It’s January so there’s a good chance you’re on a diet right now – but how do you know if it’s actually working?
Of course, weight gain – or lack of weight loss – indicates you need to reassess what you’re eating, but there are other signs that your dietary habits might be unhealthy.
Our bodies are very good at telling us when we’re deficient of the nutrients we need, but unless you know what to look for, you’re likely to mistake the signs for something else.
Here, Dr Petra Simic, Bupa Health Clinics’ clinical director, shares eight of the most telling symptoms that you need to look out for – and what they mean.
1. Bad breath can be a sign you’re not eating enough
This is due to a normal metabolic process called Ketosis. When the body does not have enough glucose for energy, it burns stored fats instead, resulting in a build up of acids called ‘ketones’.
It’s these ketones which can make your breath smell bad, and a bit like nail polish remover. Those following a low carb diet are more likely to get ketones on their breath, and if you are a type 1 diabetic and have ketones, you should see a GP as soon as possible. It could well be a sign that you don’t have enough insulin. If you don’t have diabetes, increasing your portion sizes so that you’re getting your required energy levels should resolve the problem.
Ketones aren’t the only cause of bad breath. Coffee and smoking are common causes of halitosis (a different kind of bad breath), as is poor dental health.
2. Thinning hair can be an indication of being low in iron
Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood. If you’re low on iron, your hair may start to thin and you may feel lethargic.
Green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans are great sources of iron, as is red meat. Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s should make sure they follow a diet full of iron, as regular menstruation can affect iron levels.
’Angular stomatitis’ is when small cracks or cuts appear at the corners of your mouth. These can be a sign of iron deficiency, or a bacterial or fungal skin infection. Try using lip salve or vaseline for a few days, but if things aren’t getting better after a week, or getting worse before then, see your GP.”
3. Persistent diarrhoea can be a sign of Coeliac disease
We know that Coeliac disease is under diagnosed. Some people who have it don’t actually know they do – and live with the uncomfortable symptoms for long periods of time before speaking to their GP about it and eventually getting a diagnosis.
It’s an immune reaction to eating gluten which is found in wheat, barley and rye. For Coeliacs, eating gluten triggers a response in your small intestine which can lead to diarrhoea, bloating, weight loss, indigestion and abdominal pain. These symptoms will disappear if gluten is completely excluded from a Coeliac’s diet.
It’s important to note that Coeliac disease is different to gluten intolerance, although some symptoms may be similar. If you do have the symptoms described regularly, see your GP and discuss your concerns.
4. Constipation could be a sign of dehydration
This could be a sign that you need more fibre in your diet, but more commonly, it could mean you’re dehydrated! Both fibre and water are needed for regular bowel movement. The fibre attracts water, which helps it to pass more easily. If you’re struggling with constipation, increase your water intake while adding some high fibre foods such as wholegrains, dried fruit, beans and nuts to your diet.
Needing to pass urine more frequently, or needing to rush to go can (also) be a sign you’re dehydrated.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but needing the toilet frequently and urgently may be a sign that you need to drink more water. While a full bladder is one trigger for your brain to tell you it’s time to go, another trigger is when your urine is too concentrated. If this happens a lot, your bladder can become irritated, and you may need multiple trips to the toilet.
If this sounds like you, then drink more water to make sure your urine looks pretty clear, rather than yellow. This may improve your symptoms.
Interestingly, caffeine can have the same effect on the chemical receptors in the bladder, making it irritable and causing you to need to go frequently and urgently. Everyone is different as to how much caffeine can cause this, so if you are someone who needs to pee frequently I’d recommend going caffeine free for a while, to see if this helps.
5. Your energy can be low when you eat too much sugar
Often after eating a lot of complex carbohydrates (like sugar) you can suddenly feel very sluggish and low on energy. This is because the sugar initially elevates the insulin levels in your body, but the following dip in blood sugar can make you feel less energetic.
Often people counter-act this by eating more sugar and so the blood sugar rollercoaster continues. Conversely, reducing your sugar intake will see energy levels begin to stabilise before long. Opt for snacks that release energy slowly instead, like bananas and nuts.
6. Acid reflux can mean you’re drinking too much
Alcohol consumption isn’t the only cause of acid reflux but it is one of the potential factors. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) is usually caused if the ring of muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus isn’t working properly. Normally, this ring of muscle opens to let food pass into your stomach then tightens to stop stomach acid coming back up into your oesophagus.
However, if you have GORD, stomach acid is able to leak back up into the oesophagus causing acid reflux (heartburn). While alcohol can cause this ring of muscle to relax; smoking, coffee, pregnancy and being overweight can also lead to the condition.