Eat enough? We are bombarded in the media by low-calorie products and diets. How often have you heard that if you want to look better, feel better, be better, you need to eat less and move more? For most of us, I’m sure the answer is frequently. Although a caloric deficit is required for weight loss, it should not be a life sentence. Further, health extends far beyond body weight and composition. Whether you are trying to lose weight or fuel performance, it is critical to eat enough to meet those goals long term.
The first time I went down a weight class for athletics, I lost nearly 20lbs. I worked hard for four months, meticulously counting and tracking everything with the help of a nutrition coach. My calories were extraordinarily low during the last few weeks to make weight. I was hungry all the time – but I knew that hunger was a necessary part of the process. I was exhausted, my bowel movements were non-existent, and I wasn’t sleeping well. But this was an athletic goal, not a health goal, and I did what I needed to do to make weight that meet.
Although I knew that all of these things were side effects of being in a significant caloric deficit, as silly as it sounds, no one told me that eating this few calories was unsustainable. At that time, it never dawned on me that nutrition should be periodized, with cyclical periods of weight maintenance, loss, and gain.
After the competition was over, I was irrationally terrified of regaining all the weight I lost. I was leaner than I ever was, and I worked so hard to be a better-ranked competitor in this class – I was unwilling to fail. I knew weight loss and dietary changes required discomfort, and this was something I felt I had mastered with a lifetime of competitive athletics. I just assumed that all lean, fit people were also living on spaghetti squash, exhausted, anxious, and cold all the time. I thought, if this is what it takes, I will do it- relentlessly, without complaint. But as the weeks turned to months, hunger and discomfort started to transform into suffering. My strength decreased; I was either sleeping all the time or not at all; I started getting sick frequently; my anxiety was through the roof, libido non-existent.
What I didn’t understand then is that reaching a nutrition goal requires discipline but not eternal suffering. The lean athletes you aspire to look like aren’t walking around in misery – and if they are, they aren’t happy, healthy, or performing well.
Creating a Sustainable Strategy
If you are trying to lose weight, utilize a mild-moderate calorie deficit rather than a severe one. Not only will it be more sustainable and less miserable, but it will also preserve your hard-earned muscle mass. Unfortunately, when we lose weight, we never shed fat in isolation; both lean mass and fat mass are simultaneously lost while losing weight. It is unavoidable; at best, we can increase the ratio of fat: lean mass lost.
How do we do this? By losing weight more SLOWLY! Typically, the faster you lose weight, or the more drastic your caloric deficit, the more lean mass you lose – so shoot for no more than 1-2lbs per week. Your performance, as well as your friends and family, will thank you!
Eating at a caloric deficit, though required for weight loss, is not sustainable long term. As mentioned previously, even if your goal is to lose weight, your nutrition should be periodized, similarly to your training. For those unfamiliar with the principles of periodization, it is the concept of cycling through periods of varying volumes and intensity throughout a training program to progressively overload the system and force physical adaptation. Within any proper training program, there are “de-load” weeks and rebuilding periods. You need these back off periods with your nutrition too, where you are maintaining weight and adding calories back in. Ideally, it would be best to avoid dieting for longer than 9-12weeks.
Symptoms of a Severe Caloric Deficit
So how do you know if YOU are eating enough? If you count your calories/macros, you can use this calorie calculator here to find an estimate of your maintenance calories. If you don’t meticulously track your food, here are some common symptoms of a severe or prolonged caloric deficit.
- Sleep disturbance
- Feeling cold all the time
- Hair loss
- Constant hunger and food cravings
- Low libido
- Decreased physical performance
If you have some of these symptoms, there is a good chance your body needs you to be eating more. Listen to these biological cues. Long term, severe caloric restriction can have long-lasting health consequences, such as:
- Lowered metabolism
- Bone and Muscle Loss (osteoporosis, sarcopenia)
- Nutrient deficiencies & Anemia
- Fertility & Amenorrhea
- Decreased immunity
If you are dieting, remember to periodize your nutrition, rotating between eating at a mild-moderate deficit and maintenance. There are various online calculators you can utilize to give you an estimate of these numbers. Be sure to choose an approach that creates a mild-moderate deficit, something that you can easily do for 9-12 weeks! Then, allow yourself to return to your maintenance calories.
Another option is to work with a nutrition coach or dietitian to help you determine an appropriate plan for you. For most of us, a simple, habits-based approach is all we need to accomplish our nutrition goals. For some, it’s unnecessary to count and track calories. More often, we need small, sustainable changes where we are eating more whole foods, drinking water, and nourishing our bodies appropriately. Participating in various starvation diets is not the answer to finding a healthier, happier place in our lives.
We are here to support you and your nutrition goals – if you have any questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com