Weight loss is simple, right? Eat less, exercise more, and ta-da! The pounds melt away. Unfortunately it’s not always that easy. While a low 1200- to 1500-calorie diet works for many people, the number of calories you need depends on your weight, height, age, gender, and activity level. If exercise drains a big chunk of the calories you’re eating and there aren’t enough left to fuel your body’s day-to-day processes—a condition known as low energy availability—your body may think it’s starving and go into conservation mode.
What happens in conservation mode? Your body tries to reserve whatever energy it gets from food for vital basic processes that keep you alive - using your brain, pumping your heart, lungs, and moving your digestive tract. It slows your metabolism, trying to conserve whatever energy it has. So when you eat the next meal, your metabolism is already running slower, so less of what you eat will go to boosting energy, and more of what you eat will go to storage, since your body now doesn't know when will be the next time it gets enough to eat.
You don’t want to restrict your diet to the extent you’re left with too few calories to fuel your body to work properly.
If you're over-restricting calories, you may just end up damaging your metabolism.
This can mean you’re unable to lose weight, and possibly causing other wide-reaching effects on your body and health.
What are those effects and how can you tell whether eating too few calories is causing your weight-loss plateau? Read on to find out.
Low energy availability is prevalent among female athletes—you’ve probably heard of the female athlete triad, a medical condition marked by an energy deficiency, irregular periods, and low bone density—but with more research, we are discovering that many people, including athletes and the elderly may also be suffering with inadequate energy intake.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand found that many everyday exercisers, not just serious athletes, may be at risk of under eating and can be affected by the condition, too. In fact, low energy availability can begin to negatively impact the body after just five days of calorie restriction, with more serious complications cropping up long term.
Identifying whether or not you have low energy availability can be tricky. Thanks to the satiating effect of many healthy, low-calorie and high-fiber foods—like fruits and vegetables— and more intense workouts that can reduce the sensation of hunger, you can be energy deficient without actually feeling hungry. Which means you’ll need to look further than your appetite.
You might be negatively affecting your metabolism if you: exercise regularly, skip meals or go long periods (over 5 hours) between meals, don't snack regularly, or eat meals typically that are unbalanced.
To figure out if you’re at risk, first consider the signs and symptoms of low energy availability. They include:
If you’ve been experiencing any of those symptoms, it’s a good idea to work with a doctor or dietitian to crunch some numbers and gauge how many calories your body typically runs on each day.
When you see a dietitian, they will first estimate your basal metabolic rate (the calories your body burns at rest), then they'll ask you questions about your lifestyle to gauge your calories in vs calories out. To help out your Dietitian and make their assessment more accurate, do this:
First, the calories you’re consuming (the number identified in step 1) should never go below your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). And second, if the gap between what you’re eating and the total amount of calories you’re burning— with BMR and exercise—is too big, you are probably at risk of losing vital muscle tissue and slowing your metabolism.
“If you’ve been eating too little and exercising a lot and not losing weight, then it’s a sign your efforts are not working and something needs to change,” says Lundy. “The good news is, the impact on your metabolism is unlikely to be permanent. The solution could be that you simply need to slowly start eating more.” If your diet is already stellar, then you might be at a weight loss plateau, in which case just changing your exercise routine for a couple weeks might be a perfect solution for you.
Increasing your calorie intake to lose weight may seem counterintuitive—scary even—but in order to get leaner and stronger, you’ll want to decrease your body fat while maintaining or building lean muscle. To do this, aim for a calorie target that is around 500 calories less than the amount of calories you need for maintenance.
If someone has been following a strict diet for years, it can take longer to restore their metabolism to its full potential. ” Try slowly increasing your food intake by 100 calories a day for two to four weeks—that’s a piece of fruit, a small tub of non-fat plain Greek yogurt, or a small handful of nuts. Remember, moderation is key:
If you have access to a body fat scale, slowly add more calories (in 100-calorie increments) until your body starts losing fat and maintaining or even gaining muscle. This is your sweet spot—the new calorie goal you should aim for each day.
It can seem terrifying to eat more, but rest assured, not only will your metabolism get the kick it needs to jumpstart your weight loss again, your body could also end up shedding more fat and hanging onto precious muscle, which in the long run will help keep you strong and help encourage the weight to stay away. Talk to your Dietitian to fine-tune things for you.