For years, I worked in academic research settings studying the role of exercise on weight loss and weight maintenance. Since…
The Problem With Undereating
“I know! And on, like, 900 calories!”
“It’s happening left and right.”
“Seriously. It’s an epidemic.”
Try our flagship training program, The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training Girls Gone Strong owner, Molly Galbraith, and I were sitting down to eat, and there was an issue so big and so pervasive that was weighing on our minds that we couldn’t even get our plates onto the table before we started chattering about the alarming trend: many women who train hard are under-eating.
They are aren’t sure how to eat, and hope that ‘less will be more’, slashing calories in an attempt to make progress. Eventually, as their results stall, they slash more calories and work out more.
A few weeks later, they stall, and do it again. And then again. Pretty soon, they’re eating 1,100 calories a day and doing an obscene amount of exercise. They are hungry, frustrated, and exhausted. This approach isn’t healthy or sustainable—and frankly, it’s no way to live.
In theory, continuously decreasing caloric intake and increasing exercise to continue making progress sounds logical, but in practice it won’t necessarily pan out that way. Fat loss can not always be condensed down to the seemingly simple math equation of ‘calories in – calories out.’ There are a slew of other factors that will affect the outcome, such as hormones, genetics, lifestyle, age, medication, sleep, stress, and history of dieting.
Of course, we know that in order to lose body fat, there must be a caloric deficit, but there is more to it than that. One thing that many people don’t take into consideration is the fact that the body is incredibly adaptive. When you decrease your calories, it affects several things, which influence the outcome. It’s important that you understand the physiological effect of decreasing calories and increasing exercise, especially if you keep doing it over and over again.
Let’s start by talking about energy expenditure. The following are four ways that your body expends energy (burns calories), and how a caloric deficit (dieting) can potentially affect each area.
Your Resting Metabolic Rate is how many calories your body burns at rest. This is the amount of energy required for your body to perform necessary functions such as breathing, blinking, and living. Think of your RMR as the number of calories that you’d burn if you laid on the couch all day long. Your RMR makes up the bulk of your energy expenditure. RMR varies from person to person, but in general, the bigger you are, and the more muscle you carry, the higher your RMR will be.
When you diet, you lose weight, which naturally decreases your RMR. When you diet too hard or for too long, especially with extreme amounts of exercise, you risk losing muscle mass, which further decreases your RMR.
Physical activity is the exercise that you participate in. Dieting typically causes a decrease in energy, especially if it’s a prolonged or extreme caloric deficit. This can make your training sessions a bit lackluster. You don’t have the energy to give it your all, and therefore you don’t expend as many calories, even if you feel like you’re working really hard.
NEAT are the calories that you burn by doing anything physical that isn’t intentional exercise. Daily living activities such as doing your laundry, typing on your computer, and laughing with your friends are all examples of NEAT. Because most people naturally want to move less when their energy intake is lower, NEAT typically decreases when you are dieting.
We use five to 10 percent of our energy expenditure by eating, digesting, and processing our food. Some foods require more energy than others to digest, with protein being the highest, followed by carbohydrate, and then fat. The less we eat, the lower our TEE. In other words, when our energy intake (food) decreases, our energy output (calories burned) decreases a bit as well.
This is all normal, and to be expected, to a certain point. However, we have to be careful, because if we continue to decrease calories over and over again, the four things I mentioned above will be affected more and more as well. What does all of this mean for a person who is dieting? That constantly slashing calories has a point of diminishing returns.
This is why when most people diet for the first time (I refer to this as “Virgin Metabolism”), their body will respond quickly. However, once that same person has dieted over and over again they may eventually struggle to achieve the same results they experienced before, using exactly the same approach. Figure and Bikini competitors who compete several times often experience this. Their dieting and exercise approach eventually becomes more and more extreme in order to achieve the same results.
Another example is a person who has lost a substantial amount of weight. They may have found that the weight was relatively easy to lose at first, but progress became harder to achieve as they had less weight to lose.
It’s natural for our bodies to respond to a caloric deficit in the manner that I discussed above, but there are some things that will help.
I mentioned the ways that your body responds to a caloric deficit, and the larger the deficit the bigger those responses will be. There is nothing wrong with decreasing your calories for fat loss to a certain point, but it’s important that you’re smart about it. A woman eating 2,200 calories a day has more room to work with in terms of reducing calories in order to continue to make progress than a woman who is only eating 1,300 calories a day.
In general, the more you’re eating, the more wiggle room you will have to further manipulate your calories.
Be conservative and start small with your deficit. Try an eight to 10 percent caloric decrease per day for a few weeks very consistently. See how you feel, and how your body responds. If you are eating between 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day, an eight to 10 percent decrease would be between 120 to 200 calories a day. This could be as simple as cutting out a small snack each day, or removing two Tablespoons of nut butter.
I know what you’re thinking: “But, that seems so insignificant!” Yes, I would much rather you err on the conservative side and have plenty of room to decrease further, than chop 500 calories off everyday right out of the gate and get stuck without anywhere to go six to eight weeks down the road. If you cut your calories from 1,700 per day to 1,200 per day and progress stalls, where do you continue to decrease? There isn’t much of that aforementioned wiggle room left.
Resistance training is important for many physiological reasons. It helps improve bone density, and can prevent things like osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and sarcopenia. Strength training is also very important when it comes to dieting. As stated above, the more muscle mass you have the more energy you expend. While a pound of muscle only expends five to six calories a day at rest (not the mythical 30 to 50 calories a day it was once believed to be), muscle tissue does require a lot more energy when recovering from exercise, thus adding up to a fair amount of extra calories burned each day. This means that it’s really important to do everything you can to preserve precious muscle tissue while dieting.
While some muscle mass may be lost in the dieting process, you can do a couple of things to mitigate this, starting with prioritizing strength training over doing lots of cardio. Lift moderate to heavy weights about three days per week, and keep moderate and high-intensity cardio to a minimum.
The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training will help you achieve maximum results, whether you’re new to strength training, or a veteran in the weight room.
At Girls Gone Strong, we recommend about two 30ish-minute moderate-intensity cardio sessions per week. Moderate intensity cardio means that your heart rate is between 120 and 140 beats per minute throughout the duration of the activity. If you are doing more cardio than this, consider doing two moderate-intensity cardio sessions per week, and substituting more low-intensity energy expenditure work, such as leisure walking, instead of the higher intensity cardio sessions you were doing. Doing too many moderate to high-intensity cardio sessions can increase hunger and cravings.
Next, be sure that you are getting optimal amounts of protein and carbohydrate to fuel your training, and recover properly.
Before you try further decreasing your calories, try shifting the focus on your current diet to include more protein. Most women who train hard aren’t eating nearly enough protein, which is extremely important for several reasons. First, it’s the most satiating of the three macronutrients. Adequate protein intake will help you feel satisfied for longer, which helps prevent overeating of other foods. In addition, protein requires the most energy to eat and digest it. While it may be a small amount, it all adds up! Trading just 50 grams of carbs for 50 grams of protein burns an extra 40 to 50 calories a day, or 280 to 350 a week. Over time that can make a big difference in your overall expenditure. Protein is also crucial for growth and recovery of muscle tissue, and as you have learned, the more muscle you have, the more calories you are burning.
We recommend that you get 25 to 35 percent of your overall caloric intake from protein, as discussed in this article by GGS Advisory Board member Dr. Cassandra Forstythe. For a physically active woman consuming between 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day, this comes out to about 100 to 175 grams of protein per day, breaking it up into a minimum of 20 to 30 grams at each meal and including some in her snacks as well. This is just an example, not a recommendation for how many calories you need, specifically. If you need some help figuring out what your caloric needs are, you can find more information in this article by Registered Dietitian Laura Schoenfeld.
Even when dieting, it’s important to get adequate amounts of carbohydrate to support your strength training. Carbohydrates are important to maintain your energy levels and to replenish glycogen used during training, which helps with muscle growth and recovery. Remember: more muscle mass means more calories burned, so it’s important that you do everything you can to preserve and build muscle.
In my experience working with clients, these are good baseline numbers for carbohydrate consumption:
*Lean Body Mass is what you weigh minus fat tissue.
Dieting requires time and consistency. In order to get results, it’s important that you are very consistent, and patient. It’s not uncommon for someone who is dieting to hastily deem their efforts as “not working,” and end up unnecessarily restricting themselves. Before slashing calories again, and adding more exercise, try the advice above. Make sure you’re prioritizing strength training, fueling it well with adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrate, and increasing energy expenditure while keeping your appetite and cravings in check by doing low-intensity activities, such as leisurely walking. And of course, if all of this seems too overwhelming to tackle at once, and you feel like you need some professional guidance, we can help.
A message from GGS…
At Girls Gone Strong, we want you to feel confident knowing that what you’re doing to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong is not only based on tested, reliable, and safe information from trustworthy sources, but also that it is effective and efficient.
That’s why we developed our flagship training system, The Modern Woman’s Guide To Strength Training.