Cutting food intake too low can lead to stalled weight loss and even regain in the long term.
Answer these 7 questions to find out.
When we want to lose weight, we start cutting things. We cut out soda, cut down on fat, and cut our calorie intake. If slashing 500 daily calories is good, cutting 1,000 has to be twice as good, right?
Nope. When you go too low, you can drastically damage your metabolism—meaning that you’re working in complete and utter opposition to your weight-loss efforts. For instance, when one New England Journal of Medicine study followed men and women who lost weight through intense calorie-cutting, researchers found that the participants’ metabolic rates and hormone levels were whacked out even a year after they hit their weight-loss goals.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s exactly why "The Biggest Loser study," which assessed the weights of 14 people who lost weight on one season of the show, found that all but one contestant regained everything. For example, Amanda Arlauskas, who was on the show, has a daily caloric burn that’s 591.1 calories lower than it is for the average woman her size. That means, to maintain her weight, she has to eat nearly 600 fewer calories than other women.
“What people forget is that we all have a resting metabolic rate—the number of calories our bodies burn breathing, thinking, and keeping out hearts beating,” says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“If your caloric intake is less than your resting metabolic rate, which is around 1,200 calories for most women, your body is forced to adapt to a lower metabolic rate.” You burn fewer caloriesduring any given activity, making weight loss even harder—and weight gain oh-so easy.
Seriously, that sucks. Luckily, it’s totally avoidable. Start by answering these seven simple questions to find out if you need to be eating more to weigh less.
“If you are consistently struggling to perform your regular workouts or make it to social events that you would normally look forward to, there’s an issue,” Delbridge says. “These all can be signs that your body is turning down the volume on all of its processes [a.k.a. your metabolism] to conserve energy.”
You can feel sluggish on any given day for a million different reasons. But if your energy levels tank around the time you begin a new diet or switch up your eating strategy, it’s possible that you’ve taken your weight-loss approach too far, he says.
Note to self: Never try one of these cray, cray diets:
There’s emotional appetite and then there’s physical hunger. And if your stomach growls or your blood sugar levels drop on the regular, those are signs that your body needs to eat, Delbridge says. Pushing through the pain is a telltale sign that you are going too far in the pursuit of weight loss.
Meanwhile, some people who have pushed through that stomach-gnawing pain for too long actually cease to feel and recognize when they are hungry, explains L.A.-based registered dietitian Lori Zanini, R.D.
Ideally, you should start eating when you feel slightly hungry and stop when you feel slightly satisfied.
If you aren’t eating enough, you’re probably constipated. After all, if not much is going in, not much is coming out, either. Plus, when you drastically cut food intake, you don’t get enough digestion-promoting fiber, says Delbridge.
However, if you haven’t gone today, that’s not necessarily an issue. Women’s individual bathroom schedules vary widely, and it can be perfectly healthy to go three times per day or three times per week. Think about how often you had to go No. 2 before beginning your diet. Ideally, your bathroom habits should be more or less the same now, he says. And if you’re filling up on fiber-rich vegetables, beans, and whole grains, you might even be going more frequently than before.
If you’re not getting enough calories, you’re probably not getting enough calcium, potassium, sodium, and other electrolytes either, says Delbridge. And in response to low electrolyte levels, your body tells you it’s thirsty. That may be because dehydration (due to sweating) is the most common trigger of low electrolyte levels in the human body. Unfortunately, unless you turn to coconut water or a sports drink, chugging water won’t quench your need for electrolytes, he says.
So if you constantly feel thirsty, but all of the water in the world won’t seem to fix it, you might actually be hungry.
If so, it's likely that you aren't properly fueling your body to provide the consistent energy it needs in a day, says Zanini. The right number of meals, however, isn’t quite as definite. While some people like to eat three meals per day, others prefer five to seven mini-meals spaced throughout the day.
Cutting food intake too low can lead to stalled weight loss and even regain in the long term. But in the short term, it actually yields crazy-fast weight loss, which many women assume is a good thing. However, if you find yourself losing more than a couple of pounds per week, it’s a warning sign of regain later, says Delbridge. When you lose weight quickly, your hormones get out of whack and your muscle mass drops big time. That means that your metabolism takes a hit. Your goal: Lose no more than one to two pounds per week.
It’s human to overdo it every few months or so, but if your bingeing becomes much more frequent or intense after starting a diet, there are two possible explanations. Either your diet is too strict for you to handle or your body is legit freaking out and trying to recoup some of the calories that it needs, Delbridge says. Either way, the solution is to eat more.
You’re eating enough: This isn’t a one-and-done test. Rather, it’s important to ask yourself these questions regularly throughout your weight-loss journey, says Delbridge. That’s because your food intake can ebb and flow over time, but so can your exact caloric needs. Ten pounds from now, you’ll likely need to eat fewer calories to keep losing weight than you do today, he says.
Try lowering your food intake just slightly (think: by 50 to 100 calories) after every 10 pounds lost. On the flip side, if you ramp up your exercise routine, you’re going to need more energy (a.k.a. calories) every day.
Even if you sidestep crash dieting, weight loss naturally results in a small decline in resting metabolic rate. The only way around that is to build muscle. Muscle acts as your body’s metabolic furnace, and is the single factor in your metabolic rate that you can control, he says.
You’re not eating enough: Eat, baby, eat! But don’t just raid the junk food aisle. Instead, focus on eating more nutrient-rich foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes, says Delbridge. Start by increasing your daily food intake by 200 to 300 calories.
That could mean eating one extra snack per day (toast with peanut butter and banana, anyone?) or simply topping your salads with some chickpeas and strawberries. See how your weight responds. You may need to tweak your intake—either up or down—from there.