress hormone).
  • Your metabolism slows down to compensate for the lack of nutrients coming in. This is a normal survival response. In hunter gatherer times, food was sparse at times and plentiful at others. In order to avoid starvation, your body goes into “conservation” mode, when it detects insufficient nutrients.

3.  Irritable, depression, trouble sleeping, feeling cold (especially hands and feet)

  • Your thyroid gland (responsible for metabolic rate, temperature regulation, hormone production, and more) struggles to perform optimally, under stress, caused by undereating.
  • Your blood sugar can become dysregulated, swinging from high to low. When there isn’t a proper balance and adequate supply of protein, fat and carbs, your blood sugar control can be impacted. When you eat healthy fats with adequate protein, you teach your body to use fat as fuel. Dietary fat also helps stabilize the blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. Healthy fats are also important for brain functioning, hence the possible depression and irritability.

These are only a few of the most common scenarios that I see. Here are some steps to consider, to prevent or resolve these problems:


1.  Estimate your current calorie range, so you know where you’re at. You can do this by doing a food journal for a few days, and estimating the calories.

2.  Determine an appropriate calorie range for yourself. Here is a really awesome tool to estimate it for you. You can change your fat. protein and carb ratios, if you’d like. It’s pretty in depth and thorough in terms of suggestions. Don’t get bogged down in the numbers.

3.  Let your hunger, emotional health, symptoms, and weight loss goals, be your guide. Not just one, but all.

4.  If you’re eating many unprocessed or minimally processed foods, it will be much easier to “hear” your hunger and fulness cues.

5.  Be OK with needing more or less food on any given day. This is normal.

6.  Every so often (once or twice a month), increase your calorie consumption considerably. These days will probably happen naturally, so let them! For example, if you’re out to eat (assuming you made good food choices) and your portions are larger than usual, feel free to eat it all if you’re hungry for it. This technique can help ensure that your body gets the signals that there is not a scarcity of food. This can help keep your metabolism revved up and your fat storage hormones in check.