We know that diet is the foundation for health. What you eat dictates both how you’ll feel and to a large degree, the status of your health. It’s frustrating when you’re eating clean, and you’ve kicked gluten, dairy, maybe even coffee, booze, and sugar, yet you still don’t feel any better. What gives?
Many of my clients hardly gave a thought to what they were eating until things went wrong. The story goes like this: “I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted until one day I couldn’t eat pizza or drink beer without getting sick.” These folks usually have digestive issues like heartburn, gas, bloating, and they suffer from fatigue. So they do some research and decide to kick grains and dairy (a HUGE transition!), but their symptoms linger.
It’s similar to this tale: “I heard that the Paleo diet could reverse my IBS/Crohn’s/inability to lose weight/hormone imbalance, but I don’t feel any different.” Or “I GAINED weight on paleo.” These folks are feeling way let down, because they are sticking to their plan religiously with little to show for it. Putting in all this hard work and no weight loss sucks!
When Changing Your Diet Doesn’t Work
First off, let me say this: what works for your neighbor may not work for you. Just because he/she lost 30 pounds following a Paleo diet doesn’t mean you will. That’s why the internet can be a depressing place: reading all those success stories online and feeling let down because it didn’t happen for you. It’s not your fault. Simply cleaning up your diet and ditching the processed foods for more veggies is a great step forward! But here are some possible reasons why changing your diet isn’t working as you’d hoped.
1. You have dysbiosis, SIBO, candida, or parasites. Digestive issues are one of the top motivating factors for changing one’e diet. It’s not pleasant dealing with nagging gas, bloating, discomfort, indigestion, constipation, and reflux. So you kick gluten (maybe all grains), dairy, and sugar, yet you don’t feel any better. Or maybe you experience some relief but still have chronic digestive complaints. While eliminating foods that are difficult to digest or contribute to GI inflammation (like gluten and dairy) can help, it doesn’t address the other half of the issue, which is normalizing gut flora and getting rid of dysbiotic bacteria, candida, or parasites. I recommend stool and/or breath testing for SIBO to determine exactly what’s going on in there, then you can design a diet around exactly what’s happening in your gut. There are different foods that can aggravate SIBO, candida, and parasites, so it’s helpful to test before guessing! You can take herbs to kill off whatever’s in there and then use probiotics to restore the normal gut flora.
2. Hormones. Changing your diet to include more plants, organic animal protein, and good fats can help hormone balance a great deal, but it may not be enough. If you have adrenal fatigue, low progesterone, or hypothyroidism, diet alone may not reverse these imbalances. I recommend saliva testing to assess hormone levels, and ask your doctor to run a thyroid panel if you suspect hypothyroidism. Or, you can order the ‘thyroid panel special’ yourself from Direct Labs. Read my top tips for hormone balance here.
3. You’re eating too many treats. A common issue I see for those who’ve cut refined sugar is an overzealousness for all the delicious paleo treats. Sure, baked goods made with almond flour and coconut palm sugar are a way better choice than oreos, but not if you’re overdoing it. There’s no problem with enjoying some dark chocolate (daily!) or a small treat a few times a week, but the paleo treats and sweets are calorie dense and often contain quite a bit of sugar (albeit unrefined sugar) that can sabotage weight loss efforts.
4. You’re eating too much meat. Another common scenario I see is people making meat the base of their diets –more than 50 percent of their total intake–when they cut gluten or all grains. We’ve somewhere along the lines interpreted that the paleo diet means a meat-based diet, and this just isn’t the case. Not only did our ancestors NOT survive mostly on meat, but we have evolved to tolerate a wider spectrum of foods. A protein-based diet may be too calorie dense for those trying to lose weight and excludes room for the more of the necessary phytonutrients plants provide. (There are always exceptions: some people, especially those healing from disease or training for intense athletic events may have a need for much more protein). Protein can boost metabolism and stoke weight loss, but keep it around half your body weight in grams, or about 30 percent of your diet. 50 percent of our diets should be vegetables of all kinds (and legumes if they work for you) with appropriate amounts of fruit, protein and fat based on the individual (again, it differs from person to person). But too much protein may not work well in a particular system.
5. You’re not exercising. If you want to lose weight, you gotta get moving. We’re just not designed to be sedentary. The main rules for being as healthy as possible? Move more. Sleep more. Eat more plants. Boom.
6. STRESS. Stress: the amorphous killer. To your body, stress can take the shape of poor diet or eating the wrong foods for your physiology (being a vegetarian when you need animal protein, for example); inflammation or chronic pain; too much work; too little sleep; skipping meals; too much coffee; emotional stress and trauma. Even positive stressors like childbirth or a promotion can be a stress. Periods of stress mean high cortisol (or if that chronic stress continues unabated long enough, cortisol burnout), which increases inflammation and fat storage. Stressful periods can also trigger digestive flares. Address stress hormone imbalance by supporting adrenals, AND adjusting your lifestyle to support yourself. This means adequate sleep especially! It’s important to note also that dealing with emotional trauma can stall weight loss. I always ask my clients about stressors in their lives and if they have a plan to address that stress.
7. You’ve changed your diet and kicked the junk, but it’s not the right diet for you. I work with so many vegetarians and vegans who are struggling with digestive issues, weight gain, and fatigue because a vegetarian diet just isn’t right for their body. Just as eating too much meat may not be right for you, eliminating it altogether can prevent you from reaching your health goals. There’s a happy balance in there somewhere.
8. You’re still eating a food that doesn’t work for you. The most problematic foods are gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, nightshades, and soy. When people kick dairy and gluten they tend to rely heavily on eggs for breakfast, but if one has an egg sensitivity, eating eggs regularly will cause inflammation, digestive symptoms, and prevent weight loss. Another common mistake is to replace everything glutenous you were eating with gluten free versions: gluten free bread, cookies, pastas, cereals. That crowds out the whole foods like fruits and veggies (and legumes if you tolerate ’em) that you should be increasing. Those processed gluten free products are often high sugar, high carb, and contain processed irritating grains (especially true if GI your main complaint is digestive distress).
There’s so much information (and misinformation) out there about “the right diet” that it can be overwhelming. Working with a nutritionist can help you troubleshoot. Check out the resources section below for more help.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.