True Being RD
Emily Marshall 

Are You Eating Enough?

One of the most common issues I see people face with their food intake is not having enough of it. It may sound strange considering that the media and public health campaigns have blasted the message that “Americans need to move more and eat less…or else!” Unfortunately, I’ve seen this message get taken out of context or taken a little too seriously. This can have many consequences and often backfires against the individual’s health goals.

Part of the issue is a lack of education around personalized nutrition recommendations, but another part of this issue is often people will restrict their food intake in the pursuit of weight loss.  On the other hand, under-eating can be unintentional. For some, prioritizing the time to eat a meal or snack may be a difficult task. Due to our modern lifestyles, people can be very “go, go, go” and not remember to take a break to simply fuel the body.  In addition, some people are forced to not have enough food due to lack of access to food or the inability to afford food. It’s clearly a complicated issue, but something to be aware of in case you’re able and willing to make a change.

What We Know About Not Eating Enough

Not eating enough should be taken seriously. Much of what we know about the effects from not eating enough were discovered in a study known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys during World War II. The study consisted of thirty-two men who started off eating whatever they wanted for the first three months.  Their total calorie intake during this time averaged about 3,492 calories per day. During the next six months of the study, the men were considered in a “semi-starvation” phase. They were required to lose 19-28% of their body weight so their calories were cut down to an average of 1,570 per day.

During the semi-starvation phase, the men exhibited drastic signs of malnutrition. Their metabolic rate dropped by 40%, they became obsessive and preoccupied with food,  and they were reported to have different eating styles including a faster rate of eating or stalling out the eating time to prolong eating. In addition, some men had episodes of bulimia and binge ate several high-carbohydrate type foods. Their personalities changed and they became more irritable, moody, depressed or apathetic.

After the semi-starvation phase was complete, the men entered into a “refeeding” phase which allowed the men to eat whatever they wanted again. Only this time the men had difficulty controlling their eating and ate even more than what they did in the first phase. Their appetite was insatiable. It took some at least 6 months to normalize their eating, but for others it took years. During the refeeding phase the men slowly began to gain their weight back, but their bodies were not the same as when they started. They had lost a significant amount of muscle during the semi-starvation phase which took much longer to come back for the men. Much of their physical strength was lost in the process of semi-starvation.

Is Dieting for Weight Loss the Same as Semi-Starvation?

Other studies have observed similar effects from dieting type behavior which intentionally restricts calories or certain food groups.  Besides not meeting specific nutrient needs, dieters can also experience irritability, moodiness, anxiety including social anxiety, and depression.  Physical and mental performance can decrease. In some cases, dieting can lead to an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. The metabolism typically slows down to conserve energy which makes weight regain all the more likely when food intake is increased. There is a potential that any benefits gained from weight loss may be lost through the repetitive cycle of losing and regaining weight known as yo-yo dieting. In fact, in may be more it may actually be healthier to not focus on weight loss at all and instead focus on making healthy habit or lifestyle changes that help you feel your best.

Signs of Not Eating Enough

Whether intentional or unintentional, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs potentially pinpointing to not meeting your body’s calorie or energy needs. Here are just a few:

  • Fatigue, drowsiness, and inability to concentrate or exercise despite adequate sleep
  • Moodiness, irritability, anxiety, loss of sex-drive, sadness or depression (often for no reason)
  • Uncontrollable eating or binge eating or emotional eating- A response to your body’s biological and psychological need for food
  • Increased food cravings or preoccupation with food (Thinking about food/eating more)
  • More frequent colds, infections or other illnesses due to suppressed immune system
  • Constipation, bloating, heartburn or GERD
  • Hair thinning, brittle nails, sallow skin
  • Dehydration- faintness or dizziness
  • Slowed heart rate

What to Do About It

If any of the above apply to you or someone you know, it may be time to change some things or seek help. Here are some tips to try. First, think about what is holding you back from consuming more food on a consistent basis. Is it lack of time, lack of planning, your thoughts about food, fear of weight gain, inaccessibility or inability to afford food or lack of appetite?

  • If lack of time or planning is holding you back then…
    • Keep snacks where you work or in your car or bag to have on hand in case hunger strikes. Set aside time each week to buy groceries. Buy foods that are simple and quick to make. Have a “mindful moment” every 3-4 hours while working to check in with your hunger level. Often it can be easy to ignore hunger signals when we are focused on specific tasks.
  • Do you fear eating more because you’re labeling certain foods as “bad” or have a persistent fear that eating more will cause you to gain weight? Do you not give yourself permission to eat certain foods?
    • It might be time to consider other alternatives. Is under-eating really meeting your goals or is it only causing you more distress and harm? Consider the positive benefits that may come from having more to eat or even adding more of the foods you love back into your diet. Would it bring you more joy, more energy, and better health?
  • If having lack of access or the inability to afford enough food is holding you back then…
    • Seek out food assistance programs such as WIC or SNAP. Find a local food pantry or community garden in your area. Reach out to friends and family for support. Speak up to your local alderman about making changes in your community. 
  • Lastly, if you’re experiencing a lack of appetite or hunger signals, but still exhibiting signs of not eating enough then…
    • Be patient with your body and understand that it may take time for your body to regain hunger signals. Often the body needs help initiating hunger. Try to check in with yourself every 2-3 hours and nibble on something such as fruit, crackers, cereal, etc. to see if it helps increase your appetite. Choose foods that are appealing to you. If doing this does not help, there are medications available which can help increase your appetite. Speak to your doctor about if they would be right for you.

Don’t make under-eating a chronic issue. Try to take steps today for yourself or someone you know to keep yourself healthy and feeling your best! 

Looking to work on healing your relationship with food? Check out my course, Intuitive Eating Basics, to help you do just that!


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