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How HGTV's Christina El Moussa Realized She Was Undereating

One word that perfectly describes HGTV star Christina El Moussa: nonstop. The Flip or Flop host is constantly on the go, whether she’s renovating homes, caring for her two children, or hitting the gym for high-intensity workouts. Naturally, it takes a lot of energy to lead that kind of busy life—and El Moussa’s nutritionist (and BFF) Cara Clark says she helped the star overhaul her diet to increase her stamina.

Clark, a certified nutritionist, tells SELF she started working with El Moussa, 33, five years ago. El Moussa’s chief complaint was a lack of energy. Clark asked El Moussa to share what she typically eats in a day, and the nutritionist quickly spotted a potential cause of the star’s low stamina: El Moussa was unknowingly undereating. “Her diet wasn’t going to provide her the energy or the nutrients that she needed to stay strong and healthy,” Clark says.

Experts agree that undereating can lead to low energy. “It can stress the body and it can slow the metabolism,” Ginger Hultin, R.D.N., an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, tells SELF. Hultin, who has not worked with El Moussa, explains that undereating can put the body into what she calls “conservation mode.” The gist of it: The body doesn’t have enough fuel to carry out all its functions, so the metabolism slows, leading to lethargy. “It’s zapping your energy,” she says. “It makes you want to not move around and not be active because your body does not have enough energy that it needs. The brain, for example, requires a huge amount of energy, so undereating or not having enough calories can really hurt energy and also concentration.”

Related: 7 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Calories

El Moussa wasn’t intentionally not eating enough calories, Clark says. Her old diet centered around lots of salads and oftentimes her kids’ nutrition bars. Combined, it just wasn’t enough fuel to sustain her active lifestyle. “A lot of kids’ foods are mostly carbs, and they’re a little higher in sugar but they’re not enough protein,” Clark says. “It really just wasn’t enough.”

Clark suggested El Moussa stick to natural, whole foods and eat every three to four hours to keep her sugar levels steady and prevent energy dips. She also advised El Moussa to eat a certain amount of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats—the three macronutrients—with each meal. Hultin agrees that balancing those three macronutrients is a smart way to eat.

“Carbohydrates are very important fuel for the brain, so it’s important to have that balance in addition to protein for energy and to support the immune system,” Hultin says. “And fat is a critical piece in every cell in our body.”

Clark specifically told El Moussa to make each meal consist of 50 percent carbs (including a complex and a simple carb), 30 percent fat, and 20 percent protein—but the right ratio of macronutrients can vary from person to person.

The optimal number of calories a person should consume each day also varies based on individual factors—it helps to work with a nutritionist or dietitian to find your sweet spot. In general, Hultin says a moderately active woman typically needs between 1,800 and 2,200 calories a day.

Clark figured out the number of calories El Moussa should consume by factoring in her goals—maintain her weight and increase her energy—as well as her height, build, fitness routine, activity level when she’s on the job, and age. Knowing this, Clark took El Moussa’s original diet and increased her intake by 800 calories.

After increasing her caloric intake and restructuring her diet, Clark says El Moussa saw an improvement in her energy. She still sticks to the plan today, and Clark recently broke down El Moussa’s typical daily diet on her blog. The star usually starts her day with overnight oats or chia seed pudding, followed by a mid-morning smoothie. Then, it’s a salmon or Cobb salad for lunch and a mid-afternoon snack such as peanut butter and bananas. For dinner, she’ll have a lean protein with quinoa and veggies. El Moussa often Instagrams her Clark-approved recipes—and they look pretty delicious.

“When she does eat right, she notices that she gets more out of her high-impact workouts than if she wasn’t,” Clark says. “And if she has a super busy day—taking her kids to school, filming, coming home and doing the mom thing again and taking calls and interviews—she’s able to maintain a stable energy level all day. If you spend any time with her you’re going to be like, ‘Oh that girl’s high energy!’ “

But before you change your diet in the hopes of gaining more energy (or for any other goal), Hultin says slow down. It’s important to reach out to a professional, such as a registered dietitian, who can examine your own unique needs before you make any drastic diet changes. “There are lots of reasons people can have low energy,” Hultin says. “You need to reach out to an expert before increasing your diet.”

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