Sounds crazy, right? That’s what most people will tell you if you ask them. Our gains and losses are all about calories in vs calories out. That is the theory behind such methods as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), although it has a little bit more science in it. But even some bodybuilders and fitness models, for whom counting calories is critical, don’t pay much attention to what kind of food they eat as long as they balance out in the end. They admit eating pizzas and cakes when off season, then they diet for a month or two, put on a smile, walk on stage and look beautiful. Although it works for them, I don’t think it is a very good idea to live like that, because athletes in the first place exert a lot of energy into their trainings, and it is crucial to eat quality food to make sure they stay healthy. Nobody wants clogged arteries and high cholesterol when you need your heart pumping blood hard during workouts.

This talk, however, is not about athletes. It is about and for regular people, who struggle with their nutrition and weight from day to day. People, like my mom. And probably my dad. Like many people in Russia, especially housewives, like many people in the world. Maybe it’s you, maybe it is someone you know. So many people need help of those who know what to do, because themselves they do not know.

Last week I have posted my quick analysis of my mom’s eating habits. I wanted to share it, because I am sure that many people can relate to that. For this same purpose I am sharing our yesterday’s further analysis of her diet.

First of all, I want to say that she successfully has been fighting her cookie addiction for a week now. That is very good for her, although too soon to cheer. At least she understands that eating loads of cookies is wrong. But unfortunately, cookies were not her only problem with nutrition.

When my parents visited me and my family last year in Ireland, I have noticed how little they eat. Every time I went to the kitchen and asked if they want to eat, their answer was “No, maybe later”. And so they had a very small breakfast, like tea and cookies or a toast with butter and jam, then they had a relatively small lunch and dinner. And maybe some tea closer to the bedtime. Back then I have suspected that they weren’t eating enough. Yesterday I made sure of it.

Once again, I asked mom what she had eaten during the day. She told me that she had oat porridge forwith some sugar and butter (not much), then she had 2 bowls of Solyanka (a Russian soup made of different meats, fresh and smoked, and cappers), a mandarin orange and an apple, plus two cups of lemon water with sugar. And it was already past the midnight. I told her I was afraid that she didn’t eat enough. Because she has quite an active job – she works in a department store where she is on her feet all day long, and in Russia they work longer than 8 hours a day. More often it’s 9 or 10, sometimes up to 12.

So firstly, we decided to find out how many calories she needs using an online calculator. With her weight and level of activity, on her working days she needs to eat over 2000 kcal to match her calorie expenditure, ie to maintain her weight. Even if she wanted to lose weight, she would still need to eat 2000 kcals for steady weight loss. And that is exactly what she would need to eat on her days off. But what happened yesterday is that with everything she had eaten, she barely consumed 800 calories. I eat twice as much, while weighing half of what she weighs. I think she was shocked by the results, she had no idea that she had eaten this little. But then more shock came upon the realisation that my father had eaten a single bowl of Solyanka on the entire day.  To me that smells like a serious eating disorder.

Why wouldn’t they lose weight then, if they eat so little? There’s a problem. Despite them eating so little food, it is not exactly the high quality food. That’s for one. Solyanka is a low-calorie soup, like many soups, but unlike many it consists almost entirely of fats – just think of all the meats cooking in the broth. And there are practically no carbohydrates – it has only onion and cappers, maybe carrots, but I am not too sure.

I have once read that on average a person needs about 1200 kcal just for our body to function. Everything else adds up depending on our weight and activity levels. I am quite sure that the information is true, because for the most extreme dieters, their calorie consumption should never be less that 1100-1200 kcal – you will find it in any place you’ll look. So what happens if you eat much less than that? Your body goes into starvation mode and shuts down your metabolism, because metabolic process requires calories, and if the body will keep it running, it wouldn’t have enough calories for the basic bodily functions. So your metabolism is down, and your body is starving. At first you might feel weak, but if you continue eating like this, sooner or later your body will get used to it. It will learn to expend less energy for you to keep living, and you will continue living in the starvation mode. Then, when the food comes, your system will turn it into fat (which isn’t at all hard to do when you eat sugars and fats), because should it happen that you’d start eating even less, your body can convert fat into energy. But it is a very dangerous game.

But why do you not lose fat when switching to a very low calorie diet? At first you do lose some fat. But if a person is not overweight, undereating will simply make them extremely thin and anorexic. If a person is already overweight, they will lose some weight in the beginning (more likely due to breaking down of muscle tissues, because fat is the last thing our body wants to lose), but then as the body becomes accustomed to the new way of eating, it will stop losing weight and go straight into the starvation mode, ie weight gaining mode. Well, they will not necessarily gain much weight, but they will not lose any more either.

This is what probably happened to my parents. Very sad. But what’s done is done. The only thing we can do now is fire up the metabolism by returning to a normal diet. It might be very hard at first, because they will feel like they have to literally stuff themselves with food in order to get the needed calories. And probably the body will react by adding more weight in the first few weeks. But after it’s back to normal you will start losing weight. And if not, you can always decrease your calorie intake by 100-200 kcals a day, within healthy range. In addition you can start eating clean whole foods and stay away from processed and sugary foods, saturated and trans fats and cholesterol. By adding regular exercise, like 30 min brisk walks or bodyweight daily routines (squats, push ups, hula hoop and such) you will help your body spend more energy and get some muscle tone as well. Get a or account to help you track your progress. It sure will come!

P.s. If someone’s interested, for now, to up my mom’s calorie intake, I advised her to add some whole grains and healthy fats to her diet – wholemeal bread, and nuts. I also suggested she ate more fresh vegetables and fruit. But since fruit is simple carbs, or sugars, that cannot be converted to anything except fat, I also suggested she ate a serving of fruit together with a serving of nuts, as it will slow down the sugar metabolism.

Helpful Sources:

2 thoughts on “The Nutrition Talk Part II: Undereating and overweight?

  1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I am not an expert either, but I am very interested in nutrition and really want to help people, because most of them do need help. And all those diets are just useless. I don’t know how people still didn’t understand it. My aunt has been battling her weight for over 20 years now, first with all the new diets and weight loss programs, then trying meal replacement shakes. The latter were the only thing that helped her lose tons of weight, but as soon as she got off them, all the weight returned. And this has been going on and on for 5 years now. Everyone has tried to discourage her from those shakes, but it has worked once and she blindly believes it will work again.

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