Getting enough calories in a plant-based diet.
The hardest part of a new diet is getting the right amount of calories to reach your goals. This is especially true when the diet switch is bigger, like moving to a vegan diet or even a more strict vegetarian one.
While yes, one of the major reasons for moving to a diet can be to lose weight, we still have to pay attention to how many calories we’re taking in, how many are being burned, where they’re coming from, and what nutrients we might be missing as we move towards our goal.
Based on my training and experience, there are a couple of issues with a major calorie deficit. Some manageable, some downright dangerous.
So I wanted to take some time this week to share what I know and what I have experienced myself after several weeks on a plant-based diet. Hence the catchy title!
What Happens When My Calorie Intake Is Too Low?
There are a number of reasons people tend to fall off the plant-based wagon and not get back on, but one of the most common might feel a little counter-intuitive.
They aren’t eating enough.
Hold up, Dave. What? Yeah. Fewer calories is great, but too few calories is a surefire way to abandon the idea of weight loss altogether.
I am not in the business of giving up, and if you’re reading this, my guess is you aren’t either. So let’s dig into some things that can happen when our “caloric deficit” is too great.
You Lose Out On Essential Nutrients And Amino Acids
Remember my previous post about getting enough protein? That can get pretty hard when you’re limiting total calories to an extreme.
Amino acids are—literally—one of the critical building blocks of a human body. They are the bricks we use to build hormones, neurons, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and a lot more.
It is an indirect and subtle effect of too few calories, but the issue compounds over time.
Your Craving For Sugar Goes Up
Satiety! The silver bullet. A lower caloric intake means an increased likelihood of wanting more to eat, particularly fast-acting or “empty” calories (e.g. sugar).
I am sure you’re thinking, “Well, DUH,” but you would be surprised at how many clients have been caught off guard by this. For whatever reason, this fact gets lost in the shuffle.
You Increase The Risk Of “Yo-Yo” Dieting
I probably don’t have to tell you this is not the most healthy option. Unfortunately, the standard American diet is largely built on filling you to the brim with highly processed food and a lot of sugar.
This causes your insulin levels to spike like an Olympic-level volleyball player. Hence the “sugar crash” that tricks your body into thinking it is hungrier than it actually is.
You can guess what happens next.
We are taught—day in, day out—that more of something is always better. So if we want to lose more weight, we should be eating as few calories as possible.
Categorically untrue, at least in my experience.
How To Tell You’re Not Getting Enough Calories
You body’s got your back. Seriously. If it is not getting what it needs, it will tell you. When it comes to calories, there are a number of telltale signs.
In my experience, a lack of calories leads to headaches, mild confusion, even light-headedness. This is my body telling me to find more calories in my nutrition program. Let’s look a little deeper.
You’re Getting Hangry More Often
Turns out those Snickers commercials were right on the money.
See, your body is constantly working through its energy supply. The brain alone burns off about 20% of any available glucose-based energy!
So if you’re too short on calories, you can be sure your brain is going to find a way to “tell you”, and it often does that by being irritable.
All you need to remember is to follow this cue in a healthy way, and while that is easier in plant-based diets, you do still need to be mindful (vegetarian and vegan junk foods are definitely a thing).
You’ve Got Food On The Brain
I feel this one! If my overall level of calories is consistently too low, I will eventually find myself daydreaming about future meals more and more until it is all I can think about!
Your Energy Levels Have Plummeted
Losing weight is not something our body “prefers” to do. It’s engineered to adapt and survive, and that means there are tons of mechanisms hard-coded to help with that.
So if your calories have dropped too far, your body says, “Oh ok, there is not enough food around here. I’ll burn a little body fat and slow things down just in case.”
You’ll feel sluggish (often alongside being hangry). If your blood sugar is too low, you may also feel confused or light-headed.
Again, the solution is to replenish with calorie-dense foods that also prevent your insulin from spiking—because the spikes will ultimately make the feeling worse.
Plant Foods Need To Be Planned Foods
It is a pretty straightforward idea, right? Whatever you eat, you will benefit from having a meal plan. Plant-based eating is no exception, and in fact, benefits from a good plan even more.
Here are a couple things I have learned when it comes to planning (and optimizing) a plant-based diet.
One of the most well-rounded solutions to low calories in a plant-based diet is snacks. But in the pursuit of healthy eating, a lot of people will go for foods that are marketed as healthy, but are also lacking in certain essential nutrients.
For example, there are quite a few vegan desserts out there that have replaced healthy fats with starches, pectins, and other ingredients for texture. Several frozen fake meats also are pretty lacking in things like vitamin B12 and iron.
Your best bet is nuts, seeds, and (if necessary) keto-based snacks. These are good options to have on hand because they’ll give you the calories you need, keep you satisfied, and all without heavily affecting insulin levels.
Another helpful method of keeping calories up is to switch out a snack with a protein shake or smoothie. The protein will keep you satisfied even longer, and if you add fruit, bonus calories and vitamins!
Carbs Are Not Your Enemy
I like to think of carbohydrates as kind of exercise equipment. You can use them properly and benefit…
Carbs are a fast resource for the body. They are absorbed quickly, and they are necessary for overall health, so I am not as “against” them as the mainstream trends are.
Plus, in most plant-based diets, carbs are going to be pretty common. So you might as well plan around the healthiest carbs you can—while of course leaving room for the occasional batch of french fries!
For example, eat whole grains instead of refined grains. Brown rice is also a great option. Legumes will amp up your protein intake, which is obviously great for fueling your exercise routines.
The challenge is when eating nutrient-dense foods, we feel fuller faster (meaning the body signals time to cut off eating while not getting enough calories), carbs are a substrate that is a fast resource for the body, via absorption and availability.
Calories Versus Calories Versus Calories
You have probably heard the old adage “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie”. This is a topic that still surprises me how controversial it is, so I wanted to mention it.
It is true that a calorie is the same wherever it comes from. But that is not because all foods are the same, it is because a calorie is a measurement.
Depending on where the calories are coming from, our body will use a percentage of those calories to metabolize or store what we eat. This has a few different names, but it is mostly known as the Thermic Effect of Food.
Protein typically has the highest thermic effect. It is about 4 calories per gram, but 20-30% of that is burned off as the body breaks it down into amino acids and stores it to use later. Only 5-10% of the same amount of carbohydrate is burned off.
All this being said, the Thermic Effect of Food does not have a huge impact on things; maybe 10% of a healthy diet’s calories are burned off this way. Still, it is a good thing to consider.
I started this plant-based journey to see how it would affect my energy levels, especially after intense exercise.
The nutrition program I’ve mapped out for myself has been working wonderfully so far, but it is just as important on a plant-based diet to make sure my calorie intake is high enough. Otherwise, I become one hangry Dave.
So take inventory this week. How many calories are you taking in, and where are they coming from? Because while counting calories is useful, it is not the whole story.
And as always, I am more than happy to answer any questions or set you up with a plan that will work for you!
Two Awesome Plant-Powered Meals
Did you think I was going to finish this post without leaving you a couple of fantastic meals to try?
These two recipes are heavy on the vegetables, calorie dense, and pack a powerful flavor punch.
First, lentil soup with butternut squash and kale. Whole plant foods, check. Loads of nutrients, check. 8 different vegetables, check. Plant-based protein, check. This was awesome.
Second, a roasted vegetable salad with curry. This is so easy to make, and you only need a single pan. The salad dressing has a great balance of brightness from the apple cider vinegar and sweetness from the honey. Be careful not to eat the whole thing at once!
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