Calories are king when it comes to weight loss.
It’s hard to argue with science on this one. If you consume fewer calories than you burn in a day, you’ll lose weight.
So I get why so many women who are eager to lose weight immediately slash calories in half. If reducing calories is good, shouldn’t the goal be to cut as many as possible?
It doesn’t help that so many fitness magazines have agreed that 1,200 calories is a magic target for women. While that low amount might work for some, it’s completely unnecessary for the average dieter.
Think about it. What were you eating when you first started gaining weight? I bet it wasn’t 1,500 calories. If you were gaining on a higher number like 3,000, there’s no need to make such a drastic cut.
When you reduce calories too fast, you can start to experience negative side effects. Here are 5 warning signs that you slashed too many calories.
1. Your Workouts Suck
Most people can diet to drop a few pounds. But to get the body you want, you need to exercise too. If you’ve been crushing it at the gym while starting your new low-calorie diet, you might notice a fast burnout.
Food is the fuel your body uses to stay active. When you’re not eating enough, your body struggles to sustain day-to-day functions, not to mention a killer power yoga class.
So if you can’t keep up with your usual running pace or you are lifting less weight than you were last month, you’re probably eating too little.
2. You’re Hangry
Dieting shouldn’t mean you’re constantly hungry. Many women who battle with an unhealthy relationship with food may even think that it’s good to feel hungry.
Allowing your body to remain in a state of constant hunger actually does lead to the irritable mood that we now lovingly call “hangry.” A 2014 study found that low glucose levels did relate to greater aggression among married couples.
Another related warning sign may be that you’re impulsively reaching for junk food. Again, a connection was found between low blood sugar and lack of self-control.
If you’re feeling hungry, it’s ok to eat. It may just be your body’s way of telling you that it needs more food for energy.
3. You Stop Losing Weight
Yep. Eating too little can sabotage your weight loss efforts.
Many women on low-calorie diets find that after initially losing weight at a good rate, they quickly hit a plateau. When you’re already eating 1,200 calories per day, where do you go next?
This is why it’s important to cut calories gradually. You should aim for cutting as few as possible while still losing weight. That way as your weight goes down and you need fewer calories, you have somewhere to go.
Eating too little can slow your metabolism. Drastic changes in calorie consumption can also negatively affect your thyroid, adrenal glands, and many hormones.
Science is on our side here, too. A study of people on a 1,200 calorie diet noticed increased levels of cortisol among the dieters. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is partially responsible for increases in body fat – especially stubborn stomach fat.
4. You Can’t Sleep
If you’re having a hard time falling asleep or you’re waking up every hour, you might be eating too little.
This is especially true if you’re training hard while trying to maintain a low-calorie diet. A study on endurance athletes showed that overtraining leads to disturbed sleep patterns.
Lack of sleep while dieting can start a pretty nasty cycle. When you aren’t sleeping enough, your body tends to hold on to fat. So the restless sleep caused by under-eating may also be making you gain weight.
5. You’re Foggy at Work
An underfed body will underperform. Remember, calories support more than spin class. They support basic bodily functions and organs like the brain.
When you’re undereating, you’re also taking in too few carbohydrates. Lack of carbs means lack of glucose, which is the brain’s fuel of choice.
Don’t ignore subtle symptoms like nodding off at your desk, missing deadlines, or forgetting meetings.
There are several issues at play here. Poor sleep quality, crashing blood sugar, and a slowed metabolism combine to leave you with “brain fog” throughout the day.
Of course, reaching for a donut won’t fix this. Ideally, you’ll maintain stable blood sugar by eating foods low on the glycemic index (think whole fruits instead of juice). This way your brain has the glucose it needs for top performance, but you won’t spike your blood sugar too high.
If any of these symptoms has you nodding your head, it’s not too late to change. It’s ok to slowly increase your calories and see what happens.
If you need a good place to start, use a TDEE calculator to see how many calories your body needs each day to maintain your weight. From there, cut no more than 10-20% for weight loss.
Fair warning, you might briefly see an increase in weight due to the increased volume of food, but that passes quickly.
If you’re going to diet, it’s worth doing it right for sustainable fat loss and a healthy body.
How many calories are you actually eating? Learn how to estimate here.