When I made the shift to a paleo, whole-foods-based diet a few years ago, I felt like I was a baby learning to eat food for the first time. I realized that I had no idea how much I should put on my plate when it came to unprocessed foods. Before that, I would just eat “one” of whatever was in front of me, or whatever amount I was used to eating throughout my life. I’d eat a burger and a container of fries. A bowl of pasta. A sandwich. A bowl of ice cream. A protein bar. A can of soda. I would pretty much just eat whatever was put in front of me. When I finally went through the process of learning to cook for myself and changed my diet to be centered around proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables, it was a whole new ball game.
I based my “portions” on what I read and saw on the Internet, on social media, and in magazines. I also looked at what other people were putting on their plates. I felt very awkward and embarrassed about the fact that I had no idea how much of each food I should be putting on my plate. 2 eggs or 3? 4? How many vegetables? A teaspoon of cooking fat or a tablespoon? The whole banana or just half? If I’m using coconut milk instead of almond milk, should I use less? A whole piece of chicken, or half?
Questions like this raced through my mind, and I tried to get the answers from the resources I had available. I also visited a number of top nutritionists in L.A, hoping they could give me some guidance. I wanted to make sure I was eating the “right” amount.
I followed the advice I was given. I copied the portions I saw other people putting on their plates. I watched and read every “What I Eat In A Day” video and blog post I could find. I ate the amount the world was telling me was “healthy,” so why did I still feel like crap? I had brain fog, hypothyroidism, and zero energy throughout the day. I had weird blood sugar fluctuations despite the fact that I was eating the “perfect” diet for blood sugar regulation, and I felt like my body was screaming “ADRENAL FATIGUE!” at me. I was bloated and constipated, and my moods were all over the place. I also had a really twisted obsession with looking up dessert recipes on Pinterest, even though I knew I wouldn’t actually eat any of them because it didn’t fit into my “perfectly portioned” plate.
I was accidentally undereating. By a lot. While undereating definitely wasn’t the sole cause of my issues, it certainly played a major role in why I struggled with so many symptoms. Eating more probably would have knocked off at least half of them. I had no idea I was undereating, though. I wasn’t hungry after my meals, and I had seen plenty of nutritionists who told me that my portions were perfect – some even told me I could eat less food if I wanted to.
Looking back, it perplexes me that no one told me to eat more food. That simple switch could have saved me a lot of discomfort, and it also would have prevented me from having to deal with the health repercussions of undereating that popped up later on. Years later, and I am still working on reversing some of the damage my stint of accidental undereating did to my hormones, metabolism, thyroid, and even mental health.
This is a story I’ve seen play out too many times since. I would say that about 90% of people who come to me are undereating. Yes, it’s really that much. I work primarily with women, but I also see this often with men in the health space. While a large portion of the population is overeating, it is clear to me that that’s not the case with most of the people in my bubble of the Internet / people in the “healthy eating” space. When I look at my clients’ food journals, the advice given on the Internet by both “influencers” and health professionals, and the questions I get on Instagram and in my group program, I have no doubt that undereating is the greater issue for the population already interested in health and fitness.
This is something I’ve always been passionate about because of my own personal history, but recently I’ve been thinking about it more than before and felt called to write a post about it. I was a guest on my friend Meg Doll’s podcast last week, and we covered this exact topic. If you’d like to listen to that episode of the Unbreakable You podcast, head here (episode 30). The response I got after that episode made me think, Okay, we need to talk about this more. It was clearly a topic that resonated with many others.
I think there a few different reasons why undereating has become so common in the health and fitness space. First of all, many people accidentally undereat when they switch to a paleo or whole-foods based diet. When you eliminate processed food, refined sugar, grains, legumes, and corn (or some combination of those), you’re simultaneously dramatically reducing your caloric intake (and carbohydrate intake, but that’s for another post). Even if someone doesn’t move to a completely paleo diet, this is common for anyone who starts to eat “healthier.” Whole foods are naturally much lower in calories than processed, refined foods. They’re also metabolized differently in the body. Your body actually utilizes more energy to metabolize whole foods than it does processed foods.
If you’re moving from a bowl of cereal, a sandwich, and a bowl of pasta to eggs and spinach, a salad, and veggies with chicken at dinner – that’s a big reduction in calories. This in itself is a main reason why people might be accidentally undereating. Beyond that, many people who transition to a whole foods diet accidentally go too low in carbs, fat, or sometimes both. They stick to low carb veggies without going out of their way to add in sweet potatoes and plantains, and they usually don’t go out of their way to add plenty of fat to their meals. That’s an even bigger energy deficit.
Then we have the issue of the widespread, poor information being communicated in the “health” community. The Internet is useful when it gives us access to good information, but it also opens the door for us to see bad advice just as easily. Combining this with social media breeds comparison. People post photos of their meals and take videos of what they eat in a day (or, what they claim to eat in a day). Magazines and books give out meal plans for weight loss or healthy eating. Suddenly, we are much more aware of what other people are eating than we ever have been before. This is not necessarily a good thing.
There are plenty of “influencers” who show their meals or what they eat in a day, and it’s often simply not enough food for a healthy adult. However, what really saddens me is how many nutritionists and doctors I see who are setting the example of low-calorie diets. Just this morning, a friend sent me a “What I Eat in a Day” from a popular, very intelligent functional medicine doctor, whose day of eating happened to be less food than my breakfast. I am not exaggerating.
There are a few pieces to this. First of all, we never really know how much food someone is truly eating. If someone posts their breakfast, you don’t know what they’re eating the rest of the day. You don’t know who snacks, who eats 3 square meals, and who goes back for seconds. You also don’t know what they ate yesterday, or what their appetite will be like tomorrow.
You also don’t know the state of that person’s health. Do they have hormonal problems? Gut issues? Are they active? Sedentary? Are they someone who just has a naturally higher or lower metabolism? Do they have an emotionally strained relationship with food? Are they used to being hungry?
You also don’t know who is being totally honest about their food intake. Trust me, a lot of people lie. I’ve seen it! Even if they’re not lying on purpose, most people are relatively inaccurate when it comes to recalling their food intake. (This is why we pause at the accuracy of any studies that depend on participants’ reports of their own behaviors…) Sometimes they “forget” about their snacks or extra portions, but many people also do not have an accurate perception of how much they’re really eating. For example, people say they are putting 2 tablespoons of almond butter in a smoothie and are really only using 1/2 a tablespoon. Or they say they use 1 teaspoons and really put in 2 tablespoons. This “portion distortion” is also common with protein, especially for women. I have had many women tell me they eat 5 or 6 ounces of meat with their meals, and then we find out they were really only getting 2 or 3 ounces. I see this on social media all the time. Someone will post a photo and label it “6 ounces of meat” when it’s actually probably only 3, or the other way around.
Also, don’t be fooled by people who talk about the dangers of undereating. Sadly, I’ve seen many people who are advocating for women to stop undereating only proceed to give recommendations for women to eat … STILL NOT ENOUGH FOOD. It’s very confusing when someone is talking about the importance of eating enough and then goes on to recommend a 1500 calorie diet. This is why women have a distorted idea of what enough food really is.
A lot of undereating stems from the comparison game we play. This is the most common response I get from clients when I let them know that they should be putting some more food on their plates: “But *insert name of random person* eats way less than that!” “But I eat more than everyone in my family!” “Trust me, I eat more than everyone around me. I’m not undereating.”
Thanks to the media, we all have preconceived notions about how much food we should be eating. We have been told that men should eat more than women, that it’s not ladylike to eat a lot of food, that we should eat only until we are 80% full, that athletes should be eating more than people who aren’t sedentary, that we’re eating too much if we go back for me, that models have “ideal” bodies by eating less, and that all restaurant portions are too large so we should only eat half. Additionally, when people sit down for a meal with others, they’re often conscious of how much other people are eating. Well, not everyone, but usually people who tend to undereat or who are self-conscious of their bodies tend to be hyperaware of how much food others are eating, and oftentimes they don’t want to eat more than people around them. They think, “I shouldn’t be eating more than my boyfriend!” or, “I shouldn’t be eating more than my friend, she’s an athlete AND she’s 5 inches taller than me!,” or, “No one else finished their plate, so I’ll leave a little, too.”
People have gotten into the habit of eating according to what they think are appropriate “portion sizes” (based on questionable resources) rather than actually listening to their bodies. This brings me to another cause of undereating – following meal plans and macro counters. This is a tool for intentional undereating just as much as it is a tool for unintentional undereating. This is especially common in the fitness world, where people are put on macro plans that have them in a steep calorie deficit for far too long, which takes a massive toll on their health in the long run and downregulates their metabolism. Many people who want to lose weight will simply stick their height, weight, and activity level into a macro tracker and eat according to that. Others will find a book that promises to help them lose weight and solve their health issues, and they follow the meal plan in the back. In my opinion, this also leads to undereating more often than not.
Somewhere along the way, a large portion of the health community turned eating into a competition of who could survive off of the least amount of food, as if eating less made them a better human being. The recent popularization of intermittent fasting and keto has only perpetuated this attitude. Somewhere along the way, the health community decided that anything that leads to short-term weight loss must also be healthy… when it’s actually the opposite.
Let me be clear – OVEReating is also a problem for those who are struggling with it and can cause serious health issues. Overeating is not healthy. However, that’s not what I most commonly see with my specific demographic. We need to talk about the other side. Not everyone is overeating.
What’s the problem with undereating? Well, there are quite a few. Undereating might be the root cause of your “mysterious” health issues – the ones that still lag around despite your clean diet, dedicated workout regimen, and excellent sleeping patterns. This is an example of when trying to be too healthy actually backfires and makes you less healthy. Here are some examples of symptoms that might arise as a result of undereating:
- feeling tired, sluggish, and low-energy
- poor sleep / insomnia / waking up during the night “to pee”
- dysregulated blood sugar (shakiness, dizziness, fatigue, and cravings after meals can be signs)
- dizziness when you stand up
- midsection weight gain (lower belly fat)
- thyroid issues
- irregular or missing periods
- unable to gain strength in the gym
- not having enough energy for a workout
- feeling depressed and/or anxious
- mood swings
- sensitivity to cold
- reduced libido
- getting sick often
- slow wound-healing
- HPA axis dysfunction (commonly known as “adrenal fatigue”)
- Brain fog
- Binge eating / cravings OR complete loss of appetite
- Thinking about food all the time
- Wondering if you’re hungry or if you’re eating enough food
Just because you have one of these symptoms doesn’t mean you’re undereating, but if you’ve been struggling with any of these symptoms and can’t figure out the root cause despite your health habits, I would investigate to make sure you truly are eating enough.
While I won’t dive into all of those symptoms in this post, there are a few I want to highlight, because many of them lend themselves to the continuing cycle of undereating.
First of all, many women who are undereating don’t feel hungry. It’s not like they’re starving and still not eating – many of them genuinely feel full off of the amount of food they’re eating. This is why it can be so difficult for them to realize that a bit more food on their plate could help them feel better. They think, “Well I really am full, so I don’t think eating enough is my problem!” Our bodies can adapt to whatever caloric intake we provide them with over a period of time. If the body realizes it’s going to keep getting a certain amount of food, it will adjust your hunger signals (and the way your body functions in general) appropriately so that you don’t feel starving all the time. Your body doesn’t WANT to feel hungry all the time – that’s way too stressful! This is why sometimes women feel overly full when they first start to increase their calories toward a more appropriate amount for their bodies. Their hunger signals eventually turn back on, but it can be awkward at first. Even if your brain doesn’t think your hungry, your body might still be.
On the other hand, there are plenty of women who do feel hungry but don’t want to eat more because they are angry at themselves for being hungry despite having already eaten what they’ve deemed is the “right” amount. “I already ate half an avocado.. I shouldn’t need a WHOLE one at a sitting!” They’re punishing themselves for being hungry, but being hungry is not a fault. It’s a natural signal from your body that it needs more fuel.
I find that most people who think they might be undereating, or wonder if they are, usually are. It’s better to err on the side of eating a little more than not eating enough.
Undereating is a stressor on the body. If your body thinks it’s in a famine, this can increase cortisol levels. Not only does this disrupt everything from digestion to thyroid function, but it can also lead to a weight gain rebound effect in the long run. Even when people lose weight initially by eating less food, they usually end up months or years later with “unexplained” weight gain out of nowhere. This happens for a few reasons. First, the increase in cortisol production itself can lead to increased belly fat. Second, undereating will slow down the metabolism so that if you ever do eat more calories, your body will be more likely to immediately store that as body fat. How do you avoid this? Slowly increase your calories to an appropriate amount… and stop undereating.
Women are often shocked to find out how much more food they should be eating to be healthy. They don’t realize how much they need to eat on a paleo-style diet to get enough calories. Most whole foods have a lot of volume for not very many calories. Many women I work with overestimate how many calories they’re eating every day. They might think they eat between 1800 and 2000, and they unknowingly only eat 1400. They also often don’t realize that most whole foods are naturally low in carbs. People think they’re eating “moderate carb” when they’re actually very low carb. They also don’t realize that yes, you have to go out of your way to include fat on your plate. You might be using a teaspoon of oil and think it’s a tablespoon – that’s a very common one. While I don’t think that measuring or tracking is necessary at all, and might be a bad idea for many women if it triggers them, sometimes it can be eye opening for people to really know how much they’re eating.
Undereating is subjective. Everyone requires a different amount of food. There will be certain people who naturally have faster metabolisms, and others who have slower metabolisms. Some people are more active, others are less. Some are under stress, others aren’t. For example, I can eat a lot of food. I have a fast metabolism, and my body is currently in a stressed out state because of certain health issues I’m dealing with. It needs a lot of food right now. Other people who have a slower metabolism naturally or who aren’t dealing with the same health imbalances I am would do fine with less than me. It’s all individual.
That being said, in my experience, most people who come to me are undereating for their specific bodies, and they don’t realize that it’s the root cause of many of their health symptoms. Sometimes this is hard for people to wrap their heads around – especially women. When I tell them that I like my ladies to be eating 2000 calories at a minimum, they look at me like I’m a psychopath. Then they thank me 3 months later when they feel amazing and feel free around food.
Do you remember what you ate like when you were a kid? You just ate. You didn’t think about how many calories were in the meal in front of you, or how much was the “right” amount. You ate, and if you were hungry you grabbed more. You ate, and if you didn’t want to finish your plate you didn’t. There were probably days you ate two or three times as many calories as “normal,” and probably days you ate half of what was your “normal.” But you probably never thought about it that way.
As adults, we know too much. We’ve gotten away from listening to our bodies. It’s not normal for people to eat the same exact number of calories every single day of their lives. It would be normal for our ancestors to have days where they had a very high caloric intake, maybe followed by days where they ate less. It all evened out – but only because we used to have a much better sense of listening to our hunger signals. Today’s food supply has tainted our hunger signals, so we need a new approach. While there are plenty of people in modern society who are eating too much food because it’s so easily accessible, there’s also a large number of people in the health community who are on the opposite end of the spectrum and majorly undereating.
Let’s think back to a time a long time ago where we didn’t have social media or magazines or an overabundance of “health” information. Crazy, I know. If your body was sending signals to you that it was hungry, would you ignore it? Probably not. We live in an age where we have attached the labels of “good” and “bad” to hunger, which is utterly ridiculous. Being hungry is not a failure or a bad thing, it’s simply your body telling you it needs more fuel.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you eat more than your boyfriend or your dad. It’s okay if you’re out with your friends and no one finishes their plate but you do, and you also want a dessert. It’s okay if you want seconds or thirds. It’s okay if there are seasons in your life where you are more hungry or less hungry. It’s okay if you have a day where you feel ravenous. It’s okay if you eat more than what you see on social media. It does not matter what the girl sitting next to you is eating. It does not matter what the recipe says is “1 serving.” It does not matter what an Internet article says your favorite celebrity eats in a day. It just matters that you honor what YOUR body needs.
There is freedom in being able to finally listen to your body so it tells you when you’re hungry and when you’re full. In order to get there, though, you’re going to have to FEED IT to get it to a baseline. You have to teach your body to trust YOU again.
I ate lunch before I wrote this. And about two paragraphs in I realized I was still hungry, so I went into the fridge and looked around. I ate a drumstick and a leftover piece of paleo pizza. Then I felt full, and I kept writing. A few years ago, I would not have let myself get more food. I used to eat what I thought was the “right amount” for lunch, and I ignored my body if it was hungry beyond that. I would tell myself to just wait for dinner, and that I shouldn’t be hungry because I knew I ate enough. I didn’t realize I was punishing my body, and it punished me right back with a host of symptoms. I had to go through a season of eating much MORE to be at place where I felt confident in simply trusting my body’s signals, because it all evens out in the end. So maybe at dinner I’ll end up being less hungry than usual, or maybe I’ll still be extra hungry. I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out. My body will tell me. 🙂
If you enjoy this kind of discussion and are interested in learning more about eating ENOUGH to properly fuel your body, you will love my online course and group coaching program, the Paleo Women Lifestyle Program. This program contains a lot of #realtalk about navigating the health space as a woman and the truth when it comes to health “information” you’ll find on the Internet. You’ll learn everything you need to know about properly fueling yourself, the pillars of nutrition, key lifestyle factors for overall health, how to balance your hormones, and much more. Plus, you’ll have the support of me AND an incredible group of likeminded women along the way. Enrollment for the last group of the year begins on October 29th, 2018! You can find all information here.