As a Nutritional Therapist and certified T-Tapp trainer, I get asked many different questions about food and nutrition. I’ve also looked over my fair share of food journals. It didn’t take long for me to notice one commonality shared by the vast majority of women I have worked with over the years.
So, what was the most common nutrition misstep of women I counseled between the ages of 18 and 65?
Surprisingly, the biggest roadblock hindering their success wasn’t “failing” to eat enough fruits and veggies (though arguably, we could always use more.) It wasn't even failing to consume enough dietary fat, which is a common problem.
THEY DON’T EAT ENOUGH.
The vast majority of women that I have worked with over the years were severely under-eating, and nearly all of them were doing it unintentionally. These women were of all shapes and sizes and came from many different health backgrounds. I remember my first client so well. I was surprised to learn that after asking for 3 days of typical food intake, my client was eating an average of 1300 calories a day. Alarm bells went off in my head. A SMALL CHILD requires roughly 1200 calories of day. For goodness sake, this was a full-grown human AND she was doing Crossfit 4 days a week!
The symptoms were clear. It’s like her body was screaming, “GIVE ME MORE FOOD, WOMAN!” I know this may sound elementary (and it is!) but actually consuming enough calories, enough units of energy, is crucial. More crucial, perhaps, than over-analyzing every bit of food that is taken in. If I am working with a woman who is already mindful of what she is eating, then it is especially important that she takes in enough of the food she so mindfully prepares.
The following symptoms can often occur in women who under-eat and are correlated with decreased caloric intake:
Brittle hair and nails
Irritability, feelings of rage
Repetitive, negative thoughts
Fat storage in the hormonal fat storage zones (Upper arms, hips, and abs)
Constipation & slowed digestion
Gaining weight or belly fat without any major changes to the diet
Hypothyroid (under-active thyroid) symptoms, such as feeling cold all the time
Multiple night wakings with difficulty falling back asleep (from wacky cortisol levels)
Uncontrollable eating, especially at the end of the day (the body’s way of trying to get more nutrients when it is being deprived of food)
Low energy levels
Muscle wasting, and/or a “skinny-fat” appearance of physique
Women only: Infertility, hormonal imbalance, excruciating or unpredictable cycles, and/or Amenorrhea
(note: Correlation does not always equal causation. You know yourself best.)
The following is a scenario I see quite often. A client comes to me saying she is struggling to “lose weight.” She feels guilty and concerned about food intake as a result and winds up averaging 1300 calories a day. Her metabolism plummets, her cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise from lack of calories and her already stressful lifestyle. She eats a lot on the weekends because she just “feels hungry all the time” and is then decides to “rein it back in” on Mondays. She feels as if she "just looks at a cupcake" she will gain weight.
Of course, exactly how much energy a person’s body might burn up is bio-individual and unique. And lest you assume that I am saying something along the lines of, “A Calorie is a Calorie,” science has shown us that all calories are not created equal. You can choose for it to be full of nutrients that nourish your body in addition to being a unit of energy for the body to burn up for fuel. It's not an "either/or" situation. Both quality and quantity matter when it comes to food. Calories, the more nutrient dense the better, and lots of ‘em, is what your body craves. It's necessary for stress management, for repairing muscles + managing inflammation after a workout, for healthy skin and nails, for growing and feeding another human, for the energy to manage your home and/or business.
But, all is not lost. Thankfully, unlike the many complexities of the nutrition world, this one is a fairly easy fix. You eat more! Yay! And that's not as difficult as you may think. Depending on your needs, it may be as simple as adding a little more food to each meal, such as eating 4 scrambled eggs instead of 2, a whole avocado instead of a half avocado, sauteing your veggies in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil instead of 1/2 tablespoon, etc.
Sometimes, especially if you have been unknowingly under-eating for a while, it may not be enough to simply go by your hunger and fullness cues, at least initially. As with chronic dehydration, where the body down-regulates the signal that triggers thirst, the same thing can happen with hunger and fullness cues. However, your appetite will return after you begin to intentionally eat a more appropriate level of calories. I have had clients take anywhere from days to weeks to get their hunger signals working again, but I've yet to have a client who has attended one of my classes NOT get their hunger and fullness correctly calibrated.
As such, it can be helpful to keep track of how much you are eating each day and roughly how much you are burning up each day in the form of exercise, whether formal or informal (and yes, chasing a toddler counts!) Especially if you T-Tapp, you'll really want to pay attention to this, as it burns much more calories than traditional exercise and keeps your basal metabolic rate higher for hours afterwards.
I can feel some of my readers bristling at the suggestion of having to TRACK something. I completely understand, as that was my initial reaction in the beginning. However, when done for a short period of time, it can be a helpful tool to determine if you are coming close, or are missing the mark from a numbers standpoint. When it comes to food, it's not an "either/or" situation. If we are at all interested in our overall health, we ought to be considering both the quality AND quantity of the food we are taking in.
This is personal for me because I have seen firsthand just how much of a difference it can make. Over the past 4 years or so, I've changed quite a bit. I went from working out strenuously every single day while eating like a rabbit to working out more efficiently using T-Tapp....while routinely out-eating my husband. It is interesting to note that at least for my body, if I do not eat enough, I get physically bigger. My clothes get tighter, and I feel more inflamed.
As of this writing, I am 7 months postpartum and have been breastfeeding exclusively. For my readers who may be a Mom or for those who are preparing for Motherhood in the future, getting in enough food during this time is especially important, as the need for enough nutrition before, during and after pregnancy is absolutely vital. It is not a time to "cut calories," no matter what the mainstream media may tell you. Ironically, the gender that has been created with the honor of being able to bear and nurture life is the very same one that our culture comes after with a scale and talk of "weight-loss diets." Are we at all surprised that as a culture, women are led to believe they must eat less? Women's bodies do things (like having babies!) that require LOTS of nutrient-dense calories.
You'll notice that this post is focusing on women under-eating and that I don't really mention men. I work primarily with women so on that point, I can speak with more authority. While men definitely can under-eat, particularly those with very active lifestyles, I think it is much less common than it is for women.
As with everything else going on in the body of a bio-individual human being, finding out how much to eat isn’t a cookie cutter sort of process. Yes, there are calculators out there for finding your basal metabolic rate, however, I am not here to give you an exact formula. I only want to encourage you to discover what works best for you. Journaling can be helpful as you discover your "sweet spot." Did you notice irrational anxiety cropping up after you had a stressful morning at work and subsequently skipped lunch? How about a dragging feeling by 2 pm after you rushed out the door without breakfast that morning? Notice what your body is saying to you!
Under-eating, whether intentional or not, is detrimental to the body. Taking the time to figure out your own unique “sweet spot” for balancing the calories you take in and the calories you expend is so worth it. You may be surprised to find that many issues with energy, mood, even your outlook on life stem from the quality and quantity of nutrition you choose to put into your body.