You’re Doing Healthy Eating All Wrong: Under Eating is Wrecking Your Diet

Posted on Posted in Food, Healthy Eating

This week I want to talk to you about how under eating is wrecking your healthy eating plan. I was going to write about easy, yummy recipes for vegetable side dishes but a visit from my daughter over the weekend inspired a change in plans.

“Mom, you would be really proud of me, I ate healthy all week.” I am always proud of her, I’m a mom. “Of course it all fell apart over the weekend. That time of the month arrived, I stopped at the gas station and end up grabbing a big bag of Starburst. Actually, I grabbed two bags, they had them on sale.” I nodded my head and smiled. I can relate.

She switches gears quickly. She tells me that she installed the app I mentioned in one of my posts for counting calories. “You know what? It turns out I wasn’t eating enough!” Ah! The Starburst make sense now.  The female hormones are getting a bad rap.

Britt’s candy congregation was more likely spurred on by low-calorie consumption and hunger hormones than swinging estrogen levels. “You need to write about that!” she told me. Here you go, Britt, this ones for you.

It’s a Trap: Incompatibilities of the Busy Lifestyle and Healthy Eating

Under eating is a big problem and one that many women face. For some it happens because we get busy and forget to eat. Others may face this due to restrictive dieting. Believe it or not this can also be a pitfall that occurs when someone decides to adopt a healthy eating lifestyle.

Most women I know have days that look something like this. We are running late to start our day so we rush out the door and grab a coffee. If we’re lucky we snagged a banana on our way out. By lunch time we’re knee-deep in a project so we find a yogurt or small bite and eat at our desk. We rush home, grab the kids, swap out their school clothes for sports uniforms or dance costumes and start making the rounds to drop off and pick up. By the time we get home there isn’t much energy or hours left so we pull something out of the fridge and pop it in the oven. We rush everybody off to bed and start it all over again the next day.

How many of us have gone through a week with schedules like this and come the weekend seek out a huge greasy dinner with a chocolate dessert, an extra brownie and multiple glasses of wine? Or sent your husband out searching for dark chocolate and Toblerone? Yep, I did that.


You may not have realized it but while you were rushing through the day grabbing small bites on the go you failed to get the calories you needed to maintain your energy.  The chances increase if your options are healthier varieties. You, my dear lovely friend, hit the danger zone.

The Danger Zone

There are numerous health implications caused by long-term under eating. One of the most immediate consequences you’ll notice, occurring in as little as a few days, is the urge to over eat and an intense cravings for sweets 1. Some dieters use under eating as a strategy for losing weight. Inevitably it fails when the hunger hormones kick in and a binge fest cancels out all of the calorie savings. If you think this strategy is making you skinny you missed the point, eventually it is going to make you fat.

Molly is so stinkin' cute!
Molly is so stinkin’ cute!

When my golden retriever Molly was a puppy going through training she would cycle through performing every trick she knew to try to get me to relinquish my food to her. I would be standing in the kitchen eating my yummy snack and the longer I waited to hand over a bite the more frantic she became circling through her bag of tricks. Geesh! Woman! What do I have to do to get you to give me some of your food? Eventually I give in, she’s just so stinkin’ cute (and persistent)!

Your brain is like Molly. You have a biologically built-in calorie limit. When your consumption goes below that limit you go into the danger zone. This is where all sorts of crazy things start to happen. One of them is your survival instincts are going to take over. If your brain thinks it is starving it will go through every single trick it can think of in the attempt to get you to feed it. The longer it goes the more frantic it becomes. Just like Molly.

Your Brain is Playing Tricks

When you hit the danger zone logical thinking about healthy choices will fly right out the window. Your brain no longer cares about the nutritional quotient of food. It’s in survival mode. I need energy now and I need it fast. The brain pulls out its bag of tricks.

It start with hunger pains. Those get a little uncomfortable. If that doesn’t work your brain will start to tempt you with cravings. You shake them off. Eventually desperation kicks in. Much like Molly your brain will go frantic and cycle through upping the stakes each time until finally it’s going to slam you in the face with a stark-raving-mad craving that you can’t ignore. It will crave quick relief through the fastest form of energy it knows. What’s that? Sugar. Processed food that is high in calories and fast to absorb. Damn it woman you need to give me some Twinkies STAT! I don’t even like Twinkies.

Next thing you know your buried up to your boobs under a stack of ho-ho’s. The guilt sets in. You wonder how you’ll compensate for all of the extra calories you just ate. And the circle of deprivation begins. Stop starving yourself! It’s making you fat.

Who Wants to Count Calories Anyway?

Our perception of food is not experienced through calories. We experience food through portion sizes. We become accustomed to a certain quantity of food on our plate and a certain number of meals in a day. If we take a young healthy woman with no desire to lose weight but wants to incorporate more healthy options she typically eats the new healthy food at the same portion size and meal count as the old food.

So why does healthy food options worsen the situation?  Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables are significantly lower in calories by volume than processed and refined food selections. If you stick with the same portion sizes you are consuming far fewer calories. This might be a good thing when you are trying to lose weight but keep in mind the danger zone limit. If you are dealing with a busy schedule and eating on the go the chances are this calorie cut went too far.

Estimating High or Low Calorie Count Through Energy Density

If you were to place food in a spectrum measuring nutritional quality and total calories you might get a visual similar to what you see here. Foods high in water content and full of fiber, like fruits and vegetables, would live at the top left side of the spectrum.  Proteins, grains and dairy still high in nutritional value shift slightly towards the middle and processed food options end up at the bottom far right.

Food energy density
Food energy density chart

You can estimate foods higher or lower in calorie count based on how dense it is, the food energy density.  The more dense the food the higher the calorie count. A cup of fresh apple will be lower in calories than a cup of dried apples. Fruits and veggies high nutritional value puts them at the top of spectrum.

You can apply the same principle to middle zone foods. A piece of fish, still juicy and packed with nutrition is slightly more dense than our veggie friends. Four ounces of fish will have a higher calorie count than a similar serving of vegetables, four ounces of chicken has a higher calorie count than the same serving of fish. You get the idea.

You Need Higher Calorie Count Options

The higher energy density from foods in the middle of the spectrum are necessary to keep you out of the danger zone.  Your body needs protein and healthy fats to function properly but you also need them to help you feel full longer and keep you out of the danger zone.

335 calories in energy density across different food groups
335 calories in energy density across different food groups

The trick is to balance the portion sizes for middle zone foods. You can consume selections from the left at a higher volume than foods from the middle zone and still consume fewer calories. A cup of broccoli is 31 calories, a cup of chicken is 335 calories and a cup of olive oil is 1,910 calories. You can have a lot of broccoli, about a palm size of chicken and around a tablespoon of olive oil they would all have the same calorie count.

If you’ve been choosing foods primarily from the left side of the spectrum you could eat a lot of food and not reach your needed calorie limit for the day. You must balance it out with food from the middle of the spectrum.

The Energy Density Red Zone

I want you to get foods that help you feel full and reach your calorie limit. I just don’t want you to do it from the energy density red zone.

Companies take what was once fresh whole food dry it out, combine it with chemically made food and add preservatives to extend the shelf life 2.  What did we just learn about drying food? The food becomes more dense.  What happens when it becomes more dense? It contains more calories by volume. Ever wonder why a fresh hamburger will be dripping grease down your elbows but a Mickey D’s burger barely gets a squeeze of juice? There you go.

Red zone foods contain concentrated calorie counts and diluted nutritional value. The more processing steps applied the worse it gets. They wreak havoc on your bodily functions and the insulin surges they cause will leave you shaped like a blueberry rather than an hourglass. You have to consume these in the smallest portions possible, if at all.

When You’re Practicing Healthy Eating You Must Eat

So if we don’t live our life with pop up calorie bubbles and we need to adapt to eating healthier food that might not have the same energy density as the processed foods we used to eat and we shouldn’t under eat because that eventually forces our brain to make us over eat then how do we solve this problem? Get ready, because I am about to blow your mind.

You must eat. Eat real food and quite a bit more than what you’re used to consuming.  Even for those who are trying to lose weight you are going to have to eat.  Starvation diets are silly! Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you.

How I Manage Healthy Eating in Real Life – A Day at the Airport

What better way to illustrate balancing a busy schedule with healthy eating than a travel day. This was a travel day to beat all travel days. I flew out on a 5am flight, spent the day in meetings and then head back to the airport to fly home, complete with layover in another city, landing back home at 11pm. No meal prep or planning will save me today.

My strategy is choosing most of my food from the upper left of the spectrum. To keep me out of the danger zone about a quarter of my selection has to come from the middle zone. The primary goal is steering clear of the bottom right. I’m using density alone, no counting calories. Here we go.

The Results

At the end of the trip I tallied the calories. I estimate I ate about 1,680.  I felt full all day and by dinner time was almost overwhelmed that it was too much food. When I added in walking and carrying travel bags all day I was slightly under my daily calorie burn. I ate more than enough food to feel full and I technically lost a little weight! Who needs a meal plan now!

As for nutrition the fat count was a little high. I chose cheese at breakfast since I couldn’t find eggs to make sure that I could avoid the danger zone. I didn’t know when lunch would happen. The yogurt wasn’t a great choice due to artificial sweetener but it was that or I’d end up in desperation at the Gelato counter. There’s nothing wrong with Gelato, I just prefer having Gelato as a purposeful decision and not because I have a case of the Molly’s.

Healthy Eating in Real Life – You Don’t Need Perfection, but You Must Eat

In real life when dealing with busy schedules and unpredictable events it isn’t possible to always be exact. There is ideal and there is what is possible. The goal is to seek balance between the two so that you can keep your sanity. For your health, your sanity and to ward off the Molly’s you must eat!

Get most of your food from the upper left of the spectrum, add in smaller portions from the middle zone throughout the day and make the best choices you can as you go.   If you find your pants are too loose you can add a bit more food from the middle.  If your pants are too tight, shift to the left.

Now that you know you need them next week I’ll get you my veggie recipes. Happy Eating!

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