Content Warning: This post contains numbers and terms that may be triggering for those with eating disorders or disordered eating behaviors.
What happens when you eat less? This isn’t a hard question, you put fewer nutrients into your body. You might be getting enough protein, fat, carbohydrates, and even calories to sustain life, but you probably won’t be getting enough micronutrients to truly be “healthy.” Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function optimally. They are needed for every metabolic process, without them, we don’t use energy (food) as efficiently as we are supposed to. Micronutrients are also important for building structures in our bodies, like our bones, and they keep our vital biological systems running as they should be.
Research shows that those at a higher weight may be more likely to have micronutrient deficiencies. This poses the question “Are these individuals overweight because they are deficient or deficient because they are overweight?” There are a few potential mechanisms at play, deficiencies result in poor processing of nutrients and could potentially alter metabolism. Deficiencies can hinder your livers ability to process and remove toxins (the only detox you’ll ever need) which may be affecting your ability to process nutrients effectively, on the flip side, the fat soluble micronutrients (aka those that need fat to be absorbed) could be “trapped” in your fat cells and rendered unusable. There could probably be other mechanisms at play but these are the main three.
So let’s put two and two together here. If you’re at a higher weight you may be deficient in key micronutrients and because you are at a higher weight, you are more likely to try to lose weight by dieting, leading to further deficiency. One study looked at the Atkins Diet, the Best Life Diet (Mediterranean style), DASH Diet, and South Beach Diet and analyzed three days of their suggested meal plans. The average calories per day between all the diets was 1,754 calories (which isn’t enough for most people). They found that none of the diets were more than 55% sufficient for your daily needs for 27 essential micronutrients. After this assessment, they excluded 6 micronutrients that were consistently deficient across all 4 diets (biotin, vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine, and molybdenum) and determined how many calories would be needed to meet 100% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for the remaining 21 nutrients.
Here’s the break down:
This study also broke down the percent of the dietary reference intake that each nutrient from each diet meets (not shown here). Which is important to understand because the chart shows us that the South Beach Diet is lowest in overall micronutrient sufficiency at 22.22%, but also lowest in calories when all micronutrients meet 100% of need. This means that more of the micronutrients are close to meeting needs on the original diet when compared to the others.
I don’t just want the take away from this post to be that you should follow a diet but double the amount of food you eat. I want you to understand that restriction results in deficiency whether that’s an energy deficiency, macronutrient deficiency (protein, carbs, or fat), or micronutrient deficiency. Besides, even at an increased calorie level these diets are still deficient in key nutrients like vitamin D (which is super underrated!), vitamin E (an antioxidant), and iodine (major player in thyroid function), but you can get these nutrients from other foods that just may not be included in the diet. If you listen to what your body is asking you for, you’ll probably get all the nutrition you need! (If you don’t know how to do this, you should definitely ask a non-diet or functional RD).
“But B, can’t I just take some vitamins and maybe a supplement?” You could, but I still don’t think you’ll be living your best life (some people really do need supplements, so please don’t think I’m supplement shaming here). Too often we think about the individual impact of nutrients on our health. However, we don’t consume nutrients, we consume food. Food is made up of multiple nutrients that interact and impact the body collectively. So when you eat an orange, you get way more than vitamin C. Oranges contain fiber, folate, thiamin, vitamin B5, copper, potassium, and calcium, plus other vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants.
Supplements can often provide vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants at a value that is too high. This can lead to negative side effects and undue stress on our bodies organ systems. Without knowing if you are actually deficient (by having labs done) it may not be in your best interest to begin supplementing. When you eat food that is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you are providing these nutrients in much smaller quantities which your body can handle better. Additionally, food contains other nutrients, like the orange, which can act as a buffering system because some nutrients compete with other nutrients for absorption. Knowing when to supplement nutrients is a complex topic, so I would always recommend having labs drawn and running supplements by a physician or dietitian before use.
NUTRITION NOT NUTRIENTS
So maybe you’re now asking yourself how you can get in double the calories with your salads, smoothies, shakes, and other foods deemed as “health foods” with out having to eat all day long? Here’s the thing, your body is a pretty cool machine. It knows what it needs and it knows how to get it. Sometimes we have trouble trusting our bodies because we have been exposed to so many environmental pollutants, like a toxic environment where we protect ourselves with food, messages from an industry that thrives on people seeking health, or even medical recommendations that have been given with good intentions but have been skewed by gaping holes in research. However, the answer to the question honestly depends on a lot of personal factors, which you should talk through with a dietitian, but I want you to keep in mind that a cookie isn’t just “junk food” a cookie contains nutrients too. Cookies, bread, potatoes, butter, or whatever other foods our brain is whispering to stay away from, can have a place in our diet where they aren’t a scary food, but just another source of nutrition.
Overall, I want you to walk away knowing that calories in versus calories out is not an adequate way to assess your health. I want you to know the benefits of eating an appropriate amount of food support health far more than restricting calories to keep a number on the scale down.
This post may have some red flags going off in your head because we have have gone against much of the health education you’ve received, but to avoid going too far off topic I’m going to end it here. I’m working on additional posts to add clarity to this topic and I’ll let you know when they are ready!
How does the idea of micronutrient deficiencies and calories restrictions challenge they way you think about food?
Let me know in the comments.