Abundance means you are:
- eating adequate overall calories to signal to the body that it is SAFE and is not in a famine
- eating frequently enough to keep blood sugar levels balanced around the clock
- receiving enough carbohydrates, the body's main source of fuel
- getting enough bioavailable protein
- eating adequate fats
- eating a variety of foods to be absorbing enough water soluble vitamins (B & C), fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), and minerals
As a nutritionist for the past ten years and a student naturopath, the anthem "nutrient-dense diet" is repeated ad nauseum as a given for anyone shooting for optimum health.
Unfortunately in the wellness world, there seem to be many caveats accompanying this anthem. Rules that restrict how varied, enjoyable and satisfying a nutrient-dense diet can - and ought to - be.
Rules such as:
- Don't eat gluten!
- Sugar is toxic!
- Avoid carbs, your body doesn't need them!
- Intermittently fast, it'll make you live longer!
- Fruit is too high in fructose!
- Legumes contain anti-nutrients!
- Dairy is mucus-forming!
- Go plant-based!
- Go paleo!
- Go keto!
- Go carnivore!
- Don't eat after 6pm!
- Never snack!
- Get into a calorie deficit to lose weight!
Such rules can significantly reduce the aforementioned criteria for achieving nutritional abundance and therefore reduce the signals of safety your body needs for optimal functioning. Especially when more than one of these rules is followed, and/or these rules are followed for a significant length of time.
Rather than creating health, more often than not these rules create nutritional and caloric deficits, which in turn wreak havoc with our hormones, blunt our hunger and fullness cues, and deplete our energy. They leave us with bodies and minds that are desperately undernourished.
Many of the popular wellness diets are characterised by more than one of these rules: Paleo, Keto, Vegan, Raw, Intermittent Fasting. Of course there is nuance, but the more strict the diet, the greater the chance there is of something going wrong. Follow one of these diets for long enough and your risk of developing nutritional deficiencies and becoming undernourished or even malnourished go up. Quite the opposite of the wellness promised by these diets.
13 Signs You're Undernourished
First, there's a handful of telltale habits and patterns of folks who are consistently not feeding and not nourishing themselves adequately, starting from waking and stretching into the night.
1. Low Appetite in the Morning
This is something I often hear from people when I recommend they eat breakfast within an hour of waking - or at least, before 9am! When women who have skipped breakfast for years begin working with me, we may decide that eating something before 9am is a more realistic goal than eating within an hour of waking... but that's the goal eventually!
A healthy, strong appetite not long after waking is a sign of a well nourished, healthy metabolism. Having a poor appetite and not being hungry in the morning are signs that your body is not being provided with enough fuel (or blood sugar) during the overnight fast that happens when you sleep - so in the wee hours it has started making its own fuel. An underfed body raises stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to break down protein - usually from muscle - and send it to your liver to turn it into usable sugar, a process called gluconeogenesis.
"But this is great, the body doesn't need carbs!" Not so fast, keto people. Gluconeogenesis is a stressful, inflammatory process. Your body doesn't like doing it. But your cells need a constant supply of glucose, and so if it has to break down muscle and organs to get that, it will.
The reasons you don't feel hungry in the morning despite having not eaten for 10+ hours is that adrenaline is an appetite suppressant. You don't feel super hungry when you're adrenalised - think of when someone runs a red light in front of you and you get a fright! You don't exactly think, "Mmmmmm, time to eat!"
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Eat a decent breakfast within an hour of waking up. Within a few days to weeks, most people find their appetite returns.
2. Irregular eating pattern Throughout the Day
None of this is conducive to optimising our health, nor to increasing our fertility. Our hormonally-complex bodies need to be provided ongoing feedback that we are safe, and that food is always available if we are to reproduce, or even just live our best lives.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: I am a big fan of the "Rule of Threes". This is the only "rule" I will offer to my clients who are repairing their metabolism and relationship with food. Every day aim to:
- Eat three main meals, with all three macronutrients at each meal (carbohydrates, protein and fat),
- plus up to three snacks in between meals as you require,
- with no more than three hours (give or take) between eating episodes.
Providing your body with steady, regular nourishment every day, over time, will signal to your body that it is no longer in a famine, and there is no need to store extra body fat to survive. It keeps blood sugar levels balanced which translates to steady moods. It is a powerful way of saying, "I've got you, body! Don't worry, I will take care of you."
3. You hit a Wall Mid-afternoon
Normally, cortisol levels rise within 10 to 30 minutes of waking to help boost energy levels and then drop throughout the day. This is known as the cortisol awakening response (CAR). But eating breakfast blunts this rising cortisol, and that's a good thing. Not eating until after 9am means that cortisol continues to rise past the point we need it to in order to wake up, and this can start to cause problems and cortisol dysregulation later in the day. Case in point: the afternoon slump.
You cannot get through your busy day living off coffee or a few bites of a protein bar without your body flipping you the bird at some point.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Eat regular, balanced and adequate meals throughout the day starting with breakfast. Ideally eat breakfast within an hour of waking up to blunt the increase in cortisol. If you're going to drink coffee, do so on a full stomach, after breakfast. Make sure you're getting you're next decent meal within 3-4 hours. And if that's not possible, a decent snack is in order.
4. You're Irritable, reactionary & Anxious
Again, our bodies need regular nourishment in order to feel safe. Without that, our bodies are primed to enter survival, flight-or-fight land and will respond with gusto at the slightest sign of danger. With ongoing caloric restriction, your body cannot regulate its production of mood-altering neurotransmitters as effectively. Your personality can change as apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression set in.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Balanced eating as per the above, ensuring you are getting enough calories overall as well as regular meals and snacks. This is usually more than most women expect, and I recommend consulting a dietitian or naturopath to discern exactly how much you need. If you would like to enquire about a private nutrition consultation, please contact me here!
Depending on your health history, you may also need some pointed supplementation for neurotransmitter production, and/or adaptogenic herbs to help restore stress hormone balance. But food is key. You can't supplement and herb your way to good health if you're still eating like a bird.
5. You Binge at Night
Whether you're unintentionally skipping meals because of a busy work schedule, or you're actively weight loss dieting - these are chronic and powerful stressors on the body.
Over time these stressors gradually impact your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and lead to increased levels of both adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is your short-term stress hormone. The increased adrenaline triggered by not nourishing your body regularly and adequately can contribute to that initial super focussed feeling, and eventually that "tired but wired" feeling. This effect is exacerbated if you have a coffee first thing in the morning on an empty stomach!
Adrenaline is an appetite suppressant - it can blunt hunger cues while you're at work or otherwise busy, until you're so hungry you feel like you could eat an entire fridge of food the minute you get home from work and relax a little. This explains many a late night binge.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Don't restrict during the day! It all comes back to regular, balanced eating. And if you have coffee, have it after breakfast, ideally with fat, protein and carbohydrate. That way you're not pumping the accelerator on an empty fuel tank.
6. You Have Multiple "Food Intolerances"
After multiple restrictive diets our bodies begin to down-regulate certain digestive enzymes. So it's common for women who have a history of restrictive or disordered eating to find that they can't easily digest a bunch of foods. I discuss this in more detail in my free food sensitivity e-mail series.
If this is you, not being able to digest a long list of foods is not proof that you should avoid these foods forevermore - as much as that eating disordered voice inside your head might like you to think so. It means that a gentle, intentional approach is needed to slowly bring your digestive health back online, and in doing so, liberalise your diet until you're once again enjoying and digesting a wide variety of nutritious foods.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Slowly re-introduce variety to start producing the enzymes your body needs to break those foods down again. You may need assistance in the form of digestive enzymes or herbs, a regular and intentional eating schedule, and/or input from a dietitian or nutritionist who specialises in this area. If you would like to enquire about a private nutrition consultation, please contact me here!
7. Lacklustre hair, skin and nails
Hair follicles require a lot of energy to produce a hair. The mitochondria in the hair follicles require a rich and steady supply of nutrients and oxygen via blood flow in order to build and grow healthy hair. And the health of your skin reflects this nutrient and oxygen status too.
Under eating, haphazard eating, or not eating regularly not only leave your hair and skin cells undernourished. They are also long term stressors on the body. A body that is under stress will produce higher levels of cortisol, your long-term stress hormone. Cortisol dysregulation impacts your thyroid function, and one of many downstream effects of this is poor skin and hair health.
A body under stress needs more nutrients, not less. It will pull its energy, blood flow and therefore nutrients and oxygen towards the vital organs that keep you alive. The extremities are not top of the priority list. That's why in an undernourished body, nutrients and oxygen can't get to the scalp as easily. Since hair follicles are particularly sensitive to stress, this can result in hair weakness and hair loss.
It also explains why when someone is under eating, their hands and feet can become cold, and nails can become brittle and weak. There is an entire art to reading fingernails and getting information about what a person may be deficient in just by looking at nails, but that is another story for another time!
Skin issues can also be related to sex hormone imbalances (see no.10), which in and of themselves are another consequence of being undernourished. It's all connected!
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Get the energy your body needs on a consistent basis, and eat in a way that lowers your body's stress levels. Are you starting to see a pattern here?!
8. Compromised immunity
Again, this is partly attributed to stress hormone malfunction. Being chronically undernourished is a long term stress on the body. A body that is under stress will produce higher levels of cortisol, your long-term stress hormone.
Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands. It gets a bad rap, but it's actually an important hormone in the body that is required for:
- Proper glucose
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintanence
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
It's when your body is under ongoing stress - such as being chronically undernourished - that cortisol production increases above normal and becomes a problem. It can lead to initially more inflammation overall, and even immune hyperactivity. You seem to pick up every cold and bug that goes around. Over time this can flip to an under functioning immune system, which isn't great either and can set you up for chronic illness.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Regular, adequate eating as outlined above. You may need to pay particular attention to gut health especially if you've taken antibiotics repeatedly in the past.
9. Digestive and thyroid Problems
Another reason why you might find yourself straining on the toilet or only having a bowel movement every other day is because under eating causes your thyroid function is changing down.
Remember our friend cortisol? This important hormone tells every cell of your body that food is scarce, and so to keep you alive it slows down your metabolic rate. A slower metabolism leads you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly than you have in the past, as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine.
One of the main ways chronically elevated cortisol slows down your metabolism is by suppressing thyroid hormone conversion. Thy-what?
The thyroid gland is the engine that drives the body, and famously controls the speed of metabolism. The thyroid creates two thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). In addition to regulating metabolism, the thyroid also affects your heart rate, body temperature, muscle strength, body weight, menstrual cycles, nervous system, and cholesterol levels.
People who are chronically stressed and undernourished are more prone towards sub-optimal thyroid function, or hypothyroidism. As you now know, stress increases the production of the hormone cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands.
Cortisol can in turn inhibit secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland, leading to partial suppression of thyroxine (T4), the main hormone produced by the thyroid gland. When the body is pushed too hard, thyroid hormone and your metabolic rate goes down. This is the body’s way of protecting itself, like pushing on the brakes in a car that’s speeding down a hill.
When the thyroid "brakes" are put on due to ongoing stress it results in:
- slowed digestion, leading to constipation
- slowed metabolism
- slowed resting heart rate
- lowered body temperature and intolerance to cold - which is why so many people who are under eating complain of feeling the cold more and need to wear more layers or drink hot cups of tea to stay warm
- feeling fatigued
- raised cholesterol levels
- dry skin and hair
- hair loss
- goiter (this appears as swelling in the front of the neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland)
- weight gain
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: When the problem is under eating and not having a regular eating pattern, just adding fibre and water is not going to cut it! All of the "What to do" points above will help with both digestive transit time and thyroid function. But if you're experiencing these issues and find regular adequate meals doesn't automatically resolve the issues listed above, I'd see a qualified health professional for a more personalised approach. I can help you with this!
10. Sex hormones are Out of whack
- Irregular or missing periods
- Oestrogen dominance
- Low progesterone
This includes missing only some periods, scanty or irregular periods, or periods not coming back even after significantly reducing feeds or fully weaning a breastfeeding baby. Another sign of energy deficit is severe PMS as the hormones oestrogen and progesterone become imbalanced in relation to each other (specifically, there is not enough progesterone to balance out the oestrogen, leading to what is labelled as an oestrogen dominance or a progesterone deficiency). This can result in heavy periods and/or PMS.
For men, chronic under eating can manifest as low testosterone and low sex drive.
These problems occur because in its attempt to manage the stress of under-eating, the body has shunted so much of its cholesterol to cortisol production, that the production of other steroid hormones like pregnenolone, progesterone and DHEA (which also require cholesterol for their manufacture) decreases. This brings us to the next symptom of being undernourished...
11. Your Sex Drive is Looooow
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: To balance your sex hormones, you must balance your eating. Regular, adequate meals are crucial. For women, you may also need additional support to get your periods back online especially if you're trying to conceive or thinking about having children in the future.
12. Loss of muscle mass and strength
Instead, it's going to prioritise survival functions: keeping your heart beating, supplying energy to your brain, and oxygenating all of your body's cells. When you're under eating your body still needs to go on doing all the things you ask it to do - and that energy doesn't come out of thin air!
If you're not getting enough nourishment from your diet, your body will begin to eat itself. It will break down muscle to make its own fuel. Obviously, when you're trying to build or maintain muscle mass this is the last thing you want.
Over time, the cortisol dominance created by inadequate fuelling and possibly over-training leads to weight gain, muscle loss and ageing. All the things most women are trying to prevent by eating less. It can also lead to loss of bone and other organs. Not what you want!
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Get the energy your body needs on a consistent basis, and eat in a way that lowers your body's stress levels and regulates your blood sugar levels. Eating every 3-4 hours should help immensely here. If you are strength training, I would also ensure you're getting a snack or meal containing carbohydrates and protein at a minimum (fat is great too), within an hour or so after a training session.
If you're severely nutritionally depleted, I recommend strength training only once you're receiving adequate, regular fuel. And if you suspect you have any form of disordered eating or eating disorder, I strongly suggest working with a practitioner/s who specialises in eating disorders to ensure that any exercise you're doing isn't just compensating for an increase in calories. I am such a person!
13. Gaining weight and unable to lose it
Whether you're unintentionally skipping meals because of a busy work schedule, or you're actively weight loss dieting - these are chronic and powerful stressors on the body. Over time these stressors gradually increase levels of cortisol, your long-term stress hormone.
Cortisol tells every cell of your body that food is scarce, and so to keep you alive it slows down your metabolic rate. A slower metabolism leads you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly than you have in the past, as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine.
Cortisol is catabolic, meaning it will break down muscle tissue to create more glucose for energy - that old gluconeogenesis trick again! Over time this can lead to insulin resistance, muscle breakdown, abdominal fat deposition, and thyroid abnormalities such as hypothyroidism. I go into detail explaining this process here.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Rather than starve your body, it needs to feel safe. Eat to nourish, and do so regularly, every day. Your metabolism will speed up, and your weight may return to its normal set point quite quickly. Or you may spend a few years in a body that holds onto a bit more weight until your body decides it's safe enough to settle at a lower set point weight. Or your body weight may not change, but your body composition may... or it may not.
But one thing's for sure, you will be far better nourished, and physically and mentally healthier running on adequate calories and regular meals, compared to if you're running on as few calories as possible, or eating just 1-2 meals a day at sporadic times.
When it comes to bodies there are no guarantees, but as long as you are well nourished you can be healthy at a wide range of different body shapes and sizes! That's why I recommend you focus on health, not weight. Start seeing food as an ally in helping you balance out your hormones and optimise your wellbeing, instead of treating it as an enemy - because it's not!
If you would like to enquire about a private nutrition consultation, please contact me here