Now that the new year is in full swing, you are probably getting bombarded with messages about which diet you should be on. How do you know if you are cutting calories wisely? Even more so, what can you do if you’re struggling with the side effects of too much restriction? To get a better understanding of this, we spoke to key nutrition experts to find out exactly what happens to your body when you cut calories—especially when done too quickly and without proper strategy.
“Cutting calories drastically has a number of consequences in both short and long-term,” Alissa Palladino MS, RDN, LD, CPT, tells Eat This, Not That! “Short-term, cutting calories might result in nutrient deficiencies, increased hunger levels, decreased energy levels, impaired performance and recovery, and hormonal changes. Long-term, prolonged calorie restriction leads to metabolic compensation, in which the body adapts and burns fewer calories at rest for survival. This makes weight maintenance more challenging and weight regain more likely.”
Keep reading to find out what happens to your body when you drastically reduce your calorie intake. And for more dietitian-approved insight into the best self-care practices, check out 4 Signs It’s Time To Stop Dieting.
Andrew Akhaphong, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian for Mackenthun’s Fine Foods, explains this phenomenon.
“Though a calorie deficit may help achieve weight loss, it may come with associated concerns related to decreased consumption of nutrient dense foods if calorie deficits are not done appropriately,” says Akhaphong. “Nutrient density is defined as the amount of nutrients compared to the calories provided by the food consumed.”
“One such example is the issue with chronic constipation,” he continues. “During calorie deficits, there may not be enough food volume, fiber, or even water content to support bowel movement and function. Chronic constipation can lead to severe pain, hemorrhoids, narrowing of the gut passage, and increase risk for colon cancer.”
Hormones thrive in well-nourished bodies and their production requires significant energy, macronutrients, and micronutrients. A severe lack of any of these can potentially lead to hormone disruptions—and in women, loss of your menstrual cycle.
“Prolonged calorie restriction reduces sex hormone production, leading to changes in sexual drive and function and menstrual abnormalities in females,” explains Britt Richardson, RDN, CD, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of A Full Bite Nutrition. “Missed or irregular periods may also be a sign of undernourishment.”
This one might sound self-explanatory, but nutrient deficiencies can be serious if you continue long-term food restriction.
“Cutting calories can mean serious loss of nutrients if you’re not doing it right,” explains Sharon Puello, MA, RD, CDN, CDCES.
Puello also mentions that many folks may be overconsuming total calories, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are getting all the nutrients they need. In fact, research has shown that one may still be lacking in critical nutrients even after eating too much.
“Many people think [that if] they eat too much, they can’t possibly have a nutrient deficiency—but that isn’t so,” says Puello. “One study found those going in for bariatric surgery often have multiple vitamin or mineral deficiencies before surgery. If you are cutting calories, be sure to focus your attention on mostly removing sources of empty calories from the diet.”
“A common means of cutting calories is to restrict intake of dietary fats. However, this can lead to insufficient fat at meals, preventing you from absorbing beneficial vitamins,” advises Puello. “As a result, you can end up in a loop of trying to lose weight by restricting, then cutting back too much on necessary nutrients, leading to too few nutrients available to support your metabolism, hormones, and other components of your health, which facilitate a healthy weight.”
We all know that feeling of skipping a meal and feeling excessively hungry later. As you reduce your calorie intake, growing hunger can become an inevitable reality—but why?