Can You Gain Weight From Eating Too Little?

There’s a risk you might read only one sentence and then leave this page, but it’s worth the risk to make sure this point is clear: you will not gain weight from eating too few calories.

If there’s nothing else you learn from this post, let it be that. But, there’s so much more that explains why (and how) under-eating can seemingly lead to weight gain. 

One of the hardest parts of dieting — which happens to almost everyone — is that moment where you get frustrated with weight loss and you try to reduce calories, even more, to make the scale drop lower again.

And what happens? You appear to be gaining weight.

It’s incredibly frustrating and you insist your body must be broken, or maybe it’s the gluten…or dairy…or artificial sweeteners that are making you fat. But, artificial sweeteners are not to blame, and your body isn’t broken.

3 Reasons You Gain Weight (When You Least Expect It)

So what’s going on? Precision Nutrition outlined many reasons why it seems like under-eating can lead to weight gain, even though it’s not the case.

In our experience with online coaching clients, we’ve seen everything. But, when it comes to weight loss, there are three common reasons you might continue to struggle with weight loss, even if it seems like you’re doing everything right. 

All of them, ultimately, deal with the ways that it’s easy to misunderstand calories. As we already mentioned, you can’t under-eat your way to weight gain. But, you can appear to be under-eating and still gaining weight.

We want to make sure you can easily identify all of the sneaky ways you can be tricked into following a diet that only leads to added frustration (and a scale that won’t move).

Foods With Hidden Calories

Whether you’re a dieting pro or don’t know the difference between a carbohydrate and protein, hidden calories suck and they are everywhere. The Precision Nutrition article shared the following example, which we’ve witnessed hundreds of times:

I once had a client discover he was using ten tablespoons of olive oil — 1200 calories — rather than the two tablespoons — 240 calories — he thought he was using in his stir-fry. Oops.

It’s frustratingly simple for hidden calories to pile up quickly day-over-day, and week-over-week, and that’s all it takes to keep you in a plateau or even gain weight, despite your best efforts. 

Rather than worrying about counting calories, it’s important to easily recognize where most hidden calories are typically found. 

See the graphic below, so you can think twice when you eat. What makes all of these hidden-calorie foods so difficult is that they are calorically dense. That means, even if they are healthy for you (which several of them are), just a small serving packs a big punch of calories, which is why it’s so simple to eat much more than you thought. 

A graphic showing foods with hidden calories: butter, oils, nuts & nut butters, sauces, drinks

How Much Is A 2,000-Calorie Diet

Because very few of us spend our time measuring and weighing food (and rightfully so), it can be shocking to learn just how much we underestimate the number of calories we consume a day.

And the research backs it up. On average, people will underestimate their caloric intake by 30 percent, and sometimes they can estimate by as much as 45 percent. That makes a big difference.

And, to be fair, a lot of people will make it seem like this is an education issue, but even pros can’t tell how much food is in a meal. Case-in-point:

A few years ago Dr. Berardi (JB, as he’s known around here) went out to eat with some friends at a well-known restaurant chain. He ordered one of their “healthier” meals that emphasized protein, veggies, and “clean” carbs. Then he finished off dinner with cheesecake. Curious about how much energy he’d consumed, he looked it up.

Five. Thousand. Calories.

I’ve had the same issue. And it can be minor things. Like how my “1 spoonful” of Justin’s Maple Almond Nut Butter is closer to eating half a jar, but I could count 1 spoonful. You might not keep track, but your body does.

Calories-In, Calories-Out Is Confusing 

Yes, this law of thermodynamics is still the #1 determinant of weight loss or gain. But what counts as “calories in” or “calories out” is not that simple.

For instance, all of the following factors can influence your “calories in” equation: the composition of your meals (protein, carbs, fats), your body type, the amount of muscle/amount of body fat, hormones, genetics, your environment, how you slept last night, levels of stress, and much more.

Let’s just take one small example. When you eat a meal, each type of food has a different “thermic effect of food” or TEF. This is the rate at which your body metabolizes a meal. Or, in other words, it’s how many additional calories you’ll burn when you eat a specific food.

infographic of the different thermic effects of food

Protein has the highest TEF, which ranges from 25 to 35 percent.

Comparatively, carbs are only 6 to 8 percent, and fats are the least metabolically active with a TEF of about 3-5 percent.  

That means if two people each eat a 500-calorie meal, but one person has more protein and the other person has more fat, the “calories-in” model will look different for each individual, even if they are having the exact same number of calories.

All of which is to say, many factors matter in determining how your body stores (and burns) calories. So, when frustration kicks in, don’t give up on yourself, don’t try to be perfect, and remember that there’s no use in trying to outsmart the system. 

It’s not that we’re lying (though we can sometimes deceive ourselves, and others, about our intake). More than anything, it’s that we struggle to estimate portion sizes and calorie counts. This is especially difficult today when plates and portions are bigger than ever. And energy-dense, incredible tasting, and highly brain-rewarding “foods” are ubiquitous, cheap, and socially encouraged.

Instead, search for a diet you think you can follow. And when you start following it, add checks and balances to keep you accountable, and support to remove the need for “perfection.” And then other systems that ensure you won’t be overeating without your own knowledge.

If you need help with finding the right diet, or someone to help you with those checks and balances, our online coaching program may be right for you. Every client is assigned two coaches — one for nutrition and one for fitness. Find out more here. 

Have questions? Share them in the comments below.


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