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How Too Few Calories Affects Hypothyroidism Weight Loss

Not getting enough calories can negatively affect your thyroid health and metabolism.
How Too Few Calories Affects Hypothyroidism Weight Loss
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In this article:

  • What are calories, and why are they necessary?
  • Calories and weight loss
  • Calories and hypothyroidism
  • How to lose weight with hypothyroidism

To achieve weight loss, many people severely cut back on their calories. But is this a safe weight loss method? Calories are essential for our overall functioning. When we have too few calories, our bodies may slow down to conserve energy. Indeed, rather than tapping into our fat energy stores, we often add to them during times of deprivation. 

Ahead, why watching our calories is essential for both weight loss and managing hypothyroidism

What are calories, and why are they necessary?

A calorie is a unit of measurement used to describe the amount of energy found in food and drinks. It is a measure of energy (fuel) or heat, which our body uses to complete bodily functions. By definition, a calorie is the amount of heat necessary to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius. 

Every person has a specific number of calories their body requires to function optimally. On average, most adults require between 1,600 to 3,000 calories per day. Your caloric needs may change based on your current health status. For example, some pregnant and breastfeeding mothers require more calories, just like people fighting certain illnesses. In general, we have a set amount of calories we need to perform essential metabolic functions and physical activities.

When you consume too many calories, your body stores that excess energy as fat. We need some fat to stay healthy and fight off illness. Still, too much fat also causes diseases like diabetes, osteoporosis, and obesity.   

Too few calories put stress on your body and force you into starvation mode. When your body is starved, you are at greater risk for health conditions related to a slower metabolism (think symptoms associated with hypothyroidism). For example: 

  • Slower heart rate and lower blood pressure
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Brittle nails and dry skin
  • Brain fog
  • Joint swelling
  • Brittle bones
  • Anemia
  • Depression 

Calories and weight loss

The only way we get energy is through the food that we eat. Thus, when we reduce our food intake, we limit our available energy and tap into stored reserves. However, we do not get energy from fat right away when we are in a calorie deficit. Instead, we first pull energy from carbohydrates stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles after meals. Eventually, we tap into adipose (fat) cells. Still, it is hard to maintain a calorie deficit when you start burning fat for metabolic needs.  

By reducing calories too much, you also increase your risk of binging. For example, people often do well with calorie-cutting the first few days or even weeks, but eventually, they get frustrated by not seeing results or enter starvation mode, which causes the body’s metabolism to slow down to preserve energy (calories) so there is less weight loss even at low calorie intake. More often than not, we binge on foods that full of empty calories like refined sugars, fats, and starches. 

Furthermore, you likely have heard that muscle weighs more than fat. Indeed, this is quite true, so when you are trying to lose fat, it can take longer to see noticeable results on the scale and in the mirror, which can feel like defeat. Thus, decreasing caloric intake often yields only short-term weight loss goals.    

Calories and hypothyroidism

There is a fine line between eating too many and too few calories, especially if you have a chronic health condition like hypothyroidism. Food not only contains calories but also has essential nutrients that help our organs function optimally. 

If you have hypothyroidism, you need to make sure you get plenty of essential nutrients that support your thyroid health, including

  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin D3
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B12

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If you cut back on calories, it can be hard to get your daily percentage of these nutrients. Taking supplements can help to ensure you are getting your essential nutrients without the extra calories.

Suppose you have hypothyroidism and are creating a calorie deficit for weight loss. In that case, there are a few warning signs that your body is struggling to perform its basic functions: 

  • You can't sleep
  • You are thinking about food all the time
  • You hit a plateau or your weight increases
  • You have constipation
  • You are moody and irritable

How to lose weight with hypothyroidism

Weight gain is a common indication that your thyroid may not be producing enough thyroid hormone. This weight gain happens because the thyroid gland is directly responsible for regulating cellular metabolism. Because hypothyroidism causes a general "slowing down" of all body systems, your metabolism also slows down, making you more susceptible to weight gain.

Be on the right dose of medication

The first step to losing weight with hypothyroidism is to make sure you are taking an adequate dose of thyroid hormone replacement medication. Meet with an endocrinologist and have your thyroid labs checked to see if you are at a therapeutic level. If you are not on the right dose of medication, you will have great difficulty losing weight.

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Aim for balance

Next, rather than severely cutting calories, aim to balance out your energy intake and expenditure. Remember, calories are vital for our survival. If you decide to cut back on calories, find out how many calories you need per day. 

Eat a variety of nutritionally-dense food

Find foods that give you the most nutrients to support your overall health and wellbeing.

Calm your mind and nervous system

Stress is often a major cause of weight gain and reducing this stress can support your healthy weight loss. Stress can affect our behaviors - like reaching for comfort foods. It can also affect our hormones - for instance, the stress hormone cortisol can impact your body's response to other hormones that are important for weight regulation.

Learn more about getting your mind properly prepared:

Start a regular exercise routine

Once your thyroid hormones stabilize, you will likely have more energy to dedicate to physical exercise. Once you start exercising, you may need to slightly increase your calories to meet your body's additional energy demands. 

A note from Paloma

Every person has unique nutritional needs, which can be complicated by health conditions like hypothyroidism. Paloma Health provides you the opportunity to work with a thyroid nutritionist to determine nutritional status for optimal thyroid health.

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Julia Walker, RN, BSN

Clinical Nurse

Julia Walker, RN, BSN, is a clinical nurse specializing in helping patients with thyroid disorders. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Regis University in Denver and a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Medicine from the University of Colorado-Boulder. She believes managing chronic illnesses requires a balance of medical interventions and lifestyle adjustments. Her background includes caring for patients in women’s health, critical care, pediatrics, allergy, and immunology.

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