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.