Are You Eating Enough? How To Know Whether You’re *Under* Fuelling Your Body.

Getting what your body needs every day can impact wellbeing, mood, performance and much more.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘fuel’? Many of us picture an athlete, getting their nutrition on point to power their bodies through a race, match or comp. But it’s not only sports pros who need to think about eating enough to fuel themselves – it’s just as vital for the rest of us, and under fuelling is something we might not even realise we’re doing.

“If you’re restricting your [kilojoules] for a few days a week – thinking you’re being ‘good’ after the weekend, for example – you’re likely to be under fuelling,” says Professor Tegan Cruwys, a researcher on the psychology of restrictive eating at the Australian National University.

Inadequate fuel can also relate to a lack of essential nutrients in your diet, whether it’s “cutting out entire food groups or specific items,” explains accredited practising dietitian Marika Day, founder of the aptly-named nutrition platform Fuelled. (Plant-based folks, for example, were lower in calcium, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron compared to meat eaters, according to a 2022 analysis in Nutrients.) Without alternative sources of those nutrients, you can find yourself at risk of not having enough fuel in your tank.

Driving Factors

Emma Jones, an accredited practising dietitian from Sydney’s Rebound Health, is frank about what’s often at the core of under fuelling. “We live in a society where most mainstream healthy eating messages are about eating less,” she says. “Even trends like intermittent fasting feed into the narrative that we should be eating less, not more, for our body to be healthy. That trickles down to us, even if we aren’t trying to control our weight.”
It’s important to acknowledge that under-eating occurs along a broad spectrum, notes Day. “It can be a small unconscious thing for many people, like always picking the lower [kilojoule] option, or saying ‘I’ll just have a little bit of that’,” she explains. “But then, we’re also seeing a rise in eating disorders and disordered eating where [people] are becoming hyper-focused on what they ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat and what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

Listen to Marika Day on our podcast Uninterrupted by Women’s Health Australia on Apple and Spotify. Post continues below.

The thing is, our bodies have a strong survival instinct. And if the demands on it outweigh the amount or type of fuel you’re putting in, it’ll start to let you know. Signs of under fuelling can include fatigue, brain fog, poor work performance, anxiety, low mood and feeling cold, as well as reduced workout gains and poor form that can lead to injury. A phenomenon known as the ‘female athlete triad’ also links not eating enough with menstrual issues and sub-par bone health – a study of 40 female athletes, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, revealed around a quarter fell into all three camps. “We’re also seeing osteoporosis happening younger and younger [as a result of people] not eating enough of the right nutrients,” adds Day.

What is ‘low energy availability?’

A state in which the body doesn’t have enough energy to support all the physiological functions needed to maintain optimal health

Source:Reasons for and Consequences of Low Energy Availability in Female and Male Athletes: Social Environment, Adaptations, and Prevention’ – Sports Medicine – Open

Refill Your Tank

So, if we suspect we’re not eating enough, how can we start to redress the balance? Jones recommends an active woman eats something around every three hours – but tackling this issue is as much about mindset as
it is our mouths. “You might be trying to change behaviour and beliefs about food that you’ve held for years and that can be hard,” says Cruwys.

With that in mind, the first step can be looking at the importance of what you’re trying to do for yourself – not your bestie, not your PT, not the ’gram. “Strip back the noise and ask what it is that you value when it comes to your health and wellbeing,” says Day. “Is it the way you look, feeling energised, maximising the chance of living to your eighties? Then think how your nutrition can move you towards that.”

Consider this a sustenance marathon rather than a sprint. “Ask yourself ‘what’s the easiest meal for me to make one positive change in and what does that change need to be?’” says Day. Reflect on how you’re feeling and if you’re eating enough to fuel your hunger and energy – or whether you’d benefit from adding more food or a snack later. If you swerve something for ethical or health reasons, look at how else you can score the nutrients it contains. Unsure

Check in with a qualified expert for tailored advice. Jones recommends this easy-to-digest template: “Forget precise [kilojoules] and macros – instead, try to include some protein, some carbohydrates, lots of colour and a little healthy fat in every meal. Once you’ve got that established, you can start thinking about whether you’d benefit from, say, more carbohydrates on days when you’re exercising more or that are neurologically draining.” Speaking of brain power: University of South Carolina researchers found that a group of test takers enjoyed higher scores when they’d eaten beforehand.

5 power snacks to try

Looking to boost your nutrient levels? Jones suggests these cracking combos.

Greek yoghurt

vegie sticks

Corn thins

Seed crackers
cottage cheese

Fruit smoothie
nut butter

A Brighter Future

Making any nutrition or lifestyle change can be daunting, but know “the [scientific] evidence is all in your favour,” assures Cruwys. “Start experimenting and look for the benefits that come from making each [positive] change… [and] fuelling your body adequately.

If you do have a more difficult relationship with food and eating more starts to trigger that, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a dietitian or psychologist.” Also watch out for ‘red flag’ language from social media accounts, such as “labelling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and using terms like ‘eating clean’ or ‘cheat days’,” says Jones. Hard unfollow.

After all, this is about being kind to yourself. “We tend to think that we should be able to change our diet overnight,” says Day. “But if you’d never been to the gym, you wouldn’t [start by] loading 100kg on a barbell and squatting. You’d build up to it slowly. We need to take the same approach to our nutrition.” In short, it’s time to start showing your fuel tank some love. Your body, mind, energy, family, deadlines – and everything in between – will thank you.

Reach out to Butterfly (1800 33 4673) for support around eating disorders and body images issues.

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