Episode #497 Are you eating too little to lose weight? How would you know?
Eating consistently less than your body wants will slow your metabolism. You will lose your metabolic flexibility. There is no way you can eat less and less, continue to exercise the same or more and not stress your body, causing a ripple of negative reactions.
That’s what this episode is all about. You may have reactions to this content. That’s okay. It’s to be expected, really. You’ve been conditioned.
Endurance athletes say things like, I have a hard time believing I’m eating too little to lose weight.
In fact, they are the ones at greatest risk for losing lean muscle. Menopausal athletes or exercise enthusiasts, even more so.
But it’s normal to have a response like that. Endurance runners have long had eating disorders, or dysfunctional feelings around eating. The desire to be lighter, thinner to be faster is strong.
If you have low energy availability, you’re at greater risk for:
- Thyroid function disruption
- Endocrine disruption
- Muscle loss
- Workout performance (therefor results) suffers
- Negative Mitochondria and muscle and muscle protein synthesis effects
03:25 Low Energy Availability contributing causes:
- Too low overall calories
- Too low protein
- Too low carbohydrates
- Too low fat
- Any combination of these
- Dieting intentionally
- Fasting without conscious refueling and intentional goals
- Keto continuously
- lifestyle dietary choices (inadequate EAA in plant-sources)
06:30 Protein needs
Ideal body weight in lbs = grams of protein
Your Maintain weight daily Protein need:
To Lose weight:
X 10-15% more
Your weight loss daily protein need: (see handout link below for a worksheet to do calculations)
**Regardless of overall need, it needs to be consumed at a specific dose.
30 grams of protein minimum – no more than 50-60 grams for best ability to synthesis.
Light activity days/Recovery/short interval days
1.4 gm carb/pounds bodyweight
1.4 x ___________ = ______________
60-120 minutes of endurance exercise
1.8grams x body weight pounds
1.8 x _______________ = ______________
More endurance training – increased the carbohydrate need 2-2.7gm per pounds (this is also where you’re no longer going to find you make weight loss possible, but you’re working toward performance and preventing muscle wasting that will happen.
Servings per meal is an easier way to adjust and consider 5 servings a day, is 1-2 at each meal. Most foods with protein contain fat or meal prep or condiments contain fat.
- Low fat and higher carbs (high activity days) Higher fat and low carb (lower activity days)
- When both fat and carbs are high, we have issues. Even with “healthy resistant starches” this is true.
I do a 20-minute HI interval training session and that’s my exercise– that’s a light day for carb
But still higher than most women are trying to go (100 grams is as low as I would recommend for an active woman and never would I go that low for an athlete)
Based on 130 lbs
1.4 x body weight = 182 grams of carbs
The same 20-minute HIIT interval session before a strength training session (40-minute session).
Now, that boosts my need for carbohydrates, not just protein. So, I am back to at least 1.8g/body weight in pounds of carbs on these days.
1.8 x body weight = 234
Timing of recovery meals is important too.
You want to eat by bookending your workouts with adequate fuel. Pre workout and post workout both matter.
During recovery if you are HIGHLY active woman:
The ratio of protein: carbs post workout is ideally 1: 3 or 4 if you’re endurance training and need recovery quickly for that next workout. If you’re not that active and simply exercising at minimum, you are a little less concerned about that. If you’re exercising intentionally 5-6 days a week for an hour (or more) you are “an athlete.”
So, for more active women with a threshold of 30 grams of protein at each meal you want 90 to 120 grams of carbs in that meal as well.
What does that look like? Carb counts of some high quality carb choices:
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal 27 grams
- 1 cup of frozen berries? 21 grams
- Medium apple 25 grams
- 1 medium sweet potato 27 grams
- Banana 27 grams
- 1 cup Chili 23.5 carbs
- 1 cup butternut squash soup 23
- 1 slice of pumpkin pie 46 grams
If you don’t repair & replenish your protein & carb stores during the window (0-2 hours with sweet spot at 60-90 minutes) you’ll be more tired the next day, find next workouts harder – though less effective, dead legs, etc).
Sample meals during one day and carb count:
Smoothie with half a banana and 1 cup of blueberries 34.5
1.5 cups of chili and an apple 60.25
Sweet potato and berries for dinner 38.0
Total = 132.75
Falls short of even the lowest need for carbohydrates (182gm) for a 130 lb woman on a light activity day.
If you’re increasing training levels, eating during activity will help. (Long bike rides, long hikes)
That isn’t accounted for in the example.
What’s your Energy Availability?
Fat Free Mass = your muscle weight only
Example: 130 lbs, 54 lbs of muscle mass
Dietary energy intake (kcal) – Exercise energy expenditure (kcal)
divided by Fat Free Mass (kg)
For Example (2000 calories is easy math- just as example)
2000 kcals/day – and expend 250 kcals in 30-minute HIIT divided by 118.8 kg (54 lbs x 2.2)
= 14.7 is my Energy Availability (EA) gms/kg body weight
Kcals in a day: ___________ – Exercise energy Expended (use a tracker or online estimate)
Lean Muscle mass kg _______ (lbs x 2.2)
= ________________ gms/kg bodyweight
<30 -45 is considered low energy availability. So, Houston, we have a problem in the example I created. What about you?
Do Not use an online tracker to estimate your micros, as there is no consideration of your hormonal signs and symptoms. Definitely don’t use this number daily. In 37 years I’ve witness college students to 70-year old women become so obsessed they ignore the obvious – the way they feel, sleep, love, enjoy life as signs of health, and think that feeling like crap on the way to a goal will somehow magically make them happy when they reach it. (They rarely reach it, but when they do? The maintenance requires more exercise and fewer calories). That math does not equate to health.
The opposite has proven true every time. Reliance on counting calories in and out daily usually results in weight regain (beyond what was lost), adrenal issues, and abandonment by people and of things they used to love doing.
Ramifications of Eating Too Little while exercising more intensely:
Done for a long period of time, performance will suffer. The body will choose to break down muscle for energy (and not fat, because that is far more difficult to do).
Women who are already good at using Free Fatty Acids (FFA) for fuel don’t need to do endurance exercise AND they don’t want to be in a huge calorie deficit if they’re active regularly. That’s especially true if you sway to the loving exercise and overdoing it side of the continuum.
You can’t stay here for extended periods of time and get long term results. While you may experience results short term, you’ve got to return to higher calorie (high quality) intake with adequate protein and carbohydrates to sustain results.
Female Athlete Triad
When this happens in younger women we refer to it as the Female Athlete Triad. It’s true of exercise enthusiasts as much as athletes. In order to reduce body fat and weight to achieve some societal expectation of athleticism, or perception lower weight will improve performance, athletes diet and menstrual disorders result.
In midlife the same endocrine/hormone disruption occurs, it just isn’t evidenced if you’re not cycling regularly or at all. The diet you’re using to lose weight is potentially keeping you fat and tired.
Eating too little can cause weight loss resistance and a cascade of other issues including thyroid disfunction and inability to gain or maintain lean muscle. You may be able to gain strength. But ultimately performance will suffer.
(If you’re an athlete you’ll see this sooner, but even an intentional exerciser is an athlete will find she no longer feels good after workouts or has more energy from workouts; she has less). She may default to caffeine and or sugar cravings, feeling always (or never) hungry.
Ultimately, if you need to lose weight, you will if you’re eating and exercising in a way to reduce inflammation, avoid cortisol increases, and you fuel your exercise with protein, carbohydrates, and veggies (supporting micronutrients and alkalinity). If you aren’t losing weight, it’s time to check in with your macronutrients and reconcile what you think is happening, what is happening, and what needs to happen.
At some point, you can’t continue to reduce the number of meals you eat, the amount of calories you consume, the amount of micronutrients you provide your body and still expect to optimize the stress of exercise for weight loss. You’ll instead be slowing your metabolism with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.
Wasserfurth P, Palmowski J, Hahn A, Krüger K. Reasons for and Consequences of Low Energy Availability in Female and Male Athletes: Social Environment, Adaptations, and Prevention. Sports Med Open. 2020;6(1):44. Published 2020 Sep 10. doi:10.1186/s40798-020-00275-6
Slater J, Brown R, McLay-Cooke R, Black K. Low Energy Availability in Exercising Women: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions. Sports Med. 2017 Feb;47(2):207-220. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0583-0. PMID: 27430502.
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