When I first started following my grain-free, dairy-free, added (cane) sugar-free, preservative-free, additive-free, nightshade-free, added anything-free lifestyle (i.e. eating real food), I faced a challenge that most people on a "diet" don't have to consider: how to gain weight. While losing weight is certainly difficult and frustrating for a lot of individuals, gaining weight can be equally so. When I was acutely ill earlier this year, I lost 12 pounds, which was 9.2% of my total body weight. I'm 5'6" and 12 pounds really is quite a bit on my smaller frame. Every time I went to the doctor, I wanted to scream when the medical assistant would cheerfully announce, "My goodness, you've lost some more weight!" I was not excited about that to say the least and I certainly was not doing it on purpose. As a female athlete, I've always found it challenging to put on healthy weight and, ironically, I was celebrating hitting 130 pounds a mere month before I became ill. When I started this lifestyle, stopping the weight loss and gaining weight back was a priority. Throughout the course of my research into Paleo, GAPS, and SCD, I've heard it said that these lifestyles cause weight stabilization and allow you to reach an ideal body weight. So, if you begin the diet and you need to lose weight, weight loss will occur if you adhere strictly to the diet. Similarly, if you need to gain weight, the diet will correct the underlying cause of malabsorption and allow your body's nutrient needs to be met and you will eventually gain any necessary weight. Although I believe that there is some truth to the idea that these lifestyles allow weight stabilization to occur as they eliminate unnecessary processed products and replace them with vital nutrients that heal the body, as with all things, it does require some amount of conscious effort. Even within the lifestyle, there are wide variations of the foods that you can choose to eat, as well as the overall macronutrient composition of your diet (percentage of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats consumed). Gaining weight, just as losing weight, doesn't always just happen.
As I've mentioned in other posts, I've pieced together aspects of Paleo, GAPS, and SCD that I use to maintain my health. As time goes by, I find myself leaning towards Paleo, with some GAPS influences, for reasons that I will save for a later post. They are all very similar diets with a few variations on what is allowed versus not permitted. However, I do believe the GAPS/SCD intro diet is critical if you have any autoimmune or digestive issues. Regardless if you are following Paleo, GAPS, or SCD, the following tips will assist you in your weight gain journey:
--Lose the fat phobia! Before I started the Paleo lifestyle, I believed that I followed a very healthy diet. I followed "clean eating" principles, so I eliminated most processed foods and I was a vegetarian. I also fell into the "low fat" trap common among anyone who has listened to the dogma of USDA food recommendations. I made almost all of my food choices "low fat" or "no fat", if there was an option. On rare occasions, I would indulge in a special treat, but that was very rare and I admit that there was sometimes a small amount of guilt associated with it. One of the most freeing aspects of this lifestyle is not having any feelings of guilt, hesitation, or regret over what I eat anymore. I now realize that fat is not something to be feared! Fats and cholesterol are necessary for your body and there are a whole host of reasons why "low fat" or "no fat" products are not healthy choices. Fats are the most calorie-dense source of nutrition and you need to incorporate more healthy fats into your diet, especially if your goal is to gain weight. Approximately 55-65% of my daily caloric intake comes from fats depending on the day.
--Eat more! In order to gain weight, your calorie intake has to be higher than your energy output. You can increase your calorie intake by eating more food, eating more often, and/or eating more calorie-dense foods, such as fats. For someone suffering from autoimmune disease, it is often difficult to eat a great deal more food. Personally, I find that eating 3 meals a day with several snacks in-between works well for me. I make sure that the snacks are calorie/nutrient-dense (examples to follow). I also recommend using an online food diary and calorie tracker in order to keep track of your calorie intake. There are several free online sites and apps available. I have used a few and I recommend My Fitness Pal for the ease of use and the integration with the iPhone app.
--Add calorie-dense fats and foods! There are several ways that you can go about adding calorie-dense fats and foods into your diet.
- Meats: When choosing meats, make sure to choose the fatter cuts instead of leaner cuts of meat. While meats such as bison and wild game are healthy choices to incorporate into your diet, be aware that they do not have as much fat as other meats and you should not rely on them exclusively. When eating chicken and poultry, leave the skin on to add extra fat.
- Oils: Don't be afraid to add in a bit extra of healthy oils while cooking and baking. I often use olive oil as a topping for my eggs in the morning and also as a dressing for salads and sides throughout the day. Coconut oil is a favorite of mine and I add it to a lot of my snacks and dishes. When making fruit smoothies, I often add a tablespoon or two. Recently, I've been eating a lot of pumpkin puree and I always add in a decent amount of coconut oil. Coconut oil is also a great oil with which to cook and bake, as it holds up well to high temperatures (as opposed to olive oil, which is not as stable of a fat and should only be used for low-heat cooking).
- Nuts and Nut Butters: Nuts are very calorie-dense and a great source of healthy fats. I often eat raw almonds, pecans, and walnuts for a snack. Nut butters are also a good choice if you are trying to gain weight. However, if the diet does not seem to be working for you, be aware that nuts are sometimes a trigger food for those with auto-immune disease.
- Coconut Milk: I avoid all dairy products and use coconut milk as a substitute. It has a high fat content and can help you to gain weight. However, be very careful if you are attempting to buy coconut milk at the grocery store. A lot of coconut milk products have additives and preservatives. Canned coconut milk is one of the few "packaged" products that I buy. I purchase it from Trader Joe's and it contains no preservatives or additives. As an alternative, you could make homemade coconut milk.
- Avocados: Avocados have a much higher monounsaturated fat content than most other types of fruit. It is also a very versitile food that can be incorporated into smoothies, salsa, salads, and even pudding! Yes, an avocado pudding...this is one of my favorite snacks and something that I will feature as a recipe soon.
- Olives: Olives are another fruit that are higher in fat. I enjoy eating olives by themselves or using them in salads and other dishes.
--Balance your energy output! When you are trying to gain weight, especially shortly after a flare or episode of illness, you may want to consider taking it easy for a while. Now is probably not the time to be starting a new sport or exercise program. If you already exercise regularly, consider cutting down on cardiovascular endurance activities. It is also very important that you get plenty of sleep.
These are all tips that have helped me to gain weight. I admit that I still have not gained as much weight back as I would like. I'm currently at 124 pounds, so I've gained 6 lbs back that I had lost. Ideally, I would like to gain at least another 4 pounds. My clothes are fitting again and I do feel good though, so I'm not watching the scale quite as closely. Gaining weight can certainly be quite a challenge for some of us! How about you? I would love to hear from you about your challenges and tips in gaining weight while following this lifesyle.