Under-eating & Weight Gain in Women
I have posted on my FB page, and social media outlets before about the dangers of chronic under-eating, but while under-eating can negatively affect both men and women, in women, I feel, the impact is magnified.
Women simply aren't wired to handle extreme caloric deficits with the same efficiency that men are.
In working with a lot of competitors, or former competitors, one trend I see over and over is women habitually cutting calories and eating in a gross caloric deficit. Ironically enough, many of these same women are the women complaining about how they can't lose weight or bodyfat, or how their body never changes or looks as they'd like it to. Many times, they've even experienced weight GAIN in response to cutting calories and upping exercise frequency.
Unfortunately, this is largely because mainstream information on weight loss leads you to believe that the body is a machine and all it takes to change how you look is simple math; calories in versus calories out. Eat less then you burn and voila- weight loss. And when weight loss stalls, cut calories and increase exercise again.
But honestly- think about it- if it was THAT simple, we'd all be lean. The body is more complex then that. While calories in vs calories out is "true" to an extent, you can't just expect to input and output calories and miraculously see some amazing response. The body is an adaptive organism, hard wired for survival and as you make changes to your diet and training, your body in turn, upregulates certain hormones, downregulates others, and makes a series of metabolic adaptations which ALL affect your ability to lose weight.
Slight calorie deficits and tweaks can lead to sustainable weight loss, but it's been my experience that dramatic or extreme deficits usually cause the body to adjust thyroid, adrenal and sex hormones to the point at which the negative impact is just too great.
And these changes are magnified in women, mostly because of the impact severe under-eating has on both the thyroid and on cortisol production.
Under-eating both DOWNregulates thyroid and UPregulates cortisol and this lethal combination makes it VERY hard to gain control of your weight.
Chronically elevated cortisol (stress hormone) leads to weight gain via leptin and insulin resistance and chronic under-eating causes a down regulation of T3 (active thyroid hormone).
This can lead to a condition called euthyroid sick syndrome, where T3 is low, reverse T3 is high, and TSH and T4 are often normal. This means your body develops symptoms of hypothyroidism without necessarily showing any change in typical thyroid function markers. So basically your bloodwork wouldn't indicate that you have hypothyroidism but you are still going to display symptoms of it.
Some of which are: 1) Inability to lose weight (as I mentioned above, due to the combination of increased cortisol output and downregulated thyroid function)
2) Constipation or impaired digestion. This is a very common symptom of hypothyroidism, as active thyroid hormone helps stimulate peristalsis in the gut, keeping digestion humming along smoothly. When T3 drops, gut motility slows, and this can lead to chronic constipation.
3) Sleeplessness or insomnia. Inappropriate calorie and carb intake can cause insomnia or difficulty sleeping. As blood sugar drops overnight, the liver releases stored glucose to keep blood sugar steady. But if you're under-eating, and glycogen stores are chronically depleted, the body has to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to fuel a process called gluconeogenesis,which creates glucose. If these hormones are high enough they can wake you in the middle of the night and/or prevent you from falling asleep. And lack of sleep, particularly over time, leads to weight management difficulties, mostly because of the elevated levels of cortisol in the body which impede weight loss or fat loss and can even cause weight gain.
There are a ton of factors that come into play when it comes to weight loss and bodyfat loss, but whenever I work with women, in particular, I take care to make SMALL changes to the diet versus drastic changes, and I absolutely will not "starve" them to death- regardless of whether we are in prep or not.
I admit, I have had to do this in the past with some athletes, to get them to the stage, but it has ALWAYS has disastrous results and has caused the competitor to spend MONTHS trying to regain homeostasis.
It's been my experience, that the risk is just not worth the reward.
I'm not saying that women can't handle a caloric deficit, they can- and yes, a calorie cut is warranted when weight loss is of concern (so don't think just because your coach or trainer has you cutting calories you're somehow riding for some serious health issues).... BUT if you've been GROSSLY under-eating, like many competitors do, for months and months on end, and are struggling to lose weight or are maybe even gaining weight, consider this post and maybe re-evaluate what you're doing.
Often times, when I begin to dial back on a woman's activity level (reduce her cardio or training) and pair that with small increases in calories, several things happen:
1) Digestion improves, and thus weight loss improves (less stomach volume = drop on the scale)
2) Sleep improves, and thus weight loss improves (lowered cortisol = drop on the scale)
3) Energy improves, and thus training improves, so weight loss improves (more intense training = drop on the scale)
4) Her body looks better- we see less of a skinny/soft look and more of an athletic, lean, muscular look because being under-fed leads to deflated muscles and typically places the body in a catabolic or muscle wasting state. This shift in body composition also occurs as a result of lowered cortisol. Cortisol tends to cause adipose tissue accumulation in the abs, low back, upper thighs and buttocks, and therefore, when cortisol comes down, these areas tend to see visual improvement.
I just think it's important to know that chronic, long term under-eating can hurt you the same way over-eating can, and to understand that placing yourself in the path of serious health issues is never worth being one jean size smaller, or stepping on stage at some absurdly lean bodyfat or hitting some weight loss number you think you need to be.
Health can, and should ALWAYS come first.
(client example: Photo on the left, severe caloric deficit, 2+ hours of cardio a day. Photo on the right, 30-45 mins cardio a day (for prep) and we never went below 1200 EXCEPT when she was in prep and we depleted the last two weeks or so, so she had about 2-3 weeks MAX in a sub optimal deficit)