10 Tips to Reach a Healthy Weight on the Autoimmune Protocol

weightstrugglesHow Autoimmune Disease Can Affect Your Weight

In our culture, we’re pretty obsessed with weight. Whether we’re carrying extra pounds or feeling too skinny, very few of us are happy with our body size. Even when we’re in the process of reversing autoimmune disease (the most important goal of all), we can prioritize our weight over our healing. Sometimes our weight seems so unhealthy that it makes us feel scared. Other times, we just don’t like how we look in the mirror. Here’s what we need to understand: weight struggles are often a result of our autoimmune disease. So, only by prioritizing healing, will we reach the healthy weight we desire, and that takes time and patience. I know that’s hard to hear. I don’t think human beings are naturally patient. At the end of this article, I offer some troubleshooting tips to speed up the process. But first, let’s understand what’s going on inside our bodies:

  • Nutrient Malabsorption: Many autoimmune diseases involve direct damage to the digestive tract, such as celiac, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Even if your diagnosis involves a completely different part of your body, it co-exists with leaky gut. This is true for the other 100+ autoimmune diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to Hashimoto’s. So, we’re all dealing with a compromised ability to digest our food and absorb the nutrition it contains. This explains why so many people struggle with being underweight when they first start the AIP; they aren’t absorbing everything they’re eating. But it also can affect your ability to lose weight. If your body feels starved for nutrition, it will hold onto everything it has until those resources are replenished. The good news is that you can heal the inflammation and the damage, and as you do so, your digestion will improve. The AIP is a healing protocol.
  • Hormone Imbalance: There are over 50 hormones in the human body, and many of them have either a direct or indirect impact on our metabolism and equilibrium. Some of you have Hashimoto’s, which hinders your ability to produce thyroid hormones. Others of you have gone into remission during pregnancy, or developed autoimmune disease after menopause, showing how autoimmunity and hormone changes are intertwined. Since hormones are incredibly complex, doctors haven’t been able to figure out a “hormone cure”. The AIP naturally balances hormones, which not only helps our autoimmune symptoms, but our weight issues as well. Special note for those of you with Hashimoto’s. Since the thyroid has often sustained permanent damage, finding the right thyroid medication may be necessary as well.
  • Inflammation: We’ve all felt the impact of extreme inflammation when we’ve experienced an autoimmune flare. But what about the low-grade inflammation that co-exists with autoimmune disease when we aren’t flaring? It hurts our mitochondria — the powerhouses of every cell in our bodies. Therefore, it’s no surprise it would also impact our weight. Thankfully, the AIP is an anti-inflammatory protocol as well.

Troubleshooting Tips To Reach a Healthy Weight on the AIP

  • Are you sleeping? Sometimes we focus so much on the food part of the AIP that we forget about the lifestyle factors, but they’re just as important. Skipping sleep actually affects the expression of our genes, turning on genes that increase inflammation and sending the immune system into a defensive mode. It also throws our hormones out of balance. This means that skipping sleep is a major obstacle to healing and therefore a major obstacle to reaching a healthy weight.
  • What are your stress levels? Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (aka The Paleo Mom) has written about the science of stress and the importance of stress relief to autoimmune healing. Recently, she also shared her personal experience with stress leading to weight gain and a Hashi’s flare. Stories like this make the science real. We can’t overemphasize the importance of taking lifestyle choices seriously. None of us are immune.
  • Are you obsessing over your weight? It’s natural to worry when you weigh more or less than you think you should, but worry is an added burden that does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it adds to the stress (see above). So, here’s my advice: put away your scale. That is a tool that encourages obsessive thinking. Focus on healing instead and trust the process.
  • Are you focusing on nutrient-density? Mickey wrote a great article recently listing the most important nutrients for autoimmune healing, and the foods that contain those nutrients. When you first start the AIP, it’s natural to focus on the foods you avoid that are inflammation triggers. It’s equally important to focus on the foods that help you heal. For many people, that’s the difference between healing and not healing. It’s also the key to addressing nutrient malabsorption. If we aren’t absorbing everything we’re eating, we want to give ourselves a chance to absorb as much as possible, by choosing nutrient-dense calories over empty ones.
  • Are you over-exercising? A lot of people with autoimmune disease are Type-A personalities. They push themselves in every area of their lives, including exercise. A walk seems boring, so they train for a marathon. Yoga is for wimps, so they do WODs at their local Cross Fit 7 days a week instead. Unless their autoimmune disease makes them quit, they push themselves to their limits. Does this sound like you? Over-exercising wreaks havoc with a healthy person’s body, and more so with an autoimmune body. It can cause depression, chronic fatigue, hypothyroidism, hormone dysregulation, weight loss resistance, and leaky gut. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing.
  • Are you not moving at all? This is the flip-side of overexercising. A sedentary lifestyle increases inflammation, so moving gently is helpful to healing. When you’re inflamed with autoimmune disease, pain, fatigue, or loss of muscle control might interfere with your ability to exercise. Just do what you can. When my rheumatoid arthritis was at its worst, my “exercise” was deep breathing during meditation and something I called “chair dancing” where I would sit and move gently to music I loved. For you, gentle exercise might be a short stroll, or some light yoga, or gentle strength training. As you heal, you’ll be able to do more. Now I can go for hikes in the mountains, but there was a time when I couldn’t even walk. The right amount of exercise for healing is just enough to make you feel better, and never so much that it makes you feel worse.
  • Calories — they aren’t the only factor, but they can play a role. Sometimes autoimmune disease distorts our hunger signals. Some of us eat more than we should, and some of us are never hungry. Many of us have come to fear food and therefore don’t eat enough. Others turn to food for comfort and eat too much. Lastly, some of us have disordered eating behaviors we haven’t yet addressed. For the next week, enter the food you eat in Cronometer and see how you stack up in terms of nutrition. While each person’s needs will be different, 2000 calories is a good average to start with. Don’t get obsessed with calories, but you may be surprised to learn how much you are over/undereating.
  • If you’re eating too much: Cut back on the empty calories, and increase your nutrition. That means less AIP-friendly treats, and more vegetables, healthy fats, seafood and organ meats.
  • If you’re not eating enough: You might start adding some shakes to every meal. They’re a great way to add calories when you don’t have much appetite. SCD Lifestyle has a recipe for an AIP-friendly “weight gain” shake.
  • Are you at a healthy weight, and just don’t realize it? Most of us have an idea in our heads of the weight we want to achieve. It might be what we’ve weighed in the past, or the weight we always hoped for the future. The truth is, a healthy weight range is much wider than we usually think in our minds, and our body is often wiser than we are. Summer Innanen wrote a great post called, The Number One Reason You’re Not Losing Weight On Paleo. You could also substitute “gaining weight” if you are one of the underweight ones. Answer? You don’t need to — this is where your body wants to be, at least for now.

Have you reached a healthy weight? What made the biggest difference for you?

About Eileen Laird

Eileen Laird of Phoenix Helix has been living the paleo lifestyle since June 2012, reducing her rheumatoid arthritis symptoms by 95% without any steroid or immunosuppressant medication. Merging straight talk with inspiration and information, Eileen strives to help us all live the autoimmune life well! She believes in the power of symbolism: the phoenix represents our ability to transform; the helix represents the power we have over the expression of our genes. In addition to her blog, she hosts the only paleo podcast dedicated to autoimmune healing. She also hosts a weekly AIP Recipe Roundtable, is the author of the e-book Reintroducing Foods on the AIP, and you can find her on Facebook and Pinterest.

29 comments

  • Cati says

    Great article – especially with all the links! When I bottomed out -disease wise- then started my healing journey, I was told that I was “scrawny” … and I was, for all reasons mentioned above – particularly I wasn’t absorbing the nutrients in the food I ate. It took about 4 years for my health ( understanding my particular tricky food triggers) and weight to stabilize. All worth it , as I’m feeling soooo much better than I used to. I’m looking good and am happy with my weight and shape. At 56 my shape is not that long ago figure I idealize of my youth and I’ve had to get pragmatic and know that’s a silly head game. Some of my friends have weight yo-yo issues and they ask me how I do it. Though they don’t need to be on the AIP, I do promote the paleo lifestyle as a healthy, weight stabilizing option for them to try. Stable weight is a sign of optimal health for anyone.

  • Andrea says

    Hi! Embarking on the AIP journey mainly as a support for my fiance who is struggling with autoimmune symptoms and food sensitivities. He is also having difficulty maintaining weight as he is already a naturally slim person. I was excited to see the link to the SCD weight-gain shakes; however, the ones listed on Jordan and Steve’s are definitely NOT AIP-friendly. They all contain raw eggs. Any other ideas or resources for such things?? Thanks!

    • Sheila h. says

      There are a lot of shakes listed on the link but I believe she was referring to the one shake for Autoimmune. It contains only bananas, coconut milk, avocado, sweet potato and is for someone needing high calories to gain weight. Of course, you can always leave eggs out of any of the other shakes to make them AIP friendly. They add protein but that can be achieved by using collagen protein powder (the green Great Lakes can).

    • Hi Andrea. You must have skimmed the SCD article too quickly. Click that link again. There is one labeled Paleo Autoimmune Mass Gain Shake that is AIP-friendly. That’s the one you want.

      • Andrea says

        Thank you, Eileen and Sheila! I did skim way too quickly. The tip about collagen is great. I appreciate your responses.

  • Monica says

    I appreciate this information. I’m struggling with extreme weight loss and I related to a lot in this article. I’m seeing a functional medicine doctor in a few days. Very hopeful in starting a healing journey from hashimoto’s and my multiple miserable symptoms.
    Thank you for the great insight!

  • maureen p lawrence says

    Hi. I am insulin resistant (pre-diabetes) and trying to comply with Paleo AutoImmune. I have been into Paleo since mid-January 2015. I have also lost significant weight in the past year (not intentionally) and am trying just to maintain the weight I am at now. Any advice or tips you may be able to give me would be appreciated!

    • Hi Maureen. I recommend implementing all the tips listed in the troubleshooting section of the article. It should help. Best wishes for full healing!

  • Charlotte says

    Thank you for this article! I have been in such guilt and misery with being overweight for years (BMI now 36), so it was such a relief to hear that auto-immunity can cause problems both with not being able to gain, as well as not being able to lose weight. I’ve tried 500cal/day diets and not lost a thing over 2 weeks (while also making myself too exhausted to move and putting myself under serious stress and therefore getting a flare up, before I knew what flares were and thought they were my poor character, or innate laziness – as was always gently insisted on by friends, family and doctors). I’d tried Paleo and was getting nowhere, except ever increasing weight.

    In the end I paid for a private series of screening tests and discovered I had Hashimotos and gluten-sensitivity (both affecting the gut and the brain). I realise the only person who can take care of my health is me. I can’t rely on doctors and I can’t let other people’s lack of understanding get in the way of my making progress. When you can’t lose weight on 500cals/day, there’s more than a character flaw going on. Trust your instincts, would be my advice. This blog is really important for me to feel a sense of community with other sufferers. Thank you and keep up the good work!

    • Charlotte, there is so much heart and wisdom in your comment. Thank you for sharing your story, and all that you’ve learned!

    • Susie Brown says

      Thank goodness for this article. Charlotte, I am also a large girl and I hear exactly what you are saying. Before trying AIP I completely cut out sugar, gluten and all processed foods. No difference with weight.I would watch other people eating sweets, sandwiches and large meals and they would be fit and thin. I tried AIP and I even started gaining on AIP with additional joint and muscle pain! I then realized I was salicylate sensitive since I was having a reaction to coconut and needed to increase carbs somewhat. That is thanks to articles on these sites that I was able to figure it out. I’ve still had no weight loss but am starting to feel great and am able to exercise. I want to point out to everyone that we are all unique and to not give up as we may have additional issues that need attending to. If we were not for the strictness of the AIP program I never would have figured out additional sensitivities. Thank you so much for this web site as the articles and links are truly life changing and give us hope!!

  • Loretta says

    I really need to gain weight. But drinking these shakes is
    going to send my blood sugar into orbit!!

    • Hi Loretta. The shakes are high-fat, which balances blood sugar. Most people will be able to drink them without a problem. However, if you’re diabetic, you can make some simple changes. Replace the bananas with blueberries. And drink 1/3 of the shake beside each of your meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner).

      • Loretta says

        Hi Eileen,

        Thank you so much. I will try that. I appreciate your thoughtful kind response. 🙂

        Loretta

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Loretta,
      Have you considered using coconut butter, coconut oil, or avocado in order to up the fat content of your shakes?

  • Ivonne says

    Eileen, I always love your articles. Thank you for caring and help us realize we are not alone in this process.
    I send you a big hug.

  • Thanks, Ivonne! Hugs to you as well.

  • Aaliyah says

    Great tips. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kristin says

    I am/ was having hard time with the no weight loss. My ideal is 140. I weigh 159. On paleo AIP for 3 weeks plus, yes counting calories, 1200 about daily. Always worked before. I used to be mostly a non meat eater. Seems hard to digest. Had hair analysis done for intolerances and of course no milk, bovine anything, eggs, zucchini, lactose, corn, sugar, ( actually sensitive to the lysozyme in whites of eggs sadly) salmon, whitefish, and coconut allergies. Wow i forgot cocoa and green coffee beans. Obviously hard diet. Been doing however 3 weeks+. Weight now 161. Barely eating 1200 cal really. Practicing gentle yoga. Decreased stress. Meditate newly found and i enjoy. Leisure walks. Feel worse. Sleepier. Fatter. Oh. My nutritionist and paleo aip holistic pharm d helping me with my hashi and adrenal fatigue cant figure it out. Probiotics 3 fiff ones and all supplements as ordered by my deficiency testing. Just getting worse. Better bowel movements, etc but gaining weight and feel so much more tired every day. Help me.

  • Tasha says

    Thank you for the article. It was very informative and helpful. I started Paleo AIP three weeks ago. I have Hashimoto’s, interstitial cystitis (painful), oral lichen planus (painful) and I am insulin resistant. I am also about 100 lbs overweight, and have pretty much all the symptoms of my autoimmune diseases. Being chronically tired, having no energy or desire to do anything, being depressed, having achy joints and being in constant pain is the tip of the iceberg.
    Since starting Paleo AIP, the biggest and most noticeable improvement is in my mood and energy levels. I have way more energy, I am not sluggish, and I want to get up and do things. The pain has not gone away, but I am hoping that in time it will get better. I am slowly starting to exercise – walking, riding bicycle, small weights training. The weight is not budging, but I think I am moving in the right direction. I am also aware that I have been loading on treats way too much in order to “ease” myself into this protocol, and I am aware that I need to change that 🙂
    When I started this, my goal was to be pain free, be healthier and feel better. Any possible weight loss would be a bonus. I did not gain all this weight overnight, so I do not expect it to disappear overnight either. I will have to ease up on plantain crackers for a while 🙂
    Cheers!

  • Paula says

    Hello! I had a resection from Crohn’s about 3yrs ago. went gluten free almost 2yrs. I started AIP 3wks ago. I am eating but seem to be getting dizzy more frequently. Any advice?

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Paula,
      If you’ve got a medical condition, especially with your anatomy changed by surgery you should be consulting your doctor for advice here as we aren’t medical practitioners. Dizziness is not a common effect of trying the elimination diet. I hope you are able to sort it out soon!

  • Paula says

    I also am trying to gain a bit more weight. I am 93lbs and my goal is to get to 100lbs.
    Thank you!

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Paula,
      There are many great tips in this article–in addition I would add making sure to include lots of starchy carbs (sweet potatoes, taro, plantain, winter squash) and using them as a vehicle for fat can be a great way to get some calories in.

  • Jessica says

    I’m 140 & 5’2″. I gained about 15lbs last January right about the time we added Fibromyalgia to my RA diagnosis. My exercise has not been consistent, but I also had to stop counting calories after figuring out I had some disordered eating issues. I’m only 2 weeks into my AIP journey now, and I’m scared to gain even more weight. My clothes don’t fit, too tired to get up early (before my toddlers wake up) to exercise, but I also admit that to help myself feel better about cutting so many things out of my diet… Ive been eating a lot of fruit (yesterday I had 3 bananas + other fruits) and making at least one bowl of sliced banana strawberry coconut shreds + splash of coconut milk a day. I guess I thought adding ‘special’ treats like this would help me mentally feel better… but I guess I could be sabotaging myself. I really want to lose those 15lbs. I’m still hurting, low energy, but able to function. Just not seeing positive changes from the AIP yet.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Jessica! Doing a restricted diet like the autoimmune protocol can be super difficult when you’ve got a history with disordered eating. I’d suggest in your case working with a therapist and/or nutritionist who can help guide you into getting into that healing mindset instead of obsessing about the weight. I always coach my clients to focus on health before image. Often people start feeling better and need to do some deeper healing before the weight will come off.

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