Can Eating Too Little Cause Weight Gain?

Can Eating Too Little Cause Weight Gain?

Guest Post By Natasha Anand

This was one of many frustrating phone calls I had received from my mother who, despite what she considered to be a healthy diet and regular workout regimen, had recently discovered her Body Mass Index (BMI) was above the doctor recommended average. 

In an effort to trim a few lbs and better her health she joined an intensive program through her local gym, guaranteeing her “Camera Ready Results” if she stuck to the program. 

Six weeks to better health and looking cute in pictures? Who wouldn’t want that outcome? 1,200 calories (with varying percentages of Macros* dependent on the stage of the program), a high-intensity workout, and a commitment to walking a minimum of 2-5 miles, every day. 

Macronutrients: These are the carbs, fats, and protein that your body needs daily. Micronutrients are elements such as vitamins and minerals that are derived from the consumption of Macronutrients. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is way more effort than I put in. It’s more than most people do. And yet many of us have the same outcome as my mom. Putting in our best effort, skipping dessert and that extra roti, getting our steps in, and yet still not seeing the numbers budge on the scale. 

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing more defeating than telling everyone you are going on a diet, and expecting a transformation (new diet, new you!); and showing up to the next family function only to have no one notice your hard work. Most people I know in my mom’s position would have thrown in the towel. “I tried, it must just be bad genetics”, or “vegetarians just don’t get those results”. 

My mom was determined to get her health where she wanted it to be. She kept reducing and refining. More fats, fewer fats. More protein, less protein. Fewer carbs… fewer carbs. More miles. 

Yet, every week, I’d get the same call. 

“I don’t understand. Everyone else in this program has lost so much weight, and my numbers are staying the SAME.” And every week, my answer was the same ​“how many calories are you eating? You’re not eating enough to lose weight.” 

Maybe you’ve been there. Despite working out consistently, eating carefully, you’re not losing weight, not losing it as fast as you’d like, or you were losing weight consistently – but now it seems impossible. Maybe it was easy when you were younger, the pounds never seemed to stick. But now, even with effort, you can’t seem to get as lean. 

I’m here to tell you, ​it’s not you​. It’s ​science​. 

A Quick Lesson in Weight Loss

Energy Balance: The Laws of Physics in Weight Loss.

You need a certain amount of energy (calories) to stay alive, as well as move around. This can come from food, or stored energy (fat tissue). 

In theory:  If you consume fewer calories than you use, the result should be weight loss. If you do the opposite and consume more calories than you use, you’ll most likely gain weight. It’s kind of like your body’s internal bank account. If you put in $100 (eg. calories), the more you save, the more you have. The more you spend, the less you have. In financial terms, we obviously want to save that money for a rainy day. In caloric terms, we want to spend some of that value so we feel great in that swimsuit on a sunny day. The relationship between ‘calories in’ and ‘calories out’ is called the ​Energy Balance Equation. Simple, right? Here’s the catch: While the equation can determine body weight, and calculate roughly how much weight a person will gain or lose over time, there are a few variables that are left out of the equation. 

For example, one’s individual body composition, hormone levels, macronutrient intake, exercise style + frequency, age, medication use, genetics, etc. None of these attributes is anything to be mad at, but they are qualities that are unique to your own wellness journey. 

So understandably, when we are surrounded by messaging that tells us that if we ​simply eat less​ or ​workout harder​, we believe that the outcome is representative of our own abilities to deprive ourselves and simultaneously work harder and that if we are failing, it is our own lack of discipline that is evident. We blame ourselves. Our lack of commitment, our bodies, our ​genetics​. 

We deny, “Well, I probably just drank ​too​ much water today. It is water weight.” We get angry, “I’m doing the best I can! Why is this so hard?!” We bargain, “If only I hadn’t gotten rice with my chicken, I could have controlled this.” We get depressed: “Why even bother??” 

We accept our state, and give up: “This is just what my body is supposed to be! I can’t do anything about it. I should go back to eating and living the way I used to.” In essence, we grieve our lack of ability to feel as though we can succeed at something that should be innate to us – taking care of our health. This mismatch between expectation and reality is not because the Energy Balance Equation is wrong, or a myth. But it does tell us the rule of thumb, “Eat Less, Move More”, doesn’t really assure us the results we want. 

Furthermore, “Eat Less, Move More”, can actually have the REVERSE effect that we want it to. Rather than fat melting away to reveal the glimmering abs we worked so hard for, that little “tire” seems stubbornly stuck in place – or worse, expanding. And If you think it is just you, it’s not. Rest assured, nobody’s body defies the laws of physics, though it definitely may seem like that sometimes. 

To solve the fallacy of the Energy Balance Equation there are a couple of variables we must consider: 

“Calories in” isn’t as straightforward as we might think. 

Reason 1: The number of calories in a meal likely doesn’t match the number of calories you think or the calories on a label or menu. 

The way in which calories on a label are decided is actually based on really outdated methods that are pretty imprecise. Equally imprecise? Our eyeballs. What we may guess to be a 300 calorie meal could easily be 500+ based on how much oil was used, that extra couple bites of food you took off your kid’s plate, or that “medium-ish” glass of wine. So unless you are eating whole foods, and weighing out your food, the chances that you are getting this correct is unlikely. 

Reason 2: The number of energy a food contains is not necessarily the amount we absorb, store, or use. 

Remember when I told you we have unique attributes that aren’t accounted for in the equation? Here’s where that comes into play. There’s a lot of steps involved in absorption, storage, and use – ​plus​ all the individual markers we have. All of this can change how calories are received in our bodies. 

Additionally, we often absorb more energy from cooked food than we think. The process of cooking, chopping, blending, breaks down the cellular matter of what we are eating, which increases the number of calories available.  When we eat raw, starchy foods, we absorb very few of the calories. However, after cooking, the starches are much more available to us ​tripling​ the number of calories we absorb. 

Hot tip: by allowing starchy foods to cool before eating them (eg. Sweet Potato) decreases the number of calories we extract from them). If you eat a lot of processed foods, you will absorb more calories, and burn fewer in the digestive process. Processed foods are also less filling, and more likely to cause overeating. 

By eating a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods, the number of calories you absorb can be significantly less than what you expect. Plus they require more calories to digest. This means the number of calories someone ​thinks​ they are consuming could be off by 25% or more. 

“Calories Out” also varies a lot from person to person. Our daily metabolic burn looks something like this: 

RMR: The calories we burn just to breathe, think, exist. Factors here include Weight, Body Composition, Sex, Age, Genetic Predisposition. The bigger the body, the higher the RMR needed to help it run. Additionally, RMR can vary up to 15% from person to person. This means two people of similar body types on a treadmill might burn almost 300 calories difference, with the same amount of effort. 

TEE: This is the number of calories you burn through digestion. Protein takes the most calories to burn, then carbs, then fats. 

PA: The calories you burn from intentional movement, eg. Exercise, walking, biking, etc. This varies daily, and from person to person. 

NEAT: Calories you burn from non-intentional movement, eg standing upright, shaking your leg at the dinner table, etc. This varies daily, and from person to person. 

So what does all this mean? and how does it answer the question of whether we are eating the right amount for our weight loss gains? 

What we just learned is that while “calories in, calories out” sounds easy in theory, in practice these variables make it really difficult for us to know how much we are actually taking in, absorbing, burning, and storing. 

If you recall earlier, I said my mom was under the assumption she was eating 1,200 calories a day, plus an hour of high-intensity exercise, followed up with a few miles of walking. Based on a quick calculation of her RMR, if she was not active at all, she would be burning roughly 1,500 calories per day based on her age, height, and weight. Which, if her intention was to lose weight, one would assume cutting her caloric intake temporarily to 1,200 would create the necessary deficit to achieve her goals. 

However, with the added element of exercise, and with our new knowledge that the 1,200 calories she was consuming may have been up to 25% different than she assumed, she could be significantly below 1,200 calories per day, and even farther below the recommended 2,000 calories per day. 

If we have the mindset of “calories in, calories out”, “less is less”, this would mean she’d be on her way to rapid weight loss, health, and the body of her dreams, right? 

Unfortunately, there is one more biological element that is often overlooked in this equation. 

You see, human metabolism evolved to keep us alive and functioning when food was scarce. If your body doesn’t have enough nutrients to sustain itself, it worries and starts to store the calories to make sure we have enough to get by until the next time we need it (that rainy day!). This two million-year-old safety mechanism works in the following way:When calories in goes down, the calories out goes down to match it.  The calories required for digestion goes down because you are eating less.

Your RMR goes down because you weigh less. The calories you burn through intentional activity go down because you weigh less. The calories you burn through non-intentional activity go down because you eat less.  The calories you absorb go UP to protect you from starvation. Thyroid and sex hormones (both of which affect your metabolic rate) will go down. 

It also increases the appetite and hunger hormone signals to your brain, and satiety hormones go down which means you are much more likely to have cravings, and it will be much harder for you to feel full.  Not to mention, the stress from dieting ​and from wondering why you are not losing weight results in a rise in cortisol (the stress hormone) which makes our bodies retain water. 

Suddenly, the 500 calorie deficit you thought you were getting becomes 300, or 200. Even with the intentional exercise. The safety system slows down and becomes less efficient at providing our bodies with fuel to draw from. If you find that you are eating very little food, exercising multiple times a week, and cannot lose or even start to gain weight, your metabolism is likely the reason. 

“You don’t want to restrict your diet to the extent that you are left with too few calories to fuel your body to work properly,” says Brown Lundy, PH.D., and Senior Sports Dietitian at the Australian Institute of Sport. 

According to Dr. Lundy the danger of limiting calories could mean you “end up damaging your metabolism, which can mean you are unable to lose weight, and possibly causing other wide-reaching effects on your body and health”. Instead, there is a healthy (but counterintuitive) method to jumpstarting your metabolism and losing weight: ​increasing your calorie intake. 

Now, this doesn’t mean go wild and have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Healthy eating and moderation still apply. And if the idea of eating extra calories sounds terrifying to you, you’re not alone. It sounds completely counterintuitive to everything we’ve been taught to believe. But, it works. 

The goal is never to eat as few calories as possible. Your goal is to eat as many calories as you can without gaining weight. When you do this, it means your metabolism is working at an optimal level. 

Eat-More-Lose-Weight Tips and Tricks:

Prioritize working out and commit to an active lifestyle (training involving weights will get you the best results – don’t worry, you ​won’t “BULK”).

  1. Avoid skipping meals.

2. Eat enough protein throughout the day.

3. Eat plenty of whole fruits, vegetables, and grains. Refuel + rehydrate properly after hard training sessions. Limit sweetened beverages and added sugars. 

4. Track your meals using an app, such as MyFitnessPal.

5. Monitor your portion sizes.

In simple words? EAT.

About The Author:

Natasha Anand is Founder of the Brown Girl Wellness Project. With a Master’s degree in Sports Product Design, she’s also been a Yoga Alliance Certified Instructor for over five years. She created the BGW Project after going through her own fitness journey, which took her from a lifetime of being frustrated with how she looked and felt, to be able to harness the power of being in charge of her own health and loving her body. She’s on a mission to help other BG’s do the same. For more information head to ​​ and join the club! 

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