If you’re on a quest for wellness, want to feel better in your body, or desire to live in better health, you are not alone. While we juggle work, family life, relationships, and self-care, there’s one piece of the puzzle that seems to elude us: Feeling good in our own skin. On the quest for confidence, many of us try on dramatic and restrictive diets, hoping they’ll bring about the changes we seek.
Micro-managing our food intake can feel soothing in a world that often seems out of control—especially if cutting calories or restricting food groups initially sparks weight loss. But this hyper-attention to the food we eat can sometimes have dramatic and unintended negative effects, like worsened body image, disordered eating or eating disorders.
This is not our fault: We live in a world that’s constantly encouraging us to “resist” our favorite foods and find joy in a lifetime of undressed raw kale. So forgive yourself if you find it hard to understand what’s “too much,” what’s “healthy,” and what’s “harmful.”
As you navigate the world of Nutrition 2019, there are a few tools you can keep in your arsenal to stay healthy while you explore what works for you. The first is working with a registered dietitian who understands your unique needs. You can explore nourishing recipes from trusted sources (like us!) And you can listen to the signs your body is telling you about what it needs.
Here are three unexpected signs you may not be eating enough. Pay attention: Are you experiencing any of them?
You Can’t Stop Thinking About Food
Obsessed with French fries? Having actual dreams about ice cream? Don’t beat yourself up. A constant, nagging focus on food—especially food you’ve cut out of your diet—is common and super normal when your body is undernourished. It makes sense logically: We want what we tell ourselves what we can’t have.
It also makes sense biologically. When our bodies are not receiving enough energy in the form of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, our brains start to work overtime. The constant stream of food-related thoughts are a five-alarm message from our brains to our bodies: EAT SOMETHING, PLEASE!
Unfortunately, total restriction is a good way to set yourself up for a binge later. Although “moderation” may be a frustrating piece of advice, allowing yourself to eat what you crave, without guilt or shame, will help lessen the tension you feel around that food.
This seems wild, but it’s a real, science-backed process. As Carolyn Hodges-Chaffee, a RDN and CEDRD with a focus on eating disorder recovery, puts it, “When food intake is reduced, change in brain chemistry occurs and there is an increase in obsessive-compulsive thoughts. These thoughts help protect the person from feeling underlying uncomfortable feelings and emotional pain”
Your Metabolism Slows Down
This one is surprising to most dieters, but it’s been proven: Severely restricting your food intake will cause your metabolism to slow, rather than speed up. This is because calorie restriction triggers “famine mode” in our bodies. Because our tissues, muscles, and organs don’t know the difference between starvation and a regular old diet, they process the information in the same way.
In other words, it becomes apparent that food intake has lowered. In an attempt to store as much nutrition in our bodies as possible, our metabolism slows down so it can hold onto every last bit of energy. This is actually pretty amazing when you think about it: Our bodies read the situation as a worst-case scenario and work hard to keep us alive.
Hodges-Chaffee explains, “The body’s basic metabolic response to starvation is to conserve body tissues and energy. However, the body will use its own stores to meet its needs if food is not present, including muscle and tissue.”
You’re Bloated, Uncomfortable, and Gassy
This is a two-pronged attack. First: Because many diets feature a disproportionately high amount of foods that require more energy to digest (think raw vegetables and brassicas, like cauliflower and kale), our bodies have to work extra hard to break down a day’s eating. This results in bloating and, yep, gas.
But the second reason you may be gassy and miserable is related to the point above: Your body may be experiencing the results of malnutrition. Hodges-Chaffee writes in her book, Measuring Health from the Inside, “Common gastrointestinal complaints [of eating disordered and disordered eating populations] include feeling full, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, reflux, cramping, and abdominal pain.” She also explains that a medical condition called gastroparesis may occur: Gastroparesis is a delayed emptying of the stomach to the small intestine, and may occur with dramatic weight loss.
The Bottom Line
Witnessing these three things in your own body doesn't automatically mean you’re undernourished, and they are by no means the only warning signs to watch for. But it’s important to take a lack of energy, fatigue, foggy memory, or general feelings of unwellness seriously.
Although we are trained to believe that weight loss is the only way to self-acceptance, it is much more sustainable to seek self-love through eating nourishing foods, exercising regularly, and listening to our body. If you feel worried you may be under eating, experiencing disordered eating, or suffering from an eating disorder, reach out to a licensed professional in the nutrition and/or therapy field today.