How to increase our nutritional intake and make sure you are eating enough?
Excess calorie consumption (positive energy balance) leads to weight gain, mostly through fat accumulation. Not eating enough calories (negative energy balance) leads to weight loss.
Normally our weight goes up a down a little over time but stays relatively stable. In the case of obesity, normally a slow increase occurs over a long period of time. Some people have the opposite problem however and they gradually (or occasionally quickly) lose body weight in the form of fat and more worryingly muscle tissue.
What happens when we are not eating enough calories?
When we eat too little food we still need to live, so our bodies start to adaptively compensate. We have energy stored as fat as described earlier. So this is a useful resource when food is scarce.
We can use the fat as ‘fuel’ for most of our tissues; when we are at rest fat is the body’s preferred fuel (you might have heard that glucose is the preferred fuel, this is a common misunderstanding).
However, the brain always needs glucose, so if we are not eating carbohydrates or any food, we start to break down muscle which the body turns into glucose to supply the brain. For this reason, as we continue to under-eat we lose both fat and muscle tissue. The maximum time most people can go without any food is about 40 days. After this period the loss of fat and muscle is dangerous and death can occur.
Most people don’t actually starve in developed countries, but in many parts of the world, starvation is a real problem.
Also, in many parts of the world there are calories available in foods like rice or maize, but little other nutrients. In these cases, we might see people looking a reasonable weight but with severe ‘malnutrition’ (bad nutrition) due to a lack of protein or vitamins and/or minerals in their diet.
Anorexia and Malnutrition – when not eating enough starts affecting your health
Some people suffer weight loss due to psychological reasons (Anorexia nervosa is increasingly common). This can be as dangerous as starvation due to war or famine. Anorexia nervosa is poorly understood and difficult to treat. Many sufferers don’t even acknowledge the underweight state, and this can mean they don’t seek help. Early intervention with young sufferers, is essential for best chances of a full recovery.
Malnutrition in one form or another is also sadly quite common in the elderly even in affluent societies. This is due to a combination of factors including reduced income for food purchases, poor nutrient absorption, problems with teeth and swallowing, depression, reduced motivation to cook and eat and difficulty accessing shops. Together a syndrome called ageing anorexia can occur in which a lack of all food and/or nutrient dense food is a real problem.
Social support during mealtimes can make a big difference to increase quantity and variety of foods eaten by the elderly.
How to ensure you’re getting enough:
do not fast on a continuous basis
eat when hungry, looking out for portions
ensure you have a varied diet rich in nutrients
make sure to combine mental and physical activity