Most people tend to think that eating less is the key to a stronger and healthier body. But that’s not necessarily true.
Because what you might not realize is that when you have fitness and skill goals, eating too little can actually hurt your performance.
In fact, here’s what can happen when you try to significantly restrict calories when being active:
It’s Hard to Build Muscle and Get Stronger
Our muscles need fuel to grow and get stronger. Without sufficient food, you simply won’t see any change in our muscle size and shape, no matter how intensely you try to train.
Building muscle is not the priority for the body—that’s not where it puts its energy first. Maintaining normal blood pressure, body temperature, digestive health, respiration and other basic body functions are the priorities.
If all the fuel is gone after taking care of the basics, there’s nothing left for muscles, so there’s just no building material left for them.
You’re Having a Hard Time Losing Fat
Similarly, when your goal is to lose fat, you shouldn’t try to do it by eating like a bird.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the truth is that severe under eating makes fat loss very difficult in the long run. Sure, to lose fat, your body needs to be in a caloric deficit—but you shouldn’t try to cut our calories too rapidly, especially when you’re training intensely.
Extreme caloric restriction leads to slower metabolism and fast muscle loss, both of which you want to avoid. The bigger and stronger our muscles are, the faster also our metabolism is, and the better fat burners we are.
You’re Unable to Make Progress
Not eating enough also won’t allow you to reach your full potential in your workouts. Maybe you’re doing similar workouts every week, but your results are not getting better.
You may still be using the exact same or maybe even lighter weights. Your 100 Burpee challenge time is not improving. And you just don’t seem to get closer to that first pull up. All that despite how much you’re training!
If this is the case, you may want to seriously take a look at how much you’re eating and even try counting calories for a few days to see how much you’re under eating. Eating more will help you to fill your muscles with more energy that can then be used to hit those PRs you’ve been wanting to crush for so long.
Your Recovery is Slow
When it comes to recovery, it’s hard to stress the importance of sufficient food intake. When we’re working out, we’re actually creating micro tears in our muscles. That’s an essential part of muscle growth–the growth and rebuild happens when those micro tears are healing.
The way to heal those micro tears and rebuild muscle as quickly as possible, is to eat after a workout.
The better fueled we are, the faster our muscles heal and the more likely we’ll be ready to tackle our next workout. If you skip your meals or don’t eat enough at your meals, muscle soreness may also last longer.
If we skip meals, our bodies start to use protein from our muscle tissues for fuel, because they have no other energy source. If we’re already over trained, there are things that help us back on track—enough food being one of them.
We May Lose Normal Hormonal Balance
To be healthy, our hormone production has to be on point. When we don’t eat enough, we will sooner or later ruin that normal balance.
Cortisol is a hormone that is known as the “stress hormone.” We do need cortisol and its levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day–that’s completely normal.
What we don’t want, however, is for cortisol to be chronically elevated, which is exactly what happens when we’re constantly underfed. Of course, other factors like poor sleep, stress, or even negative relationships affect our cortisol levels as well.
But not giving our bodies enough food is a big stressor for it too.
What’s more, the production of sex hormones may slow down when we don’t eat enough. This is true especially for women. It’s not uncommon that women who train hard but don’t eat enough to support their exercise may harm their bone density, fertility, and even heart health.
Some Signs That Tell Us We Should Eat More
Here are some signs that may give you a hint that you may not be eating enough:
- You’re often exhausted even when you’re just half way through the workout
- You’re far from hitting our PR-s, despite frequent and focused training
- You don’t recover from your workouts as fast as you used to
- It’s hard to lose fat, despite training a lot
- It’s hard to build muscle, despite the hard workouts
- All of this leads to feeling unmotivated–you simply don’t want to workout.
Not only that, but outside of your workouts, you may also get hangry (hungry+angry) when you haven’t eaten for a while, so it makes us super moody. And you may also experience brain fog and have hard time sleeping, or on the other hand, you may want to sleep all the time.
Figuring Out Your Basal Metabolic Rate
BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate is an estimate of calories we should be eating every day to regulate or body temperature and keep our digestion, respiratory system and other most important functions of our body working properly. Whenever we exercise, even if it’s as light as just walking, our energy expenditure increases. So BMR tells us the amount of energy we burn when we basically lie down all day.
BMR is based on our height, weight and activity levels. You can calculate yours here. However, remember that although this number gives you an idea what you spend every day, it’s not 100% accurate.
You should never eat less than your BMR is, since doing so will sooner or later start to affect your health. It may seem like a good idea to eat less than this number if you’re trying to lose weight, but doing this will backfire. And if you’re fairly active and work out regularly, you should be eating quite a bit more than this (and if you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll need to eat even more).
One that is absolutely sure is that by eating too little, you’ll never hit those new PRs, accomplish cool new skills, or gain muscle or much strength. On top of that, you’ll probably lose your workout motivation, because it’s tough to stay motivated when workouts are crappy!
Eat to Perform
Keep in mind that even if skipping meals or significantly cutting calories may seem like a good idea for quick weight loss, this approach is not sustainable and may ruin your health in a long run. Fat loss will become more and more difficult, and crushing your workout goals will simply not happen.
Remember, food is fuel! Take care of your body and treat it that way.
Kersten Kimura is a NASM PT, kettlebell enthusiast and a fan of HIIT workouts. After relocating from chilly Estonia to California, she has taken full advantage of the area and works out outdoors whenever possible. You can find her throwing around her sandbag or swinging kettlebells at local parks, or sprinting along the gorgeous Bay Trail.
Find out more about Kersten here and sign up for her newsletter to get her one week equipment free workout plan and seven simple dinner recipes.