Are You Eating Enough Food?

July 3, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Betsy Varghese, M.D. contributes to topics such as Internal Medicine.

7 signs that you may be undereating

By Brianna McCabe

Maybe you’re trying to lose weight. If so, welcome to the club.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve searched online for simple solutions and quick fixes to miraculously sculpt your body into something that even Michelangelo would be in awe of. (And trust me, I’ve dove deep into the web which, in turn, stresses me out—resulting in my hand diving deeper into a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips.)

But the fact of the matter is, the key to losing weight is cutting calories.

So, mathematically speaking of course, if you cut hundreds of calories a day then you are bound to shred pounds of fat away, right?

“That’s not necessarily the case,” explains Betsy Varghese, M.D., board certified in internal medicine and obesity medicine. “You may actually be undereating—which can be as harmful to the body as overeating.”

How many calories per day should you eat to maintain your current weight?

“Before going into undereating, it’s important to understand just how much a person should be eating on a daily basis,” says Dr. Varghese.

As a general rule of thumb, she recommends the following caloric consumption for moderately active individuals:

  • Females ages 19-30: 2,000 – 2,200 calories
  • Males ages 19-30: 2,600 – 2,800 calories
  • Females ages 31-50: 2,000 calories
  • Males ages 31-50: 2,400 – 2,600 calories
  • Females over the age of 50: 1,800 calories
  • Males over the age of 50: 2,200 – 2,400 calories

Aside from gender and age, Dr. Varghese notes that a healthy recommended calorie consumption is also dependent on factors such as weight, height, level of physical activity and underlying medical conditions (such as hyperthyroidism). “So really, this calorie range varies for each individual,” she explains.

How many calories per day should you eat to lose weight?

One pound of fat equates to roughly 3,500 calories—with a healthy fat loss being around 1-2 pounds a week at a maximum. To accomplish this, you would need a 500-calorie deficit each day.

“However, you can also create this deficit by increasing your physical activity alongside reducing caloric consumption,” says Dr. Varghese. For instance, someone running a 10-minute mile can burn over 200 calories in 30 minutes. So that, in addition to cutting 300 calories from food, would equate to 500 calories.

What happens if I cut out more calories than recommended?

“You’re undereating,” says Dr. Varghese.

Undereating refers to a negative energy imbalance that results when energy intake is less than energy expended. “In other words, you are consuming fewer calories than what your body needs to properly function,” she explains.

Signs that you are undereating

If you’re undereating, Dr. Varghese outlines some of the warning signals that your body may be trying to send you:

  1. You’re fatigued. One of the most obvious symptoms is the feeling of constant tiredness and exhaustion. “This is because your body is not getting the fuel it needs to perform its daily functions. You can’t drive a car on empty, can you? A similar analogy can be used for your body in which food is our gasoline.”
  1. You’re constantly irritable. The brain uses glucose as its main form of energy. Therefore, when you aren’t eating enough food the brain oftentimes isn’t getting fed. “This can start to affect your cognitive processes,” Dr. Varghese says. “Any self-control, reasoning or level-headedness traits can become impaired—resulting in more ‘irritable’ behaviors.”
  1. You’re having trouble losing weight. If you are chronically undereating, your body does not know what is going to happen. “Will it get fuel? Will it not? The body will go into this energy conservation mode, in a sense, and will begin to store up fat and break down muscle,” she says.
  1. Your body seems to always feel cold. “When you’re chronically undereating, it’s possible you aren’t getting enough iron, which is the building block of red blood cells,” shares Dr. Varghese. Red blood cells provide oxygen to the body and promote blood flow. If you are not getting enough oxygen or blood flow, generally the small blood vessels called the capillaries will tighten up. “When capillaries constrict, less blood reaches the skin and extremities causing you to feel cold,” she continues.
  1. You’re losing hair. When you are chronically undereating and your hair begins to fall out, it’s a sign that your body is in a state of nutritional deficiency. “Your body is also in survival mode,” says Dr. Varghese. “Your hair is not needed for survival. So instead, your body will use whatever sources of energy it can to support your life-sustaining organs.” Undereating can also cause thyroid hormone levels to decrease, resulting in hypothyroidism and hair loss secondary to that.
  1. You have difficulty falling—and staying—asleep. Going to sleep on a starving stomach may mean that you don’t have enough energy to get through the physical and mental processes that is required for a night of rest.
  1. You can’t get pregnant. “This is called functional hypothalamic amenorrhea,” explains Dr. Varghese. “The area of the brain that responds to different inputs regarding hormones isn’t being fed to know that more hormones should be made.” Your body goes into a low estrogen state and this interferes with ovulation, she adds.

Having a healthy relationship with food

If you are undereating or even overeating, it’s important to try to understand why this is happening. “What is your goal?” questions Dr. Varghese. “If you’re undereating, are you trying to lose weight? If you’re overeating, are you using it to deal with emotional stressors?”

“Don’t feel bad about this, either,” reassures Dr. Varghese. “A lot of people struggle with having a healthy relationship with food. It’s best to talk to your primary care provider or nutritionist to learn how to better manage this partnership.”

Food is fuel

“After all, the food that we eat can either be used to promote our health or promote disease,” says Dr. Varghese. “And when you look at food as just calories—it’s too simplified.”

For instance, the calories from a box of cookies is different than the calories from fresh vegetables and a serving of quinoa. So while we like to simply focus on calories to lose weight, the quality of the food you eat very much affects weight loss efforts. “Promote good health with whole, unprocessed food,” she adds.

Dr. Varghese recommends individuals use a food journal to track their meals, calories and macronutrients. “It can be tedious at first, but it really gives you a better understanding of not just how much you are eating, but the quality of food that you are eating, too,” she says.

Dr. Varghese is located in Rochelle Park and is a physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, a network of more than 1,000 physicians and advanced providers at over 300 practices throughout New Jersey. She is also a physician at The Center for Bariatric Medicine and Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.