Although I have taken classes in nutrition, I am not a registered dietitian. This is simply my personal experience with under-eating, please treat it as such.
I have always been an erratic eater. I remember requesting a quarter of a sandwich, my older brother would ask for the other quarter. Two children fed with one piece of bread. We were shocked when our baby sister ate an entire hamburger before we’d ever attempted that feat. I was my family’s picky eating so I remember dreading a lot of dinner meals – especially carbonara and broccoli casseroles and mac & cheese. I would have happily lived on PB&J, black beans, Mexican food and fruit.
Sometimes, I thought about food and looked forward to meals, other times I had to be reminded to eat. This has been a constant battle and is something I continue to struggle with.
When I trained for my Half Ironman, I began to see food as fuel. I knew that I had to put protein and carbs and fats back into my body to replace the nutrients lost while training. I trained with four guys and so I ate like a guy. I ended up losing some weight but it was a healthy amount. And I never thought of food as “evil” until the night before the race, when I was fed straight olive oil (since my stomach couldn’t hold as much pasta as it needed to).
But sometime after that, when I got more heavily involved in running, and then biking, and doing Insanity workouts, I started to under-eat. I love challenges. I love running further than I think I can run, I love biking faster than I think I can bike, I love doing it without stopping often to refuel. Once I’m in the zone, I like to stay there. I also have been extremely lucky with endurance genes (so says my first bike coach) and staying injury-free (my PT last summer was shocked that I was a runner/biker and had never been injured until I visited him).
My under-eating wasn’t intentional. I never set out to stop eating enough and to put my body into starvation mode. Although I like to stay fit and would like to continue to tone my body, I’ve never been on any severe diets. I just regularly ate 1400-1800 calories. Which would have been fine if I wasn’t active. But since my daily activity involved 4-6 miles walking or biking to/from work, 45-60 minutes of high intensity training, and over an hour of running, biking, rowing or elliptical, I was burning more calories than I was taking in.
At first, things seemed fine. I settled into a size 2/size 0 but I was still at a healthy weight (although with very little body fat) and although I was often tired, I attributed that to my hectic schedule. Eventually, however, my body went into starvation mode. Because it knew how much stress I was going to put on myself and energy I was going to require in a day, it started holding onto every nutrient that came its way. I started realizing I was gaining weight while eating less. My metabolism was completely out of whack.
Good exercise – which is good for your heart, helps you sleep, revitalizes your skin, enhances your mood – had been replaced by over-exercise. Over-exercise keeps you awake at night, elevates your stress levels, and coupled with under-eating can ruin your thyroid for life.
As soon as I realized what was happening, I told some friends so they could keep me accountable. I got blood tests done to make sure I hadn’t ruined my metabolism (I hadn’t). I cut back on exercise until it was at a manageable level that would still help me achieve my goals. And I calculated how many calories I needed to intake. It was a lot. It was daunting. I spent the months of April and May forcing myself to eat every 2-3 hours, to ingest every single calorie I needed to and it was hard. I wasn’t hungry, didn’t want those calories, and didn’t enjoy the weight gain. I spoke with nutritionists and friends, I stressed and worried about it, I finally convinced myself that I was doing the healthy and right thing. I stopped weighing myself.
And here’s what happened:
- For the first time in 4-5 years, I started sleeping through the night. It felt great.
- For the first time in 3 years, my stomach growled. I had forgotten that stomachs do that. That we have an internal clock reminding us when to eat. For the first few months, my stomach woke me up in the middle of the night begging for food. Annoying as it was, I knew that it was my body testing me “would I feed it whenever it needed food?” The only way to get my metabolism back on track was to assure my body it would never again be starved. So I ate a lot of bananas in the middle of the night.
- Eventually, that stopped. The hunger pains and growling stopped. I became used to “normal” amounts of food and what “normal” looked like on days I didn’t exercise and days that I did. I stopped counting calories and tried to eye the amounts (and kinds) of foods I needed.
- I began weighing myself once a week, and only once a week, to try and establish a baseline. After 3 months, my weight normalized and started (slowly) dropping. At this point, I knew that my metabolism was back on track.