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Is your strict diet hurting your physical and mental health?

If you're eating well but still tired, unfocused, stressed, or stuck you may need to re-evaluate the hot new diet you've been following.

Are you eating healthy, and still struggling with energy, health, or mood?

If you are putting in ALL the work – exercising, eating veggies, planning your meals, skipping the treats but not seeing physical results like increased energy, better mood, or healthier weight your strict diet might be to blame.

Your body is not broken, but it might be low on fuel. Chronic stress from long term diets (even “healthy” ones), tons of exercise and not enough rest and repair can result in something called Relative Energy Deficiency. That’s RED for short (or RED-S when sport or overtraining is involved). ⠀

Are you undereating?

Chronic under-eating, with or without over-training, can halt your progress. This might be you if 2 or more of these sound familiar: ⠀

  • You’re eating less than 1500 calories⠀
  • You’re a chronic dieter or calorie watcher⠀
  • You don’t get enough sleep, or take enough days off exercise on top of low calorie intake⠀
  • You feel tired ALL THE TIME⠀
  • You get sick often⠀
  • You aren’t getting better in your sport or at the gym, even though you’re consistent.⠀
  • You’ve noticed that you’re gaining more fat (often most noticeable around the midsection), even though you’re eating and exercising the same.⠀
  • At its most severe, you may have lost your period (for women), or been diagnosed with low bone density (women and men both)⠀

Relative Energy Deficiency is a syndrome that causes shifts in hormonal balance & metabolism in response to chronic under-nutrition. This happens more quickly in athletes, but may also appear in non-athletes who have been under eating for years (chronic dieters, this is you!) or under-eating/over-training on top of significant physical or emotional stressors. ⠀

Don’t forget that restrictive diets also tend to be a drain on our emotional and mental health. If your diet has you feeling burned out and frustrated, it’s time for something new.

What do we know?

  • Relative energy deficiency is most studied in athletes but we are increasingly recognizing it in non-athletes.
  • Women may be more sensitive to energy deficiency. Evolutionarily, it was key that your body reproduced only in times where there was adequate food and resources, so slowing metabolism and reducing fertility in times of lack would have been an excellent strategy at the time. Women are also much more likely to chronically diet these days, so risk is higher.
  • Undernutrition can be both caloric, think not enough calories from protein, carbs, or fats, and micronutrient related, missing key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants. Quantity and quality count. 
  • We know that we don’t quite understand all the details yet. If someone offers you bloodwork or a “sure thing” diagnosis, proceed with caution.

Bodies are resilient. You can fix this.

The fix for RED or RED-S is to add food and build a strong, nourishing foundation.

You need to add calories, protein, healthy fats, and micronutrients in a measured way to help restore a normal balance and calm your body’s alarm bells. Depending on how significant the energy deficiency is, this can take weeks or months to repair but is worth it to feel energized, on track and healthy again. You deserve a diet that makes you feel better, not worse.

Add these foods to refuel your body

This can be SUPER scary when the goal has been leanness or weight loss. But with guidance, patience, and the right approach it is possible to restore the systems to normal. I usually start clients with 200-300 extra calories per day from nutrient rich foods such as: 

  • Nutrient dense proteins like eggs and fish at every meal
  • Healthy fats like nuts or seeds and avocados
  • Healthy whole food carbs such as fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes that are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for repair.
  • While you’re at it, extra sleep or rest is key for recovery if you’ve been getting less than 6-8 hours or having poor quality sleep. 
  • If you are super active, make sure you have a dedicated rest day. This can be hard if you LOVE what you do, be it running, biking, or lifting heavy, but is a non-negotiable if over-training got you here.

If you’re stuck, ask for help

There are lots of reasons you may not be seeing progress in health, weight or energy that aren’t related to RED or RED-S.

Insulin resistance, food quality and timing, and finding the right macronutrient balance for your unique body are all very common reasons you might be struggling to see results.

We all know health is our biggest asset, but we rarely give it enough thought to get help. If you’ve been struggling with conventional diets or advice, find a nutrition expert (like a Registered Dietitian) you mesh with to get to the bottom of what’s going on in there and build a plan that works for you. Your physical and mental health will thank you.

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