How can I lose weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

Originally posted by Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist | Published: AUGUST 10, 2015

Much of the feedback I receive on the blog, and in comments I read on social media share similar themes. Rather than perpetuate misinformation, I approached a trusted registered dietitian in my hometown for some facts. If you’re in the market for a dietitian who can “take you from anxious and messed-up around food to chill and pretty happy,” contact Michelle here.

I’m overweight because my diet is so unhealthy (mostly carbs, no meat, no fruit or veg … there might be juice, or a blueberry muffin-ish type thing). I want to lose weight but how can I shed the weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

Hi there – I think this question is conflating two different things: healthy eating and weight loss. Tragically,* it is not a guarantee that if you eat a healthy diet, weight loss will follow. This may happen for some people (if adding in fruits and veggies displaces more calorically-dense foods) but on a strictly technical level, the weight loss is not a result of eating “healthier” food. People can lose (and have lost) weight on diets composed primarily of Twinkies, sheerly through calorie restriction. I’m not recommending it, but that’s how weight loss happens: you take in fewer calories, from any type of food, than you expend.

While this is true at the most reductive level, I must also point out that the economic model of body weight (that’s what I’m calling it from now on) omits certain complicating factors: like the possibility that, as one eats less, one’s resting energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn just existing) may take a hit as the body attempts to avert starvation through conserving energy. In animals, this means their body temperature goes down, they shiver less in response to cold, and they become very lethargic in their daily activities.

It also completely skirts the question of whether this kind of calorie deficit is sustainable for the long term. According to research in humans, it’s mostly not. And lastly, it ignores the possibility that some people are just naturally larger than other people, and that there is a considerable component of heritability to this weight diversity. That’s not to say people cannot be at a weight that is unhealthy for them, or at a higher weight due to overeating (they can), but it is to say that not every “overweight” person is in this situation. I don’t know what is true for you personally, but this deserves to be acknowledged in general.

Given all this very discouraging information, what’s a person to do? In my opinion: focus on eating well (and moving well) for its own sake. Understand what “eating well” truly means: eating a varied, nourishing, satisfying, and pleasurable diet. Eating well means eating all of the macronutrients (carb, protein, and fat), and plenty of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that come along for the ride when you plan balanced, tasty meals.

Take it back to basics: the four food groups. (In case you don’t remember 4th grade, they are: vegetables/fruit, grains, dairy/alternatives, and legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives.) It sounds like this particular questioner is missing out on at least two food groups: legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives and vegetables/fruit. Here’s the place to start: keep eating what you’re eating now, but add on what is missing. If you want, you can try shooting for three food groups at each meal, and two at a snack. Look at your meals and ask yourself, What’s missing? Then ask: what’s the easiest, tastiest way to add it on?

Can you toss in an apple? A handful of baby carrots? Some strawberries? Order a side salad? Get chicken on that salad? Put some tuna in your mac and cheese? Have eggs with your toast? A slice of cheese? Peanut butter?

In response to these changes, your weight will do what it will. You may lose some weight, if you have been eating past your own fullness. In my experience, it is more difficult to feel truly satisfied, and to clearly hear fullness signals, if you are eating only one or two types of food, not feeling well-nourished, and skipping out on foods that contribute to fullness (like protein, and the fibre in vegetables and fruit.) When you return to eating the full complement of food groups, you might find that your weight stabilizes, if you were previously gaining, or you might lose a modest amount, and then stabilize. It’s not a guarantee, but it is a possibility. This is a slow process, and can take 6-12 months of eating well, so don’t hinge your behaviour on weight outcomes.

What should you hinge it on? A lot of people feel lost when they put their weight focus on the back-burner (or kick it off the stove altogether.) And now we come back to what I said earlier: for its own sake. Eating well, regardless of what your weight does, gives you so much. For me, personally, the following things happened when I learned to eat well:

  • stopped having heartburn and other GI upsets
  • stopped thinking about food 24/7
  • stopped feeling out of control with food
  • stopped feeling guilty about eating foods I enjoyed
  • had more consistent energy through the day
  • stopped experiencing overhunger that left me shaky and desperate, and overfullness that made me miserable
  • enjoyed my meals more, since, in addition to tasting good, they really hit the spot
  • tried and learned to like a whole bunch of new foods, including different vegetables
  • felt happy for taking good care of myself with food

So, then, to get to what I suspect is actually the heart of this question: how do you learn to eat well? One little step at a time. Eat what you’re eating now, and add on what is missing. Make the time to have consistent meals if you’re not already, and see how it works for you. And remind yourself that none of this is an obligation. None of this is a “should.” None of this determines anything about your character. All eating well can do for you is make you feel better physically. It cannot make you a better or worse person. If you do this, do this because you want to take care of yourself, because you want to feel good, and because you believe you are worth the effort.

You are.

Take care of yourself first, worry about your weight second (or don’t. It’s up to you.)

*Not actually tragic.

Next post: How can I eat healthy foods if I’m a picky eater?


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