By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
With so much advice online about optimal nutrition, diets for longevity, hormone balance, weight loss and more, I am seeing so many women who are truly under-eating. Your body will start to show signs of metabolic stress if calories are too low, if you’re exercising lots and not fueling sufficiently, or if you’re restricting carbohydrates. Women’s bodies tend to be more sensitive to metabolic stress as we are always protecting our hormones and fertility. This means that going for too many days or weeks with poor nutrition is going to catch up to you. These symptoms are common when women are on weight-loss programs that are too aggressive, but also develop when you’re following a nutrition plan that may not be right for you. For example, if you’re an athlete, intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating is really not a good idea – it will add more stress on your body. There are so many low-carb nutrition plans out there right now, I find that healthy, active women are very commonly restricting too many whole grains and starchy vegetables and thinking it’s best for their health. Women’s bodies need carbohydrates for optimal hormone balance, for ovulation and for fertility.
There are some common signs and symptoms that start to show up if you’re not eating enough. They usually set in 2-3 months after a diet change – not right away.
Signs that you’re not eating enough:
1) Your hormones have changed
You may have missed a period or two, or perhaps your period is late by a few days. Menstrual cycles also can get lighter if you’re under-eating. A change in your usually-regular cycle, is often a major red flag for metabolic stress.
2) You’re bloated and constipated
Under-eating, and especially restricting carbohydrates can cause significant constipation. This is because it impacts your thyroid hormone levels, specifically free T3 and slows gut motility. New constipation, often accompanied with bloating is a very common symptoms of under-eating.
3) You’re losing hair
Hair loss happens with any type of dramatic food change – too low calories, not enough carbs and not enough protein. The reason for hair loss can be as above with thyroid hormones, and can also be a simple sign of malnutrition. Hair loss typically happens 2-3 months after a period of physiological stress, so this sign happens months into a new diet, not right away.
4) You’re having trouble sleeping
Issues with sleep are also common if you’re under-fueling. It may be difficulty falling asleep, but more commonly shows up as waking in the night and having trouble going back to sleep.
5) Feeling tired and anxious
When your body is not fuelled properly, it’s common to feel either tired and / or anxious. Fatigue makes sense if you don’t have enough food energy to get through the day. Anxiety is common with any type of deficiency – for example: low calories, low protein, low carbs, low iron, low vitamin B12, low vitamin D.
6) Feeling cold all the time
Under-eating will often cause you to feel cold all the time, even if you haven’t reached a very low level of body fat. This is also because of slow thyroid hormone conversion (T4 to T3), which happens due to metabolic stress and causes several low-thyroid signs to show up. You may have perpetually cold hands and feet, feel colder at night than you used to, or get chills that are hard to warm up from.
7) Your weight has plateaued
If you have been restricting too much with calories or carbohydrates, you may find that after an initial period of weight loss, you have plateaued or even started to gain some weight back. This is very common if you have been restricting too aggressively, as your body begins to slow down and adapt to a new low calorie level. In this case, you will need to gradually add back more food to stimulate your metabolism again. It may feel scary to eat more, but it’s the only way to get your metabolism back.
8) Mood swings
And finally, when you’re not eating enough it’s extremely common to be moody. This happens from blood sugar swings, and also if you’re simply not eating enough to make neurotransmitters. There is some truth behind feeling ‘hangry’!
If some of these symptoms are sounding familiar, and you want to take a good look at your nutrition plan, please ask at your next appointment. You may have taken a health trend too far with extended overnight fasting, or not enough carbohydrates or calories for your energy needs. Remember, this can happen even if you’re not on a weight loss plan – I’ve seen many women who have stopped their periods with not enough carbohydrates because they shifted their diet to a more paleo or keto approach for health reasons.