Disclaimer: This is not a weight loss article. I repeat: this is not a weight loss article.
This article is a compilation of theories on why I gained weight after adopting a Paleo diet. It isn’t about calories, either. I did not come to Paleo with the desire to lose weight [I did want to maintain my weight, but I’m sure you’ve already deduced that I didn’t]. The fact is that I came to Paleo because I wanted [& still want] to heal chronic illness. I want to be my healthiest self. I treated my body badly for a long time. I avoided foods I deemed unhealthy. I wasn’t a drug addict, a drinker, or a smoker. I treated my body badly in other ways, by starving it for years & implanting toxic chemicals into my chest, all out of an intense desire to look a certain way. Those days are over now, but my body doesn’t trust me not to mistreat it again, not yet.
This article is not to say that it’s bad to want to change your body. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to want to change your body composition. However, the worst way to do that is out of hatred for your body. & here’s the truth: in terms of health, there are many people who don’t need to lose any weight at all. I was & still am one of those people, so I know.
So, if you’d like to learn some science-y stuff about weight gain, & also some reasons why we might not get as lean as we’d like, I invite you to continue reading.
Oh, one more thing. I’m not a doctor. Please don’t sue me.
Recently I considered going back to school to become a research psychologist. Ultimately & after much internal debate, I decided not to pursue this endeavor. Was it the right decision? Maybe; but I try not to think of things in terms of right & wrong decisions. Decisions are simply decisions.
I mention this because research deals with lots of variables, & that’s kind of what this post is all about. Since beginning my healing journey back in July 2016, I’ve done lots of little “experiments” on myself. As it turns out, there are always SO MANY variables to consider. That’s why I didn’t just call this post, “Why I Gained Weight on Paleo,” because the truth is that I’m not 100% sure why. I have some theories, & I’m going to lay them out here, but there are so many variables to consider that I can’t just say, “This is definitely the reason.” [I decided not to include all of my theories in this post. Instead, of included what I believe are the five most likely theories.]
So, let’s rewind a bit. I have been fluctuating between 120 & 140 pounds for the last ten years, & while 140 is by no means “overweight,” I consistently face the problem of not being able to fit into my clothes. In my case, 20 pounds is the equivalent of two or three dress sizes because I accumulate nearly all of my weight in my midsection, ass, & thighs [unsurprisingly, none goes to the boobs; go figure]. I have pants & jeans in sizes two, four, & six, & honestly the sixes are starting to feel a tad snug. [I used to be vehemently against leggings as pants, but it turns out that all of my jeans are too tight now, so it’s a good thing that I’ve warmed up to them (as long as my bits are covered).] All the body image experts out there suggest getting rid of clothes that don’t fit so that they don’t make you feel bad for not fitting in them, but I can’t afford to just get rid of half my wardrobe since there’s a distinct possibility that I’ll be back in it in a few months or next year.
Right before I started eating Paleo, I had actually lost some weight & was back down to 125 pounds. This was when I first started eating “clean” [getting rid of processed foods & basically making everything from scratch]. I hadn’t done that to lose weight; rather, I’d done it to see if it would help my anxiety. I’d like to say that I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but I was also only eating 1600 – 1800 calories a day, so I’m not sure I’m telling myself the truth. People at work had started commenting on my weight, how I looked thinner, & asking how much weight I’d lost & how I lost it. & then I gained it all back [plus some change].
As someone who has always been very vigilant about her midsection, I spent a good deal of time Googling reasons for gaining weight when starting Paleo when I first noticed it coming on. That is to say that I had a bit of an OCD flare regarding my weight. I’m proud of what I didn’t do, though. I didn’t start obsessively restricting my food or excessively exercising again. Granted, I was so exhausted at the time that it would have been exceedingly difficult to excessively exercise, but it would’ve been easy to restrict my food.
Why did I gain weight, anyway? Don’t I eat Paleo? Don’t people typically lose weight on Paleo? Why yes. Yes, they do [if there’s weight to lose, that is]. In fact, it’s hard to find anything on the interwebs related to gaining weight after “going Paleo” unless it’s in regards to putting on muscle mass, & I can tell you right now that these 15 or so “extra” pounds ain’t muscle. I know it, my mirror knows it, my measuring tape knows it, & unfortunately my pants know it, too.
So, my theories. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first:
- I’m eating too many calories.
I’m disinclined to believe this. Old me would’ve said, “Yep, that’s it. That’s definitely it. You aren’t in a calorie deficit, so of course you’re gaining. You need to cut back. Starting tomorrow, we’re doing 1600 a day.” Paleo me doesn’t buy it. Sure, every once in a while a semblance of my old self will pop up & whisper all about calories in my ear, but I still don’t believe it. Why? Because I know better now.
As Liz Wolfe says in her book, Eat the Yolks, “On the list of things that matter about our food, calories are dead last.” There is much more to weight loss, gain, & maintenance than simply “calories in, calories out.” What matters much more is the state of our metabolism-regulating hormones. Liz goes on to say that “calories are nothing but an approximation of potential energy” until they are metabolized, & that “conventional diet behavior [avoiding dietary fat & counting calories] works against hormonal harmony in every way.” To learn more, I highly suggest her book; she dedicates multiple chapters to this issue & goes into much more detail than I can in this post.
Calories aside, it is possible that I’m simply eating more food than my body actually needs. I’m still working on trying to only eat when I’m hungry instead of eating out of boredom or anxiety. Sometimes I succeed & other times I don’t. Relearning how to feed myself after years of disordered eating is a work in progress.
[Since I’m sure you’d like to know, I eat anywhere from 2000 to 2500 a day, sometimes more, but I no longer count my calories on the daily. It takes too much of my time & just leads to anxiety.]
2. I have Hashimoto’s.
This one seems obvious. Since the autoimmune attack on the thyroid causes hypothyroidism, & the thyroid controls metabolism, weight gain is a symptom of Hashimoto’s. Even so, I think it’d be pretty coincidental for my Hashimoto’s to suddenly make me gain weight at the same time I started eating Paleo. Rather, I think this ties in to how much I’m eating now compared to before.
I restricted my calorie intake for nine years before adopting a Paleo diet. I’ve also had Hashimoto’s for at least eight years, so I’ve been in a calorie deficit the whole time I’ve had it [more or less]. I feel like it’s more likely that, had I not been restricting calories this whole time, I probably would have put on some weight once I became hypothyroid. Side note: there have been other times since being diagnosed with Hashi’s that I’ve put on & subsequently lost these same 15 pounds. Autoimmune disease ebbs & flows, & body composition can as well. These other instances of weight gain & loss could have been caused by an autoimmune flare, a lifestyle change, or both.
Recent lab results support the idea that my Hashimoto’s could be a factor in my weight gain. To be clear, since transitioning to Paleo, my thyroid peroxidase antibodies [TPO] have dropped significantly. At my last blood draw, they were in the 150s [ideal is <9 IU/mL, but mine were 489 when I was first diagnosed, & probably higher as time passed (my endocrinologist never checked them again until I asked last year & I’ve “fired” her as my thyroid doctor…she just doesn’t know yet)]. The problem revealed at my last blood draw was not related to antibodies, but to T3.
My T3 was 2.4 pg/mL, which is technically in normal range according to conventional medicine. However, these ranges are outdated & based on a sick population. My doctor wants me at the higher end of the range, which is 4.4.
The current standard of care for hypothyroid patients is to prescribe T4, not T3. The body converts T4 into T3, the more active thyroid hormone. My T4 level was good, which means my body is not properly converting my T4 into T3. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as certain nutrient deficiencies, which I’m addressing. In the meantime, I have switched from synthetic T4 to desiccated thyroid hormone. This sort of medication is the desiccated thyroid gland of pigs & contains all thyroid hormones, not just T4. The only problem with desiccated thyroid hormone is that it can contain thyroid peroxidase [TPO] & thyroglobulin [Tg]. Since my immune system makes antibodies to these, it could potentially cause an increase in antibodies which would result in further damage to my thyroid over time. Considering that I’ve removed all other triggers that increase antibodies [gluten & other foods, certain chemicals], I think I’ll likely do well on this medication.
Since T3 directly affects metabolic rate, having low T3 has likely slowed down my metabolism, which is why I think it’s possibly a factor in my weight gain. This brings me to my next point.
3. My metabolism is wonky.
I’m of the opinion that my metabolism has been, for lack of a better term, royally screwed. & it’s partly my fault.
I have previously mentioned my orthorexic past, & it turns out that it could very well be the reason I’ve gained weight. For those who don’t know, Orthorexia nervosa literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” While I never made myself vomit or got so malnourished that I became a walking skeleton, my life revolved around food & my weight. For a long time, I would not allow myself to eat more than 1500 calories a day. If I went over that amount, I’d decrease the amount I ate the next day. I was thrilled when I’d eat less than 1200 calories in a day. I’d eat my low-calorie meal & then be counting down the hours until I could eat again. I became judgmental when others ate foods that I deemed “unhealthy,” even if I secretly wanted to eat those foods. Since the gym was closed on Sundays, my goal was to exercise six days a week. When I didn’t meet this goal, I became irrationally angry. It certainly didn’t help that the vast majority of my exercise was cardio, cardio, cardio.
While I did eventually stop over-exercising, I never got out of a caloric deficit because I feared gaining weight. As a result, I remained in a caloric deficit & probably a state of low-grade starvation for nearly a decade. The lack of calories doesn’t even begin to cover the lack of nutrients I was likely missing. Disordered eating likely contributed to the gut problems I’ve been experiencing for years, which in turn helped set the stage for my autoimmunity to develop.
While orthorexia is different from following a healing diet with strict guidelines, there is a fine line. [It’s difficult to briefly explain the differences between the two; I’ll likely write a post about it at some point.] Unfortunately, I still struggle with orthorexic tendencies at times, like counting down the hours until I get to eat again & feeling anxious when I’m finished with a meal. Unlike before, my meals are now satiating, but I became so hyper-focused on food restriction back then that it’s hard to shake these reactions.
So, how does caloric restriction affect the metabolism? To put it briefly, when you restrict calories, your metabolism slows to combat starvation. It adapts to whatever intake it’s receiving. Our bodies are designed to conserve energy when food is scarce. While there’s certainly not a scarcity of food in my life these days, my body doesn’t know that. I restricted my calories for so many years that my body likely suspects that I will starve it again in the near future. Why speed up my metabolism if I’m just going to restrict again?
Had I just adopted a Paleo-ish diet & exercised moderately back when I was 17 [as opposed to significantly dropping my calories & over-exercising], I likely would’ve lost any extra weight I had & improved my body composition pretty effortlessly. Alas, I was young, naïve, & fell prey to the falsehoods of the diet industry.
As I mentioned above, the thyroid is the master of metabolism, so it doesn’t help that I have autoimmune thyroid disease. I also take sertraline & mirtazapine for my OCD. SSRIs are notorious for causing weight gain, & it was long believed that this was simply due to the fact that they can increase appetite in some people. While this is true in some cases, it’s now recognized that these medications may interact with & affect metabolism. I hope to be able to wean off my medications after I’ve successfully healed my gut, but that’s a subject for another post.
4. In addition to thyroid problems, I have other hormonal imbalances.
Liz Wolfe drops lots of truth bombs in her book, Eat the Yolks. Here’s a few: “Our ability to metabolize stored body fat…is not a calories in, calories out operation. It’s a product of our hormones….Our bodies are programmed to use hormones to store raw materials & maintain our weight whenever possible for the sake of survival, because for millions of years of human evolution, food was not guaranteed…. Conventional diet behavior [avoiding dietary fat & counting calories] works against hormonal harmony in every way.”
In my quest for a “better” body, I managed to unintentionally screw up my hormones. Avoiding dietary fat & counting calories was bad enough, but then I went & got breast implants, the silicone shells of which contain multiple endocrine disrupting chemicals [I talk about this in this post]. Side note: if you have breast implants or are considering getting them & you’re not going to read my other post, let me make this perfectly clear for you: ALL breast implants have a silicone shell, including saline implants, which are the kind I had. NO breast implant is safe. If you are considering implants, PLEASE reconsider. Visit us over on Facebook or visit this website to learn more. If you already have implants, PLEASE consider having them removed. Come visit us at either of the links above for support.
Anywho, back on track here. I know my hormones are screwy. For one, a recent blood test revealed low testosterone. [Yes, women need a certain amount of testosterone; among other functions, it contributes to weight stability, energy, sex drive, & being able to build muscle.] Since they need to be tested on certain days of the menstrual cycle, my doctor did not test my other sex hormones, but I suspect they’re out of whack too. Why? Well, ever since I got my implants [nearly nine years ago], I’ve had what I suspect is Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder [PMDD], a severe form of PMS that, for me, lasts about two to three weeks out of the month. My personal symptoms include ridiculous water retention, irrational anger & irritability, increased OCD, & wanting to eat constantly. PMDD can also present as depression & suicidal ideation.
Luckily, many of my PMDD symptoms have either gone away or lessened considerably since changing my diet, but I still get “normal” PMS. I say “normal” because PMS is not actually normal, but common. PMS is actually a sign of a hormonal imbalance, usually of low progesterone & estrogen dominance. One of the reasons this is such a problem these days is because of all the xenoestrogens in our environment [plastics being the largest contributor] & phytoestrogens in our food supply [mostly soy, which is present in nearly all processed foods]. For example, I was in the salad dressing section at Sprouts today because my husband doesn’t care for my homemade dressing. Nearly every dressing on the shelf was made with soybean oil, which is both irritating & infuriating. We’re so inundated with soy because it’s so cheap to produce, but in the meantime it’s contributing to our current state of rampant inflammatory disease.
There’s also insulin to consider. According to Dr. Izabella Wentz, blood sugar imbalance is quite common in people with Hashimoto’s: “We have learned that many people with Hashimoto’s have an impaired tolerance to carbohydrates. Their blood sugar goes up too high too quickly after eating carbohydrates. This leads to a rapid, sometimes excessive release of insulin.” I know for a fact that this happens to me, not because I’ve tested my blood sugar after eating carbs, but because of how I feel. I sometimes become quite anxious or jittery after even having certain kinds of fruit. A few weeks back, I made these delicious cassava flour tortillas that GAVE ME LIFE emotionally, but shortly after eating some my heart started beating faster & I felt jittery & uncomfortable. I’m currently going through Dr. Wentz’ Hashimoto’s Protocol& hopefully will be able to improve my carb tolerance in time. Side note: this is why it’s really important to listen to your body, because what may be a perfectly healthy food for someone else might not work for you.
5. My Body Doesn’t Want to be the Size I Want it to Be
Yep, time for a lecture. I’ve saved the best reason for last.
Here’s the thing: society has conditioned us to believe that only certain types of bodies are beautiful & desirable. We’ve also been consistently inundated with messages like, “How to lose the last five pounds” & “How to get a six pack” & all the other bullshit.
The truth is this: for some people, there’s no such thing as the last five pounds. Some people cannot have a six pack & also be healthy. I mean, here’s what I looked like at 120 pounds.
When I look at this photo now, I think I look like my version of ideal. At the time, I still thought I was carrying too much weight. [Seriously, where?] Just looking at me, you wouldn’t have a clue that I was a hormonal disaster, that my body fat percentage had gotten too low for MY BODY to continue menstruating, & that autoimmunity was brewing in the wake of my breast augmentation. Some people are naturally this lean. I saw a lady outside of Whole Foods the other day who had a completely flat stomach while sitting. I admit that I’m jealous of people like her [working on it], but some [arguably MOST] of us, especially women, cannot be this lean & still be healthy. I am no longer willing to sacrifice my health in order to look like this. I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to make that choice. I didn’t want to have to accept myself at 20 pounds heavier than this picture. But I have to. I have to, because now my health is my priority.
Here’s more truth bombs from Liz, because I love her: “Some of us are naturally inclined to be thin & lean in our greatest state of health. Some of us are naturally inclined toward bulk or big muscles. Some of us are brick houses with apple bottoms. Some of us are naturally curvy & full-bodied. We are healthiest when we feel good, when we are well-nourished, when our bodies are balanced rather than hoarding or wasting.”
So, could I potentially lose some weight as my hormones balance & my autoimmune disease goes into remission? Sure I could. But I’m not counting on it. I refuse to be a slave to my brain’s idea of what I should look like. & you know what? It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Of course I still want to look thinner. But I’ve also only recently come to terms with the idea that maybe my body is not meant to be thinner. While I have begun to accept this idea, I still have slip-ups. My husband will tell me my body is “hot” & I ask him something along the lines of, “How could you possibly think that? I don’t understand.” & that’s damn sad.
The sad thing is, a lot of people probably would look at this picture of me with my fat roll & think it’s gross, that I should eat less, that I should exercise more, that I could lose it if I really wanted to. But at what cost? Infertility, irritability, screwed up hormones? On the other hand, many people probably look at the same picture & think they wish they had as little fat as I do & that I’m complaining for no reason or looking for attention. Sure, I’m looking for attention, but not for the reasons those people might think. I want to reach others who’ve been in my position & hopefully help them.
I’m learning to accept my body as it is. I don’t want to think of it as ugly anymore, because I don’t deserve that shit. In recent weeks, I’ve felt a shift. It’s not that I’m in love with my body, but I don’t look at it & think it’s gross all the time. I don’t wish it was smaller every time I see myself naked in the mirror. Those are some improvements. Baby steps, people.
Here’s what I want to do instead. I want to learn to accept myself as is [I know, I keep saying it, but it’s true]. I used to refuse to accept my body if I didn’t like it, so this is a step in the right direction. I also want to get physically stronger. I haven’t exercised since my surgery 10 weeks ago, & I’ve lost all semblance of muscle that I had. So, I’m going to start afresh in a few weeks. I’m also not going to push myself too hard. If exercising fatigues me too much, I will wait until I’ve healed more [in the past, I never would’ve dreamed of giving up exercise for the sake of healing because of the fear that I’d gain weight]. Side note: I highly recommend this program if anyone wants a convenient home workout.
I’m sure there are some people who got to my fifth point & decided to leave the post. To be honest, at a certain point in my life, I probably would’ve done the same thing. I thought I was an exception to the rule. I was not interested in hearing the truth, that I couldn’t be healthy & also be as thin as I wanted to be. For those of you who are in that headspace, I get it. It’s hard. I’d argue that body acceptance is harder for some people than all the under-eating & over-exercising in the world could ever be. I promise you that your health is more important. Nourish yourself with healthy food [eat some good fat too, damn it], get good sleep, practice some self-love. I promise you that we will all be better off in the end, no matter what our tape measures, scales, & pants have to say.
Gottfried, Sara. The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep and Sex Drive; Lose Weight; Feel Focused, Vital, and Energized Naturally with the Gottfried Protocol. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.
Wentz, Izabella. Hashimoto’s Protocol: A 90-Day Plan for Reversing Thyroid Symptoms and Getting Your Life Back. N.p.: HarperCollins, 2017. Print.
Wentz, Izabella, and Marta Nowosadzka. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause. United States: Izabella Wentz, 2015. Print.
Wolfe, Liz. Eat the Yolks: Discover Paleo, Fight Food Lies, and Reclaim Your Health. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing, Inc., 2013. Print.