Stress, busy schedules, illnesses, grief, and the hustle and bustle of everyday life can take a toll on our appetites and the way our bodies regulate hunger, which often leads to us not eating enough.
We don’t talk enough about both sides of the spectrum when it comes to nutrition, our appetites, and our weight. There are more articles than I could ever count on “how to lose 5 pounds”, “weight loss,” and more, but the media fails to share the other side of someone else’s story, which may be the challenge to gain weight healthfully or increase appetite, no matter what the cause or reason.
While high cortisol levels can cause over-eating, corticotropin-releasing hormones produced in response to stress can suppress appetite. (1) This may lead to skipped meals and undereating due to stress or decreased appetite. Not eating enough food and depriving your body of important nutrients can manifest in ways that wreak havoc on your metabolism and hormones, both of which may take longer to notice if you’ve been consistently undereating for your body type.
Let’s dive in and take a look at the not-so-subtle signs that your body may not be getting enough vital protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and what you can do to increase your food intake with a balanced diet.
Signs You Are Not Eating Enough
1. Low Energy
If you’ve been feeling straight up exhausted for several weeks regardless of how much you snooze or the quality of your sleep, it might be time to re-evaluate your diet. Energy looks like a lot of things, and our philosophy at NS doesn’t exactly equate energy with calorie counting. However, it’s undeniable that one of the most common dangers of not eating enough calories is low energy levels.
According to the USDA dietary guidelines, women should consume between 1,600-2,400 calories daily and men should get between 2,000-3,000. Again, keep in mind that these are just guidelines, so if you lead a very active lifestyle and exercise frequently, you may need to consume more calories than average.
You also want to be mindful of the quality, not the quantity of the calories you’re consuming. Fueling your body with quality protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats will help you increase energy levels by revving up your metabolism. In fact, research shows that consuming a fiber-rich diet can prevent obesity and metabolic syndrome and promote beneficial bacteria in the gut. (2)
Dizziness can be one of the first physical signs of not eating enough. When you’re not eating enough food, your blood sugar levels can plummet and make you feel dizzy or faint. Dizziness can also be a sign you’re dehydrated, so drink plenty of water throughout the day, or mix things up with a smoothie, unsweetened iced tea or a fruit-infused sparkling water.
For a quick snack boost, eat something with carbohydrates and protein, like a banana with some almond butter, a handful of berries and nuts, or veggie sticks with some hummus. This combination of carbohydrates and protein will help increase your blood sugar levels to help boost your energy. However, if the dizziness persists after making these changes to your nutrition and your lifestyle, chat with your dietitian or doctor to rule out possible issues.
3. Poor Cognition and Productivity (i.e. Brain Fog)
Ever have moments of forgetfulness and “where did I put my keys?” That happens to us all, but frequent brain fog could be your body’s way of telling you to check in with how you’re nourishing yourself (i.e. food)! Brain fog can be a sign of several health challenges, but it’s also one of the key symptoms of not eating enough throughout the day. Postponing lunches or interrupting your normal meal times to attend meetings or take calls delays the energy your body needs to keep going. So if that 3 p.m. lull hits hard and you realize you haven’t had lunch, that’s your cue to head to the kitchen or grab a snack.
Again, it’s best to fill up on foods with quality nutrients. If you didn’t get to pack lunch, skip the fast food and prepared frozen meals and go for a hearty salad with plenty of fresh veggies, sweet potatoes, avocado, grilled chicken or protein of your choice, and a tasty dressing. Foods rich in B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and antioxidants can help boost brain function and prevent cognitive decline. (3) Bye brain fog.
4. Hair Loss and Brittle Nails
This may come as a surprise to you, but if you’re not eating enough food or getting enough nutrients, the highest priority organs will take the lead in getting those nutrients, such as your brain, heart, etc., rather than your hair, skin, and nails. That’s why you may notice your physical appearance takes a hit when your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs. Hair, skin, and nail health is so closely tied to what you eat along with how many minerals, healthy fats, protein, and overall nutrients your body is absorbing.
It’s normal to lose between 50-100 strands of hair every day, but if you’re losing more locks than usual and your nails seem to break easier, you may want to focus on nourishing your hair and nails from the inside out. Start by eating foods that help produce more keratin, the protein that strengthens your hair and nails. Spinach, beans, oatmeal, salmon, eggs, and berries are all excellent sources of hair- and nail-loving nutrients. Protein, biotin, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, are the best nutrients for helping you maintain the thickness, luster, and growth of your crop.
Want more healthy hair tips? Check out my guide to strong, healthy hair.
5. Irritable Mood
Hangry is a real emotion! If you’re battling a busy day and had to rush out the door without breakfast, your blood sugar and your mood can take a dip. Studies show that low glucose levels can cause aggression and violent behavior. (4) So when you haven’t had anything to eat, irritability may be one of the first noticeable side effects of not eating enough calories. In addition to feeling off your game or having a moody attitude, hunger can also cause headaches, migraine, lightheadedness, and nausea.
The best way to prevent hanger is to eat regular meals and healthy snacks, if you need to, during the day. Enjoying normal meal times will help keep your blood sugar stable, so you stay on track with your positive mood, good energy, and feeling like your best self versus the moody, irritable version.
6. Feeling Chilly
Got the chills, like all the time? It could be a sign that you need a coat or more skin on your bones. You need to consume a certain number of calories to keep your body warm while performing other bodily functions. If you’re not eating enough, you’re probably not able to efficiently carry out thermogenesis, which is a process that helps your body generate heat. Some research suggests that people who follow a restrictive diet have lower body temperatures than those who don’t. (5)
Women who are also underweight or have low body fat might develop “downy” hair (also known as lanugo) as a way for your body to cope with heat loss. When your body doesn’t have enough body fat to heat itself up, it can grow lanugo to help trap heat. It’s common in people with anorexia nervosa or people who are extremely thin.
Making sure you eat enough is one way you can manage your hydration levels because many of the electrolytes you get in food affect thirst, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. If you still feel thirsty after chugging down a glass of water, it’s a red flag that you may not be consuming enough calories. Sometimes, your body can also mistake thirst for hunger and misguide you away from the water bottle. Just remember to avoid sugary energy and sports drinks, sodas, fruit juices, and sweetened coffee and teas.
Amenorrhea is the scientific term for missing your period. Women may miss their periods for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, changes in diet, and stress. Sometimes certain medications you take, including contraception, can affect your cycle too. Specific health conditions like hypothyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome can also affect your hormone levels and therefore your period.
Amenorrhea can also happen if you don’t eat enough and have low body fat or are underweight — about 10 percent under “normal” weight which is different for each of us. Being underweight can stop ovulation and cause abnormal changes in your hormones, which is why some women with disordered eating habits or women who are high performing athletes may often miss their periods. In some cases, their bodies also aren’t getting enough nutrients to carry out normal bodily functions.
The female athlete triad is basically an interrelated cycle which includes low energy intake, amenorrhea, and low bone density. This is most often seen in athletes who are trying to maintain a certain level of “leanness” for a particular sport like figure skating, ballet, gymnastics, etc.
Above all and the biggest take home with this article is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it could be. If you need any help at all, that’s what your doctors and dietitians are for! They geek out about helping you come up with a plan for adding more nourishing, energy and nutrient-dense foods into your life to restore your health.