A few weeks ago, a friend who was using a weight-loss tracker emailed me to express her mind-numbing frustrations. Despite cutting calories and exercising, she found herself gaining, not losing. But then she told me that she was eating 1,000 calories a day and exercising six days a week.
Like my friend, up to one-third of adults engage in highly restrictive diets that actually wind up sabotaging their efforts to shed pounds, says Kathryn Johnson, R.D., lead dietitian at the Eating Recovery Center in Dallas. "Undereating ultimately leads to more weight gain and another extreme diet," says Johnson. That's because when you're not giving your body the nutrition it needs, your metabolism suffers. That makes it even harder to reach your weight-loss goals.
When women hit a weight-loss plateau due to undereating, they generally respond by cutting calories even further, and the cycle continues, she says.
So how do you avoid it? You've got to be calculated about your calorie intake. The number of calories, macronutrients, and other nutrients you need depends on your body type, age, exercise levels, and even genetics, says Johnson. So even though eating 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day might be appropriate for a slightly overweight woman who works out moderately, it wouldn't be smart for someone who exercises intensely for an hour a day, five days a week. In that case, eating more might help that super-active women lose more weight, she says.
If you're watching what you eat without any progress, follow these steps before you cut another calorie, carb, or gram of fat:
1. Assess How You Feel
One sign you might be slashing calories a little too aggressively: You're suffering from fatigue, irritability, constipation, and irregular sleep patterns, says Jennifer Kromberg, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with Eating Disorders Associates in California. A dramatic drop in caloric intake can also cause missed periods, loss of muscle mass, dry skin, and brittle hair, says Johnson. If you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.
2. Run the Numbers
Like we said, the exact number of calories you need to lose weight depends on a ton of factors. Without an appointment with a dietitian, it’s impossible to take all of them into account. But the National Institute of Health’s Body Weight Plannerdoes a pretty awesome job estimating the number of calories you'd need to slim down. Plug your weight, height, age, physical activity levels, and when you'd like to reach your goal into the calculator. Obviously, if the calorie count that pops up is more than you're eating now, you’re underfueling, and you'll want to increase your intake, stat.
3. Rework Your Plate
All calories aside, it’s important to make sure that you are getting plenty of nutrients, too. To gauge whether or not you could be missing out, Johnson recommends doing a quick scan of what you ate that day. "When looking at your daily intake, you should be including foods from all five food groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy—in order to get the nutrients you need. Make sure you're varying your menu for a more balanced approach to weight loss."
It's important to note that undereating can also be triggered by an eating disorder, medication, depression, or low self-esteem. If you feel like any of those issues apply to you, schedule an appointment with your doctors to discuss next steps.