There’s one very obvious way you can tell if your diet isn’t healthy, and that’s putting on weight. But it’s certainly not the only means your body has of signalling you to switch your diet and become a little more balanced.
The problem is, these other signs tend to be a lot more subtle, which is why Bupa Health Clinics’ Dr Petra Simic has done us all a favour by exposing the possible meanings behind these quiet bodily protests…
1. Bad breath: You’re not eating enough
Bad breath can occur as a result of a 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’,” explains Dr Simic. “It’s these ketones which can make your breath smell bad, a bit like nail polish remover.”
People eating a low-carb diet are more likely to get ketones on their breath, and Dr Simic warns that if type 1 diabetics have ketones they should see a GP because it may indicate that their bodies don’t have enough insulin. “Increasing your portion sizes so that you’re getting your required energy levels should resolve the problem,” she advises.
It’s worth also remembering, though, that ketones aren’t the only cause of bad breath – coffee, smoking and poor dental health can also cause it, and they’ve got nothing to do with how much (or little) you’re eating.
2. Thinning hair: You’re 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,” says Dr Simic.
You can boost your iron intake with green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, and 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,” adds the doctor.
3. Persistent diarrhoea: You could have Coeliac disease
Coeliac disease, “an immune reaction to eating gluten which is found in wheat, barley and rye”, is under-diagnosed according to Dr Simic. But one tell-tale sign is continual diarrhoea. She says:
“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.”
The doctor urges us to remember that being Coeliac is something entirely different to being gluten intolerant, despite the fact that the symptoms are similar. “If you do have the symptoms described regularly, see your GP and discuss your concerns,” she adds.
4. Constipation: you’re not drinking enough water
If you’re struggling to go for a number two, it’s normally assumed to be a sign you need more fibre in your diet. Which is true, but Dr Simic points out that even more commonly than that, it can be a sign 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.”
5. Cracks at the corners of your mouth: You’re deficient in iron
“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,” explains Dr Simic. “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.”
6.Low energy or tiredness: You’re eating 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,” explains the doctor.
Where people get it wrong, she explains, is when they counteract this lack of energy by eating more sugar. “And so the blood sugar rollercoaster continues,” Dr Simic says. “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,” she advises.
7. Needing to wee more frequently: You’re dehydrated
Confusing, because you’d think it would be the opposite. But 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”, says the doctor.
“If this happens a lot, your bladder can become irritated, and you may need multiple trips to the toilet… Interestingly, caffeine can have the same effect on the chemical receptors in the bladder, making it irritable and causing you to go frequently and urgently. Everyone is different as to how much caffeine can cause this, so if you’re someone who needs to pee frequently I’d recommend going caffeine free for a while, to see if this helps.”
8. Acid reflux: You’re drinking too much
While drinking too much alcohol isn’t the only cause of acid reflux, 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). Alcohol can cause this ring of muscle to relax, and smoking, coffee, pregnancy and being overweight can also lead to the condition,” explains the doctor.