One of the biggest obstacles athletes experience is not fuelling themselves correctly. Inadequate calorie intake can quickly get out of control and lead to you not achieving your peak potential - therefore you need to avoid falling into this pitfall of dieting.
In this blog post, you will learn about the 15 signs of not eating enough calories as an athlete. Knowing how to identify the signs and avoiding these yourself, will help improve your nutrition game in 2022 and beyond.
In a world where we place so much importance on rapid, quick and easy results, it is not a surprise that there are so many people restricting their intake to a level that they're not eating enough calories - just for the sake of losing weight. Allowing yourself to not eat enough calories for the sole purpose of an aesthetic goal, is like taking your car to get detailed before it even goes for its important car service (or taking your car to get washed before you even fill up the tank of petrol so you can actually drive to get to your destination).
However, the question is: “How do you know if you're eating enough calories to fuel you and keep you healthy as an athlete?”. Well, keep on reading as I’m about to be today’s MVP and answer this for you.
I’ve previously written a blog post on the 5 common signs of not eating enough calories BUT today I will expand upon that and give you the definitive, no B.S. guide to calorie inadequacy in sports. After all, as I say time and time again, not eating enough calories is one of the more common mistakes athletes make with nutrition and one of the more common reasons they don’t get desired results.
Here is my list of the five MAIN things you need to look for (because these things are quite prevalent and very common signs that you are not eating enough calories). Hopefully, it will give you some more input into your own situation to determine if you may be under-eating calories so that you can start to fix that now - and level up your nutrition.
#1: Diminished Performance
Performance and energy levels dropping dramatically suggests you need to fuel yourself properly to perform more optimally. It’s energy in, energy out. Take one out of the equation and the other one suffers. So if you are finding yourself “hitting the wall” during training or a game then it can very well be due to not eating enough as part of your fuelling and recovery plan.
#2: Energy Levels Feeling Lackluster
Experiencing tiredness during the day more than normal? Lethargy feeling like a shadow following you around? Do you simply not have the same level of energy to get through your day to day as usual?
If you answered YES to all or any of these questions then the culprit may be low calories. It is linked to the performance issues so you will typically see these happen at the same time. When your body isn’t getting the nourishment it needs, energy depletes - quick math.
#3: Feeling Like You Could Eat A Horse Daily
If you are constantly very very hungry then it’s time to take notice. Look, some extra hunger as a result of being in a calorie deficit is normal (I mean you're literally eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain so there will be some hunger), but if you find that you're just constantly hungry no matter how much you eat then it’s time to consider checking your fuelling strategy.
#4: Loss Or Disruption In Your Menstrual Function
One of the major symptoms of under-eating calories that many female athletes will experience is a disruption in their menstrual function. So if you're noticing irregularity when it comes to your periods and feel something isn’t right, then take notice.
Many female athletes have come to believe that it's normal but it's actually not. I have to have that conversation with some clients and inform them that they have to determine if something else may be causing it. However, see your doctor first before considering if it’s related to calorie adequacy.
#5: Losing More Than 1-2 Pounds (500g to 1kg)) Per Week
Losing more than one to two pounds per week is very likely TOO quick of a weight loss - especially for most athletes who are on the leaner side already as it is. While it may seem appealing to lose a bunch of weight quickly and I understand where this comes from (it’s human nature), it’s not ideal. So if you are trying to get leaner (or especially if you’re not), but finding your weight dropping by 1kg+ per week, then your calories are probably way too low to be ideal.
#6: Problem With Concentration & Lack of Mental Acuity
If you feel foggy and can’t concentrate on the field or in your day to day...it’s time to consider if a lack of food is the reason. Nutritional inadequacy will lead to a reduced mental acuity & concentration on the field, in the gym, and in life in general. So if you're an athlete trying to beat the competition, you may find that you will need to out fuel them too - don’t skimp on adequate calories, my friend. Plus, a lack of concentration can increase risk of injury alongside not helping you harness your skills during training and games.
#7: Hair loss & Unhealthy Nails
Not enough calories can lead to a nutritionally compromised diet. A diet that isn’t nutritionally optimized can lead to nutritional deficiencies which can impact your health status. This in turn can make your hair and nails more prone to breaking and your hair health to be diminished - leading to losses. This is definitely a more extreme symptom of calorie inadequacy but is one to watch in case you are experiencing it.
#8: Increased irritability/reduced mood (chronic hangriness)
Feeling hangry a lot of the time? Or are you simply finding yourself more irritable and experiencing a low mood? Either way, both of these can be a sign of not eating enough. A low calorie intake can affect mood and mental health - especially if the dieting process is so restrictive that it causes metabolic adaptations and feelings of overwhelm.
#9: Diminished sleep quality and/or adequacy
Sleep is a truly underrated aspect of health and performance that I want more athletes to be aware of. I tell my clients all the time to track sleep and be aware of improvements as well as reductions. That is why you need to know that not eating enough can impact your sleep quality and quantity. If you find yourself struggling to sleep or to sleep well, then your nutrition may be the reason. Good nutrition leads to better sleep which leads to better health and more optimized performance.
#10: Regular constipation
The less food you eat, the less frequent your bowel movements will be. This reduces overall gut motility and activity as well as “volume” which can lead to issues such as constipation. However, it is important to look into this symptom more as there are MANY reasons constipation could be happening that is not linked to calorie intake.
It is not uncommon for active people to experience dizziness when they don’t eat enough food and fuel themselves properly. Just think back to any gym session or game where you didn’t eat much before starting and felt faint during or by the end of the session. It’s very common and one of the more acute signs you need to up your food game and eat a bit more - even if only tweaking your pre-game/training strategy so you don’t train virtually fasted.
#12: Feeling cold a lot of the time
Reducing calories has been found to reduce the body's production of heat which can lead to issues with temperature regulation. This is what leads to feeling more cold when restricting calories significantly. Also, too little calories can lead to a very low body fat percentage beyond the physiological threshold and this makes it harder to keep yourself warm. So the more you cut them cals, the more likely it is you will feel them shivers.
#13: Craving certain foods a lot
Is that ONE specific food always on your mind lately? Could be that you are being too strict with your diet and not allowing flexibility and food freedom. When you are being super strict with your diet this can also mean that calories may be too low too. Not always, but it is a potential risk. That is why you need to be aware of if you experience very strong cravings for food as this may be a sign you are on the way to calorie inadequacy due to restrictive dieting.
#14: Increased anxiety
The process of dieting for a calorie deficit can lead to increased moodiness in itself. However, significant restrictions over time can in fact lead to worse mental health issues such as increased bouts of anxiety. That is why you need to make sure you don’t crash diet, don’t diet for too long, and/or ensure your nutrition is balanced enough and that you eat foods that are healthy for your mind - such as omega 3 fatty acid rich options.
#15: Experiencing specific deficiencies
This one is a no brainer and pretty self explanatory. If you are getting tests done and seeing you are having nutritional deficiencies pop up, then there is a very good chance it is due to a poorly designed nutrition strategy. Often this can also be as a result of simply not eating enough calories to get enough food that allows your body to get enough nutrients. Simple.
There you go, the 15 signs of under-reading calories that I see often & wanted you to be aware of and avoid. Perhaps you have been reading along and you're like “yes I’m experiencing this, I’m experiencing that”. Perhaps you are experiencing all of them. Either way, you need to make sure your nutrition isn’t poorly implemented.
However, even if you're not even experiencing any of these symptoms it's important that you now fully understand them so that you know what to look out for later down the track. It’s not only important to know what to do - you need to know what NOT to do, as well (and identify the signs).
Want help executing the right nutrition strategy?
So if you are ready to take your nutrition to the next level and elevate your performance in a way that doesn’t make you want to punch your Sports Dietitian, then let’s chat.
I have developed a 90 Day Macro Sherpa program that is a 1:1 nutrition coaching experience to help start bridging the gap between where you are now and where you want to be as an athlete.
In this program, I'll personally coach you using my flexible nutrition system to help you harness the power of calories and macro strategy to regain your competitive edge - think of it as a bespoke sports nutrition solution that empowers you to eat better to achieve better.
Interested in learning more? Then simply email me at: email@example.com
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Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Brisbane Sports Nutritionist. I have 7+ years experience in providing professional nutrition consulting and want to help you learn about the power of flexible nutrition.