So, you’ve lost weight eating Paleo. Congratulations! You made it through the cravings, the occasional plateaus, and the barrage of junk food all around you, and hopefully you threw yourself a party featuring delicious healthy food to celebrate your accomplishment. But then one day you realize that your clothes are a little tighter. Maybe you step on the scale and the number is up more than you can really attribute to water weight/time of the month/different clothes.
Uh-oh. Here’s what to do.
Is Your “Regain” Actually a Regain?
Healthy adults do not stay at precisely the same weight all the time. It’s perfectly normal to fluctuate within a range of 5-10 pounds (the bigger your body, the bigger your range). If you wake up in the morning and eat three meals but don’t defecate, and then weigh yourself in the evening, you will be a couple pounds heavier than you were in the morning. You haven’t gained any fat; it’s just food sitting in your stomach. If you’re constipated, this can build up over a couple days.
It’s also normal to retain some water after hard exercise or eating salty food. Women can retain different amounts of water depending on the time of the month. You haven’t regained any fat and there’s absolutely no reason to worry (which is good since there’s nothing you can really do about hormonal fluctuations anyway).
Almost nobody can maintain a weight of precisely x pounds. Not even naturally thin people do that. They maintain within a range of x-y pounds and don’t freak out about it.
Your goal weight when you’re losing should be a goal range of 5-10 pounds. If your “regain” is within this range, there’s no reason to worry. Just keep on plugging and weigh yourself again in a week to see if you’ve moved back down.
Halting a Regain in its Tracks
Okay, but what if the regain actually is a regain? Say your comfortable maintenance range is 140-145 pounds, and you’re at 150 and climbing. You’re probably into actual regain territory, so what to do? Here's how to manage it, in 3 steps.
Step 1: If you get emotional, don’t make any decisions in the first rush of feelings.
It’s OK to get angry or frustrated or discouraged; you’re allowed to feel however you feel. Just don’t make any decisions or long-term plans until the emotion settles down a little.
You may feel the temptation to panic in the first horrible moment of realization, completely overreact, and put yourself on some kind of insane punitive crash diet to avoid gaining anything more. The fear of regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose can get extremely overwhelming. Alternately, you may feel like giving up completely: you’re regaining; it’s all worthless; you’re worthless; you might as well go out and stuff yourself with pizza and chocolate to sooth your pain since you’re doomed to be fat forever.
Neither of those responses is particularly productive, and making decisions in a moment of panic isn’t the way to make smart choices. Go for a walk, read a book, take a bath, or do something else to get your mind off your weight until it feels less upsetting and you’re ready to tackle it strategically.
Step 2: Diagnose.
When you’re ready to approach it calmly, sit down and write down a list of all the behaviors, environmental problems, and eating choices that may have caused the regain. Write down behaviors, not character traits. For example, write down “I didn’t make a workable plan for eating well on my business trip” or “I let occasional treats become every-other-day treats,” NOT “I’m weak and lazy.” The goal is to end up with a list of problems you can reasonably solve, and even if you really are weak and lazy (you probably aren’t), you can’t “solve” character traits that are inherent parts of your personality so there’s no point dwelling on them.
Just to get you started, a few very common culprits for weight regain include:
- Letting Paleo treats creep back into your diet more and more frequently.
- “Giving yourself a break” from eating well and/or exercising because of some external circumstances (work stress, relationship stress, exams at school etc.)
- Demotivation. You started with an eating plan that was so tough you needed the constant “victories” of regular weight loss for motivation. Now that you don’t have that reinforcement, you no longer have enough motivation to stick with it.
- Carb creep. Some people do fine on medium-carb. Other people do not. If you’re in the second group, make sure your carb count hasn’t slowly snuck up.
If you can’t think of anything and your eating habits haven’t changed, consider things that you didn’t directly do. For example…
- Going through menopause, (which changes your metabolism).
- Stress, which affects your gut flora and metabolism even if your diet is the same. Gut flora changes can easily lead to weight changes.
- Not sleeping well, which affects insulin sensitivity and carb tolerance.
Write down a list of everything that could reasonably be the problem, no matter how dumb it sounds.
Step 3: Plan, based on your diagnosis and history.
Your diagnosis of the problem should already be giving you some hints about what you can do:
- If treats have been sneaking back into your diet a little too regularly, go back to logging your meals and give yourself a hard weekly limit on anything made with nut flour/butter or sweeteners.
- If your body has changed (injury, pregnancy, menopause…), do some research on your new nutritional needs and go from there.
- If circumstances are preventing you from exercising or eating well, what specific and quantifiable things can you do to either change those circumstances or make it possible to stay healthy regardless?
- If you’re stressed or not sleeping, pencil in blocks of time to practice stress management, or make a plan to deal with your sleep issues.
When you're planning your approach, use your personal weight history to help you. If you lost weight eating high-fat, low-carb, you know that at least in the past, it worked for your body. That doesn’t mean it will still work (bodies change, and your diet needs change with your body), but it’s a good starting point. On the other hand, if you lost weight eating moderate-fat, moderate-carb, high-protein, then you have at least one clue that reducing carbs may not be your best plan. Maybe increasing protein would be a better strategy for you personally.
Make a specific plan with quantifiable changes, write it down, and give it a couple weeks to see if it helps. If it’s not working, you can always change it up until you find something that works for you.
Summing it Up
Regain is scary. If it’s actually a regain, and not just water weight or normal fluctuations, it’s a sign that you’ve abandoned something that works for you, or that your body has changed and now you need something different to keep up with its new nutritional needs.
The sooner you stop a regain in its tracks, the easier it is to handle. Let the emotion pass if you’re feeling it, and then figure out what behaviors and circumstances caused the regain and make specific plans for managing them. Your plans might not be perfect the first time around, but anything you come up with after a careful look at your own food and weight history will be a hundred times better than whatever you decide on in a moment of panic on the scale.
You don’t have to keep regaining just because you started: make a plan for tackling the weight gain, and you’re halfway back to your goal range already.