Under-eating goes way beyond hunger pangs. One big sign of under-eating is developing a lack of control around food.
Calories matter because they have the important job of keeping you alive. Cutting calories to the point where you’re not getting enough can negatively impact your overall health in big ways. Under-eating can disrupt your hormones, your bone health, your heart, your ability to concentrate and more. Here we explore why you may feel out of control around food when your caloric deficit is too big.
The number of calories that you need each day varies per person. It’s based on several factors, like BMR, exercise levels, and age. There is no need to start counting calories. It is, however, important to be mindful of what you are eating and how often you are eating. Going for the lowest calorie option isn’t always the healthy choice. Choose balanced meals with a source of carbohydrate, fat, and protein that are an appropriate size. In addition, eating three of these well balanced meals with a few snacks in between each day will help you to avoid under-eating without focusing on numbers.
Control around food is a term derived from diet culture. It’s not something we can clinically measure and may mean something different to each of us.
Start by assessing what food control means to you:
A combination of factors may lead to emotional challenges around food. Let’s dig into some reasons that may be leading to you under-eating and feeling out of control at mealtimes:
Skipping meals can be a reason some people feel like they have no control around food. The brain uses calories to function. So, it makes sense that our brain triggers the body to seek food when we are under-eating. Not to mention, you may end up arriving at meals ravenous.
Diets that encourage you to skip meals or highly restrict can lead to under-fueling. In addition, repetitive diets that have you eating the same foods over and over again can increase cravings. For example, people having nutrition shakes for every meal for five days reported more cravings compared to eating a diet full of variety.
Instead of skipping meals and cutting out your favourite foods, allow yourself to eat a variety of foods you enjoy. Eat regularly, especially on highly active days. Eating frequently can be a difficult task if you feel out of control around food. However, this consistency will help you to break the cycle and feel free around food again with practice.
If you’re following a diet that restricts one macronutrient- carbohydrates, fats, or protein, you may feel out of control when these foods show up on the table.
Current recommendations for healthy adults suggest a diet with:
These ranges provide enough coverage of each macronutrient to ensure people are getting the nutrients they need.
When you dip too far below the recommended range for any one macronutrient, your body is going to look for alternative food sources. This is where cravings often come into play. This is a biological response, but we may mistake it as a lack of control or willpower.
Chronic fatigue can set in when you’re under-eating. The lack of energy shows up anywhere from in the gym to in a work meeting. Then, some people who are fatigued may not feel like eating at all.
Metabolism is the process that converts what you eat and drink into energy. It’s a complex process that requires calories in itself. When you aren’t eating enough calories, your body prioritizes digestion, breathing, and other survival functions. This hierarchy of needs keeps you alive but leaves you feeling exhausted because there aren’t any calories left over for daily activities.
Despite its high prevalence and impact, fatigue is a symptom that’s often neglected. Yet, fatigue can be one of the first signs that something isn’t right. Since food intake can negatively affect energy levels, it’s important to look at caloric intake when you can’t seem to shake fatigue, no matter how much sleep or rest you get.
Hunger signals are a good thing. They tell us it’s time to eat and that our body needs fuel. Yet, you shouldn’t feel hungry all the time.
Leptin and ghrelin are just two of the many hormones involved in hunger and fullness. They change depending on the amount of food you eat, how often you eat, and other hormones balances. Ghrelin levels rise and fall before and after meals. Everything works together to signal hunger and fullness.
When you’re under-eating, your brain continues to signal that you’re hungry. Ghrelin levels continue to rise, sometimes leading to overeating and feeling out-of-control.
Many people experience physical symptoms, like dizziness, irritable mood, or lightheadedness, when they ignore hunger signals. Over time, the feelings of hunger diminish because your brain redirects energy.
Respecting your hunger signals allows your body to continue to function in ways it should. While skipping a few meals and snacks won’t have a long-term effect on metabolism, ignoring hunger signals can lead to lack of control around food.
If you’ve identified that you’re not eating enough calories, it’s time to start building back the trust between you, your body, and food. Listen to your hunger cues and your cravings, and give your body what it needs when it needs it. Be sure to focus on getting in three balanced meals a day, with snacks in between. Allow your body to trust that you will nourish it and food freedom will come as you continue to develop healthy eating habits.
If you feel as though you may benefit from working with a dietitian to help with feeling out of control around food, reach out to one of our non-diet dietitian today!