In a world in which many people consume far too many calories, it seems ridiculous to think that some of us could be in danger of eating too few. In saying that, there is a group of individuals who can be so strict on themselves in terms of calorie control and training that their bodies have had to adjust to a chronically low intake. In these instances, calorie intakes of as little as 800-1000 per day, along with an hour of two of intense physical training means that the body is getting nowhere near the calories it requires to perform optimally, and will in turn reduce metabolic rate over time to deal with the deficit.
From a weight control perspective this can leave those deprived unable to lose weight, no matter how hard they train or how little they eat. So if you take your training and calorie intake very seriously, here are some of the signs of chronic calorie deprivation.
RELATED: Foods to help you bulk up
Eating too few calories for your body is not overly easy to do and in general the body will fight against it with extreme hunger, cravings and fatigue over time. This effect will be exacerbated if the calorie restriction coincides with excessive exercise or overtraining.
Dietitian and body composition expert Aidan Muir works closely with highly trained women and agrees that while calorie deprivation is relatively rare compared to over-eating, it does present with some common signs. “The most common presentation I see is a low intake compared to the individual’s needs. For example, training for a couple of hours a day but only eating 1200 calories. Here output may be as large as 600-800 calories, yet they are barely eating that,” says Muir.
“Telltale signs that calories are too low include constant hunger, an obsession with food, fatigue and disruptions to the menstrual cycle, although this can be masked by the pill.”
Little to no changes
It is a commonly held belief that eating less is the key to weight loss, for those with significant differentials between intake and output, the biggest issue is that metabolic rate will reduce over time to adjust to the perceived starvation. Long term this has implications for weight control and body composition, as the body clings onto more fat to adjust for the perceived starvation. It also explains the reason why you may be training extra hard and eating lightly, yet nothing is changing in your body. Over time, weight gain becomes more likely as the internal engine is not working as efficiently as it should be.
While there is no set point in which every single person can be described as chronically calorie deprived, as soon as there are significant differences between input from calories and output via training, along with weight stability, it is suggestive that you are under-eating for your activity level. Any calorie intake below 1200 is likely insufficient for anyone training an hour or more each day, while differentials upwards of 400-500 calories between input and output are on the high side, especially if this pattern is followed for an extended period of time. Not feeling hungry, especially an hour or two after waking, and/or constantly cravings sugars may too suggest you are basically not eating enough.
So if you do keep a close eye on your calorie intake, but are not getting the changes to your body fat levels you would like or expect, what should you do?
Aidan says you have two options.
Reverse dieting can be a great approach, particularly if somebody is resistant to the idea of increasing their calories
“One is to slowly and consistently increase calories over time. For example adding 100 calories per day, each week. This is a concept called reverse dieting. Reverse dieting can be a great approach, particularly if somebody is resistant to the idea of increasing their calories,” says Muir.
“My preferred approach though, is what I call a ‘diet break’ or a period of time at maintenance calories. This involves increasing calories up to the point at which you would predict somebody would be maintaining their weight. Here, over time resting metabolic rate increases again. This approach can be a little trickier for those not comfortable eating more calories but it is extremely effective.”
Perhaps the key thing to consider, especially if you have been strict with your calorie intake for some time, is that the body is like a machine, requiring the right fuel, in the right amounts to be at its best. If you are not feeling your best, or not getting the results you are hoping for, you may simply need a little more fuel. And eating just a couple of hundred calories more may be the difference between keeping your body firing at its best, and significantly impacting your metabolic rate long term.
A quick calculation of how much you are really consuming, and how much you are expending will very quickly tell you if that difference is just too great for your body to be at its best.