How Undereating Is Sabotaging Your Weight Loss


Its a common story from many people just like you – the frustrating cycle of trying to lose weight by severely restricting our calorie intake, only to find yourself hitting a plateau or even gaining back the weight you’ve lost. It’s a common struggle that many of us face, and it can feel like a never-ending battle.

But what if we told you that undereating could be sabotaging your weight loss efforts? In this blog post, we’ll explore the science behind why severe caloric deficits can backfire and share smart strategies for creating a sustainable calorie deficit that supports long-term weight loss success.

The Struggle Is Real

For many people losing weight is no easy feat, and we understand the well intentioned temptation to resort to extreme measures such as drastic undereating in the hopes of seeing faster results. We’ve all been there, feeling desperate and willing to try nearly anything to achieve our fitness goals.

Maybe its a healthier body weight goal that has been consistently elusive or maybe there’s a looming date like a reunion or an event like a marriage in the family that reignites your quest to achieve that healthy weight.

But what path should you choose to get to that healthy weight? The constant barrage of fad diets and quick-fix solutions can make it challenging to separate fact from fiction. However, it’s crucial to approach weight loss with a balanced and sustainable mindset.

The Science Behind Calories

A Caloric Deficit is Necessary

Before we dive into the pitfalls of undereating, let’s establish a fundamental principle: to lose weight, you need to create a caloric deficit. This means consuming fewer calories than your body burns, forcing it to tap into the body’s tissues for energy, ideally this is stored fat reserves.

However, the key lies in finding the right balance – a moderate caloric deficit that your body can sustain long enough to see the weight loss you want without depleting all your willpower and discipline.

The concept of a caloric deficit is rooted in the basic laws of thermodynamics – energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred from one form to another. When you consume fewer calories than your body needs for its daily functions and activities, it must turn to stored energy sources like fat and muscle to make up the difference.

It’s tempting to enthusiastically cut calories in the hope of quickly improving body composition, physical performance, health markers, healthy weight range, and body mass index. However, this temptation to eat too few calories usually backfires. Severe caloric restriction often leads to intense food cravings, a constant battle with willpower, muscle loss, and a low energy levels.

The key is to find a moderate caloric deficit that your body can adapt to without the negative side effects of calorie restriction so you can function properly. A general guideline is to create a deficit of 300-500 calories below your daily caloric needs, depending on your age, gender, activity level, and overall health. This level of deficit allows for gradual, consistent weight loss without depriving your body of essential nutrients, compromising its essential functions, or inducing powerful cravings.

It’s also crucial to understand that weight loss is not a linear process, and there may be periods of plateaus or even slight gains, which are completely normal and expected. Consistency with your caloric deficit is key, and it’s important not to become discouraged by temporary setbacks.

By striking the right balance with a moderate caloric deficit, coupled with a balanced diet and regular exercise, you can achieve sustainable fat loss while maintaining your overall health and well-being. This approach not only supports long-term success but also helps to foster a healthier relationship with food and your body.

A Better Understanding of Calories

Before we get into the next section, it’s important to understand that calorie intake is best viewed as an average across a week, rather than focusing solely on a single day. One day of eating in a calorie deficit won’t necessarily produce weight loss if the following days’ food intake puts that same person into a calorie surplus.

Weight loss or gain is ultimately determined by the total calorie balance over an extended period, typically a week or more. This is because the body doesn’t operate on a day-to-day basis when it comes to energy balance; it looks at the bigger picture.

For example, if a person consumes 1,800 calories on Monday (a 500-calorie deficit for this particular example), but then consumes 2,800 calories on Tuesday (a 1,000-calorie surplus), the overall weekly calorie balance will be skewed towards a surplus, even though there was one day of a deficit.

This is why it’s essential to look at calorie intake as an average across the week. It allows for some flexibility and variation in your daily intake while still maintaining an overall calorie deficit for weight loss.

2 Common Scenarios Doomed to Failure

When severely undereating, one of two scenarios usually surfaces.

5 + 2 = 0

The first scenario is the pattern of drastically reducing calorie intake during the week, often to dramatically low levels, only to have the pendulum swing the other way on the weekends, indulging in a surplus of calories that undoes the hard work of the previous five days.

This yo-yo dieting pattern not only hinders weight loss, and can actually lead to weight gain if the surplus on the weekends is large enough.

The scenario of five days of severe calorie restriction, followed by two days of indulging in excess calories, frequently results in zero net weight loss.

This cycle of deprivation and overindulgence can be both physically and mentally draining, leading to frustration, diminished hope, and a perpetual struggle with weight.

No Breakfast, No Lunch, No Results

Another prevalent scenario that can undermine weight loss efforts is the pattern of severely restricting calories throughout the day, only to succumb to intense cravings and binge-eat in the evening.

In this scenario, well-intentioned individuals inadvertently adopt a pseudo-time-restricted eating approach, having small meals early in the day or skipping them altogether.

However, the deprivation experienced during the day often leads to overeating or binge episodes during later meals, driving their daily caloric intake into a surplus, rather than a deficit.

As we know from earlier, this approach may not only lead to stalled weight loss, but even weight gain.

But if these two common approaches are flawed, what’s a better approach?

Better Alternatives

Smart, Not Severe, Calorie Restriction

Instead of pursuing severe caloric deficits, aim for a sustainable and moderate deficit that your body can adapt to without undue negative consequences.

A general guideline is to create a deficit of 300-500 calories below your daily caloric needs, depending on your age, gender, activity level, and overall health.

This approach allows for gradual and sustainable weight loss without depriving your body of essential nutrients or triggering metabolic adaptations that can slow down your progress.

So How Do You Do This in the Real World?

An effective strategy to help establish a smart caloric deficit that we use with our 360 Wellness Coaching is to identify what we call a “caloric offender.”

When people hear this term, they can usually very quickly identify that treat, guilty pleasure, or comfort food that they know erases their diligent caloric deficit from the day or week.

But before you go eliminating that caloric offender, let’s bring some more nuance to this strategy.

Instead of just cold turkey eliminating the food in question, explore why you’re having that food and find a less calorically dense replacement.

Root Causes of Behavior

Often, these caloric offenders serve a deeper purpose beyond just satisfying hunger. They may provide comfort, familiarity, or even a sense of reward after a long day.

By understanding the underlying reasons for your cravings, you can find healthier alternatives that still satisfy those needs without undoing your caloric deficit.

Real World Examples

For example, if you tend to reach for a pint of ice cream after a stressful day, explore alternatives like frozen yogurt or a small portion of dark chocolate.

If you crave salty snacks, try roasted chickpeas or air-popped popcorn instead of chips.

The key is to find substitutions that are satisfying, nutrient-dense, and lower in calories, so you can indulge without derailing your weight loss efforts.

This approach not only helps you maintain a sustainable caloric deficit but also fosters a healthier relationship with food.

Instead of deprivation and restriction, you’re learning to make conscious choices that align with your goals while still enjoying the foods you love in moderation.

In the 360 Wellness coaching certification, we walk through how coaches and clients can collaborate to uncover the root causes of maladaptive behaviors and create strategies that fulfill that same root cause while simultaneously supporting a client’s goals.

Another Easily Implementable Strategy

One of the keys to managing hunger and satiety while maintaining a caloric deficit is to focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods.

Foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains are not only packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber but also tend to be lower in calories while providing a greater sense of fullness.

By incorporating these foods into your diet, you can create a satisfying and sustainable calorie deficit without feeling deprived or constantly battling hunger pangs.

Do Not Ignore This Advice

The reason nutrient-dense, whole foods are so effective for weight loss is multifaceted.

First, they’re typically high in fiber, which helps to slow digestion and promote a feeling of fullness for longer periods. Fiber also feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, promoting better digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Additionally, whole foods tend to be more volumetrous, meaning they take up more space in your stomach, further contributing to a sense of satiety. This means you can be in a caloric deficit and not suffer the much anticipated sense of hunger.


Protein-rich foods, such as lean meats, eggs, legumes, and dairy, are particularly beneficial for weight loss as they require more energy to digest and metabolize, thereby increasing your overall calorie burn.

Protein also helps to preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy metabolism and preventing the dreaded “skinny-fat” look.

Healthy fats, like those found in avocados, nuts, and fatty fish, can also play a role in promoting satiety. Since they’re calorie-dense, you need to watch portions, but these foods provide a slow and sustained release of energy, helping you feel fuller for longer and preventing energy crashes that can lead to overeating.

By making nutrient-dense, whole foods the foundation of your diet, you’ll not only be providing your body with the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally, but you’ll also be creating a more sustainable calorie deficit without the constant struggle of hunger pangs and cravings.

Your Takeaways

Attempting to lose weight through severe calorie restriction and undereating is often counterproductive and can sabotage your efforts in the long run. Instead of deprivation and extreme measures, the key to sustainable weight loss lies in adopting a balanced and mindful approach.

Focus on creating a moderate caloric deficit of 300-500 calories below your daily needs, which allows for gradual and consistent fat loss without triggering metabolic adaptations that can slow down your progress and sabotage your consistency. Understand that weight loss is not linear, and temporary plateaus are normal – consistency with your caloric deficit is crucial.

Rather than eliminating foods entirely, identify your “caloric offenders” – the treats or indulgences that tend to derail your progress – and find satisfying, nutrient-dense alternatives that align with your goals while still allowing you to enjoy the foods you love in moderation.

Prioritize whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, which provide essential nutrients, fiber, and a greater sense of fullness, helping you maintain a sustainable calorie deficit without constant hunger pangs or cravings.

Remember, sustainable weight loss is a journey, not a quick fix. By adopting a balanced approach, fostering a healthy relationship with food, and making mindful choices, you can achieve your goals without compromising your physical or mental well-being.

Embrace the process, be kind to yourself, and celebrate your progress along the way.